Learning to listen prayerfully is a basic step in our spiritual growth; it is more important than academic study, reading books or joining discussion groups. So, how do we learn to listen? A tried and tested method is Lectio Divina, or sacred reading, a way of prayer that St Benedict taught his monks. It is a slow meditative reading of scripture, or of any holy and inspirational book, and it has four stages: reading, reflecting, responding, resting.
Reading: The chosen passage is read slowly, speaking the words quietly, but audibly, to ourselves, until a word or phrase arrests the attention, then we stop and reflect.
Reflecting: We meditate on the word or phrase, repeating the whole of it or part of it. Meditation is done with the mouth; we repeat the words quietly, but audibly, to ourselves, like striking a bell and listening to the echo. We speak thoughts or questions that it poses for us, but not at length. The aim is not to wrestle with the text, rather to savour it, or to absorb it. When we feel we have done this we respond.
Responding: Briefly we offer a prayer that arises out of our reflection; just a brief petition for ourselves perhaps, or for whatever our meditation has brought to mind. And then we rest.
Resting: Benedict called this last stage contemplatio, resting in the presence of God, finding depth in a shared silence, like those who love each other, whose communion has passed beyond words. When this stage reaches a conclusion, the process starts again.
To begin we need to chose what we shall read, say, the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, and we need to adopt a comfortable, but alert posture, for example sitting upright in a chair, or on a prayer stool. We then begin to read the passage quietly to ourselves, as described, and then follow through the four stages. We Read: let us say, Mark’s opening sentence arrests our attention: ‘Here begins the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.’ We stop immediately, put down the Bible. We Reflect: repeating the phrase, not continuously like a mantra, but slowly, savouring it after we have spoken the words, letting the sound linger before we repeat it again. We may just repeat a few of the words, ‘… Jesus Christ Son of God.’ Or just ‘Son of God.’ When we feel we have savoured it, we Respond: we might pray simply, ‘Lord Jesus, you are the Son of God, be with me as I pray.’ Or ‘Jesus, let your good news dwell in me be heard in your world.’ Then Rest: holding the moment in your heart.
The aim of this way of praying is not to seek to understand the text intellectually but rather to let it speak to us intuitively or imaginatively. This is not to criticise intellectual study, but to say that we need to use other faculties in addition to the intellect if we are to appreciate scripture in all its fullness. So Benedict taught his monks first to listen and reflect rather than to think and question. We try to enter into the atmosphere, the shape, the feeling of the text in the same way that we might experience a beautiful garden or a wonderful view. It is the overall effect of the garden or the panorama that first strikes us; we simply look at it, trying to take it all in and imprint it on our memory. Then we might walk round and look at the individual shrubs and flowers. This is not speed reading!
I find it helpful to think of meditation as tuning in to God’s wave- length, letting the scripture become part of me, so that it is something I carry around in my heart. It is a way of coming to see the world as God sees it, letting his outlook inform our outlook, his values become our values, and his Will strengthen our will. It is a good idea to have a pen and notebook with us, so that we can note any insights that may come to us, and also deal with distractions, for example the things that we have to remember, like calling a friend, or something we need to buy or attend to. The insights that come may not be blinding revelations (though this will be true for some), but a sense of something given. An idea or an answer will form in the mind, like an intuition or a feeling. These insights are often fleeting, no more than glimpses in a mirror, and we can struggle to articulate them, but the effort needs to be made otherwise they are lost. It is also important to check out what we have received, and many find it helpful to do this with a spiritual guide.