Most of us want to follow Jesus' bidding to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24). And we long to renew our minds as Paul advised (Romans 12:2). But how do we reject our selfishness, take up our burdens, refuse worldly values, and renew our love, becoming more like Jesus?
For the first 15 centuries of Christianity, it was through the spiritual discipline of biblical contemplation. The natural by-product of communal worship and listening to God's Word, contemplation was an intense reflection on Scripture.
Why is contemplation important?
Joshua 1:8 reminds us that scriptural meditation makes us obedient: "Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it" (italics added). The psalmist says: "Happy are those who … meditate [on God's Law] day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2).
Through meditating on God's Word, we restore our souls. Meditate and medicine share the same Latin root for "to heal," while the Hebrew for meditate (hagah) means "to growl," as a dog gnawing a bone will, reminding us that meditating on God's Word—taking the Bible in and digesting it—is getting the last possible morsel from it, and it's good medicine for our souls.
Many timeless Christian authors (Benedict of Nursia, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Meister Johannes Eckhart, Gertrude the Great, Thomas à Kempis) "chewed" on Scripture in this fashion. Teresa of Avila called contemplation "the prayer of quiet," saying it revives a "desolate and very dry" heart, leading the "servants of love" to a union with God that is like "rain that comes down abundantly from heaven to soak and saturate the whole garden [of the soul]."
Practicing lectio divina
Contemplation has always assumed lectio divina (LEX-ee-o duh-VEE-nuh), or "sacred reading." Lectio divina is reverentially listening to God's Word. It's diving deep into Scripture rather than skimming. It's like enjoying a lovingly prepared Thanksgiving meal at Grandmother's house as opposed to zipping through a drive-through before charging to the next errand.
To practice lectio divina and the contemplative prayer it produces, pick a Bible verse. Take your time and read the verse unrushed, over and over again. You might want to memorize it or take the words with you everywhere on a slip of paper. The point is to keep the words in front of you, and let the Lord speak to you. When a word or phrase from Scripture stands out, stay with it a while. Chew on it. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. Sit with it.
Practicing contemplative prayer
Biblical contemplative prayer takes this attention one step further. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic medieval work on contemplative prayer, tells us:
You only need a naked intent for God. When you long for him, that's enough. If you want to gather this focus into one word, making it easier to grasp, select a little word of one syllable, not two. The shorter the word, the more it helps the work of the spirit. God or love works well … . We can know so many things. Through God's grace, our minds can explore, understand, and reflect on creation and even on God's own works, but we can't think our way to God. That's why I'm willing to abandon everything I know, to love the one thing I cannot think. He can be loved, but not thought. By love, God can be embraced …
Thomas Keating, a priest and founding member and spiritual director of Contemplative Outreach, recommends that we try contemplative prayer once or twice a day for 20 minutes. This ancient Christian discipline helps us learn to rest in and experience God's presence, as we build God's "temple" in our hearts (Psalm 46:10). There, in this holy sanctuary, we move beyond simple conversation with Christ to have deep communion with Christ. We hear and are healed by the eloquence of divine stillness, as John of the Cross says: "Silence is God's first language."
Writing as a Christian steeped in contemplative prayer, the 10th-century English Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham reminds us that such prayer is transformative: "The love that loves God is not idle. Instead, it is strong and works great things always. And if love isn't willing to work, then it isn't love."
In contemplation, we come to know the God of Love better, and, then, as Christ's friends—empowered by his Spirit—we become more loving ourselves.
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is associate professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter College. She is author of numerous books including A Little Daily Wisdom: Christian Women Mystics and Following Christ: A Lenten Reader to Stretch Your Soul (both Paraclete Press). www.CarmenButcher.com.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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