In addition to praying and singing psalms and canticles as a way of joining in the ongoing praise of the saints, I suggest that there are three classic and deeply spiritual ways to pray scripture:
1) Entering the Narrative Imaginatively
Ignatius of Loyala (b. 1491) is credited with this method. He discovered how useful the imagination could be in fostering a deeper relationship with God, and imaginative prayer is one of the hallmarks of Ignatian spirituality. He integrated imaginative prayer into the approach to the spiritual life outlined in his work the Spiritual Exercises.
Ignatius presents two ways of imagining. The first is demonstrated in a meditation on the Incarnation. He asks us to “enter into the vision of God.” We imagine God looking down in love on our turbulent world. We see God intervening by sending Jesus. This imagining helps us see things from God’s perspective and take on God’s qualities of compassion and understanding.
The second method is to place ourselves within a story from the Gospels. We become onlookers or participants and give full rein to our imagination. We feel the hot sun, the itchy clothes, or our stomachs rumbling. We notice the faces. Above all, we watch Jesus in the story, seeing gestures and the look in his eyes. We hear him speak, and we imagine other words he might have spoken.
The best-known example of this is contemplation on Jesus’ birth. Imagine the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, and the smell of animals. You find yourself holding the holy child and gazing into his eyes. What feelings fill your heart? Through the narrative, you have entered the prayer space of adoration. Many scenes from the Gospels are ripe for imaginative contemplation. This way of prayer helps us experience Jesus filling our senses, rather than simply thinking about Jesus.
Try it …
• Choose a scene from the Gospels that captures your attention before you begin.
• Find a quiet place, breathe, and rest in God. Read the story.
• Set your Bible aside. Relax. Let your imagination take you deeply into the scene. What are the sights? Sounds? Smells? Turn your eyes upon Jesus. What does he do? What does he say to others? What does he say to you? How do you respond?
• After a long period of imaginative prayer, record your reflections in your journal.
2) Chewing on the Text
Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word to be feasted on.
Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps:
1) Lectio - reading
2) Meditatio – meditating
3) Oratio – praying
4) Contemplatio – contemplation
The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus' statement in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you", an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. In Lectio Divina, however, we feast on the peace of Christ rather than "dissecting" the text.
The monastic practice of Lectio Divina was first established in the 6th century by Saint Benedict.
Try it …
• First a passage of Scripture is read, slowly as if savoring a meal rather than quickly eating fast food. The plain meaning of the text is comprehended. A shorter passage is better for praying the scripture than reading large passages for study.
• Second, after a while the passage is read again. This time, notice a word or phrases that the Spirit brings forth to capture your attention. You don’t need to know why. Just let it emerge, like nuggets that appear on the surface when panning for gold. Then spend time chewing on it. Why is this speaking to you? What is the Spirit saying to you? Let it touch a deep place in you.
• Third, read the passage again and this time, respond to God in prayer. It may be helpful to journal your prayers and thoughts.
• Fourth, read the passage again and rest with it. Simply contemplate the majesty and mystery of God. Feel God’s presence as you have communed with him through scripture.
3) Gazing on the Symbol
Symbol is, in its essence, the way we know what we cannot see. The origin of the word symbalon, means to throw. Indeed, symbols “throw” meaning into life. We use them in the way we talk, think, and process information.
There is a vast treasury of symbol and metaphor in scripture. Like narratives and parables, they are God’s unique ways of conveying truth in the Bible. To “gaze” with the heart on a scriptural symbol takes prayer to a place beyond words and concepts.
Symbol grows more meaningful as Christianity matures. It is interesting that when Paul talks about maturing in Christ, he uses metaphor of “milk” and “solid food.” As the journey progresses, truth is unveiled layer by layer, until the day when “with unveiled faces” we experience the glory of the Lord.
Try it …
• Light a candle to focus, as this is one of the profound symbols of Christ’s presence.
• Choose a scripture that contains symbol, like an elemental symbol such as rock, fire, or water (Moses striking the rock, the day of Pentecost, the woman at the well, etc). Or choose metaphors of Jesus like light and salt. Or choose an “I am statement” Jesus makes in the book of John. Or choose a passage with the metaphor of the tree, the door, the gate, or a scriptural symbol that might be most meaningful to you. It might well be a favorite contained in a piece of art, church paraments, or stained glass you are familiar with.
• Draw, paint, view a natural version of, or gaze upon a piece of art containing this symbol. Or imagine it in your mind’s eye. Or let your body take its shape.
• Spend time with it. Experience it. What truth does God speak to you through it? What draws your attention to it? What healing does it bring? How does it shift your perspective? What prayer does it well up in you?