GWM: David, let me transition to your use of the four stages of lectio divina as the outline for your book. I don’t believe you were born into a “high church” or “ancient church tradition.” How did you come to discover lectio divina?
DGB: I first encountered lectio divina in my early thirties when I used a sabbatical to soak in the classic literature of Christian monasticism from the East and the West. This was also when I first encountered the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Church and a number of other spiritual practices that have shaped my life since that time. As I mention in the book, my friendship with Fr. Basil Pennington—one of the people most responsible for dusting this ancient monastic practice off and bringing it to the attention of contemporary Christian seekers—was the impetus to think about lectio as a framework for all of life, not simply as a way of reading Scriptures.
GWM: I don’t believe you mentioned in your book that I’m the one who introduced you to Basil, and I reread that section twice. I assumed you were simply trying to help me decenter my ego. But moving on, how would you explain the stages or movements of lectio divina to someone who had never heard about it?
DGB: How could I have ever overlooked your crucial introduction! My thanks for that. The four movements that I describe draw on a framework for prayer that was first outlined by the twelfth-century Carthusian monk, Guigo II. He identified four stages of monastic prayer and labeled them as lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. He taught that prayer was a journey from the biblical text (lectio), to inquiry (meditatio), to response (oratio), and finally to the gift of God’s presence (contemplatio).
Guigo II interpreted these steps in quite a linear manner. In fact, the image he offered was of a ladder with four rungs. While I think this hierarchical organization has led to some very serious misunderstandings of prayer (for example, suggesting that contemplative prayer is somehow a higher form of prayer than others), I would suggest that what these four Latin terms describe is four broad prayer paths—prayer as attending, prayer as pondering, prayer as responding, and prayer as being.
Prayer as Attending
GWM: Okay, let’s focus on that foundational practice of attending. You say, “Our spiritual life will be no deeper than our capacity to pay attention. And our capacity to pay attention to God will be no greater than our capacity and practice of paying attention to that which is within and beyond our self in the present moment.” What are some suggestions for how I can become more attentive to God and His love?
DGB: I wouldn’t start by trying to attend to God or even God’s love if you haven’t already learned something about being attentive in general. Paying attention is not scrunching up our mental focus but opening our self and allowing our self to be absorbed by something. Paying attention to anything is a doorway to the transcendent. Christians are often too quick to try to turn spiritual practices into religious practices and are mistrustful, therefore, of something as apparently nonreligious as simply learning to be present to the present moment. But the place and time to start is this present moment—not by thinking about an idea (like God’s love), but by being present to your present experience. This demands that you be still and recall what I have already said about the importance of that if we are to learn to know God in love. Where does God fit into this present moment and my experience of it?
Well, that’s the critical question. Asking where God is in the moment-by-moment flow of experience—daring to assume that we are never far from God even if God seems far from us. The great assertion of incarnational theology is that this is where God abides, but believing that doesn’t count for much. Learning to know it by attentiveness is what makes a spiritual difference.
GWM: Continuing with this theme of attentiveness, I loved your use of Rowan Williams’ lightbulb imagery as a way of describing our being dependent on God’s being—and also the importance of our attention. Would you say a bit more about the importance of that imagery in your own prayer life?
DGB: The point Rowan Williams was making is the importance of our knowing of the unchanging, continuous presence of God. Behind and beneath everything that is and every moment of existence is the outpouring life of God. Deists might believe that at some time in the past God acted, but Christian theists affirm that this action is ongoing and that if it were not, we would not be. Creation is not a moment in the past, but the ongoing sustaining activity of a very present God. So this brings us back once again to the question of where God is in the present moment. It leads me to ask if it is possible to know more of God’s presence—not just in sunsets and butterflies, but in the moment-by-moment flow of daily life as it actually comes to me—and, if so, how I can experience this.
Let me say that I am convinced it is possible to become more aware of God’s presence in the world. I know this from experience—my own and that of many others. Quickly, here are two resources that can help you learn this sort of spiritual attentiveness. The first is the practice from the Ignatian spirituality of the daily examen—that is, a regular short time of prayerful reflection on the events of the day, asking God to help you discern the divine presence.
The second is being prepared to be surprised (and perhaps adjust your theology) by what you will discover. Because, without question, what you will discover is not only that God is everywhere, but more particularly, that God keeps turning up in the most surprising places—places of sin and brokenness (my own and also that of the world) seeming to be particularly favorite haunts for God. But God is also, I am convinced, especially present in all acts of becoming. Want to know where God is in your life at this very moment? Notice where you are being invited to become more than you are. Want to know where God is in the world? Notice movements of becoming—individuals, relationships, organizations, communities, and societies becoming more than they are. This is the dough rising because of the hidden yeast.
God is at home in the world and in the midst of the affairs of our life. But you asked how this affects my prayer life. It makes my prayer start with attending rather than talking. If God is already present and active in the world, I had better shut up and watch and listen before I talk and act.
Prayer as Pondering
GWM: Let’s turn now to the second “phase” of lectio, pondering. Pondering prayer, you suggest, is talking with God about our thoughts, our wonderings, and our reflections on life experience or challenges. Why is “pondering” an important part of a lectio experience?
DGB: Pondering is an important part of lectio because it is an important part of human psychology. It is one of the ways we process the world. So if we exclude this reflection on experience from prayer, we exclude an important part of who we are. And the transformational potential of prayer is correspondingly truncated.
GWM: But does not the very act of pondering bring ego back to center stage?
DGB: Good question. It shows you are paying attention!
GWM: Keeping you mystics straight is no small task.
DGB: Yes, pondering is an ego function, but so is attending—which you nicely illustrate right now—and responding. Contrary to what spiritual teachers sometimes suggest, the goal is not the elimination of ego. The goal is its softening and dethronement. Freud famously described the movement to health in the following words: “Where ID was, there shall ego be.” I’d say, “Where ego was, there shall Spirit and ego be, ego still playing an important role, but one that is subservient to the Spirit.” So there is no fear in pondering, even though it is an ego function. Pondering exercises a God-given and essential aspect of one’s being that, if it is to be redeemed, needs to be invited within the tent of prayer. The same is true for all parts of our being.
Prayer as Responding
GWM: You’ve given us much to ponder. Okay, moving on to the phase of lectio that most obviously ties in to the theme of this issue of Conversations, responding, or action. In prayer, as in life, it is possible to become stuck in awareness and pondering and fail to respond with action. Can you say more about the importance of “responding” in lectio divina?
DGB: Prayer is like breathing. What flows in must flow out if we are to have space to receive the next inflow. Prayer that doesn’t lead to a response is not fully orbed Christian prayer. It is really just talking to ourselves. Despite how it is sometimes presented, the spiritual life is not about God and me, or God and you. It’s about God and the world. So my response to God can’t be simply personal. Our prayers are often so personal that they are narcissistic. We need to get over ourselves.
Of course God loves us and wants us to know that love, but the reason this is important is so we can then get past ourselves and be part of God’s grand cosmic adventure of making all things new in Christ. Of course it is legitimate to bring my concerns to God in prayer, but prayer is so much more than this, and my response to being with God and God’s life flowing into mine is a crucial part of this. In this response we can assume that God will lead us beyond ourselves to God’s even bigger Kingdom concerns. This is why we need to be attentive to where God is in the world and what God is up to there. How presumptuous it is to assume that God is present only in and through the church! God loved the world long before God loved the church. And God is active in the world. Our challenge is to discern this presence of God—which will, as I said before, be evidenced by people becoming more than they are—and then aligning ourselves with what God is doing.
GWM: But David, I’ve spent many years within a tradition that might interpret what you are saying to mean what God is doing at a particular place on the planet, as opposed to what God can always be up to—through love—if I’m open to His love and to human need, wherever I find myself. Do you mind clarifying what you mean by aligning oneself with what God is doing?
DGB: I am in fact talking about what God is up to in specific places and times rather than in general. God is always at work in movements of judgment and grace that reflect the cosmic plan of making all things new in Christ. But I think we see this activity in particular moments and in particular places. Christians have often been good at seeing them in the church and have described these moments as revivals or awakenings. They are awakenings, and they do reflect God’s particular presence and activity, but as I have said, God’s actions in the world are not limited to the church, and we have usually not been as good at seeing where God is working in particular places and at particular times outside the church.
It is important that we remember that the Spirit of God blows where the Spirit of God wills, and not always will this be where we expect it. Our job is to discern where God is acting in the world and participate in the healing, reconciling, and reconstructive work God is undertaking. This requires the healing of our awareness and the removal of our prejudices. All those who embark on the journey toward increased awareness become ever more attuned to the present moment, and it is in the present moment that the Spirit is at work. In this way we become aware that God to be found in the world in which we live, not in some distant heaven.