Most people know the words – “The Lord is my shepherd” – but
lectio divina helps us go deeper into them.
It is a way of dwelling thoughtfully, meditatively and prayerfully on a
word or two at a time.
What image do you have of a “shepherd”, for example?
It’s not an easy job, I imagine. It must take great perseverance to shepherd sheep in all weathers and to look after newborn lambs at all times of night. A shepherd is a carer. A shepherd is determined. A shepherd must have great love for his flock.
The first words are even more challenging. Who is “The Lord”? God, obviously! But do you think of God as a “Lord”? And what would that mean for how God relates
to people? If he is our “lord”, then
what are we? Perhaps the image is like
the shepherd image – it is an image of care.
It’s also an image of authority – like the shepherd, of course – which is
more challenging, especially to some cultural beliefs about human autonomy and
Is “The Lord” my shepherd?
Is he mine? That’s the word – “my”.
The meditation has taken us deeper into the first five words of the psalm.
Have you ever tried lectio divina? It is an amazing method of reading and praying, and you may, like me, find you start seeing and learning things you never dreamed possible!
The practice of Lectio Divina (prayerful reading) encourages us to dwell on individual phrases and words.
I have found this such a revolutionary way to read, because it opens up meaning in totally new ways.
Psalm 1 begins like this:
“Blessed are they who have not walked
in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.”
It’s a powerful start, with that shocking word “wicked”.
It reminds me that evil exists, that people are not always just “ill” or “misinformed”.
It reminds me that we can find destructiveness even in ourselves.
And it reminds me that in each of our journeys, every day, we have to face dilemmas about where we “walk”. Will we walk in the way of the wicked, or will we walk another way? And what is that other way? How do we know it? Where does it lead us to?
“Blessed are they who have not walked
In the counsel of the wicked.”
Which “counsel” do I listen to? There are voices in the world, voices in the
media, voices inside me sometimes urging me one way or another.
How can I resist “the counsel of the wicked”? How will I find the strength? What will
motivate me to persevere on a different path?
Perhaps sometimes it is just laziness:
“nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.”
It is easy to linger over things we shouldn’t linger
over…Especially if no-one is looking!
It is easy to sit back…Especially if we are in an “assembly”
of others being scornful and critical!
And yet there is something positive in these words.
That word “Blessed”.
What does it mean to you?
What does it mean to me, to be, and to feel “blessed”?
There is something about how we choose to live our lives,
something about how we choose to walk, how we choose not to linger, how we
choose not to scorn. There is something
about avoiding all these pitfalls, that leads somehow to blessedness.
How can we discover that blessedness?
What journey will we take?
And can reading The Psalms help us on our journey?
“The Poverello” was St. Francis of Assisi’s way of describing himself – the poor man.
One day Francis sent away empty-handed a man who had begged him for money for the love of God. He quickly regretted what he had done, ran after the man, gave out of his own wealth, and resolved never again to refuse anyone who begged from him for the love of God.
Another time he met a knight who was badly clothed and had
become poor. Francis took off his own
expensive clothes and gave them to the poor knight there and then!
Later, he met a man with leprosy. Francis had an understandable disgust and fear of this horrible disease and at first reacted with horror. But he remembered the vow he had made, and when the leper reached out a hand to beg, Francis not only gave him money, but also a kiss. “That which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness”, he later wrote.
Often people associate spirituality and religion with staying in one place – a home church, a “spiritual home”, a community, a family, a special place, a monastery or nunnery, even – and there is much to commend all of these ideas.
But our spiritual journey may be like that of Abraham in the Old Testament: to leave his home country and his people, and to answer his call.
There are times when we have to leave. Leave childhood ways, even childish ways of faith; leave the family home to make a new life of our own; leave one community for another.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
One of the most painful “leavings” I have had to make was from an ordained role in the church. I had studied for three years, part-time, alongside my family commitments and my full-time job. But when expectations were unexpectedly changed, it was clear that I had to make a decision. Family, sanity, change, leaving…or staying, and then what…?
I made the decision to change and to leave. It was difficult personally, emotionally, spiritually. It led to a period of depression. But actually I had chosen life over death, a deeper, individual inner calling over an external, institutional calling.
Not everyone is called to leave. Many are called to stay, and stability is a great blessing for communities in today’s fast-changing and uncertain world. Constant change can mean insecurity, either as cause and effect.
But, equally, the status quo, adjusting to what is not necessarily what you have freely chosen, nor what you feel called to, is not always right either. Sometimes it is most definitely the right thing to seek change.
A spiritual journey involves movement and change. It is unlikely that we will remain the same when we are searching and following. And that can mean growth and new opportunities for our vocation.
What would it be like to be directly taught by a great spiritual leader today?
What would it feel like, for example, to be one of the friends of Francis of Assisi, or one of Jesus’ disciples?
Neither of these leaders wrote long books or even studied at university. But they did study people, and wrote their words on people’s hearts through their words and actions.
And what remains to us today – stories about Francis, plus a few writings by him – and the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) can never tell us everything. They offer us a sequence of “snapshots of God”.
A snapshot can tell us a lot but it does not define from every angle. Many snapshots build up a pretty good picture, but they are not exhaustive. And in between the snapshots there must be so much more that we haven’t seen!
So when I read story about St. Francis of Assisi, or a story or parable from a Gospel, I know I am only getting part of something so much greater. Both Jesus and Francis spoke a lot about God. But God is undefinable, ultimately.
One of my inspirers, the Franciscan Brother Ramon, uses a different metaphor, and compares the spiritual life to a vast ocean. You can dip a toe in, then paddle a bit, then wade, then swim, before coming back to shore and dipping a toe into a different part!
“Snapshots of God” – we can learn so much from each part of each snapshot the Gospels present us with, and of each story we have preserved about St. Francis and his followers. And this is true of so many other spiritual writings too.
If you have found this post interesting, perhaps you could share what gives you a “snapshot” of the bigger picture of life, whether or not you believe in God?
I first came across St. John of the Cross through a small
paperback version of “The Dark Night of the Soul”. It’s maybe not a title that publishers would
promote today! But perhaps it spoke to my
consciousness that all was not well in my spirit, and that although sometimes I
was elated in worship and prayer, at other times I felt far from God and far
from faith, love, joy and hope.
St. John wrote poetry as well as theology, and “The Dark
Night” includes a poem he wrote, which he then explores through what you might
call a spiritual commentary. I came to
poetry through studying literature at school, and after experimenting with a
spiritual journal, found that I could combine my interests of both writing and
spirituality through my own poems.
This first poem, “Journey”, develops from the idea that life can often feel full of “darkness”, but that faith can provide a way of journeying through (not avoiding) that darkness – as St. John explores in his teaching.
I began in darkness with no guide but faith
and I longed for the love of God
I started to break from my habits of being
and my feeble capacity for love
I rejoiced in the blessed moments of peace
that came upon my soul
And now, in moments of clearness,
I see visions
The drives and the desires of my soul are being transformed
by the drives and the desires of God
I started my journey in darkness
now I travel in the dawning light
May I end in that brightness
where God shall be both day and night.
St. John also writes about longing – our spiritual longing for God – as a valid form of prayer. I have found this very consoling when I feel like I lack the exact words, or the enthusiasm, for articulate, joyful praise or committed intercession. The sense of longing is something mysterious, something we cannot control or “summon up” by willpower. It is God’s work in us:
Sometimes I have a strong longing for God,
I do not know what is happening to me
or where this love comes from
I simply see the flames of love
burning higher and higher
as I lovingly yearn for God.
The third and last poem I am going to share in this post is about dryness – the so-called “desert experience” of our spiritual journey. St. John writes a lot about detachment and purification in “The Dark Night” and in other works – neither are fashionable ideas today, in either the secular or, indeed, in some parts of the Christian world. I was inspired by his analogy of dry sticks catching fire: through a certain detachment from pleasure and from distractions, we make ourselves better able to focus on God, and “catch fire” with love:
What might it mean to channel one’s sense of spirituality into a vocation, like education?
I have been wondering about this as someone who is
fascinated by spirituality, and who also works in education as my day job.
My spirituality embraces my sense of beliefs and values;
also my habits – prayer, silence, study; also my attitudes – striving for
selflessness, compassion, the nurture and edification of others; my sense of
personal wellbeing that enables me to give.
And so perhaps here is the link – a spirituality that embraces others, through mercy and care, and through thought and prayer. Educating others is one way of expressing that care and nurture, which is part of my own sense of spirituality.
The image below I used to illustrate a poem I wrote about the beauty of others:
One way of approaching the Gospels is as stories of God.
The Gospels are collections of stories about Jesus. Some people talk about “pericopes”: short
sections of a few sentences, or more, that tell one complete story.
We think the Gospels were basically collections of stories
that had been passed around by word of mouth, and were then written up into the
collections we have today, known as “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John”.
That explains why there is so much repetition between them.
But when you think that these are not just stories of an
interesting historical person (Jesus) – though they are that – but that they
are stories that reveal God – then reading the Gospels takes on a new life.
Because we are reading about the creator and sustainer of
the universe and all life, including myself and yourself.
We are reading about the one who loves all.
We are learning about the meaning of life, of death, of
love, and how we can change to live better lives.
The Gospels can seem quite strange kinds of books when you
first read them.
But persevere, read a little bit at a time (remember the “pericopes” – short sections that tell one complete story), and see if you can feel how you are reading a story about God.