This last weekend our church had its All Church Retreat. It was a great time. Games, fellowship, worship and fun. What I want to mention is the opportunity we had to have Dr. Carole Spencer come and speak to our congregation. We had two sessions with her, one on our ‘Spiritual Types’ and one on ‘Ancient Prayer Practices.’
The second session was the most beneficial for me because it reintroduced me to these different prayer practices. Too often in academia I find my spiritual life struggling as I read texts about Scripture, hermeneutical method, historical background, etc. Sometimes I forget to engage with God in the midst of it. So, it is good to be reminded that there is more to a deep spiritual faith than understanding what ancient Near Eastern parallels there are to the creation account in Genesis 1-2.
The first Ancient Prayer Practice she talked about is Lectio Divina (‘holy reading’). Lectio consists of 4 moments. They are (from wikipedia’s article):
This first moment consists in reading the scriptural passage slowly, attentively for several times.
The Christian, gravitating around the passage or one of its words, takes it and ruminates on it, thinking in God’s presence about the text. He or she benefits from the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination, i.e. the work of the Spirit that imparts spiritual understanding of the sacred text. It is not a special revelation from God, but the inward working of the Holy Spirit, which enables the Christian to grasp the revelation contained in the Scripture.
This is a response to the passage by opening the heart to God. It is not an intellectual exercise, but an intuitive conversation or dialogue with God.
This moment is characterized by a simple, loving focus on God. In other words, it is a beautiful, wordless contemplation of God, a joyful rest in his presence.
This method is difficult for me. Perhaps it is because I am trained to look at other things when I read Scripture (perhaps to my own detriment) but I have a hard time with this seemingly subjective practice of reading Scripture. It is not that I am opposed to it. I have heard Tony Campolo remark on numerous occasions that this practice is so beneficial and meaningful for him. But it is a practice that I have a hard time with.
The second Ancient Prayer Practice that Dr. Spencer spoke to us about was ‘Contemplative Prayer.’ My introduction to this kind of prayer came in college when, at the behest of a friend, I read a great little book called The Way of the Pilgrim. This book is a novel/travel diary of a monk who tries to take 1 Thess. 5:17 literally: ‘pray without ceasing’ (ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε).
The monk, or pilgrim, records his journey of praying the ‘Jesus Prayer’ on every breath. The Jesus Prayer is as follows:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
There was a time in college when I tried to live by this Prayer of Jesus. When I drove, I prayed the prayer on every breath. When I walked to class, I prayed the Prayer on every breath. Ultimately, I am not a monk, and I was unable to continue this for any stretch of time. However, after hearing a lecture from Tony Campolo, where he spoke of beginning his day with a similar prayer, I have, at times, tried to make this my morning prayer.
The idea behind this and other forms of contemplative prayer is that you clear your mind of all other things except the line you are praying. In this way, you make yourself more receptive of God’s message for you. It is receptive prayer, rather than request-based prayer. As someone who’s day consists of studying Scripture academically, this contemplative prayer is a great way to ‘center’ myself with the right perspective first thing in the morning. I hope that I am always open to other kinds of spiritual practices. These were not new to me, but I thank Dr. Spencer for reintroducing me and re-inspiring me to make these ‘receptive’ type prayer practices more part of my daily spiritual life. They are a great balance to the headiness of biblical academia.