Make meditation part of your COVID survival kit
Two Christian practices to get you started
In the age of COVID-19, many of us are more on edge than usual. Developing a sense of calm in the eye of the storm (or pending storm) is essential. Some Christians find engaging in “meditation” a way to bring peace and calm in these fragile times. Others might view the term “meditation” as a bit “suspect”, as they’ve only ever associated it with Eastern mysticism and a loss of consciousness. But interestingly, this idea of meditating on Scripture has a long, long history in Christendom and perhaps meditatio Scripturarum is not quite as “sus” as some Christians might fear.
The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that many Christians are somewhat reasonable at understanding the Scriptures but poor at receiving the Scriptures.
This idea is unpacked by Thomas Merton, who outlines two levels of understanding Scripture. The first is trying to unravel the meaning of the text through study (what did it mean to the original hearers in their context, what does it mean for us today?).
The second is a deeper level of insight that grows from our personal involvement and relatedness to the text.
This idea of receiving Scripture and personal engagement takes us beyond Scripture as a set of verses and truths “shoved into our heads” as knowledge, to prayerfully encountering and absorbing their truths. So that they are digested – penetrating into our “bloodstream”.
What’s key is our reading of Scripture and our prayer are explicitly linked. Through prayerful engagement, our reading of Scripture becomes a process of formation, not simply gaining information. As Eugene Peterson argues in Eat This Book, our reading of Scripture is not just about knowing more but becoming more.
Perhaps instead of constantly watching our phones for the next COVID update, we could make 15 minutes of meditating on Scripture each morning part of our COVID survival kit.
What are some ways of meditating on Scripture which can help us intentionally and authentically participate in this process of becoming – as the Spirit forms us? What might help to wake us up to the truths of Scripture, so they can more fully take formative root within us?
Lectio divina – divine reading
One way Christians for centuries have tried to engage meditatively in their reading of Scripture is through the ancient practice of lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”). Henri Nouwen explained lectio divina by pointing to a painting hanging in his apartment. It depicted a woman with an open Bible in her lap, her eyes lifted upward in prayer. The purpose is not gathering information but communing with God – listening, fusing God’s story with our story.
Since the beginnings of monasticism, monks in community and alone have recollected a small chunk of Scripture during the day. Then in the 12th century, the practice was important as a safeguard against scholastic reading of Scripture in the new universities. But it’s not just a Catholic practice. The Reformer, John Calvin, and the Puritan, Richard Baxter, both advocated the practice of lectio divina. They recognised the importance of prayerfully engaging with a small chunk of Scripture with the aim of deeper communion with our triune God.
The most frequently used text for lectio divina has been the Psalms – the prayer book of the Church.
Their poetic, metaphorical language draws us into a mix of praise, adoration, confession and lament. The Psalms often draw us into stunning reorientations – from lament into praise – and often with little transition. For example, “I have become like broken pottery” is soon followed by “but I trust in You, O Lord” (Psalm 31). In the midst of the storm, He is there and He is constant.
Too often we simply skim-read Scripture – as we might news headlines on our phones – and we can miss what’s there.
Lectio divina has four stages. Lectio is the first. We ask God to speak to us and select a short passage (possibly in the Psalms) that is only six to eight verses. We read those verses aloud a few times. Reading them aloud slows down our reading and impresses upon our visual and aural memories.
Lectio requires participation of the whole person – engaging more of our senses. Too often we simply skim-read Scripture – as we might news headlines on our phones – and we can miss what’s there. As we engage in this slow reading aloud of a small chunk of Scripture a few times, invariably a short phrase, a verse or a couple of words catch our attention. We can find ourselves drawn to the truth of those words; so we focus in, and start to engage in meditatio (meditation). We then read aloud that phrase that jumped out of the page a few times, so those words are memorised.
It’s like a cow chewing its cud; we ponder and digest that phrase. We weigh those words and assimilate them.
Eugene Peterson describes this meditatio as a shift from looking at the words as a critical outsider with “cool and detached expertise”, to entering the world of the text as an appreciative insider. It involves “participation” – something “to be entered into”.
I generally find that the phrase that catches my attention and draws me into meditation often also draws me into prayer for someone else. This is oratio – quick, short prayers in response to the truth in Scripture we have meditated upon. Often I pray that phrase I’ve meditated upon for my friend or family member. Then after my time of devotional reading, I text the words from the Psalm and let them know I prayed for them.
Lectio divina becomes a spontaneous dance between lectio (re-reading aloud the six to eight verses), meditatio (focusing in on the phrases that draw us, and repeating the words aloud), to lectio (short spontaneous prayers of response).
Sometimes, I also find myself in contemplatio – contemplation – when I’m in silence, in adoration, in God’s presence, in response to those verses and phrases resonating within me.
Lectio divina is a way of explicitly linking Bible reading and prayer as we “crawl” through a small chunk of Scripture.
Ignatian meditation – put yourself in the story
Another type of Christian meditation on Scripture practised for centuries is “Ignatian meditation” – named after the 16th century monk, Ignatius of Loyola. Narratives from the Gospels work well with this approach. We choose a small passage from the Gospels and try to reimagine the scene, then enter the story and make it our own. We engage our senses: what do we see, smell, taste, hear?
We imagine we’re one of Jesus’ disciples or the publican or the prodigal or perhaps just a participant on the road out of Jericho, having just witnessed the healing of Bartimaeus. We imagine the scene and go as far as imagining how close we’re standing to Jesus as he engages with others.
As Richard Foster argues, in this type of meditation on Scripture, if we’re reading about Abraham being asked to sacrifice Issac, for example, we too struggle with that decision to sacrifice our most precious son.
The aim is feeding our soul with a deep sense of loving God.
Often we become so familiar with the biblical narratives that they fail to stir us, move us or impact us. Imaginative engagement like Ignatian meditation – explicitly engaging our imagination and senses – can wake us to the wonder of these incredibly moving historical narratives and realities.
Both lectio divina and Ignatian meditation can help us ponder small chunks of Scripture, internalise and personalise the message, and ultimately become more open and attentive to God. Importantly, when we’ve engaged prayerfully with Scripture in these meditative ways, the words deeply pondered each morning tend to be more easily carried and recollected.
Friedrich von Hugel used to tell those he was spiritually nurturing that his practice of 15 minutes of daily devotional reading had been one of the great “sustenances” and “sources of calm”of his life, over many decades. He described this lingering, prayerful reading as like “letting a slowly dissolving lozenge melt imperceptibly in your mouth” or like a “caramel slowly dissolving”.
The aim is feeding our soul with a deep sense of loving God. He encouraged people to make it as regular as their daily shower.
Dr Robyn Wrigley-Carr is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Spirituality at Alphacrucis College. She is also an ADM Senior Research Fellow for 2020 at Anglican Deaconess Ministries, Sydney and the author of The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill.