Praying with Scripture

By Douglas J. Leonhardt, SJ

Lectio Divina and Gospel Contemplation are two ways to pray with Scripture. Fr. Leonhardt explains these two forms of prayer for those new to the practices.

My Seventh Day Adventist paternal grandmother was very faithful to reading the Bible every day until cataracts dimmed her eyes so she could no longer read. My Catholic maternal grandparents faithfully prayed the rosary every evening. Up until Vatican II these prayer forms were often the practices which designated people as Protestants or Catholics. But the Council urged all Catholics to return to Scripture as a way of “learning the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 3:8)

Over the past forty years some Catholics have hesitated to read Scripture privately because they did not feel they knew enough about the Bible. But this reason for avoiding the reading of Scripture is a temptation because it puts the focus on the individual and not on Christ. The truth is that we have a teacher in the Holy Spirit whom Christ promised and we received at Baptism. “I have said these things to you while still with you; but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.” (John 14:25-26)

There are two easy ways to pray with Scripture. One is called in Latin, Lectio Divina, (Holy Reading) and the other is Gospel Contemplation.

Lectio Divina

This method of prayer goes back to the early monastic tradition. There were not bibles for everyone and not everyone knew how to read. So the monks gathered in chapel to hear a member of the community reading from the scripture. In this exercise they were taught and encouraged to listen with their hearts because it was the Word of God that they were hearing.

When a person wants to use Lectio Divina as a prayer form today, the method is very simple. When one is a beginner, it is better to choose a passage from one of the Gospels or epistles, usually ten or fifteen verses. Some people who regularly engage in this method of prayer choose the epistle or the Gospel for the Mass of the day as suggested by the Catholic Church.

First one goes to a quiet place and recalls that one is about to listen to the Word of God. Then one reads the scripture passage aloud to let oneself hear with his or her own ears the words. When one finishes reading, pause and recall if some word or phrase stood out or something touched one’s heart. If so, pause and savor the insight, feeling, or understanding. Then go back and read the passage again because it will have a fuller meaning. Pause again and note what happened. If one wants to dialogue with God or Jesus in response to the word, one should follow the prompting of one’s heart. This kind of reflective listening allows the Holy Spirit to deepen awareness of God’s taking the initiative to speak with us.

Lectio Divina can also be an effective form for group prayer. After a passage is read, there can be some extended silence for each person to savor what he or she has heard, particularly noting whether any word or phrase became a special focus of attention. Sometimes groups invite members, if they so desire, to share out loud the word or phrase that struck them. This is done without discussion. Then a different person from the group would read the passage again with a pause for silence. Different emphases might be suggested after each reading: What gift does this passage lead me to ask from the Lord? What does this passage call me to do? The prayer can be concluded with an Our Father.

Whether one prays individually or in a group, Lectio Divina is a flexible and easy way to pray. One first listens, notes what is given and responds in a way one is directed by the Holy Spirit.

Gospel Contemplation

The early Christians did not waste a lot of energy looking back and wishing they had been born a hundred years earlier so they could have walked with Jesus. Instead they focused on coming to know Christ in three powerful ways: through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist; the stories and emerging writings about Jesus; and his powerful presence when they gathered in his name.

Saint Ignatius Loyola invited a person when an individual made a retreat in the pattern of his Spiritual Exercises to pray to come to know Christ so that one may love him in a more real way and following from this knowledge and love become a more faithful disciple.

In order to grow in this faith knowledge, Ignatius invited the retreatant to engage in a prayer method called contemplation. This is not some kind of mystical prayer but a prayer form in which one uses his or her senses in an imaginative way to reflect on a Gospel passage. One uses the senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling to make the Gospel scene real and alive.

Here is a way of engaging in this prayer form which is relaxing and rather easy.

  1. Select a passage from one of the Gospels in which Jesus is interacting with others.
  2. Recall what one is doing in engaging with the Word of God and what one desires from this encounter. God is present and because God is present one relies on God.
  3. Read the Gospel passage twice so that the story and the details of the story become familiar.
  4. Close one’s eyes and reconstruct the scene in one’s imagination. See what is going on and watch the men and women in the scene. What does Jesus look like? How do the others react to him? What are the people saying to one another? What emotions fill their words? Is Jesus touching someone? As one enters into the scene, sometimes there is the desire to be there. So a person can place oneself in the scene, perhaps as an observer, as one lining up for healing, or as one helping others to Jesus.
  5. Some people’s imaginations are very active so they construct a movie-like scenario with a Gospel passage. Others will enter the scene with verbal imagination, reflecting on the scene and mulling over the actions. Vividness is not a criteria for the effectiveness of this kind of prayer. Engagement is and the result is a more interior knowledge of Jesus.
  6. As one finishes this time of prayer, one should take a moment to speak person to person with Christ saying what comes from the heart.

From Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book © 2009 Marquette University Press. Used with permission.


Related Links

Ignatian Contemplation dotMagis blog post with video
Pray with Your Imagination by David L. Fleming, SJ