A “Lectio Divina” of Life

Progress isn't always a straight path.

Life isn’t always a straight path.

Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” is a powerful way to engage Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way. Dating back as one of the oldest practices in the Church, Lectio Divina is the process of reading Scripture as the living Word of God.  Rather than approaching it as something to be studied or dissected, this process invites the one praying to enter into the text and to be moved by it.

The first step is an obvious one: read the text. There’s no specific criteria for choosing which part of the Bible to read, but the Gospels are always a good place to start. After one has read the text (it is preferable to read it aloud so that it can be proclaimed and heard, even if doing it alone) time is taken to meditate on what was just heard.  This is a time to focus on a particular word or phrase that captured the attention of the reader, thinking about the significance of that word or phrase in the larger context of the passage, and to offer a response. “What did this passage mean to me? How is it calling me to change my life?” Essentially, it is the human response to the Word. Once the reader has exhausted the meditative process, it is appropriate to move into a time for prayer. This can be personal and spontaneous, or communal and pre-written, but the purpose of this portion is to turn one’s will over to God and to ask for God’s aid in prayer. Words are not even necessary for this portion; all that is necessary is a will like Mary as she says, “Thy will be done.” If this is truly achieved, one enters finally into contemplation, the height of mystical prayer. This level of prayer is not easy, and I must admit I have very little experience with it, but it is in essence being so free from one’s own will that God is able to respond to our prayer. Think of it as surrender or radical openness, a time for God to gaze upon the one praying and be in union with them. The mystics have experienced this as a state of ecstasy, but it does not always have to be so radical. Often times, this is simply the time when God chooses to speak to our hearts.

But this is not the end, for the end is just the beginning. With each finished cycle brings the start of a new one, returning to the text to read the passage again. By repeating the process multiple times in one session, each prayer builds upon itself, calling the one praying to a deeper experience each time.  The text does not change, but the one hearing it, having now mediated, prayed, and contemplated on it with God, now comes back to the text with a different perspective. Words or phrases that seemed unimportant before may take on a new meaning or be heard in a different way. The text calls the reader to a deeper consciousness each time. This is the essence of the Living Word.

This, however, is incomplete for us as Franciscans. Lection Divina can only be considered an appropriate prayer with the addition of a final step: action. Once we have read, meditated, prayed, and contemplated, there must be something that takes root in our lives to inspire a conversion. How has the passage or life experience moved us closer to God? How are we converted by God’s presence in our lives?

It was after a wonderful conversation about just this that my spiritual director made the connection that the process we follow in Lectio Divina is the same process we follow in our own lives.  What he meant by this was that the journey of our life is something that can be prayerfully entered into, rather than just analyzed, and that we can experience God in reliving, or rereading our life’s journey. In some ways, the stories of our past are unchanging, set in stone. But as we read our life’s stories and allow time for meditation, prayer, and contemplation, we are called to a deeper understanding of what each event means to us.

The clear example I have right now is my novitiate. I believe very strongly that the majority of the stuff that “happened” to me during novitiate, the bulk of what we may call “revelation,” occurred in the first three months. The remaining nine months I believe I spent trying to understand and integrate what I had experienced into myself.

What I also realized was that life is a cyclical set of situations that recur on a regular basis; progress, then, looks much more like a spiral staircase than it does a ladder.  We want to think sometimes that we can find a solution to our problems that will leave them in our past, stepping up a step on the ladder never to come back down. And yet, a short period of time later, we find ourselves face-to-face with the same problem. Have we regressed? Not necessary. Just like in Lectio Divina and just like walking up a spiral staircase, each step brings us somewhere new and yet ever closer to where we first began.  While I found myself becoming frustrated with the lack of “progress” in my life, I realized that with true introspection, by recognizing the situation, meditating on it, bringing it to prayer, and then contemplating with God, there was something new that I could bring to the situation. I may have be standing in the same spot as before, but my perspective had changed; one floor higher, there was a slightly new vantage point on the same situation from which to act. Once I chose how to act, there began a new cycle of prayerfully reading that situation into the corpus of my life.

My advice, then, is twofold. The first is to read scripture in this way, prayerfully engaging the text and letting it speak to you in a way that studying cannot. A common practice is to find the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday and to spend time during the week going through this process. It will change your week and will most definitely change your experience at mass. The second is a bit more demanding, but potentially more fruitful: keep a journal. I cannot tell you how powerful it has been to reread my entries from the past two years, to notice patterns, and to identify growth.

Either way, know that life is not something to be solved once and for all, and that “growth” is not in leaving our problems behind. The best we can ever be is a people humble enough to know our own failings, smart enough to learn from them, and faithful enough to ask God for help.

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Finish The Whole Bible In One Year

If your bible looks like this, it might be time to open it up and give it a try!

If your Bible looks like this, it might be time to open it up and give it a try!

Like many Catholics, I have always owned a Bible and believed it to be a very important book, but rarely found myself sitting down to actually read it. That’s not to say that I didn’t know much about the Bible, because I did. By virtue of simply attending mass for 24 years, I was presented with two readings, a psalm, and a Gospel passage every week as a part of the three-year Lectionary cycle.

There is a difference, however, between being familiar with a story and knowing it in its context of the other stories. So much of the historical significance and theological purpose of a passage is lost if it is read within a historical vacuum because the reader has no idea what has led to these events. When reading a text, as with a movie, television show, or the life of another, how can one begin to understand the emotion, the atmosphere, the drama, the relationships, the implications, or the subtleties without first knowing the back-story? In the case of sacred scripture, how can one truly claim to understand the teachings of Jesus without first understanding the Levitical laws that dictated the religious context, the history of the people of Israel that shaped their social constructs, or most of all, what they believed about God?

This is what I set out to learn during my novitiate year. Knowing that I had a lot of time for private prayer and meditation, I committed myself to completing the entire canon of scripture before I was professed. I picked a Bible, (I strongly suggest this one) went to the last page, and divided the number of pages by the number of days I wanted it to take. Five pages a day. That’s it. All it would take for me to read the entire Bible was to read five pages a day. When you consider how many of those pages are maps, charts, and title pages, that didn’t seem like it would be that difficult.

It wasn’t. The more difficult task, actually, was deciding the order in which I would read it. Rather than simply reading each book in the order in which it’s listed, (the historical books, then the wisdom books, then the prophetic books, and so on,) I decided that I was going to do a little research and instead read them based on the best scholarly guess as to when each was written. The reason I say when the text was written as opposed to when the events took place is significant. For instance, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles are written about the same events, the pre-exilic history of Israel. The difference between the two is that the authors of these books are writing in completely different historical contexts and thus, have completely different purposes for writing. To read them back-to-back might be helpful given the similar content (although the discrepancies in details might be a bit confusing), but I found that reading them separately, among books with a similar context, helped to bring out the particular theology and historical backdrop of the author. The same can be said about all of the prophetic books: it’s much easier to understand the message of a prophet when one understands the historical events that provoked their preaching.

Using biblical commentaries, clues within the texts, and pre-made bible guides, I came up with a Bible Reading Guide of my own  Each book is marked based on the significance I felt that it had for the overall understanding of salvation history, denoted by bolded texts to represent the most important books, underlined texts to represent books necessary for a scope of salvation history, italicized to represent books than can be skimmed rather than read in full, and (in parentheses) to suggest that these books be skipped completely, or read after a complete understanding of biblical texts, as they can be the most misunderstood.

I can’t say that I’m any closer to being a biblical scholar at this point, nor can I say that I have retained everything that I read (it’s a big book!), but what I will say is that the process of reading the whole bible was one of the most fruitful aspects of my year in novitiate. Being more familiar with scripture has helped me my prayer, my understanding of God, my attention at Mass, and my overall confidence speaking about my faith to others. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading scripture on a regular basis.

Which brings me to my last point: try it yourself! It can seem like an overwhelming task at first, but trust me when I say that it’s manageable. I think the first step for anyone who wants to know more about the bible is to simply open it up and familiarize yourself with it: flip through the table of contents, get a feel for which books are in which Testament, see which books are longer than others, and read little snippets of books to get a flavor for different genres. Before you begin any sort of reading plan, however, I strongly suggest reading the general introductions found in the Catholic Study Bible, or another introduction to the Historical-Critical Method, as they are excellent resources to reading the texts properly. I cannot stress enough the importance of proper reading techniques. From there, read as you feel comfortable. Read the texts, the notes, and the commentaries. Read with others and read alone. And most of all, read prayerfully!

My Turn to Preach

Today, I preached about two ways of the ways we fall just like the Pharisees did.

One of the great opportunities we have as postulants in formation is the chance to give a homily once in a while at our in-house Masses. Rotating among the five guys, one is responsible each time for leading the group with an initial reflection before opening up the floor for others to give their extemporaneous reactions. Today was my third chance to do such, and I thought I would share it with you. Below is the core of what I worked from, but I also spoke candidly throughout when I thought clarification or additional details were necessary. Let me know what you think!

 

Today’s Gospel in a word, is “ironic.” Having the advantage of seeing history unfold, the Gospel writer has no reservations about intertwining humor into the powerful story of Jesus’ condemnation by the Pharisees.

Having just heard from the prophet Ezekiel that God would make all the tribes of Israel one through the leadership of David’s servant, we transition to the tail end of Jesus’ most profound and prophetic miracle: raising Lazarus from the dead. Here we find our first bit of irony. It is this very life-giving act, the raising of Lazarus as an example of the unending life offered to everyone through Jesus, that leads to His own inevitable death.

Driven by fear of persecution, (and potentially less altruistic motives) the Pharisees refuse to accept the miracles of Jesus and choose to see him as a threat to the status quo. Complaining, “If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” Once again, we have to laugh at John’s wit in such statements: instead of recognizing the true son of God before them, the one that will unite the nations as foretold, they decide to kill Jesus, and instead put their hope in a false prophet 40 years later. This false prophet ended up waging a war with Rome, which caused the destruction of the Temple, the scattering of the Jewish people, and the extinction of the Sadducees.

The climax of John’s irony is found in what is a bit of prophetic double entendre: Caiaphas declares that, “Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” Intending to make the point that Jesus’ death will knock sense into the Jewish people, thus reuniting them around the “order” of the Law (held by the Pharisees), John can’t help but laugh at how prophetic Caiaphas was, and yet how little he understood the meaning of his own words!

Besides serving as the next step in the larger story of salvation history, I believe that there are two lessons to be learned from the Pharisees today.

1. If it is truly God that we seek, using evil will never help us reach Him. When we start believing that the ends justify the means, it might be time to reevaluate what exactly those ends actually are because it’s probably not God. In the case of the Pharisees, their ends were safety, order, comfort, power, and unity, all things that can certainly be gifts from God, and at times even resemble God, but are all ultimately not God, thus not ends in themselves. When we make things like these our ultimate ends, we risk missing the true God when he appears right in front of us.

We find concrete examples of this line of thinking throughout our world. For instance, in order for capitalism to function, it is required that a certain number of people be unemployed and unable to find work. “It’s a small price to pay for the greater good of the nation,” we say. In wartime, it is not only an acceptable loss for a certain number of soldiers to die for the sake of a mission, our government deems it reasonable, under certain circumstances, to kill unarmed civilians in order to kill the enemy. “It’s a small price to pay for the greater good,” we say. But what “good” is that, exactly? I don’t believe that it is God we are making compromises for, but it is God, the presence of God in our neighbor, that we are compromising for these ulterior ends.

2. The second thing is that God’s will will be done. I find the most powerful bit of John’s irony in the fact that those who denied and even killed Jesus were just as useful hands in God’s plan of salvation history as some of the disciples. It reminds me that God can use me to be a prophetic voice for this world without me even knowing it, and that, even if I refuse to be a part of His plan, he’s still going to have His way.

Because of this, I have to ask myself, “Am I a soft piece of clay that is easily molded to the needs of God, or am I an unwavering rock that needs to be beaten and chiseled into place?” Is my humility, love, and understanding going to be a light for the world, or is my bitterness, pride, and anger going to be used to show the world what’s possible without God, or even as display for God’s wrath? I have no doubt that God’s will will be done; I only hope that I may be an agent of His love, moving in His same direction, and not an obstacle in His way.

An Alternative Interpretation…

Is this figure God, or an unjust king?

This week in the lectionary, we got the opportunity to hear the the same story, the parable of the talents, from two different writers, used in two different liturgical settings. Found in both Matthew and Luke, it is a very familiar passage, and the sermon that follows is often just as common: God gives each of us gifts, and we are expected to use them for his glory. It’s a nice message, sure. But is that what Jesus is actually trying to tell us? I would like to offer an alternate interpretation for discernment.

Today’s first reading from 2 Maccabees helps to frame the story in a different light. Having already tortured and killed six of a woman’s seven sons because they refused to renounce the LORD, Antiochus turned to the last son: “As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.” Ultimately, the youngest son declines his offer and accepts death rather than denounce his faith in the LORD; all of the money, power, and status in the world are not worth the price of supporting evil.

Using this message as a foundation, I think the traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents is largely insufficient. Take, for instance, the role of the nobleman. If he is a symbol for God from whom we receive “talents,” why do his servants send ahead to say they wish him not to be king? Why does he “take up where he does not lay down,” or “harvest where he does not plant?” Why does he condemn the servent for not engaging in usury, an act clearly condemned by God in the Law? Why, just before the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus rewards those who help the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), would a God figure say, “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? These are all qualities of an unjust ruler, greedy and merciless to his people; they are not the qualities of God.

When we begin to understand this, the handing over of talents is almost a perfect parallel the story of Antiochus. Wishing to further himself, the nobleman entrusts his money to three servants with the hopes that they will carry out his unjust business while he’s gone. Two of the men decide to accept the offer to take part in the unjust system, and the nobleman rewards them with money and friendship based on their profitability. But the third servant, similar to the youngest son, does nothing. He recognizes that the king is a wicked person and refuses to take part in his unjust system. Because of this, he is denied, suffers greatly, and is put to death for his insubordination.

Taken together, I see the message of these passages to be that the world and God have different expectations, and it is impossible at times to follow both. The world will offer us many things, fulfill many of our temporal needs, even make us very happy and comfortable, but sometimes it will require us to compromise our faith. It’s also a reminder that truly following God is not an easy task, and that even Jesus endured suffering because he challenged the evil of the world and sought to bring justice to all. But for those who follow in his footsteps and endure the trials of the world, there is hope for redemption and just judgment in the God’s Kingdom.

I offer this not as a condemnation of the common homily or the priests that give them, but rather as an alternate interpretation for prayer and discernment. Hopefully it is grounded in some truth and it may be helpful for my prayer and discernment process moving forward.