Lectio Divina (praying through scripture) isn’t something I practice a lot. I first tried it last fall, as part of a book I read for my youth ministry class: Contemplative Youth Ministry (highly recommended, by the way.) I taught last week and will teach tomorrow the “Prayer of the Heart” lesson from Gospel Transformation at my church, so the practice of it came back into my life. So this is what happened….
I got comfortable, squished pillows all around me so they were just right. I opened up my bible to Matthew (we were to pray through The Lord’s Prayer) and put it in my lap. I focused on clearing my mind, quieting my heart.
Clearing my mind took FOREVER. I keep thinking of all the stuff I had to do. (I have a running list in my head) I thought about encounters I had with people throughout the week, good and bad. I thought about my family, classes, church, just stuff. And about 7 or 8 times, while trying to clear my mind, I had to jolt myself out of these thoughts and remind myself of what I was doing trying to do. I think at one point I actually said to myself “I’m trying to be contemplative. Can’t you just do that for one little bit, Stephanie?” Yeah, there’s some irony there.
So… once my mind cleared? I promptly fell asleep. I admit it.
The business of our days, the reality we live in, where a hundred things need to get done and another hundred things are required of us, never mind the emotional, relational stuff we have to deal with, keeps us in motion. I was so in motion that when I finally cleared my mind and quieted my heart to pray, I fell asleep. I am used to being consistently in motion. This requires more being, rather than doing. Lectio Divina is contrary to all of that. And frankly, it was hard for me.
Actually, if I’m being really honest with you and myself, just prayer in general is hard for me. It is not a discipline that comes naturally to me at all. (I guess that’s why it’s called a discipline, right?) I’ve always felt lesser for it, always wondered what was wrong with me that everyone else around me seemed to have this whole prayer thing figured out. I’ve reflected a lot this week about why prayer has always been hard for me. And I’ve realized it lies in one of my biggest idols: the idol of perfection.
Not only do I want my prayers to be perfect, but also I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m not. We all know we’re not perfect, but I have also come to realize that I still think I’m better than the next person. And if I pray from my heart for all of the things I desire and all of the things I lack, the more that idol of perfection rears it’s ugly head. I’m revealing the desires and the sin to myself just as much as I’m admitting it to God. The difference is that God already knew about all that stuff, whereas I just pushed it down further into the corners of my mind and probably hadn’t admitted it yet.
Hannah was a woman who wanted a son, but God’s hadn’t granted her one. Her husband’s other wife was able to bore children, and Hannah went to the house of Lord, the other wife provoked her until she wept – because she had children and Hannah didn’t.
1 Samuel 1:12-16
12 As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.” 15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
We all have things we pray for desperately. Just like Hannah wept bitterly and laid-bare her deepest most intimate thoughts and desire to God, we have issues and people and sin that press on our hearts. Sometimes these things blind us, sometimes they hurt us, but nonetheless, they are ever-present. These issues cause us to cry out to God, sometimes in desperation. God knew of Hannah’s heart desire for a son – just like God knows our desires.
But what does it look like and feel like to lay that bare before God? How is it to be honest and admit our pain and anguish like Hannah did? It was in this question that I discovered the reason for my personal struggle with prayer – that idol of perfection.
I find myself so worried that the blackness of my own heart will be so exposed… and while I know in my mind God already sees that blackness, I’m more afraid of what that exposure means to me. I’m afraid of looking at my own sin, of staring it straight in the eye, of being honest and intimate with myself. Because when I am, I’m overwhelmed with just how wretched I am.
But this is what I think prayer of the heart actually looks like.
It looks like undignified, unadulterated laid-bare realizations and acceptance of just how far away we are from knowing and understanding the holiness of God. It’s in that facedown position, with no inhibitions, that we can respond to God in the way he wants us to. It’s the raw act of admission and submission before a God who deserves no less. Henri Nouwen describes it this way: “ To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.” Hannah was honest before God, and she admitted her misery. She laid-bare her heart.
Sometimes, in our own misery, we can loose our words. We can be so hurt and broken that words escape us. And that’s okay. We don’t always have to talk. And that’s what I truly appreciate about Lectio Divina – how it emphasizes something that we don’t always understand about prayer: that it’s important for us to listen as well as talk. God’s word is such a beautiful and wonderful gift he’s given us. It’s how he communicates with us, to help us understand who he is. By being silent, quieting our heart (and trying not falling asleep) and letting God guide our hearts, you are allowing him to take over.
Lectio Divina helps us let go of our own agenda, and submit to what God is trying to show us. I’m not saying that it’s the only way or the best way to pray. It’s not. This kind of prayer can help us practice how to simply be with Jesus – and that time of focusing on him is transforming. This is a way of being with God that does not depend on us giving Him information, but about us resting and waiting. It is not fancy, nor is it particularly “righteous”. But God can use it to help us set aside our agenda, and center our hearts on His agenda. We are depending on him to initiate communication, instead of depending on the sound of our own voice and formation of our own words.
Bryan Chapell says (the president of my seminary, shameless plug…), in his book Praying Backwards, “Our prayers do not have to be long or formal to be acceptable and powerful. God certainly honors thoughtful, reverent prayer, but he also hears the anguish of our heart when we can voice no plea more articulate than calling his name.” Like Hannah, who wept in bitterness in anguish and grief, we can come to God as we are, and not be afraid to reveal our own desires and our own sin to him or to ourselves. No matter how ugly it is. We shouldn’t be afraid to be ugly or undignified before him in prayer, because there is redemption for that ugliness. Jesus’ blood covers that ugliness, he redeems our sin and he redeems our prayers.