The person who thirsts for God eagerly studies and meditates on the inspired word, knowing that there he is certain to find the one for whom he thirsts (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Commentary on the Song of Songs, Sermon 23:3).
“I can’t wait to go on vacation.” “I’m looking forward to having lunch with you.” “I’m closing a big sale next week.” “I’m going shopping with my mom on Saturday.” What do all of these statements have in common? They all speak with anticipation about something good that is going to happen.
So what does anticipation have to do with reading the Bible? Everything! There is a powerful link between the grace available in Scripture and our own faith. Put simply, the more we expect God to work in us when we read and pray the Bible, the more open we will be to hearing his voice and experiencing his presence.
Standing behind St. Bernard’s words is the conviction that by seeking out the Lord in Scripture we will have an intimate experience of him. Bernard was convinced that Scripture can draw us near to Jesus and have a profound impact on the way we love, the way we think, the words we speak, and the way we view the world. The more we connect with Bernard’s words—thirsting, meditating, studying—the more we will encounter Jesus, and the more we will fall in love with him.
In this essay we want to turn our attention toward a method of praying through Scripture that opens us up to the intimacy Bernard wrote about.
The Promise of Scripture.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17)
There is an ancient tradition in the church that is well known for its ability to open us up to revelation from the Lord. The method is called lectio divina, which means, “inspired reading.” This method, which evolved in the monasteries of Europe, is composed of four steps: Reading the word, meditating on the word, praying through the word, and contemplating the word.
At its foundation, lectio divina assumes that God has given the words of Scripture a special grace. While it is helpful to meditate and pray on the words of a saint or great doctor of the church, Scripture surpasses all of these writings in its ability to bring us to new and deeper levels of understanding and experience of the Lord. While we can receive great insights from reading someone like St. Teresa of Avila or St. Thomas Aquinas, only Scripture can act as a doorway into the very heart and mind of the Father.
Reading the Word. How do we practice this method called lectio divina? Before you begin, it’s a good idea to get yourself in the right disposition. Find a quiet place where you can read and pray. Take your mind off of your responsibilities for these few minutes. Try to avoid any place where you might get interrupted. Then, take a few minutes to place yourself in the presence of the Lord. Ask Jesus to open the “eyes of your heart” as you fix your attention on him (Ephesians 3:17; Hebrews 12:1-2). Ask his Spirit to reveal to you the mysteries of heaven and to pour out God’s love upon you. Finally, ask the Spirit to guide you in the way of truth (1 John 2:27).
Next, choose a passage from the Bible that you want to pray about. Some people begin with Genesis and work their way through the Bible. Others choose a specific book, such as Isaiah or the Letter to the Hebrews. Others prefer to work through the gospels, while still others prefer the epistles of Paul, John, or Peter. Where you go is entirely up to you—though it is helpful for beginners to go where they are most familiar, such as the gospels or the psalms.
When you have chosen a passage, read it a few times. You might even want to read it out loud, as this will help engage you more fully. If there are aspects of the passage that are puzzling to you, consult a reliable commentary or the Catechism. Whatever you do, be sure in this stage that you are coming to a good understanding of what the passage is saying.
How you read this passage can have a big impact on what you get out of it as well. It is best, as you read, to listen also. Listen for the still, small voice of God that longs to speak to you as personally as he did to Elijah long ago (1 Kings 19:11-13).
Meditating on the Word. It’s this listening for the still, small voice of the Lord that helps move you from reading to meditation. It’s one thing to understand the passage, whether through close reading or through the use of commentaries. It’s another thing to ask the Holy Spirit to “open up” for you the words you have read and studied.
If one particular verse from the passage attracts you, spend time meditating upon it. Just as Mary “treasured and pondered” everything that Jesus said and did (Luke 2:19), we allow the words of Scripture to interact with our own faith, thoughts, hopes, and desires. In this way, God’s word becomes our own word—our own source of wisdom, hope, and purpose.
As you ponder the passage you have chosen, give your mind some freedom to go where it will. Don’t try to force yourself to focus on something that is not moving your heart. This kind of experimentation is essential for anyone who wants to learn how to hear God’s voice in Scripture.
Praying with the Word. Just as reading and studying give way to meditation, so too does meditation give way to prayer—to a heartfelt conversation with the One who reigns supreme over all the earth. In this kind of prayer, we offer to the Lord our words of praise, we thank him for his unlimited mercy, and we recount his many blessings.
One of the blessings of Scripture is that the words we meditate upon can provide the starting point for our prayer. As we praise and thank God, something amazing begins to happen. We find ourselves falling in love with the words of Scripture—the words that have opened us up to the presence and power of God. We also find that these words have meaning for our lives, as we discover that what happened to Paul, to David, or to Mary can happen to us as well. This sense that our lives can reflect the lives of Scripture’s heroes and heroines excites us and moves us to love God even more.
For instance, as you read and meditate on the parable of the prodigal son, you may feel God’s forgiveness for some sin that you once thought to be unforgivable. Or you may sense God telling you the very thing the father told his older son: “All I have is yours; come and receive it. Don’t hold on to resentments and angers. Let them go and enjoy everything I have given to you.”
By moving from meditation to prayer, we come to learn that the Bible is not meant to be only a historical document or a set of stories reserved for the Mass. It is the word of life, given by God to help all of us grow in our relationship with Jesus. This special role of the Scriptures is one of the key mysteries of our faith. It is not always easy to explain or understand why Scripture has this special ability—but it is clearly something that all of us can experience.
Contemplating the Word. Finally, prayer moves to contemplation. Like an elderly couple sitting together, quiet and peaceful, still in love after many years of marriage, we rest with the Lord. We are still and quiet in his presence. We know that he is our God. We are enjoying the sense of being showered with his love, and we simply receive.
In this final stage of lectio divina, few words are needed, if any. We are simply quiet, open to whatever God wants to say to us, surrendered to whatever he wants to do in our lives. At its deepest, we find ourselves sharing the same kind of communion with the Lord that Peter, James, and John had (Mark 9:2-8), the same experience that transformed the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-6), and the same communion that sustained St. Paul in all of his work (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) and St. John in his loneliness (Revelation 4–5).
Lectio divina may take some practice, but it is a glorious way to find God and deepen your relationship with him. As you devote this year to reading the Bible, experiment with this ancient way of prayer and see what the Spirit might do in you. And always remember that St. Bernard’s words are just as true today as they were when he wrote them nine hundred years ago. Those who thirst for God—through study and meditation and prayer—will find the one they long to meet. That includes all of us.