Conversatio Divina

Praying with Scripture: A Contemplative Way of Growing in Our Spiritual Relationship with God

Dallas Willard

Spiritual direction is a process by which one person assists another in becoming increasingly aware of the action of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. This “assistance” often involves the simple encouragement to slow down and become more aware of God and his love.

With the aid of a director—better known as a traveling companion or mentor in one’s personal spiritual life—a person can recognize both the call of the Lord to a more intimate relationship and the way to proceed in responding to that call. The director may also help the directee to identify those dynamics and activities that tend to separate a person from God, others, and self. Along these lines, a spiritual director might also assist the directee in working to better manage those tendencies toward separation from loving relationship, while nurturing the desire to live in a more loving stance toward God, others, and self.

One of the ways I often recommend for drawing closer to God and others is the reading and praying of the Scriptures—particularly the four Gospels. In doing this, we hear God talking to us and, in the process, learn more about our compassionate and loving God. The fundamental truth that God both speaks to us and often initiates the conversation makes it possible for us to pray with God. God has been concerned for each of us since long before we became concerned for ourselves.

However, God has given us another way to learn about the person of our God: God gave us His “Word made Flesh,” the second person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus Christ, so that in learning more about the person of Jesus and establishing a prayerful relationship with him, we learn more about our God. Thus, we know that our God is not just an invisible Spirit, but also one who assumed our humanity and was like us in all things but sin. So when we pray to Jesus, we pray to our God, who knows what we are praying for since he petitioned his Father in the same way we now do.

It has been my experience in working with directees that God really desires communication with us, speaks to us continually, and reveals himself to us in a variety of ways. I often share the following list of ways in which God reveals himself:


  • Primarily through the person of Jesus Christ, His Word made Flesh; through the church, the extension of Jesus in the world, because we are joined together in Jesus, and God speaks to us through those people with whom we associate and to whom we are joined.
  • Through the various elements of the visible, created world around us that forms the physical context of our lives and is another form of God’s self-revelation.
  • Through those surprising events in our lives when we hear the voice of God speaking to us.
  • And especially through Sacred Scripture, particularly the New Testament, a real form of the divine presence. This is the mode of communication we are most concerned with in prayer.

To experience God’s voice and message more clearly, I strongly encourage working with a spiritual director. It is encouraging that more people in our day are looking to improve their relationship with God and others, as well as seeking help to discern the paths along the ways God might be leading them. Many individuals come to our retreat center desiring to grow in their prayer lives and to learn more about God—particularly about the life of Jesus. They want to be more open in hearing God talk to them and to have someone with whom they can share their progress and problems in their attempts to achieve these goals. And that’s when a spiritual “guide” can be of assistance in walking with a directee.

As I have referenced, there are a variety of ways to listen to God, and oftentimes the most common way is just sitting in the presence of God and waiting for God to say something to you. This is the basic attitude of prayer. But one common form of hearing God talk to you is praying a Scripture passage. Let me now share with you the most helpful ways I have found to do this.

What you do immediately before prayer is very important. Normally, you should not rush right into prayer. For you to become better able to hear God’s voice in prayer, I recommend that you spend a few moments quieting yourself and relaxing, settling yourself into a prayerful and comfortable position. It is important to minimize distracting thoughts and realize that you are already in the presence of God, with God’s Spirit working within you. Listening to God is much like listening to your friend or spouse. You begin by tuning out everything except what the person is saying to you. In prayer this can be done best in silence and solitude.

Next, I recommend that you select a favorite passage from Scripture: a scene involving Jesus or a particular brief and encouraging message. Put a marker in the page and then find a quiet place where you can be alone and uninhibited in your response to God’s presence.

Once you are settled into a quiet place, try to quiet yourself interiorly. Recall how often Jesus went up to a mountain to be alone with His Father. In our age of noise, activity, and tensions, it is particularly difficult to forget all our cares and commitments, the noise and excitement of our environment. So you should not feel that you must blot out all distractions; that would be impossible. Anxiety about finding perfect silence or solitude could get in the way of our open experience to God. We must realize that the Word did become flesh and speaks to us, even in the noise and confusion of our day. Sometimes in preparing for prayer, just try to relax and listen to the sounds around you and recognize God’s presence in your midst.

Be conscious of your sensations and emotional experiences of feeling, thinking, hoping, loving, wondering, desiring, etc. Then, conscious of God’s unselfish, loving presence within you, address God simply and whisper, “Yes, God, you do share love, life, and feeling with me. You do love to share your personal life into me. Yes, you do.”

God is present in you through the Spirit, who speaks to you now in Scripture and who prays in you and for you. So ask God for the grace to listen to what the Spirit says to you.

Then begin reading your selected Scripture passage slowly and attentively. Do not hurry to cover much material. If the passage recounts an event of Jesus’ life, be there in the mystery of it. Share with the persons involved, e.g., a blind person or leper being cured, a sinner being forgiven. Allow yourself to experience their feelings and to respond to what Jesus is saying. Some words or phrases might carry special meaning for you. Savor those words by turning them over in your mind and heart. You may want to speak or recite a Psalm or other prayer from Scripture, or petition a particular grace. Do so, and really mean what you are saying.

When something strikes you, you might experience one or more of the following feelings:

  • A new way of being with Jesus, who comes for you in a new way (e.g., you sense what it means to be healed by Jesus).
  • An emotional experience of God’s love for you and how precious you are in the eyes of God.
  • A lift of your own spirit.
  • A move to do something good for others.
  • An inner sense of joy and peace and consolation.
  • Happiness and contentment just being in God’s presence


This is the time to . . . pause. Often these sensations are caused by God, who is speaking directly to you in the words of Scripture. Do not hurry to move on. Wait until you are no longer moved by the experience before moving on.

What if something doesn’t seem to be happening to you during this time of prayer? Well, don’t get discouraged. Sometimes God lets us feel dry and empty in order to let us realize it is not in our own power to communicate with God or to experience His presence and consolation.

God is sometimes very close to us in seeming to be absent (cf. Psalm 139:7–8). He is always with and for us entirely in a selfless way and is accepting us as we are with all our limitations—even with our apparent inability at times to pray and experience God. A humble attitude of listening is a sign of love for God and a real prayer from the heart. At these times, remember the words of St. Paul: “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26, NABRE).All Scripture passages quotations are from the New American Bible Revised Edition (Gastonia, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2010).

Just try to relax in prayer, no matter what you feel or fail to feel. Be careful that you don’t set up your own expectations in prayer. Remember, God will speak to us in God’s own way, not always the way we want, as God tells us in the following passage:


Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down

And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,

Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,

11 So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;

It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10–11).


It is important to allow yourself to spend time in prayer just being conscious of God’s presence in and around you. If you desire, don’t hesitate to speak with God about the things you are interested in or wish to thank God for—your joys, sorrows, aspirations, etc.

Much of what I have learned about the praying of Scripture has come from my knowledge of and respect for the writings of two of our Jesuits, Fathers Armand Nigro, S.J., and John Christensen, S.J. I will close by allowing my Jesuit brothers to summarize what they have described as the five P’s of praying Scripture:

  • Passage: select a passage from Scripture in advance and have it marked and ready for prayer.
  • Place: be where you are alone and uninhibited in your response to God’s presence and word.
  • Posture: choose one that is relaxed and peaceful, a harmony of body with spirit.
  • Presence of God: be aware of it, acknowledge it, and respond to it, sometimes spending your whole time just trying to experience God’s presence.
  • Passage from Scripture: return to it again, read it very slowly, and listen carefully and peacefully to it.

What you have just read is one of several ways of praying. It’s a form of prayer that Ignatius Loyola highly recommends in the Spiritual Exercises and what we Jesuits call Ignatian contemplation—putting yourself into a scene and just opening up your senses in the scene. A spiritual director can help you get into this form of prayer, and you will have someone with whom you can share your prayer experiences and from whom you can get additional help on your journey to God.

Finally, keep in mind what I previously said: there really are many forms of prayer from which you can choose, and there is really no wrong way of praying and conversing with God. Pray the way that is most comfortable for you. Pray as you can; don’t try to pray as you can’t. Contact with a director helps you to strive for these innate goals that we all want to achieve.


Father Al Louapre, S.J., is a native of New Orleans and has been a Jesuit for fifty-nine years and a priest for forty-six years. He is in his third year as a member of the staff of Ignatius House, a Jesuit retreat center in Atlanta, Georgia. Over the years he has been involved in giving preached retreats and individually directed retreats as well as spiritual direction. The editors of Conversations invited Father Al to share how he offers direction in praying with Scripture.