boatandbirds

Lectio divina: paying attention

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About Katherine

Katherine Willis Pershey is a minister in Western Springs, Illinois. In addition to writing a personal blog, she is a contributor to the Christian Century, a storyteller for A Deeper Family, and the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change. She and her husband, Benjamin, have two daughters.

The poet Mary Oliver writes that the way to live a life is this: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I love the poem, but it convicts me. I worry that I’m losing my capacity to pay attention.

Just as I spend hours toggling between different windows in my web browser, I flit from thought to thought, task to task. In order to focus on one thing, I have to intentionally withdrawal myself from the distractions. It takes effort.

I’m far from alone in this; Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, was acclaimed as a “Silent Spring for the literary mind.”

I worry about this because I believe that paying attention is important, and not just for my productivity at work and for my relationships with those around me. I’m concerned with the ways my “monkey mind” affects my spirit.

One of my favorite definitions of prayer is that it is the practice of paying attention. Not merely that you must pay attention while you’re praying, but that prayer itself is the act of attending: to God, but also to the beauty – and ugliness – before us.

Paying attention is the precursor to so many critical virtues: how can I be grateful or compassionate or wise or loving if I have not first paid attention?

As a person of faith, I plumb my religious tradition for wisdom to step out of the “shallows” and into the deep. The ancient Christian practice of lectio divina – divine reading – is a rich and adaptable tool for cultivating the art of paying attention. It is a method of prayerful reading that is almost as simple – and profound – as Mary Oliver’s instructions for life.

A fuller introduction is available here, but the gist of the practice is this: select a text. Christians traditionally focus on a biblical text, but one could also select a poem or prayer. Read it slowly, intentionally. (Yes, it’s frustrating: the only way to learn to pay attention is to – wait for it – pay attention.)

Consider how the text is speaking to you. Listen for the “still, small voice” of the Spirit. What word or phrase moves you? Does the passage evoke gratitude, sorrow, awe, confession?

Respond accordingly. For many, this may include spending some time in prayer.

Finally, rest in the presence of the sacred. Let the words find their way into the marrow of your spirit.  Just be, trusting that God is with you.

I cannot multi-task when I’m practicing lectio divina. It doesn’t miraculously quiet “monkey mind,” but this small act of reverence is also a powerful form of resistance. I will not let technology and bad habits encumber my spirit. I refuse to accept that my attention can only and ever be divided.

If we cultivate our ability to pay attention, I haven’t a single doubt that we will indeed be astonished. We won’t merely tell better stories; we will live better stories.

Have you ever practiced lectio divina?

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Comments

  1. Not in so many words . . . as a Christian, I do take time to stop, read the Bible, and meditate. Using this word for pondering or thinking on the text, this step does help me pay attention. Though I still get “monkey brain” and find myself telling my children, “I’ll be with you in just a moment,” I stay focused and then redirect my focus to another being all there.

    Thanks for the post. I did not realize my daily devotional helped train my brain while depending on God for my daily needs and soothing my soul.

  2. Oh my gosh this is very exciting to me! I just finished a course at our church on the practice of lectio divina, and I feel like it has brought a long-needed refreshment to my time with Jesus! I found that it was a little uncomfortable at first. I realized through the discomfort that I have a mentality of wanting to “accomplish” what I read. Lectio divina has helped me to see the beauty and value of “soaking” rather than accomplishing. I have experienced many moments that feel like sunlight breaking through on a cloudy day. I have missed many of these moments in the past I’m sure because of my speed reading approach.

    If you’re going to attempt lectio divina, I have a few suggestions: First, pick a short section to read. It’s much easier to listen to your heart’s response when your heart is not trying to respond to 20 different themes. Second, try reading out loud one of the times. There is something that happens – I can’t explain it – when you actually hear the words audibly. It stirs my soul in a completely different way. Finally, if you are reading the Bible try using a different translation from time to time. Sometimes I get so used to my go-to translation that I find myself jumping ahead on words and phrases I’m familiar with.

    Thank you for writing this fantastic article! I’m so happy to hear lectio divina has blessed you too!

  3. Just this morning I sat just trying to quiet my mind for a few minutes. To really listen to the birds chirping and the other sounds of nature God created around me. It is so hard!

  4. I went away on a personal retreat earlier this year and a friend shared the practice of lectio divina with me and I did it while away. It was so good.
    But since coming home I haven’t gotten into the habit and I know it would be so good and beneficial to do so.
    Thanks for the gentle nudge and for sharing that it isn’t as easy as it seems.

  5. I have heard of lectio divina, but I haven’t had a quiet moment in years to put it into practice ;)

    OK, kidding aside, we practice our own version of this method of meditation; I call it ‘Listening to the Forest’.

    My children and I will sit on a log, or lie on the grass or forest floor and just be STILL. Suddenly, the world is alive with small sounds. We soak up all the little greetings from the birds and watch the trees wave at us.

    It is extremely calming.

  6. You had me at Mary Oliver. :)

    And seriously, I need to read The Shallows. Off to order it now.

    Good to see you here, Katherine!

  7. Katherine, thank you for this lovely post. I’ve been hearing about ‘lectio divina’ here and there, and have been intrigued for awhile. I’m acutely aware of how scattered my brain has become since the internet became a daily part of my world. And it has gone on to affect everything, not just my time in front of a screen.

    I need to incorporate practices that retrain my mind and spirit to be still, to pay attention, and to worship.

  8. I enjoy the same tradition by a different name (quiet time, or daily devotions). For me the key is having a set of questions that “unlock” the richness of the text so prayer becomes a conversation instead of a monologue.

  9. Our Worships Arts pastor is leading a class on this right now in April! I am finding it easier with practice, and it is especially calming for me in an unusually busy season of my life. Timely post!

  10. My One Word this year is FOCUSED. I am finding myself so distracted even when I want to be fully FOCUSED. It is our media and access to multiple things at one. (I have three tabs open now as I type this and check my phone). I will begin this practice today to find FOCUS! Thanks for this

  11. This is fantastic! I’ve been refining my morning routine with contemplative prayer, scripture reading, and journaling… Love how you get to the core of it– practice paying attention!

  12. I was in a Bible study for four years of college that practiced lectio divina on a weekly basis. We met at 10 p.m., and though shutting my brain off to distractions was difficult, our leader encouraged us not to feel guilty about distractions. He would say, “If your mind wanders, just slowly bring it back to center.” It was an incredibly helpful practice and a great way to let go of the stress of the day. I loved the contemplative and quiet space in a dark, candle-lit room; I could allow God to enfold me in his Word.

    I will look for a time to practice this regularly! Thanks for the reminder of a beautiful tradition!

  13. I love these words: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” They really awe me and give me reflection. Certainly a good motto to live by.

  14. YES, I practice Lectio Divina*. It’s purpose is to draw one closer to Christ.
    *Lectio Divina (pronounced “Lec-tsee-oh Di-vee-nah”) means “Divine Reading” and refers specifically to a method of Scripture reading practiced by monastics since the beginning of the Church. ~ Fish Eaters

  15. avatar
    Virginia Knowles says:

    Thanks for writing! By divine coincidence, I referred to the same Mary Oliver poem in a blog post earlier this week. http://virginiaknowles.blogspot.com/2013/04/mindful-in-moment.html

  16. I thought THE SHALLOWS was one of the most compelling books I read last year. I took it with me on vacation, a month I’d already decided to cut back on my time spent online, and found myself copying numerous sentences I wanted to think through and share.

  17. I have recently noticed how by having a phone with access to my to-do list, ebooks, Pinterest, blogs and so much more has caused me to constantly be consuming information. My brain rarely settles. But as I was gardening yesterday, the sky was blue and spring is starting to bloom, I realized how restorative that quiet time is. I need more of that and yes, it needs to be intentional, a planned part of my day. Thank you for the reminder!

  18. Thank you for this lovely post, Katherine. The timing is perfect – today is my day off and I was praying for some soul time… now I have a tool to focus my energy so I can recharge effectively.

  19. Great post, Katherine. I love lectio divina and you gave a great explanation of the beautiful spiritual discipline. I find that it’s become more and more difficult for me to completely unplug and be still over the past couple of years and so having a weekly holy hour at our parish’s chapel of perpetual adoration has been really key for me to force myself to stop, pray, and listen. What a gift. Thanks for a lovely post.

  20. Beautiful post! I really needed to read this- I have been trying to “recooperate” my mind lately and this might be the ticket. Thank you!

  21. In 2001 I went to a “silent retreat” and Mark Yaconelli taught us lectio divina. This practice saves my soul time and time again. This week I meditated on The Message version of Matthew 11:28: “Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.”
    Thankful you are sharing this practice with others.

  22. this is great. thank you.
    there is a chapter in brian McLaren’s ‘naked spirituality’ called simply “here.” the gist is that, before any other kind of spiritual growth or transformation can occur, you pretty much have to show up for your life. true stuff.

    I think all moms struggle to be truly present–with kids and elsewhere. Good reminder that prayer can center us for all other things.

  23. I switched between about 10 different web-browser windows while reading this post. Clearly, I needed the message. =)

  24. I’ve read, and reread Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Peace is Every Step” for this exact reason. Very, very important. I’ve not read “The Shallows” , but will definitely put it on the list :-) Thanks for this.

  25. I haven’t heard that saying before, but I absolutely love it. Daily, I’m striving to breath in all of this beauty and really “see” what’s going on around me. Thank you for sharing!

  26. Thank you for the post. It was absolutely what I needed to hear today!

  27. We do something like that in a way, all together, during our school hours. I call it Circle Time and consider it our day’s essential: http://www.simplyconvivial.com/tag/circle-time

    I love it then when phrases from our recitation/memory Scriptures wind up in the kids’ everyday conversations.

  28. i love seeing your words here!

    i’ve mostly practiced lectio divina in groups, and i love teaching it to students and teenagers. there is a place for study, but i love when kids realize that scripture–that God–can speak to their hearts directly. teachers are great, but we don’t need intermediaries to hear–just the ability to be still awhile.

  29. Love this practice- and how it syncs with what I’m doing this week. I went dark on social media. I’m transitioning from Uganda back to America for a year and I needed space for my soul to breathe- this forgotten practice will help! Thank you!

  30. I actually RUN from Lectio Divina. It is a form of mysticism that is not compatible with Biblical Christianity and it is not a right use or correct reading of scripture. It is a practice that comes out of monastic mysticism that is divisive and contrary to sound Biblical doctrine, sound hermeneutics.

    At it’s core is a man-made 4 step “ladder” that presumes that I can climb from earth to heaven. How arrogant is that? We don’t ascend to God. We are sinful beings to whom Jesus Christ had to descend, in the form of a man, to save us from our sin. To think that there is more, beyond what God has given us in His Word is prideful. I cannot practice a mystical belief that promises that if I follow these steps God will give me what I want – He is not a “Divine Butler” or a genie in a bottle.

    As stated by Luther, the Word is the main focus and goal of the believer. The Word becomes the language of our prayers. Prayer is not above the text and reaching God, beyond the Word, is outside of scripture is not biblical.

    Practicing Lectio Divina is to practice an altered state of consciousness. Here’s who else practices this:

    Hindus/Buddhists – Mantra meditation

    Muslim Sufis – Chanting and ritual dancing

    Judaism – Kabbalah

    Chinese/Japanese – Taoism

    Native American Indians – Drumming and peyote

    Roman Catholic Monks – Lectio Divina, Contemplative Prayer

    This state (well known throughout the occult world, incidentally), the mind is parked. It’s in neutral. It can only receive information, much like a radio receiver, and is unable to critically process data – something we are never told to do in Scripture (“Be alert!”).

    You can learn more for yourself.

    http://www.soundwitness.org/evangel/Downloads/lectio_divina.pdf
    http://www.extremetheology.com/contemplative-mysticism/

    • avatar
      Katherine says:

      Thank you for saying this. You summed up my terrifying reaction to coming across the blog post in my feed. Run.

  31. I’ve never heard the term, but I do practice it. Aside from the Bible, a favorite book is “Valley of Vision”. It’s a collection of puritan prayers. The complexity of the language makes it difficult to simply skim, so it lends itself well to slow reading and deep reflection.

  32. In response to Debi’s post, Lectio Divina actually does arise out of Sacred Scripture. Two examples among many: Philip’s opening of the Scriptures for the eunuch, a Gentile (Acts 8), or Jesus’ opening of them to the wayward disciples (Luke 24). Lectio Divina is not Pelagianism, that old heresy (and denounced as such as early as the 5th century) that depends on primarily human action in ascending to God. That there is “more” in Christ, the living Word, is actually stated by the evangelists (John 21 being an explicit example). Luther had no problem with the Immaculate Conception (neither did Calvin), a doctrine that has, at best, a shaky Biblical foundation (see the kecharitomene debate, Luke 1, for this). Finally, the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (in paragraphs 13 through 16) affirms that goodness and light found in all truth-seeking religions is incorporated in Christ, as He affirms in drawing all humanity to Himself (John 12:32). We ought to run from false mysticism; however, Lectio Divina, understood in the constant teaching of the historical Church, has borne much fruit in the intellects, wills, and souls of the faithful in deepening their relationships with God and neighbor.

  33. avatar
    Katherine says:

    Katherine, my fellow-named sister of our Lord, I speak out of sincerity and love. Be cautious of this discipline. I speak to all my sisters here, do not be carried away by every wind of doctrine. (Ephesians 4:14) You tread on very shaky ground when you begin to question what a text “is saying to you.” I also take an issue with choosing any prayer or poem. Scripture alone is theopneustos – God-breathed. (2 Tim. 3:16) We are to pursue God, we are to read the Bible and see that it is about Christ and Him crucified – from Genesis to Revelation. Again, I plead – be wary. Ask the Lord for discernment and wisdom. This practice, which is not as benign as the article describes, undermines the sufficiency of Scripture. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8) Cling to Christ and the sufficiency of His Word, which is only revealed in Scripture, and not in our minds through inner-contemplation and “still, small voices.” The Word speaks to us about how truly depraved and unworthy we are, and how amazingly holy, compassionate and merciful God is. God is not found in between the lines of Scripture, but in the very living words themselves. Amen.

  34. To help myself be quiet and meditate on Scripture, ponder God’s word, so that my mind and heart can focus on the truth – I’ve found this prayer resource very useful: http://www.pray-as-you-go.org, you can download it like a podcast, each day has a short segment of instrumental music with someone reading from the Bible, it might be a bit “high church” for some, but it has helped me focus on God and His word. Thank you for this post Katherine! There was another blog post I read a while ago that really helped remind me of the importance of meditating on God’s word, from Good Morning Girls: http://www.goodmorninggirls.org/2012/10/take-time-to-meditate/

  35. I have found that focusing on just one verse of scripture at a time has changed my scripture time. Oh the things I can find in just one scripture when focus is present.

  36. I, too, feel like it’s getting harder and harder to pay attention. I have trouble reading a book without becoming distracted and feeling the urge to check my phone or email or Facebook or, or…

    I have practiced lectio devina many times with my community group but I haven’t done it alone in a very long time. Good idea to give it a go individually as a way to practice paying attention. Thanks!

  37. What a lovely bunch of bloggers and a new concept, lectio devina! Spending too much time on the internet does make us fast and fragmented, making paying attention an essential skill to practise.

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