Contemplation and Prayer VII©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
For centuries, lectio divina was the sacred door to contemplative prayer. Though typically associated with Benedictine tradition, its practice is particularly well suited to Franciscan spirituality; in part, because of Saint Francis’ practice of withdrawing to remote solitudes for prayer and, in part, because of the close association between the first fraternity and local Cistercians.
The term refers to spiritual reading with prayerful reflection, not theological study (neither exegetics nor hermeneutics are intended.) Lectio refers to reading as a stimulus to personal prayer and meditation. The purpose is to assimilate divine truth in a manner that strengthens or reforms our living out of faith.
The Rule of Saint Benedict is clear concerning the value of contemplating the word of God: “For anyone hastening on to the perfection of the monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? Or what book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator? Then, besides the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the rule of our holy father Basil. For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues.”
Some people imagine that lectio divina is only suited to monastic life. That perception is quite understandable because our modern lifestyle is much more conducive to rapid reading and short bursts of concentration. We get the point of learning facts and theories but are reticent to sit quietly for long periods while simply ruminating on a word, a phrase, a verse or a short passage.
One method involves reading the sacred text out loud rather than silently because more senses are engaged in the encounter and interaction with the words. Reading aloud with a variation of pacing and intonations also helps to savour the text.
Though the goal is to digest the text and allow it to penetrate the mind and heart, it is worth noting that memorization was originally part of the Benedictine method because it enabled the monk to continue to be inspired by the text outside of formal prayer time. This practice remains fruitful when and where it can be applied.
Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading (lectio divina).
(Benedictine Rule 48:1)
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Saint Francis spent much of his prayer time contemplating the goodness of God after the inspiration of sacred Scripture. The four Gospels, specifically, were the nourishment and inspiration for his continuous reflection on divine nature and grace. Many verses are quoted by him at various pivotal moments of his life—chiefly his conversion and preparation of the rule that would govern religious life. We can assume that he reflected on these at length.
For instance, verse 9 of Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 10: After bidding the apostles to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “proclaim the good news…cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” Jesus instructed them to “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belt, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” The message was understood to advocate purposeful simplicity that is ordained to a sacred task. This would be the practical aspect of evangelical poverty for Saint Francis.
For emphasis, the message would echo in the Gospel of Luke (10: 4): “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” The verse would call the early brothers to avoid distractions in the resolute pursuit of their mission. And again in Mark’s Gospel (6: 8): “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belt.” Saint Francis was criticised for his strict adherence to the vow of poverty but one can hardly question the authenticity of his fidelity to Lady Poverty.
In fact, so attentive was Saint Francis to the wisdom of Holy Scripture that his own writings were little more than a quilt of biblical phrases. This is particularly notable in his Admonitions, often cited as the most significant reflections of his own understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and in his Earlier Rule (Regula Non Bullata.)
The rule and life of the brothers was developed over a period of many years following the inception of the Order. It begins with a series of four quotations simply linked with the conjunction “and.” Matthew19: 21 refers to the need to dispose of personal possessions in order to follow Jesus; Matthew 16: 24 refers to self-denial and taking up the cross that is unique to each person; Luke 14: 26 instructs the disciple to prefer to follow Jesus above all else, including family and life itself; and Matthew 19:29 adds that leaving family, house and land will be rewarded with eternal life. These are all themes that are familiar in the life of Saint Francis. Clearly, the contemplation of Scripture had a major influence in the development of his spirituality and discernment.
After the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the firm of the Holy Gospel.
(Saint Francis of Assisi, My Testament)
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Marcello Montanari recalls in a book on how to prepare lectio divina the contemplative prayer life of Saint Francis. In it, he outlines seven steps.
1. Read attentively: Choose a passage from Scripture and read it over very slowly, attentively and devoutly for five to 10 minutes after having prayed to the Holy Spirit to open your mind and heart to fully understand his message. Remember how Saint Francis opened the Lectionary three times in the Church of St. Nicholas to find out what God had in mind for him and his new brothers.
2. Meditate or reflect: Chew and ruminate on the Word of God, and apply what you have read to your life. You must let your life stand before the light of God’s Word. Again, look up a text or incident from the life of Saint Francis which would illustrate this for you.
3. Pray: This is your way of responding to the God who has spoken to you. We have an example in Celano where Francis, reflecting upon the Gospel text is so moved, that he changes it into a prayer of praise to God.
4. Contemplate: Under the guidance of the Spirit, little by little, you will feel the desire to see the One who has spoken to you, to taste his love, to contemplate his wonderful deeds. You will even forget yourself to lose yourself in the praise of God and to rejoice in the Spirit as did Saint Francis. This is the path to the highest form of mystical prayer where the soul is lost in an ocean of love.
5. Discern: In the light of the reading which you have prayed over and contemplated, the Spirit helps you to understand what you should do, like the answer to the plea of Saint Francis: “Lord, What do you want me to do?…At Your word I will let down the nets.” Recall examples of choices and decisions from the life of Saint Francis.
6. Live the Word of God: You must begin to form your life according to the words which you have read, according to the life of Christ which you have contemplated … to live the Gospel. Again we have the example of Saint Francis who was no idle hearer of the Word but hastened to put into practice what he heard.
7. Return to prayer: Again, look to the life of Saint Francis that he dedicated to preaching the message of conversion and reconciliation. The greater part of the year was set aside for prayer and contemplation, the fruit of which was purposeful apostolic action according to the will of the Father, the example of Jesus Christ and the light of the Holy Spirit.
We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
(1 Corinthians 2: 13)
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May God reveal to your mind and heart what it means to be loved unconditionally in the absolute purity of grace. May the example of Saint Francis draw you nearer to God as revealed in his Word through the unobstructed contemplation of the Good News of Christ Jesus.
Crib and Cross