Prayer with Scripture


by Marjorie J. Thompson

Many of  us have learned to think of prayer and the reading of scripture as wholly distinct from one another. The hearing of scripture and the act of praying are experienced as separate activities in corporate worship and church education, so it should not surprise us if we tend to assume their separation in individual worship as well. The study of scripture in a rigorous, critical sense, or the reading of scripture for biblical “facts and figures” is, indeed, removed from the experience of prayer for most of us. But what of meditative reflection with scripture—that unhurried dwelling with God's word that Benedictine tradition sometimes has likened to a cow chewing its cud? Here the image is one of gradually extracting full nourishment from a source of food. Many of us, perhaps, have experienced meditative reflection with scripture leading to prayer; what may strike us as novel is the notion that it can be engaged in as prayer.

There is a time-honored tradition in our Christian heritage called "praying the scriptures." It is an approach that may fruitfully be used with almost any type of biblical literature. Underlying this form of prayer rests the assumption that God is personally present in the words of the text through the working of the Holy Spirit and has something to communicate to us in our current circumstances through the ancient yet somehow timeless biblical witness. Scripture, then, is a medium of encounter with the living God of all history. In our listening, we are addressed, challenged, and comforted by One whose will for humankind is not limited to the cultural expressions of previous generations, although it is conveyed to us through them. The divine word seems always ready to be broken open in ways fitting our present capacity, offering fresh bread to sustain our hungry spirits.

It is precisely the expectation of a genuine encounter with God that makes this form of scriptural meditation prayer. Prayer is above all an encounter and relationship with God.* The relationship is brought full circle as we respond to the One who has encountered us. Our response may be expressed by a range of feelings, words, or actions and becomes most faithful when it encompasses all three.

Praying the scriptures has found particularly colorful expression in practices derived from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. A hallmark of these exercises is the use of sensory imagination in meditating with the Gospels. (It is worth noting that other narrative portions of scripture are equally adaptable to the Ignatian method.) By entering into the stories and characters of the Gospels imaginatively, we are invited to encounter the living Lord—the Word Incarnate—in a more vivid and personal way.

As prayer, the Ignatian form is contemplative, meaning that it has primarily to do with "seeing" rather than thinking or speaking. It does not represent a passive contemplation, however, since it engages the active use of images and senses. The effect is to elicit more of our experience and bring it into active dialogue with God's word. One could call this "prayer of the heart" in a genuinely biblical sense. According to Hebrew tradition, the heart is the seat of the whole person, including body, intellect, feeling, will, intuition, imagination, and action. This method of prayer has the capacity to draw our memories, hopes, attitudes, and feelings into a context where they can be revealed and transformed by the living Word. Consequently, we discover ourselves more deeply (what kinds of images of God and self we harbor, where our faith and fears lie, how we perceive ourselves and others in particular roles), and we hear the word addressing us more directly.

The Ignatian method may be understood as a holistic form of prayer which encourages us to attend to God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. In this respect, it constitutes a prayer path of profound simplicity—one in which our whole being is gathered toward a singular attentiveness. The integration of such approach contrasts with the scattered and disparate kind of attention we so often offer to God when we bring only our intellect or feelings to prayer.

Questions often arise when people first try this form of prayer: "Isn't this just the product of my own fantasy? How can my imagination illuminate the meaning of scripture?" It is quite true that an informed imagination is less susceptible to distorting the original intent of biblical writers. Historical/cultural understanding will shape the content and direction of our imagination. Therefore it is important to bring whatever contextual knowledge we can to praying the scriptures. Modest exegetical preparation is recommended, but not to the point of becoming a distraction or substitute for prayer. We must realize that the purpose here is not to recreate the most accurate biblical scene possible (a goal even the best scholarship can only approximate) but rather to allow the stories to become alive for us by entering into them with all the knowledge, experience, and imagination we possess. It is wise to ask the Spirit to guide the use of our inner resources so that through them we may hear whatever word God wishes to speak. Then we need to trust that the Spirit works through the gift of our informed imagination and that God can reach us where we are and as we are.

The prayer method described here is adapted from one I was taught during a month-long Ignatian retreat. It is based in part on the writings of Armand Nigro, S.J., whose pamphlet rested on each retreatant's desk. I have seen similar descriptions of praying with scripture elsewhere and simply adapt here, in my own words, a tradition which has its origins elsewhere. I believe it provides us with a way of juxtaposing our own experience of faith and God’s voice of invitation in scripture.

However you may be accustomed to thinking about prayer, for now try to understand it as your personal response to God's presence. This will mean, first, simply being aware of that presence—allowing yourself to be present to God, and allowing the constant Divine Presence to be known to you. Only when we are conscious of God's sustaining presence with us can we, in turn, respond with thanksgiving and love. Otherwise it is a bit like opening the door of a dark room and talking into it because someone might be there to hear. Normally we will speak and respond only to a known personal presence.

What can we do to open ourselves to God's communication? How can we listen so as to receive what the Lover of our souls desires to give us?

  • Commit yourself to at least 15-20 minutes daily of time specifically given to God in listening prayer. If our relationship with the Spirit is truly a priority, it will deserve "prime time"— good, attentive time, not tired, low-energy time.
  • Make this a regular time each day, if at all possible. Establishing a rhythm is important for any discipline. Then try the following steps:

1. Passage: Choose a few verses of scripture that you want especially to listen to, taste, and savor. These may be selected to fit your mood and need, or you may elect to follow the lectionary or move through an entire book of the Bible. Put a marker in it and have it available; you may or may not return to it.

2. Place: Find a private, quiet space where you can freely respond to God's presence without concern over the attention or reaction of others, and where you will not be disturbed by external distractions.

3. Posture: Since we pray as human beings with bodies, posture is important. Experiment with different positions—standing, sitting, kneeling, lying down, hands raised, clasped, palms open—whatever feels comfortable and expresses your inward disposition toward God. Take time to settle yourself peacefully.

4. Presence: Gently remind yourself of God's presence in your life, here and now. Allow that presence to become real and affirm it in terms of a "You-I" relationship (not third person). Remember that God is loving life into you at each moment. Let God love you. Do not rush this part of prayer, even if it takes the whole time. If you experience God's presence deeply, stay with it, linger over it, take comfort and joy in it. This in itself is prayer—the prayer of simple communion. You need not react with a rush of words; enjoy the Presence in gratitude and let it carry you. You may want to repeat a simple phrase like "My Lord and my God," or "My Shepherd," or whatever is meaningful to you at this point.

5. Passage: When the sense of presence fades, or if you feel nothing and God seems absent, do not worry. Turn back to the marked passage of scripture and begin to listen for what God may be communicating to you through it. Read it slowly (for some, silent reading allows the mind to wander, and reading aloud or whispering the words is preferable). Pause between phrases, let words echo and meanings sink in. If a word or phrase seems significant, remain with it and turn it over in your mind and heart until that sense fades. You need not find applications, implications, conclusions, or resolutions. This is prayer, not preparation for teaching or preaching. You are not "thinking about" these things so much as communicating with God through them. Be content to listen simply and openly, like a child in a loving parent's lap. Let God speak to your heart.

If the passage is a story with characters, let yourself enter into it imaginatively. Visualize the setting; see where you are, feel the textures, smell the fragrances, hear the sounds, taste whatever you can of the story. Find yourself in this setting as one of the characters, or as an onlooker. You might try becoming each of the characters (or type of characters) in turn, imagining how it feels to be in their place. Engage in dialogue between characters (sometimes it is easier to write dialogues out), then return to the parameters of the storyline in scripture.

When you have lived out the story as fully as you can, or the sense of its significance diminishes, remember that you are still in the loving presence of God. Think back through what was new to you in experiencing the text this way. If some fresh insight or grace of understanding was given, take time to express your gratitude.

Remember that we cannot earn, deserve, or force an experience of God's presence and communion. Our effort in personal prayer does not guarantee what can only be a grace. All we can do is open ourselves to God's mercy and friendship and dispose ourselves to receive divine love in the trust that it is a gift eagerly waiting to be given. God will speak to you in the ways and times most appropriate for you. Experience teaches us that time given faithfully to God is returned immeasurably enriched.

Source: From Prayer with Scripture by Marjorie J. Thompson in Weavings, May/June 1990. Copyright © 1990 by The Upper Room. Used with permission.

* Footnote: An insight from Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom. See Beginning to Pray (New York: Paulist Press, 1970), p. 2.