I am not a monk but I am very interested in spiritual traditions handed down through monastic orders. And contemplation is one of these!
My first two posts on contemplation have considered the way we naturally contemplate beauty and awe-inspiring sights:
Turn to a Benedictine writer – I chose the book Finding Sanctuary by Christopher Jamison (he wrote this following television programmes about ordinary people experiencing the Benedictine way of life in a monastery for a period of some weeks) – and there’s not a sunset or moonrise in sight!
In his chapter on Contemplation, Jamison talks about prayer – which might include silent awe – and reading, a special type of slow reading called lectio divina. In lectio divina, contemplation might be the final stage of reading slowly, meditating on what is read, praying, and then being lost in wonder and the contemplation of God.
I love the art of Caspar David Friedrich, and you can see he uses nature a lot. Monastic thought has space for this. I have also been very drawn by Franciscan spirituality. St. Bonaventure, for example, explores how nature is a kind of “ladder” that leads to God.
But in Benedictine spirituality, you don’t need sunsets or moonrises. You need silence, prayer and scripture.
Each of these is a world.
Do you think silence, praying or reading can be ways of contemplation?
I use a similar structure to what St. Ignatius of Loyola set out in his Spiritual Exercises. It stops me rushing, which is part of the point! The guidance I give just that – guidance I used when I did the meditation myself.
i) Ask God for understanding of the verse above
ii) Ask for wisdom and for grace
iii) Pray that the thoughts of my deepest heart, my intentions, and my actions may be warm, loving, wholesome and good, and directed to the love of others and of God
iv) Help me to learn more deeply what it means to be known by God
2. PRELUDE1 – a mental representation – using your imagination of the verse:
i) God looking at me
ii) God knowing me
iii) God seeing the errors I make and the harm I do to others sometimes, and the harm I do to myself by my choices
iv) God seeing me using my talents and gifts for the good of others
i) What do you want and desire in meditating on this verse?
ii) Is it something like having a better sense of being known by God, a better sense of being loved by God, a better sense of how to use your life – or something else?
3. FIRST POINT
4. SECOND POINT
You have searched me
5. THIRD POINT
And known me
This is about talking to God – what do you want to debate or wonder about with God?
It might be – How can God search and know all human beings? How does God know both good and evil? How does God feel? What else do you want to discuss with God?
Now what do you want to pray?
Is it about being more careful with my faults? Is it about growing into God’s love more? Is it about having a better awareness of God’s presence? What is it?
There is no image deliberately. God is a God of love and compassion. He has searched us and known us in love.What ideas are you left with, and what can you do, or who can you talk to about this experience?
Lectio Divina is a way of reading that is unknown to many people – strange when literacy rates are probably at an historic high! But we have come to read quickly, to skim read, to take on as much transitory information as possible, in the sense that we are somehow gaining in this way.
But if we have forgotten it all tomorrow, and if our lives remain unchanged by our reading, then what have we gained?
Lectio Divina was a way of reading practised in the ancient world, and many religious orders today still preserve this wonderful practice.
It is about reading very attentively, reading prayerfully, reading slowly.
It is about taking a phrase, or even a word, and dwelling on it, learning from it.
It is connected with spirituality – a belief in a God who can speak to us – and so Christian religious orders would typically meditate on their sacred scriptures.
Since I learnt about it (in a wonderful book called God of Surprises by Gerard Hughes), it has revolutionised the way that I read.
I will still quickly read emails, news articles on the web and some books for their first reading. But I also regularly use an approach based on lectio divina for slower, more thoughtful reading where I sense I can learn more deeply.
I use sacred scriptures and also writings by my “inspirers” – authors I have come to trust as speaking with great insight about God, the world, spirituality, other people.
I don’t think lectio divina is known about by many people, so I decided I would share a sequence of posts where I have approached a Psalm using lectio divina. The next post in the series will show you what I mean.
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 our walking 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, 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.
A simple way to understand leadership is through the word “influence”. A mother or father feeds, loves and teaches their baby – that is a kind of leadership. A teacher helps a group of children to learn more and more complex knowledge and skills – leadership, again. In any human relationship there is the potential for leadership, as one person influences another.
“Leadership is about influence. Nothing else.”
Many of us, therefore, are involved in leadership, whether our context is home, a place of work, or in voluntary activity. In this post I am interested in the ways that our spirituality can underpin our leadership relationships in two ways:
1. Through establishing values and perspective
2. By energising and motivating us.
Establishing Values and Perspective
Spirituality can help us establish values and develop perspective on life. For example, spiritual reading could help us understand the importance of love in the way we think about other people (our children, our co-workers, the people we help in voluntary work). It could also help us think through very difficult issues such as helping someone with illness or bereavement.
For me, the Four Gospels are full of interactions between Jesus and others, demonstrating love and extending healing, and they are an endless source of spiritual reading. I also read from my others “inspirers”: those whose lives and written works have left, and continue to make, a deep impression on me. Perhaps you have your own source of spiritual reading?
Many people have found it helpful to begin each day with some study, perhaps using lectio divina, as way of reminding themselves daily about what is of ultimate importance.
Establishing values and perspective on issues of ultimate
significance is particularly important in leadership, as anyone engaged in
relationships and leadership constantly faces complexity, ambiguity and
dilemmas on a daily basis, and we need to find a way to make decisions. The values and perspective which our
spirituality has developed help underpin sensible, calm and wise (we hope!)
Energising and Motivating
Spirituality can also help energise and motivate us. For some people, silence is very important. Others find daily prayer a helpful way to start each day. Or for you it might be listening to music, or enjoying the blessings of nature.
Spirituality provides depth to our life. There is a foundation we can build upon and
live from. We have a framework by which
we can make sense of all that life throws at us.
As well as being highly complex, leadership can also be
highly draining. So we need to have a
way of “refuelling”. Relaxation and
leisure are, of course, part of the answer.
But pleasure itself has only a limited power to re-energise us for
leadership tasks. For deeper recovery, I
believe that spiritual answers are required.
For example, I find that I am faced with questions of depth
in my own exercise of leadership: What is the purpose of what I am doing
today? What is the right thing to do in
this messy, painful and morally ambiguous situation? How can I face and conduct successfully this
difficult meeting today?
In each case, spiritual preparation helps to remind me of my ultimate purposes. I am more than just the functional “leader” that others see. Life will go on regardless of whatever mistakes or sound decisions I make today. The quality of my relationships with others around me is paramount.
And most important of all is my relationship with my God.
Learning to read in a meditative way is a skill, an art, and a way of spiritual growth.
It used to be called “Lectio Divina” – a way of pondering a short text to allow all of its secrets to be open gently to the meditating mind.
We are so used to skim reading today – news, images, websites, emails – that there is a great danger we skim read life.
We can skim and skate on the surface and never get to the heart of things. We can completely miss the depths.
But blessed are those who delight and meditate.
Gerard Hughes in “God of Surprises” says meditative reading is like sucking a sweet. Let the tastes go round your mouth. Don’t rush it, crunch the sweet and swallow it quickly. Take your time. Let your mind dream and spin out ideas starting from the phrase. If it goes too far away, bring it back to the phrase. Start by making yourself do it for 30 seconds, then a minute, then maybe a bit more.
Start with some favourite or well known phrases:
“The Lord is my shepherd”
“God is love”
You could try meditating on a short phrase in the morning, and sometimes one in the evening, too. You may find that the phrase comes back to you during the day, or during the next day, and then you find yourself thinking some more, and seeing still further depths you had not noticed before…
If you try meditative reading, I hope that you will find delight, you will be able to meditate, and that you will learn about the depths that our lives and this universe has to offer.
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!
As an example of Lectio Divina (see previous post), let’s take six words, which come from the beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word”.
Using lectio, we don’t just read the phrase and then move immediately on.
We read, and pause.
Then we read again, and we start to think.
For example – what do you think about when you read that phrase “In the beginning”?
I start to think things like – “What is the beginning?” “What was in the beginning?” I think about the “Big Bang”, the idea of the whole universe beginning from nothing. I think about the idea of creation, of God creating the universe from nothing.
And that’s just the first three words.
What happens when you do something similar with the last three words (“was the Word”), and then put them all together as a phrase of six words?
“In the beginning was the Word”
This is the start of your journey using lectio divina.
“Lectio Divina” is a method of transcending “paralysis by analysis”, and it can be very exciting for people today to discover a totally new way of reading a spiritual text.
“Lectio” used to be practised by monks hundreds of years ago, and was a method of prayerfully reading the Bible.
It is not skimming, or scanning, the way we often read email
It is deals with text in short “bite-sized chunks”.
But the real genius of lectio is that we are advised and guided to focus our minds on a short piece of text in a kind of meditation.
A section in “God of Surprises” by Gerard Hughes, explains
“The process is analogous
to sucking a boiled sweet…Often a phrase will catch the attention of the
subconscious mind’s needs long before our conscious mind is aware of the reason
for the attraction…remain with the phrase for as long as possible without
trying to analyse it.”
Practically speaking, I have found that a good way of doing
this is to try to “learn” a phrase that I have come across, by repeating it
I then let my mind freely associate, play with, and wonder
about the phrase.