People from every era have testified that the Bible
speaks powerfully; that the word of God can and does change lives. Many times I have felt that my own experiences with reading the Bible pales in comparison to this standard. However, the times I have spent with the Bible has yielded much value and interest as I learned facts about the names and places. Still sometimes I would like more than anything to hear God's voice; a yearning for a transformation of the heart.
But how? Fortunately we are inheritors of many helpful approaches. Writers from the past have left a great spiritual legacy that engages the heart, intellect, and will.
The oldest and best known approach in the history of Christian
spirituality and the reading of the Bible is called lectio divina
Latin for "divine reading" or "spiritual reading." Dating back as far as the fourteenth century, the idea behind this practice comes from earlier antiquity. It has a four-step approach.
First, read slowly. The reader is to pick a short passage of a biblical book. A few paragraphs or a short chapter and read them meditatively, prayerfully. Be open to a key phrase or word that jumps out or shows promises of a special meaning. Focus on the depth of what is being read and not so much as with the amount.
Second, meditate. Christian meditation is not stream of consciousness or free association; nor is it Eastern transcendental meditation. Instead, it is allowing a special word or phrase of reading to sink into the reader’s heart. Biblical writers had this is mind when they spoke of "meditating" on the book of the law "day and night." (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2). For example Psalm 23 a reader may linger on the phrase, The Lord is my shepherd. and for reasons that may not be immediately clear, the word my stands out. The idea may strike the reader that God can be and wants to be a shepherd. This stage of lectio divina is comparable to walking around a statue and looking at it from many vantage points.
Third, pray the text. After listening it is time to for the reader to respond. That is, to form a prayer that relates their response to the idea. The reader then prays it back to God. In the example of The Lord is my shepherd. It may be a prayer of gratitude or a lengthy recollection of the many ways God has been present over the years shepherding the reader through life.
Fourth, contemplate. That is, rest. The purpose of divine reading is to eventually lead the reader to a place where they no longer work but let the text work itself within. There is no more straining for additional insights; simply savoring the encounter with God and his truth. There is a movement toward the moment when the reader opens to living out what has been experienced.
This exercise is credited to Ignatius of Loyola
(1491-1556) and written about and by him in Spiritual Exercises
. Like divine reading, the Ignatian method invites the reader to fully interact with the text.
This meditation works best with narratives from the Bible where actual characters are living out a story of faith. The reader is a careful observer; a fly on the wall if you will. Ignatius commended the use of the five senses in this kind of meditation. Occasionally the reader may become one of the characters, seeing the story as it unfolds from his or her viewpoint. The primary focus is to help the reader see the narrative from the viewpoint of Jesus and participate fully; mind, heart and work.
As an example, the reader might concentrate on John 18:1-11 spending five days focusing on the narrative. Every day the reader would imagine themselves as a different character. Judas, a soldier, Peter, the high priest’s servant, or Jesus. Entering each character vicariously the reader is encouraged to ask God to teach them how to live in greater fidelity and obedience—which is the ultimate purpose of the Ignatian method or scripture readings and of Ignatian spirituality in general.
Although not a direct product of the teachings of Francis of Assisi
, Franciscan reading contains qualities of Franciscan spirituality such as spontaneity, action, love, praise, beauty, and delight in creation. Similar to Ignatian reflections, Franciscan reading uses the same mental process of entering the text.
For practice, the reader could use Isaiah 53 in the Bible. To help the reader enter into the message and reflect on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, the Franciscan method tells the reader to take actions such as holding a model of the cross with Jesus on it and gaze upon the details of the crucified body. Look through the day’s newspaper and find places in the world where people are suffering. Perhaps compose a poem or paint a picture to capture the feelings and thoughts. Immerse oneself in the entire experience with prayer asking God to make the reader an instrument of peace in the lives of those who are suffering.
The reader is encouraged to make sure they don’t use up all of the options for formative reading and might want to use the fruit if the spirit , ( Galatians 5:22-23 )as a lens through which to read and to ask how a particular passage might deepen love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control into their life. Using what has come to be called the Fivefold Question:
- What does this passage say about God’s nature?
- What does it say about human nature?
- What does it say about how God relates to people?
- What does it say about how I might pray?
- What does it suggest about how I might act?
Hopefully other noders will add more write-ups about methods of Biblical readings to this node. The important part of any method is adopting an underlying attitude of openness and a seeking for the truth. By praying for a “spiritual mind” that is obedient, faithful to the historic Christian tradition, Christ centered and personal. Separated from these foundational commitments, any method becomes mere technique. With them and through them, methods of reading scripture can become a true means of grace
The Spiritual Formation Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 1086-1089.