Praying the Scriptures

May 28th, 2013

Praying the scriptures is one of the oldest spiritual practices of the followers of Jesus. Yet few of us has been taught this practice which can enrich our teaching and preaching, but will also enrich our lives.

The earliest mention of praying the scriptures is found in writings by and about the Christians who moved to the desert in the third and fourth centuries. The leaders of these communities were called Ammas (women) and Abbas (men). All were teachers who taught others through sayings, stories, and the way they lived their lives.

Many of the teachings of these early desert Christians were grounded in their practice of praying the scriptures, in Latin lectio divina, or sacred reading. They took the counsel to "pray without ceasing" to mean that they should pray while they worked and studied, as well as during official times of prayer.

A number of today's teachers and pastors are rediscovering this ancient practice, not as a substitute for study, but as an additional tool. Very simply, study and prayer are two ways of approaching scripture. Each one supports the other.

We might say that when we study we are getting into the scripture, and when we pray we are getting the scripture into us. When we pray the passage we are not so much preparing the lesson, as we are preparing ourselves to teach.

Praying the scripture adds depth to our lives as well as to our teaching and preaching. Lectio divina involves listening for the voice of God through the scripture, a voice that addresses our listeners just as it addresses us. When we prepare ourselves to teach or preach we become the lesson or sermon. In this we follow the example of Jesus as, in some small way, the Word becomes flesh and dwells in us.

I began to pray the scriptures as a part of my preparation for teaching and preaching several years ago. I had been taught to study the scriptures, but not to pray them. The idea that I could pray the Bible passages that I was going to teach never occurred to me. After many years as a pastor, during a period of great personal struggle, I read about lectio divina and began to practice it.

There is no single way of praying the scriptures. However, based on my own experience, here are some steps you might try.


Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Since I am a pastor who preaches and teaches every week, I pray the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. I try to set aside a time morning and evening, Monday through Saturday. If I miss a morning or evening, a day, or even several days at a time, I do not give up. Rather, I simply reestablish my routine and hold to it until it is interrupted again.


Look over the passage of scripture you have chosen or that has been assigned in the study material or curriculum. This is the lectio of lectio divina. The word simply means reading. I read the passage aloud, because sometimes my ears catch a word or a turn of phrase that my eyes might miss. Also, it is not possible to skim the reading if you are reading aloud. In addition, I read the passage more slowly than I would ordinarily. This is to allow time for the words to sink into my consciousness. As I read, I listen for some communication from God to me through the scripture. Often this will come as a word, phrase, or image that catches my attention. Frequently the image or phrase is something I have never noticed before when reading this particular passage. Prepare to be surprised at what speaks to you from the scriptures. Remember that you are not the one doing the choosing. You are simply listening for what God is choosing to communicate to you (and to your class through you).


Close your eyes and hold the word, phrase, or image in your imagination. Perhaps even picture the scene happening before your inner eyes. You might also repeat silently or in a whispered voice, over and over again in time with your breathing, the word or phrase that spoke to you. This is called meditatio, or meditation, and is an extension of the listening process. If your thoughts drift away from the focus of your meditation, don't worry. Sometimes these drifting episodes provide connections to your life or the lives of others that are a part of God's address to you. At other times anxious thoughts intrude. When this happens just move them aside gently to wait for later, and return to the focus of your meditation. Soon you will be able to spend twenty minutes or more in meditation, but try a shorter period when you are just beginning. Ten minutes will do as you begin, and then extend the time as you become more used to being still. This will allow you to listen ever more carefully in your time of meditation without becoming discouraged.


Remember in prayer your class members and any persons or concerns that may have arisen during meditation. Often the distractions mentioned above are prompts to pray for someone or some situation. The ancients simply called this process oratio, or prayer. These prayers may be spoken aloud or silently as you choose. You may wish to include prayers for those on your congregation's prayer list in the bulletin or newsletter, as well as those on your own prayer list. This time of prayer may be as lengthy or brief as your time and list of concerns allow.


The final step is called contemplatio, or contemplation. This might be described as simply resting in God. My mind is clear of words and images, my voice is silent, my body is still. I simply sit in the presence of God, as I would sit with someone who loves me and whom I love. In the presence of the beloved we don't have to speak to experience the depth of love that is present.

Contemplation, like prayer, may be lengthy or brief. For some who have practiced praying the scriptures for years, clock time ceases to exist, and they experience a taste of God's time. Usually the entire process does not exceed thirty minutes, although you may extend it if you find the additional time to be of value.

Perhaps the best thing about praying the scriptures is that you don't have to teach or preach for this practice to enrich your life. The best thing of all is to know that praying a passage from the Bible can bring us closer to the God of the Bible.

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