With a new month comes a new liturgical season, however, much is different for us this Lent.
For the Church, there has been a longer gap between the end of the incarnation season (Christmas to Candlemas) and the start of this traditional season of penitence – last year it was only a matter of days. As a community and society, we find ourselves in a different and hopefully better situation with regards to COVID-19. There is, of course, still an understandable caution. Personally, I find myself offering my first reflection for the Lance as a member of the clergy serving at St George’s, a place where my vocation to the priesthood was nurtured and encouraged.
During Lent many of us will take up the discipline of abstaining from sweet treats or alcohol, among other things. However, there is a question that we have to ask ourselves when we refrain from certain things over Lent: is this for me, or is this for God?
What do I mean by this? Fasting over Lent is very well rooted in society as a whole. Often people who wouldn’t even dream of coming to church, decide to cut something out of their diet or try to rid themselves of a bad habit over the 40 or so days of Lent. Their reasons for fasting are often to do with health, self-betterment or even just for the challenge. But why do we, as followers of Jesus, give something up at Lent?
We give things up during Lent because we are following Christ’s example from his time in the wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12-13; Luke 4.1-13). By fasting, we are reminded of God because we have to be alert and in control of our instincts; to fight the temptation to have that little square of chocolate or indulge in something we enjoy. It reminds us of our discipleship and the reality of God in our lives. Fasting also gives us a chance to offer something to God because when we deny ourselves something we enjoy, we are saying there is something more important in our lives than purely physical pleasure. Fasting, simply as part of a diet, is about health and how we feel and look being important, but fasting in Lent is saying that God is more important than all that.
Whilst fasting is the most obvious spiritual discipline Christians engage in over Lent, it is not the only one. Over the last few Lents, I have tried to maintain the practice of ‘taking up’ something, often some form of spiritual discipline alongside something edifying, enriching and encouraging, to read. So even if fasting isn’t your tradition, I would like to encourage you to ‘take up’ something for Lent that enriches your spiritual life.
I would like to offer you the practice of Lectio Divina, which is something that I found very sustaining whilst I was at Westcott House and since being ordained. Lectio is familiar to some, but for those who are unfamiliar, it is a monastic practice of reading a small passage of scripture slowly, deliberately and prayerfully, asking God to speak through the scriptures and allowing us to meditate on God’s word and respond to the living Word with prayer.
Lectio Divina (Divine Reading) is one of a number of ways that we can learn to pray with scripture. It has its origins in the monastic tradition, but it is a very accessible way of encountering the living Word. There are lots of different ways of “doing Lectio”, but fundamentally it is about taking time to meet Christ as we ruminate slowly on a passage of scripture, be it individually or as a group. This is an introduction to Lectio Divina using the structure I was introduced to whilst training for ordination at Westcott House. I hope that you find it helpful for your own devotions during Lent.
Traditionally, the passage of scripture is short, so if you are picking your own passage perhaps choose a short Psalm or a few verses from a longer Psalm or Gospel to read. There are four parts to Lectio Divina (Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio) which are described below, but first of all, make sure you are in a quiet and comfortable place.
The passage of scripture is read twice. The passage should be read slowly. If you are part of a group, it may be a good idea to have a couple of people take turns to read. Whilst you are reading or listening to the passage you may wish to keep this question in mind: What does the passage say?
Spend some time in silence meditate on what God may be saying to you through the passage of scripture. If you are part of a group, after a while, you may choose to briefly share your thoughts with one another. Some questions that you may wish to keep in mind might be: What word/verse/image/person from the passage is jumping out at me? What might God be saying to me through passage?
The passage is read once again (by a third voice if you are in a group) and in a time of silence we offer our prayerful response to what God might be saying to us. If you are in a group you may choose to share your prayer with one another. A question to keep in mind here might be: for whom or for what situation has this passage made me want to pray?
In silence and stillness we sit quietly with God. We rest in the presence of the One who loves us, trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work in the depths of our hearts and deepening our faith. You may wish to finish the time of silence by saying the Lord’s Prayer.
Whilst we have four stages in our way of “doing Lectio”, this is not the end of the process. As Pope Benedict XVI states in Verbum Domini, ‘we do well also to remember that the process of Lectio Divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio)’, the actio of conversion. Lectio Divina is just the beginning of a process of formation through scripture. Through engagement with the Word and encountering God in prayer, we get caught up in the converting power of God’s love.
By hearing, ruminating and contemplating on scripture, the practice of Lectio Divina calls us to listen again for the invitation God offers to us. Such an invitation is to be continually changed, so that our whole being seeks to live out and share the love of God which we read of in scripture.
Some Resources and Other Ideas
Of course, this deliberate, slow and prayerful way of reading is not just a way of reading scripture, but can be used to read any text. Whilst it is a traditional technique of reading the Psalms or the Gospels, Lectio can also be an intentional way of engaging with other spiritual texts or religious poetry.
Likewise, you may wish to use a similar way of looking at devotional art, Imago Divina. A useful resource for finding pieces of art to meditate upon is the Visual Commentary on Scripture by KCL. You may wish to read the associate passage before reading the artwork, or simply choose to look at the artwork. Visual Commentary on Scripture, KCL: https://thevcs.org/
A helpful introduction by Fr James Martin SJ: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i27FqIyk2qY
Despite the title, Innocenzo Gargano OSB, Holy Reading: an introduction to Lectio Divina, offers a more detailed introduction with a focus on the monastic perspective (Translation by Walter Vitale available from Canterbury Press).