Praying is hard. I’ll admit it: I find it difficult to pray. Do you? Whether you struggle to pay attention while praying (“Lord, I know I need to—hey, what’s that noise?—focus more”), you don’t know what to pray about (“Let’s see…. Hmm. Am I supposed to pray about what to pray about?”), or you don’t know how to pray (“What do you mean we have twenty minutes to pray? What am I supposed to even do?”), you are not alone. I have had all of those thoughts myself. Everyone is working to grow in holiness on this side of heaven. Prayer is a key component of our relationship with the Lord, so it’s critical that we learn to pray and to communicate with him through prayer.
If you’re anything like me, though, you could use a few pointers. That is where I come in. I have owned a copy of Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina for about a year, but I never found a good moment to read it. Now I have, and I am so glad because it is a resource I needed, and perhaps it’s one you need, too.
Gray begins by acknowledging that many Christians find prayer difficult. That reassurance is overwhelming! You are not unholy if you struggle to pray. You are not a bad Christian. If you don’t struggle with prayer, you cannot hold onto the secret. Gray reminds us that no one really knows how to pray; the Spirit teaches us (Romans 8:26–27), and he continues to pray for us forever in words only God can speak to God. Ask the Spirit to help you pray, especially when you feel as though you just can’t pray.
The example of the saints, however, shows us that intimate communication with God is indeed possible. We can pray. Prayer will draw us toward the heroic virtue that will lead to our eternal union with God. The secret of the saints is that they knew God speaks through Scripture to us as individuals. When God in the burning bush speaks to Moses, he speaks to us. When Jesus speaks to God the Father, we speak to the Father. When the Psalmist demands that God curse his enemies (more than once!), he expresses our human rage. We must find ourselves in Scripture, for it is God’s true word.
Ultimately, Gray gives the reader a tutorial in lectio divina, the practice of “holy reading” that has been the foundation of monastic life for centuries. He offers multiple beautiful and original metaphors, but the basic image is that of a ladder. A ladder can only be climbed one rung at a time. If we on Earth begin at the bottom, the glory of God lies at the top.
The first step is lectio, reading. Like Saint Augustine, Saint Anthony of Egypt, and Saint Francis did before you, take the Bible and read. Read it like a newspaper article first. Figure out who is in the story, what is happening, where it takes place, and when (in the context of the book and in salvation history) the action takes place. If you’re new to praying with Scripture (or to Bible study at all), this may take some time. That’s okay. Recognizing the details is important and valuable.
You can’t stay in the details, though. You must move on to meditatio, meditation. Christian meditation is not an emptying of the mind in order to marvel at its emptiness, but a suppression of self to make room for the one God to enter. Dust off a chair, put your stuff on the floor, and welcome God to be seated. Why is all this happening in Scripture? What was God doing there? Why did God give us this word?
Next comes oratio, prayer. Yes, prayer is one of the steps in the process of prayer. Now that you know the “why” of Scripture, identify what’s in it for you. What comes to mind from your life? Where have you succeeded? Where have you failed? How is your relationship with God changed or going to change? Your foundation is the very word of God. Where is it leading you?
Then there is contemplatio, contemplation. Gray’s exposition on contemplation is so rich and eloquent (without being too dense—fear not!) that I can’t even begin to break it down. When you read it, you will understand why so many writers, speakers, and teachers define contemplation as an experience of prayer beyond definition.
Finally, Gray encourages us into a fifth step, operatio, putting the fruit of prayer into action. As Christians, we know that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Gray gives us easy steps to put our prayer into action. Christian spirituality embraces both contemplation and action. Even when you have finally grasped the one, you must always return to the other.
Are you hungry for more? Read Praying Scripture for Change, give lectio divina a try, and open your heart to the Lord who awaits you with open arms. This very evening, we will celebrate that our God came to Earth as a newborn child to share our experience as humans and save us through them. What better gift to offer Jesus than the enrichment of our own humanity, communicating with his divinity? What a perfect gift indeed.
Your Advent Challenge is to focus on the Holy Spirit. Celebrating the Nativity of the Lord is a beautiful opportunity to focus on Christ’s humanity, but a for a change, allow your human weaknesses to be open to the Spirit. When you pray (or attempt to pray) this Christmas, ask the Spirit to help. Stay alert to how your prayer continues, grows, or is redirected. Ask the Spirit of God what he wants you to pray about, who he wants you to pray for, and what he wants you to do about it. Then do it!