Scripture as Food for the Soul
Thomas Cramner, one of the early leaders of the English Church, stressed the importance of reading and praying of Holy Scripture. In his sermon on scripture, Cramner exhorts his listeners to read the Bible and to ruminate on the Word of God. He writes,
“Let us ruminate, and, as it were, chew the cud, that we may have the sweet juice, spiritual effect, marrow, honey, kernel, taste, comfort and consolation of them.”
Cramner’s words echo the collect, or opening prayer, for the Second Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer:
“BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
We continue to pray this collect each November in the Book of Alternative Services, usually towards the end of the liturgical year.
The notion of the Word of God as food is a deeply biblical theme. The Psalmist exclaims “How sweet are your words unto my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119).
Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we Christians have long understood the Word of God as the source of life and nourishment. As food is essential for the body, so the Bible is essential for the soul. In the scriptures, we encounter the living God and learn the way of life.
Early Christians knew well the need for us to read, pray, and meditate upon the Word of God, the Bible. As such, there developed a practice in the Church known as Lectio Divina, or divine reading, also known as sacred reading. Lectio Divina is not a form of Bible study, but rather a prayerful, contemplative practice by which we meditate upon the God’s Holy Word.
When we practice Lectio Divina, we cultivate a personal encounter with the Living God. We form a relationship with God and allow God to shape our hearts. As such, sacred reading is an emotional experience rather than strictly an intellectual study of the Bible.
How to Practice Lectio Divina
Before you begin the practice, I encourage you to find a comfortable space, one free of distraction. You may want to have a notebook and pen nearby in case distracting thoughts come into your mind. If so, you can easily write them down and not worry about the distractions that come to your mind. Don’t worry if you do; all of us get distracted in our prayer by life, including the saints!
I invite you to also light a candle if it is safe to do so. You may even want to have a cross or an icon before you to help create a sacred space.
Once you have set aside space for your prayer, you can select a passage of scripture for your reading. I generally encourage beginners to start their meditation with the gospels and other New Testament books. The passage need not be long; a chapter, a few lines, or a particular story will do. You need not rush through your reading. If you so desire a reading plan, there are also many daily Bible reading plans available, such as this one from our friends at The Bible Project.
The Four Steps of Lectio Divina
Sacred reading usually includes four steps: read, reflect, respond, and rest. Usually Lectio Divina taks about 20-30 minutes. However, you can adjust the period of prayer to what is best for you.
In the first step, you read the passage — preferably aloud — slowly. As you do, pay attention to the words, images, and phrases that leave an impression upon your heart. You can even imagine yourself in the story.
After reading the passage aloud, allow for some silence. Then read through the passage again and stop at whatever in the reading struck your heart. Sit with that passage. The key is to allow the scripture to speak to your heart.
The second step of sacred reading includes a period of reflection or meditation. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and to help you understand why certain words or images stirred you. Perhaps there is something you’re dealing with in your day to day life that God is calling to your attention. Or maybe the words, images, and/ or phrases that struck you during your reading challenge you. You can ask God to guide and help you understand what it is that God wants to transform in your life.
After a short period of meditation, you move onto the third step and that is to respond to what God is saying to you. During the third step you entrust to God’s care the thoughts, feelings, actions, fears, and questions you have after reading the passage. Place those thoughts and feelings before God. Some Christians find it helpful to write in a prayer journal their reactions. While that is a good practice, be careful not to let this time of prayer be an intellectual exercise. Keep focus on your heart and what God is saying to you.
Finally, spend some time in rest. This fourth stage of sacred reading is also known as a period of contemplation. It is a time for you to be silent and to let God speak to you in the depths of your heart. I sometimes find it helpful to spend about 5-10 minutes in silent meditation after walking through the previous three steps.
Once you find yourself ready to conclude your sacred reading, pray a simple prayer — such as the Lord’s Prayer — aloud.
As with any prayer practice, I encourage you not to worry about getting it perfectly right. Rather, the key to this practice is to allow yourself to digest the Word of God, to allow it to penetrate your very being.
Finally, don’t worry if you find yourself not responding to the sacred reading. Prayer, like any other exercise, takes time to practice and we all have our good days and our bad days. Simply entrust unto God those days where you find your prayer more difficult.
-Rev. Don Beyers