by Gunilla Norris
Change is happening so rapidly in every sector of life that we hardly have time to adjust. Many live for hours a day in the virtual reality of computers. Information and communication pours in through the Internet, our cell phones, and iPods at such speed and in so many ways that our attention is expected to jump from one thing to another while our bodies and souls lag behind with no place to rest. We live in a manner that more and more asks us to anticipate the future. We want to predict, to know ahead of time, how to manage what might come, but no one can actually live in the future. To try to do so inevitably leads to anxiety. We can only live in the present where we are, and where we are is always on holy ground with God and with each other.
When the norm all around us demands that we hurry into what might be and asks us to be prepared for it, our bodies wear down. Our organs cannot take such a constant demand. It forces us to live on adrenal energy, out of the sympathetic nervous system, which is all about fight, flight, or freeze. Ramped up, many of us then reach for artificial means to somehow balance things out: food, alcohol, sex, gambling, overwork, speculation, computer games. These are means that either let the mind go to sleep or mesmerize it into a high-pitched focus that distracts us from the accumulating pressures for a little while.
Age-old rhythms that allowed rest, reflection, and reassurance are often not what we seek. We want a magic solution to stop the stress. When everything around us is happening so fast, it is difficult to slow down unless we are forced, or invited, to do so. The good news is that there are great resources in spiritual traditions that extend such invitations. One is through the ancient practice of lectio divina: a particular way of spiritual reading of Scripture and sacred writings.
Monastic life in the West had three strong pillars on which it was based—work, lectio divina, and contemplative prayer.1 It has always been significant to me that lectio divina finds its place between action and contemplation. It serves as a bridge in the spiritual life between an outward focus and an inward one. We all know how hard it is to go from intense action into stillness. Through lectio divina we are offered a wonderful gift from spiritual seekers who have gone before us, who faced change and challenge, and who experienced anxiety just as we do in our times. We can learn much from this practice of spiritual reading. It is not a magic solution, but it can become a steadying and spiritually nourishing aid in how we live our lives of faith in a rapidly changing world.
The reading of Scripture continues to this day as a foundational practice in monastic life, but also takes place in other worship settings, parishes, and faith communities. Passages from the Old and New Testaments, from the Psalms and Gospels, may be spoken or sung throughout the liturgical year, and as we hear and read these texts, we may find that certain words begin to resonate within us. They can become deep sources of support and help in anxious times.
I have learned that if I stay with the same reading for several days or weeks, more is yielded through the words and meaning than if I hurry quickly on to the next one. Lectio divina offers a way into this deeper, steadying reflection. Lectio divina is more than mere reading. It is a spiritual practice that invites and requires some discipline and willingness. Here are some steps to follow:
1. Find a time when, despite everything pressing on your schedule, you will turn your mind and heart to God.
2. Select a brief passage of Scripture or spiritual writing from the saints or other sources of spiritual literature.
3. Read the selection slowly, preferably out loud, often reading it twice.
4. Let the passage sink in and notice what word or simple phrase lingers with you in some way.
5. Allow the passage to take root, to find a place within you that is deeper than words.
6. Dwell in that depth for a time and ask God to let the words continue to inform and nourish you in the active parts of your life.
One such spiritual reading that has meant a lot to me is from a prayer card sent to me by a friend. Practicing lectio divina with this prayer has been very sustaining. I offer the prayer here along with some thoughts that came through the process of dwelling with it:
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.
May today there be peace within.2
May today there be peace within: When I spend time with this first line I am reminded to intend for my day to be in peace, to ask that it be so, to remember my longing for peace even when things are pressing or distracting. Speaking this line softly aloud, I begin to find that in times of conflict or challenge it will rise up within me and remind me of my deep longing and intention. I am nudged back to what matters. The phrase is like the pealing of a bell, calling me to peace.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be: Living with the second line has especially helped counter anxiety. Whatever the circumstances, we are where we are, and upon deep reflection, where we are is, in some way, exactly right. So often when things are tough we want to pull away, escape, or flee. Praying these words I am reminded of the exactitude of grace. It is only where we are that God can act in us and through us. I find that in dwelling with these words I begin to look for what is right in my present circumstance. I am led to look for what is possible, even when on the surface there seems to be nothing possible. It asks me to pay closer attention to the gifts that are actually present and to receive them, rather than to look for ones I don’t have and think I want.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you: This section has two aspects. One reminds us that faith can move mountains. It has been so for others. So why can it not be so for you and me? The second urges us to receive, or rather to re-receive the gifts that God has given to us—to acknowledge them, to be filled with them again, and to pass them on to others. I am made aware that absolutely everything is given to me and is on loan for this lifetime. In a paradoxical sense we can only keep what we experience and give away.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us: These last lines speak to me of reassurance. To remember that you and I are children of God places us again and again in the right and steadying context when we are pushed against the wall. We are not self-made. We have been given life to live and the world in which to live it. This is so because we are infinitely loved by the One who made us. This knowledge can sink into our marrow, into our very structure. What better grounding can we have than to know we are God’s children, and to feel this in our bodies when anxiety arises? Feeling and trusting our true spiritual parentage is reassuring, and allows us to live in praise, joy, and faithfulness. We regain the inner freedom God means for us to have and use. And this is not exclusive property. It is there for everyone.
I am sure you will know of, or will find, readings that can be made your own in beautiful and soulful ways through the practice of lectio divina. If we allow this tradition to become part of our daily spiritual life, there will be words that can grow in meaning for us, that can find a home in our depths, and become words of truth that sustain and steady us. To become a participant in a long-held spiritual discipline, one that has been used through centuries of change and struggle, can help us in our own times. Through lectio divina, we can learn from and take comfort in the spiritual accompaniment of uncountable others, both past and present. A goodness shared always doubles and so becomes a steadying force in a fast-changing world.
From “Lectio Divina: A Steading Way” by Gunilla Norris. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, August/September/October 2010, Vol. 25, No. 4. Copyright © 2010 The Upper Room.
1 The Rule of St. Benedict (seventh century) is an example. It instructed monks in a balanced life of worship, study, manual labor, and prayer. See The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (New York, Vintage, 1998); Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (Harrisburg, Penn., Morehouse, 1990).
2 Multiple versions can be found on the internet, but the original source could not be verified.