…O Lord, give me understanding according to your word. (Psalm 119:169)
This week, and next, our discussion of the five uses of Scripture focuses on contemplation. Contemplation of Scripture is different from study. Study is an analytical pursuit; through it we are seeking to find out what a passage of Scripture means. Contemplation is a diagnostic tool and a catalyst for prayer. When we contemplate Scripture we give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to search our heart and mind in order to guide us more fully into God’s will for our lives.
Areas of doubt or resistance to God – about which we may not be fully conscious – can also be revealed to us when contemplating Scripture. I used the following paraphrase of Hebrews 4:12 in my second post https://carefulfornothing.com/2010/10/05/scripture-second-in-a-series/ in this series on Scripture and it sums up how contemplating Scripture can be beneficial for our spiritual and emotional well-being: The word of God…is sharper than a scalpel and pierces through our defenses down to our soul and spirit, joints and marrow – and not only is it able to discern what’s really going on with our heart and mind, it is able to regenerate them. Discernment about “what is really going on with our heart and mind” can take place when we contemplate Scripture.
The practice of using Scripture contemplatively is centuries old. Benedict of Nursia, who founded religious communities for men in Italy during the 6th century, is credited with establishing a method of contemplating Scripture called, Lectio Divina, which means “holy reading.” One thousand years later, Ignatius of Loyola drew up a set of spiritual exercises of which Scripture contemplation is a central component. You can find out more about each of these methods, Benedictine and Ignatian, on the internet. What I am about to describe is a combination of both, which I personally use – and which I recommend professionally in my role as a spiritual director and pastoral counselor.
Plan to set aside about forty-five minutes of time, which will not be interrupted, for contemplation. This may seem like a long period of time, but rushing through the process will accomplish little or nothing. You owe it to yourself to get the most out of this experience. Also, on the day before, or at any time well in advance, select a passage; don’t go searching for one during the time you’ve set aside for contemplation.
If while reading or studying Scripture you make note of stories or verses which resonate with you in some way, look over that list to see if there is one you would like to use. If not, the gospels, with vivid stories about Jesus’ life and ministry, are great places to look. Stories about Abraham and his descendants in Genesis, stories about Moses and the Israelites in Exodus, passages from the book of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the letters of Paul, Peter and John also make great choices for contemplation. Ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to a passage, and once you’ve chosen one, read it through the night before.
Begin your time of contemplation with prayer, asking for guidance and insight and then, with a notebook and pen beside you, read the passage over aloud several times, slowly, pausing a minute or two between each reading. Reading from several different translations of the Bible, such as the RSV, NASB and NIV, may provide you with a new or different way of hearing the passage; but this is not necessary. Each time you return to the reading, ask the Holy Spirit to open your mind and heart so you can hear it with greater clarity.
As you read aloud and pause between each reading, notice which word or image in particular stays with you. When you are finished reading, begin to ponder the word or image that got your attention. For instance, if an image stays with you, close your eyes and see it in your mind. Let the action in the scene unfold before you. Notice what details and which characters stand out for you. If it is a particular word or phrase that holds your attention, think about what other words or thoughts you associate with it. In this part of the exercise, ask the Holy Spirit to direct your contemplation and bring to light whatever it is you need to reflect upon at this time. Use your notebook to make a few notes about what comes to mind.
After you’ve spent some time noting your reactions to the words or images which held your attention, turn to the Lord in prayer. Prayer is an essential component of contemplation. It offers us a way to talk over with God the thoughts and feelings that arise from our time of contemplation. Prayer also opens an avenue whereby God can redirect us for his purposes and our good. End by thanking the Lord for his gift of Scripture and the ways in which he used it to speak to you. If it turns out that nothing in particular stood out during your time of contemplation do not be concerned. This happens from time to time. Prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you at another time if there is something about the passage he wants to use in your life.
If you’ve never done this exercise before, it might seem a bit intimidating. I can remember back to when I first tried contemplating Scripture. I was so intent on making sure I was doing everything correctly that I got very little out of it. I learned from that experience not to concern myself with getting it “right.” So take it from me – allow God to be in charge of the results.
Next week: the second installment on contemplating Scripture – an example from my own experience.