Today we remember St. Joseph. We are celebrating his feast day liturgically, but the sermon this evening is the last installment in our Lenten preaching series on prayer. I’ll be talking about praying with sacred texts. St. Joseph, being a very humble man, would surely approve. You are all invited, by the way, to join the Brothers in the undercroft following the service for soup and conversation with the preacher.
Praying with sacred texts. There haven’t always been sacred texts; there haven’t always been texts, or even words. It took a long time for there to be such things –roughly 13.77 billion years. God’s creation seems to have been wordless for all but the last 100,000 years or so, depending on who you ask (a mere blink of the eye). Written texts are not much more than 5,000 years old. The oldest texts that we think of as sacred are only about 3,000 years old—practically just yesterday.
I pause to mention this because we are likely to forget how recent human speech and language are, written or otherwise. We take all this very much for granted, that is, the phenomenon of language. We so inhabit our language and our language so inhabits us that we can’t even think about language without using language. It’s worth pausing to marvel that there is such a thing. And to marvel even more that our language, our texts are something that we feel brings us closer to God. Perhaps because we recognize something of the divine nature reflected in the phenomenon of human speech. God spoke and creation came into being. God spoke and the Word became flesh.
Before we talk about praying with sacred texts, we need to mention in passing other ways of engaging sacred texts. Since the early days of the church it has been recognized that scripture can have multiple layers of meaning. We can look to scripture for its literal meaning. We can look to scripture for its metaphorical or allegorical meaning. We can look to scripture for moral guidance. We can approach scripture intellectually, even academically, reading between the lines asking questions like “what really happened that it came to be written this way?”, or “what is the history of this text—is this the original version?”, or, “what were the writer’s intentions—did they have an agenda or a bias?” This is all good.
But the topic at hand is “praying with sacred texts”. There are different ways of doing this. We can pray with sacred texts to give shape to our own prayer, using their words as our own (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”; or, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…”). These words of the sacred text can be our very own words.
We can also pray with sacred texts for insight and understanding of ourselves, of the world, of God (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want…”). We can pray with sacred texts to bring us to a heightened sense of the presence of God (“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth.”)
The Benedictine monastic tradition has developed a simple way to pray with scripture. This is often called lectio divina, or divine reading. Lectio divina, or lectio for short, is reading the Bible in a prayerful, reflective way: with the Holy Spirit as our guide and helper, we meet the Living Word of God in and through the sacred text.
So, let’s try it. I think you will have received a portion of Psalm 63 along with your bulletin this evening [BCP p 670]. We’ll use it for a group meditation, a congregational lectio divina. (By the way, there’s a very good article on Wikipedia on lectio divina with suggestions for how to do this individually and, of course, the Great Google knows all.) But this is a way we can do this together:
- In silence, each calls upon Holy Spirit for guidance
- Read aloud alternating verses
- In silence, be with that word or phrase or image that claims your attention; let it echo in your mind and heart; two minutes
- In silence, each give thanks for what we’ve been given
- Neutral posture that can be held for a few minutes helps
- Silence cell phones
So, what was it for you? What came alive for you? What lit up for you, claimed your attention? Perhaps those closing words, “your right hand holds me fast”. Maybe, “you have been my helper”. Maybe it was “life itself” or simply “Life”. Or “you”. Or the image of being under the shadow of wings.
Lectio divina is a fairly simple and straightforward process. If you’re doing it alone, you stop at the first word or phrase or image that comes alive, that lights up for you, rather than read a whole passage. You might stop on the very first word. If you’re using the Lord’s Prayer for lectio, you might stop on the word “our”. It’s a simple pattern of prayer, but the experience at times can be profound, even life changing, because we meet the Living Word himself as we engage the text.
Sometimes, by the way, the words of the text are a gateway to another way of praying. Sometimes it’s as if we pass through and beyond the text to a place of wordless prayer, even a prayer with no images at all. We call this “apophatic” prayer. Centering prayer and the “Prayer of the Cloud of Unknowing” are examples of wordless or aphophatic prayer.
This is the prayer of simply being in the presence of God. Simply being in the divine presence—without concerns, without lists, without striving. We might think of this as the prayer of the cosmos, the wordless, speechless cosmos, the way all creation has prayed until human beings came along and began speaking really just a very few years ago. Silent, wordless prayer, simply being as God has made us.
This morning I wondered what was the prayer of a snowflake as it made its way from heaven to earth. The sound of a flake of snow coming to its resting place is the sound of silent prayer, a prayer of praise to the Creator in simply being. The exquisite crystalline geometries of snow and the way it reflects and refracts the sunlight are sufficient praise. How much more, then, the human being, simply in our being. Like the snowflake we can drift gently into a resting place and simply be in that quietness before God and all creation.
Much can be said in prayer. Much can be said about prayer. But sometimes, before God, words simply end.