Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 4 – Four Practices
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The primary question – and ultimately the only question – God asks of us is, “Will you let me love you into freedom?” Jesus is the embodiment of that question. There is a graciousness about people who have heard that question in their depths. Their lives are liberated and liberating.
The Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), writes:
“This above all else is needful: you must lay claim to nothing! Let go of yourself and let God act with you and in you as He will. This work is His, this Word is His, this birth is His, in fact every single thing that you are.”
(“Sermon One” in Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Volume I, translated and edited by M. O’C. Walshe, Element Books, 1989, 33.)
In another sermon, Eckhart’s gentle words – with just a touch of irony – are full of promise. They remind us that the pursuit of the moral life is in fact the opening of ourselves to the greatest possibilities that can be ours as human beings:
“My dear friend, what harm can it do you to do God the favour of letting Him be God in you?” (“Sermon Thirteen (b)” in Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Volume I, op cit, 118.)
Our response is one of facilitation rather than mastery. We must work hard to get out of the way and facilitate the blossoming of the gift. Much of our effort goes into listening so that we can hear what is going on and submit to the truth of it.
In the monastic tradition there are four special practices – interrelated and ongoing – that can be of great assistance in this work of facilitation. They are known by their Latin names because those Latin names cannot be satisfactorily translated.
The first practice is slowed down reading. This is a reflective, ruminating kind of reading called lectio divina. The primary text for lectio is the Bible and the primary context is the community. However, other texts and other contexts are not to be excluded. The important thing is the way we read: “He does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and its meaning spreads through his blood.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans M D Herter Norton, W W Norton, 1949, 201.)
Allow the Word to work within, “your spirit and the Holy Spirit bearing united witness” (see Romans 8:16). You are reading for formation, not information. A medieval guide writes: “When you read, seek for savor, not science. The Holy Scripture is the well of Jacob from which the waters are drawn which will be poured out later in prayer. Thus there will be no need to go to the oratory to begin to pray; but in reading itself, means will be found for prayer and contemplation.” (Cited by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Fordham University Press, 1957/1988, 73.)
The second practice is study and research called meditatio. This should not be confused with what is commonly called “meditation” – a practice that generally moves right away from thinking as such. Lectio will often give rise to questions. This takes us to books or knowledgeable people or personal thinking. Writing this out in a journal can be helpful. Lectio might also awaken in us personal issues. We could include the addressing of those personal issues under this heading too.
The third practice is simply talking to God, referred to as oratio. The lectio and meditatio will often lead to informal and spontaneous conversation with God.
The fourth practice is being wordlessly present to the Presence, referred to as contemplatio. The lectio, meditatio and oratio bring us quite naturally to a moment in which the Psalmist’s words become very real: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).