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Praying the Scriptures in Solitude
In May 2011, the Lectio Divina Service Team of Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. developed and presented a six-day Lectio Divina Immersion Retreat that focused on the four senses of scripture: literal, allegorical, moral/behavioral, and unitive. Judging from the participant evaluations, as well as my own experience as a co-presenter, this was a very powerful retreat that demonstrated how the practices of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina can work together to deepen the revelatory experience of God in Scripture when one opens to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the rhythm of a long-term retreat. I wanted to experience this for myself in a personal retreat. In August 2013, I reenacted our retreat in silence and solitude at The Hermitage, a secluded rustic cabin on the beautiful grounds of St. Mary’s Retreat Center in Sewanee, Tennessee. It was an amazing week.
Each morning I joined the nuns and local worshipers at St. Mary’s Convent for morning prayer. It was an easy 5-minute walk from The Hermitage. I also joined the nuns for evening prayer each night to close the day. This participation in the local community not only framed my day, but also grounded me and sustained me.
After morning prayer I would return to The Hermitage for two 30-minute periods of Centering Prayer, followed by a light breakfast. I would then read from a new book by Sr. Maria Tasto, OSB, The Transforming Power of Lectio Divina – How to Pray with Scripture, to reacquaint myself with the basic principles of the four senses of scripture and to learn how to prepare myself to receive God’s revelation in my life through praying the Scriptures. The pattern for the rest of the day was short periods of Centering Prayer followed by longer periods of Lectio Divina, with breaks for lunch, rest, and exercise. During the first two days (Day 2 and Day 3), I spent time on each sense of scripture to experience it fully. For the rest of my retreat, I simply allowed the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer. A sample schedule for the week is included here.
Each day I used a text from Scripture that followed themes from our six-day Immersion Retreat, focusing on the spiritual journey:
- God’s Love for Us
- Our Need for God’s Healing
- God’s Call to Discipleship
- God’s Invitation to a Deepening Relationship, and
- God’s Promise of Transformation.
As I was praying the selected text on the first day of my retreat, I was led to other scriptural passages. From time to time, I would stop and write in my journal. This helped me process what I was experiencing. My text for Day 1 was Isaiah 43:1-2; 4-5a. In this passage, Isaiah speaks for God, telling the reader not to be afraid, “for I am with you” and “I have called you by name.” I was then drawn to Psalm 139:1-12, where David says to God, “You hem me in, in front and in back” and “You know me through and through.” As these two texts met, a conversation ensued. I found myself in dialogue with God – God telling me how precious I am to my Creator, and me telling God how close I feel to the Rock of my life. In the days that followed, I was led to other supplemental texts that evoked greater conversations on the day’s theme. I wrote about these reflections in my journal to let them penetrate more deeply within me.
When I completed Day 4 (God's Call to Discipleship), I felt that something was missing. Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet demonstrated self-giving love in service to others, but the issues of justice and working with the poor and marginalized, which are primary themes of Jesus' life and ministry, were not being specifically addressed in the John 13 text.
The next day was a particularly moving day for me. At morning prayer, the priest talked about the life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal martyr who was murdered in 1965 in Alabama during the civil rights movement. A 25-year old white seminarian from New Hampshire, Daniels lived with a black family in Alabama and led peaceful marches against segregation and racism. He was shot by the local deputy sheriff, who was later acquitted by an all-white male jury. I found a one-hour documentary video of his life online and meditated on it in a Lectio manner.
I then chose Luke 4:16-21 as the primary text and Isaiah 58:6-9 as the supplemental text. I spent the day reflecting on the two texts, the video, and how God is calling me to greater relationship and ministry with the poor and marginalized. This is an example of how the Holy Spirit breaks in, if I allow it, to bring new insights for how God is calling me to true discipleship and a deeper involvement in God’s salvific mission. Based on this experience, I inserted a new Day 5 in the schedule with the theme "God's Call to Serve the Poor and Marginalized.”
At the end of Day 5, I reflected on my Centering Prayer experience for the week. I began reading chapters 6, 7 & 8 of David Frenette's new book, The Path of Centering Prayer – Deepening Your Experience of God, regarding praying with Sacred Nothingness. The next day, I applied David’s teaching in my Centering Prayer periods. As the week progressed, and I was able to let go of my sacred symbol (for me, the sacred breath), which allowed me to just be present as the day unfolded. I found this very helpful in understanding and opening myself more deeply to the unitive sense of Scripture.
Since I had an extra day, I expanded the final day of our original retreat into a full day so that more time could be devoted to bringing the week's insights together, focusing on what it means to become a word of God. In my journal I reflected on how the week’s texts seamlessly joined together in giving me a new sense of purpose and direction for the days and months ahead.
This retreat taught me the transforming power of Lectio Divina and how Centering Prayer facilitates its movement toward the gift of contemplative prayer.
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