"When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."' When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." (Matthew 1:18-24)
It has been said that the most frequent exhortation in the scriptures is, "Do not be afraid." At the very least, it is the common introduction to all of the angelic messages delivered in our Advent Gospel stories -- the announcements to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds.
What is our experience of Emmanuel, God-with-us? What if we trusted that the voice we heard, the feeling in our hearts or guts was really the presence of a messenger of God? Might we not find ourselves at least a little afraid?
These Advent stories, like our own meetings with angels, may strike us as both familiar and strange. We may get lost in the familiarity of these scriptures, no longer able to hear the message because we know the words so well. Conversely, we can get lost in their foreignness. Can my experience of God in prayer be anything like Joseph's or Mary's encounter with an angel? Should I be afraid?
One way to renew our sense of awe at the particularity of how God's angel (a word which in Greek means messanger) speaks to us in prayer is by reading the scriptures according to the ancient practice of lectio divina or "sacred reading." Lectio divina is not Bible study or even devotional reading. It is a contemplative practice that invites the Spirit to speak through the scripture into my life as it is, as I am, right now.
Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. has written a beautifully detailed article on lectio divina including instruction for doing lectio with a group, but here is the basic form of the practice: Lectio proceeds through four phases. I like to think of them as movements, like in a musical composition or a dance. The dance metaphor is perhaps more apt, because, while they are always presented in order, my own experience is of sometimes moving back and forth among them as I pray.
The first of the four movements is called lectio, or reading. This is where we first encounter the passage. Note that this practice of prayer can be applied not only to scripture, but to any reading that inspires the heart. What's more, I have found that these movements, this way of thinking, applies as well to things I might see or experience, an encounter with nature, a conversation with a loved one, an image that strikes me. So, while we call the first movement, "reading," it is really about becoming aware of the details of the object of our prayer.
If we are dealing with a text, lectio is the time where we read for understanding. What is happening in the text? What are the meanings of the words? If we are reflecting on an image or an experience, this is the time for noticing all the sensory details. Just get to know the object of our meditation.
For how long should we remain in this phase? Until we feel our hearts drawn more deeply into our reflection. We then pass quite naturally into meditatio, mediation, the second movement. In the Benedictine tradition, from which this practice comes, meditatio is also called rumination, literally, chewing on, as a cow chews her cud.
During the process of meditatio we allow the text or the image or experience to speak to us in this moment. What do we notice? Is there a word or a phrase that seems to stick with us? Does an image come up? What do we see or hear? I experience meditatio as the heart of the experience. If I trust the Word to speak, I almost always notice something arise that wants my attention.
Once I recognize the something that is speaking to me, I just attend to it. I let it unpack itself in me. Why that? I might wonder. I listen for the thing in me that feels resonance with the word or phrase or image or idea that has come up. Where is this awareness leading me? What is it pointing to in my life? What does it have to teach me? Of what is it reminding me?
As I recognize how this text or image or experience is speaking particularly to me in this moment, I am led to the next movement of the prayer, oratio. Oratio means prayer. Here I reach out to God who is reaching out to me through the Word. What response does the awareness that has arisen in meditatio call forth from me? Does it remind me of my need or the needs of others? Does it lead me to thanksgiving? Does it call forth praise or awe? Whatever it is I express it to God.
As God has now spoken to me through the Word and I have responded to God, there is nothing left to say. At this point we are invited into the final movement of the dance, contemplatio, or contemplation. In contemplatio we simply rest in the presence of God. There is nothing to do, only to be.
As we abide in God and allow the message we have received to rest in us, we begin to experience the peace on which the angel's exhortation rests: Do not be afraid.
Using either the passage from Matthew above, last Sunday's Gospel, or any devotional reading or passage that comes to you, try the practice of lectio divina. Give yourself twenty minutes of quiet. Don't worry about doing it right. Slow down and let the passage you have selected open itself up to you. As a wise Benedictine sister said as she introduced us to lectio, "You may have heard this scripture passage a hundred times, but you haven't heard it today."
If you want more information about the process, you can refer to the article cited above or try this one, which is brief and direct.
If you want to go deeper into learning about the practice, try here or here.
After you have experienced this form of prayer, notice how it felt to you. What was the experience like? Are you willing to try it again? What did you like about it? Did anything trouble you?
Consider using a different sort of text or an experience from your own life. There is nothing that comes to us in which we cannot discover sacredness.
Next week: "Let It Be Done to Me"