When I was very young, I left pennies on my windowsill for God. I’d line up the coins just inside the screen as if such an action were a logical way to intersect the divine. I suppose I used pennies because they were of some earthly value, and I suppose the windowsill because that would make it easier for God to swoop down to fetch them. In the morning, I’d arise to see if the pennies remained, to see whether a heavenly visitation had whispered through my room during the night. The coins sat undisturbed, but I had touched upon a wonder—the idea of a relational God who could descend into my world.
Looking back, I realize that even as a child I craved for God to push past abstraction and become someone I could taste and touch in my everyday life. I desired a tangible expression of God that lifted me beyond mahogany pews and flannel-board lessons. I needed relationship. The row of coins was a language for something I had no words to express: the hunger for communion.
I still crave communion with God, and my journey with Christ has given me valuable disciplines—chief among them prayer and Bible reading—as avenues toward relationship. We’re used to prayer as a relational discipline, but Bible reading? Throughout my formative years—and I’m sure I’m not unique—Bible reading was distinctly unrelational, a type of do-it-yourself project.
I was trained to bring only my intellect to bear upon Scripture. The focus was on Bible study, which meant analysis, exegesis, induction, and deduction. Study of the Word has great value, but intellectualism alone will give us truth separated from relationship, morals separated from meaning. The Scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day embody such an approach. They valued the Scriptures highly, studying, memorizing, and debating them. But when the God of the Scriptures walked in their midst, they killed him. Intellectualism gives birth to an isolated and insulated discipleship that can miss the mark badly.
Spiritual formation into Christlikeness takes place only within the context of meaningful relationship. The Bible is the supreme way that God speaks, the place where his story and ours find voice, yet for many, reading the Word is a lonely enterprise. We need the Word to be more than words. The Word must become flesh, the person of Christ forming us, the substance of Christ awakened within us. If Bible reading is to be formational, it must facilitate meaning and communion, the capacity to see the inner significance of truth and to experience deeply our relationship to it. Here, the head must join with its sibling faculty, the heart, where the language of communion through image, experience, symbol, and story is freely spoken.
Without both capacities working together, our excursions into the Word can leave us in the cold country of moral codes and obligations. Thus, the question needs to be asked, “What is my relationship with God in the Scriptures?”
01. The Art of Spiritual Reading
In his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard writes, “In many Protestant churches prayer and Bible study are held up as the activities that will make us spiritually rich. But very few people actually succeed in attaining spiritual richness through them and indeed often find them to be intolerably burdensome.”Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 186. So many of us must drag ourselves to our time with the Scriptures, or we rely upon extrinsic measures—guilt, accountability groups, and the like—to keep up the discipline. We enter into Bible reading with expectations no higher than those our own cleverness can conjure or with the unspoken assumption that the Bible is lifeless, and our job is to administer CPR with our exegetical skills. In reality, we are the lifeless ones. Our Bible reading lacks life and fullness when we do not enter into the art of spiritual reading. Spiritual reading cultivates listening with the ear of the heart, a disposition of willingness, a posture of receptivity. Such reading opens us to the give-and-take of relationship with God through the Scriptures.
Henri Nouwen explains the difference between typical reading and spiritual reading. They should be approached differently, but we have little idea what spiritual reading really is:
Most of us read to acquire knowledge or to satisfy our curiosity. When we want to know how to repair a car, cook a meal, build a house, help a handicapped person, give a lecture, etc., we have to do a certain amount of reading. When we want to keep informed about world news, sports news, entertainment news, and society news, we must turn to different newspapers and magazines. The purpose of spiritual reading, however, is not to master knowledge or information, but to let God’s Spirit master us. Strange as it may sound, spiritual reading means to let ourselves be read by God! Henri Nouwen, Here and Now. (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 72.
When I spiritually read Genesis 12, I hear God’s call to Abram to leave his country for a foreign land and Abram’s obedience. Am I willing to walk off the map of my known world because God said so? Suddenly, Abram’s story becomes mine, and his call my confrontation.
When we read the Bible (or other literature through which we sense God might speak), we read not merely for information but for transformation. For me, this means reading slowly and attentively, attuned to the questions the text offers my heart, aware of my reactions, and aware that the Holy Spirit is reading me as I go. I stop when something catches my interest or pierces my consciousness. The value of reading the Bible in such a manner lies not in accomplishing the activity itself, but in the degree to which I am opened to God, changed by the Word, and transformed to do his will. For this end, a purely intellectual posture gets me only halfway there. To read spiritually, I must deeply enter the heart’s relational path of listening and receiving.
Listening and receiving. Most in the household of faith have little idea how to engage these capacities. Muscular Christianity teaches us much about how to do for God, but little or nothing about how to be with God. So often our focus in Scripture flows from a competitive framework: I exert myself upon the text and secretly count how many trophies I can amass by plowing through chapters, memorizing verses, and digesting commentaries. We are too often enamored with producing and measuring in our relationship with Scripture. Such a posture must be replaced by something more powerful than performance: the posture of love founded in receptivity.
My time of reading begins with my becoming present to God’s love for me. I take up the Word of God, understanding that while the Bible is certainly my guide for obedience and holiness, it is also a long love letter from home. It is the Word from my Beloved, and never to read it as such is to read it without full benefit. 1 John 4:16 reminds us, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (NIV All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ). If I am truly to relate with God, then the substance of our relating will be the weight of love. Love is the outcome of spiritual reading and the key to understanding Scripture as deep calling to deep: God’s love in the Word held out to me, and my response. In this attitude, I anticipate communion, not just information. My aim is not to get to the end of a particular passage, but to experience relationship, to open my full awareness to God, and to sit like Mary, listening and adoring, at the feet of Jesus.
02. The Discipline of Lectio Divina
My friend Jan is a spiritual director and care pastor. Twenty years ago, she was a stay-at-home mother experiencing a bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her third child. Her life with God felt distant and dry. The busyness and stress of a new baby and her spiritual desert created an intense hunger within her. She says of that time, “I had an inner longing to figure out what prayer was, and the pat, churchy answers were more formulaic than relationship-based. They just didn’t work for me. Instead of being fed the classical spiritual disciplines, I was told ten things to do at five in the morning. My relationship with God was more about lists than about conversation.”
The turning point for Jan came when a woman spoke at her church about disciplines that were relationally oriented, grounded in being, not just doing. She then began to learn new ways of entering into Scripture reading and meditation upon the Word and says, “I discovered there was a wealth of people who had what I wanted and had been experiencing these things for centuries.” Today, she companions with others in the inner layers of the spiritual journey, and a key to her spiritual formation has been one of those classic disciplines: lectio divina. Latin for “divine [or sacred] reading,” lectio divina dates back to the early Christian centuries as an ancient way of relationally engaging with the Holy Scriptures.
My approach incorporates the four traditional movements of lectio divina: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. These movements naturally flow into one another, and the practical suggestions I include with each movement are simply ways to structure the time of lectio divina. Even though at first glance these movements might seem rather involved, the beauty of the process is its simplicity. It need not be time-consuming—even five minutes is enough to practice lectio divina.
- Lectio: Taking Up the Scripture
In this first movement, take up the Word of God and spiritually read. Basil Pennington says that lectio in its intended fullness means “the reception of the revelation.” Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer. (New York: Image, 1980), 30. Open to your chosen passage, drink in the text, and receive the Scripture while listening for a word, phrase, or sentence that catches your attention. Rest a few moments with whatever arises, repeating the words silently while pondering them. Rest and silence throughout this practice are vital because in such an atmosphere, we are more disposed to hearing and responding.Come to the Word of God without expectations, save Jesus’ promise that when you ask for bread, you will not be given a stone. Few things can corrupt a time of prayerful reading like specific ideas about what you need God to do for you. Such expectations subtly assert themselves as your focal point. Instead, simply believe, as the child that you are, that your Father sits next to you and longs to share this little space of time with you. That reality is more comforting and more remarkable than any other gift God might bring.
- Meditatio: Engaging with the Passage
Now that you know where the passage is going, read it again in a meditative way. Our contemporary definition of meditation refers to some sort of quiet, transcendent state, but that is not the case here. Meditation involves active engagement with the passage, using both your imagination and your intellect. What images come to mind for you around the Scripture? What questions do you have about the passage? What insights or connections within the text do you notice? Is there something you want to know more about?The meditatio movement culminates as, in an attitude of receptivity, you ask God how the passage might link to you own life: “Lord, what do you want me to notice? How is my heart being spoken to this moment? Where does this word intersect my life right now?” And as you ask such questions, listen. The meditatio movement is not a monologue. It is meant to be a personal conversation with your Beloved.
Lectio divina is a potent way to engage in ongoing, daily dialogue with the Lord. When you listen with the ear of the heart, Bible reading is transforming conversation, which, of course, is the pinnacle of prayer. A small heresy of my Christian upbringing was the idea that Bible reading is separate or intrinsically different from prayer. I was taught to study the Bible and then, switching gears, commence praying. Bible reading, however, is an extension of the time of prayer and should not be considered separate.
There are various ways to move through the meditatio time. It can be done internally, noting the interaction of head and heart with God’s Word, pondering, allowing those truths and insights to be guests of your deep self. But you may wish to keep a lectio divina journal. Here, you may not only record your interactions, but allow the writing itself to become the ground of interaction. Writing teacher Donald Murray notes that we don’t write what we know so much as we write until we know. I find that using journaling as part of my meditatio results in connections that I hadn’t realized when I first put my pen to paper. And if you’re visually oriented, journaling can be broadened to sketches and drawings of what you’re sensing in this movement. We’re all individuals, and God relates with each of us uniquely. What matters is to engage in the ways that God is waiting to be found by you.
Don’t be concerned about getting some “big message” out of the text. That’s an ego-centered distraction. Even if you don’t sense any definitive response, stay with the questions—listening, silent. The purpose of lectio divina is not to receive a communiqué from God. If nothing seems to come, no matter—something of which you are not aware may be occurring beyond the cognitive level. What’s important is just to be with the Lord and his Word.
Through the process of meditatio, you will gradually be formed by the Word. Pennington says, “What this meditatio does is to change a notional assent into a real assent. As we receive the words of revelation into our mind, they are just so many notions or ideas, which we accept in faith. We do believe. But as we assimilate them through meditation, our whole being comes to respond to them. We move to a real assent. Our whole being, above all our hearts, says: “Yes, this is so. This is reality.”Pennington, 113.
- Oratio: The Deep Self Touched
Your meditation on the passage will unearth a response to God that you can offer in prayer. Ask, “Out of my interaction with the Word, what do I want to say to God?” Pray about any questions you have in regard to the passage, any truth God has highlighted for you, and the will to incorporate that truth into your living. It’s important, too, to express gratitude to the Lord for him and his Word. Beyond these good things, oratio is a time not only to express your heart’s longings, but also to let God become that longing. Your heart and mind are open to God, and you await him. The prayer is likely to be marked by silences, those spaces of being that are too important to clutter with words.
- Contemplatio: Rest and Silence
You may want to read through the passage slowly one last time. The point of this reading is not to glean any further insights, but simply to soak in, to rest in, the Word. With the seed of the Word sown in your heart, you enter a period of silence and rest before the Lord. Your response to God finds its culmination in contemplatio: “Reality becomes so real to us that a word or a movement of the heart can no longer adequately respond to it. Our whole being must say ‘yes.’ This is contemplatio.”Pennington, 32. Contemplatio is Latin for contemplation—an intimate, thoughtful gazing upon God. Much of our time with the Lord is filled with words, and good words at that. But when we enter into contemplation, love is the only sound. Alan Jones comments, “If we are designed to be in communion with God, if God is our Lover, then we have to indulge in the things that lovers do. The lover wishes always to be in the loved one’s presence, and to gaze and to hold. The name for this loving regard is contemplation.”In contemplatio, you are simply present to God. Here, being eclipses doing completely, and God’s most intimate language— silence—is your song. Sit in silence a minute or two, or longer if possible, to conclude lectio divina. The contemplatio movement recognizes that there is more to you than head and heart, imagination and intellect. It recognizes that you do, after all, possess a soul that may rest in God’s Word and commune with the Lord in secret ways if God desires. So give God room, and with your silent openness allow him to complete the time in any way he likes.
03. Lectio Divina and Life
How do we evaluate our practice of lectio divina? We tend to judge our spiritual disciplines by measurable superficialities—time spent, knowledge gained, or level of concentration or emotion. However, we must direct the focus to a deeper and less tangible place that, while less tantalizing to the ego-self, is ultimately more helpful. We know the quality of our relationship with God in Scripture not in the moment of reading but in the moments of living, not in the secret place but in the marketplace. Galatians 5:6 is a good guide: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Does our relating through Scripture create a natural, trusting movement toward Christ in more of our day? As our practice of lectio divina grows, does our capacity for compassion, for seeing the image of God in the other, lead us to habitual acts of love?
The wonder of lectio divina is that the cup that fills in our private moments with the Lord spills into the rest of life. As a result of this practice, the listening heart that awaits the Beloved in the Word begins to await him in the world, seeing him everywhere, loving and experiencing him everywhere. Macrina Wiederkehr adds, “The incarnational aspect of Christianity reminds us that all of life is full of God. Lectio Divina, then, is a way of reading God in everything. . . . The one who is immersed in the Word of God in the Scriptures is eventually able to read God in all things. Divine Reading becomes a way of life.”Macrina Wiederkehr, A Tree Full of Angels. (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 50.
I got over my need to leave pennies on the windowsill, but my desire for spiritual communion has only increased. Andre Seve writes, “Either hunger for God is the sun around which I organize everything, or else God is just one object among others orbiting the very crowded sky of my life.” Lectio divina is one path for those who desire to place God in the center, one way to respond to that hunger, forming us into the image of Christ through scriptural conversations. Through an ever deepening relationship with God in the Word, life becomes more and more a unified reality, and Paul’s words to the Colossians become the true north of our journey: “Christ is all and is in all” (3:11).
04. Lectio Divina With Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
I sit with the Word, morning coffee at my side, steam rising like strands of prayer. I take in the words—familiar ones. Lord, let them be new to me right now. What stands out? Leads, lie down, quiet, restores. I let the syllables resonate within—restore—like a small, smooth stone I hold in a few moments of quiet.
What do I notice here? The shepherd takes care of the lamb, leads toward green pastures, quiet waters . . . a calm, inviting scene. The shepherd guides, restores the soul, and opens the righteous way. What else? Where do I find myself in this Scripture? In these verses, the path of righteousness emerges from restful places. The shepherd leads the sheep to spaces where there is restoration for body and soul. How am I being led right now? The places my life takes me don’t feel like green pastures and quiet waters: lectures to plan, papers to grade, articles to write—so much to do that nothing gets done well. I need those pastures, those still waters, to lie down, to be restored and guided. Yet this day’s busyness will not change. What is God’s invitation here? Perhaps it’s to receive and to carry those peaceful waters. Perhaps that’s the path of righteousness to which God directs me this day: to be mindful of the quiet waters of God within and live from that place. I can choose this—with God’s help.
Father, help me to choose. I’m afraid of losing the sanctuary of this hour amid so many distractions and deadlines that press beyond this room. Assist me in remembering those pastures, the waters, and your Spirit holding all things together, holding me together. Thank you for restoration, for quietness, for newness. A favorite quote— Julian of Norwich’s words—arises: “God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me. . . . Only in you do I have everything.” That’s it; that’s the prayer for the day ahead. Let me live in you, your goodness, in all I do and say. Accomplish this with me and for me, O Lord, I pray. Come, Holy Spirit.
I read the psalm one last time; the texture of the words opens me to silence, where nothing happens and everything happens. I just sit—useless, agendaless, loved. Chronological time is replaced by kairos, God’s time. Something lifts. Something converges. I breathe in the Presence. I breathe.
The day awaits.
JUDITH HOUGEN is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern College in St. Paul where she teaches writing. This article is adapted from Transformed into Fire, a spiritual formation text. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.