Praying with Scripture

In my post on Monday I mentioned that I am best able to avoid the various distortions or reductions of the faith by means of a regular (daily) prayer life, and in particular, a prayer life centered on prayerful reading of the Holy Bible.

In fact, one of the most powerful of the many forms of prayer in the Christian tradition is reflection and meditation on the words of the Bible. And even within this form of prayer are a variety of specific ways of doing so.One form of praying with Scripture that’s very ancient but has also seen a resurgence among Christians over the last few decades is called lectio divina (LEK-tseeo dee-VEE-na), which is latin for divine reading. This is the approach that I (attempt to!) use, and I’d like to explain it a bit here.

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome in His Study, 1460-1475

 

Having originated in the sixth century A.D. particularly within the early monasteries founded by St. Benedict, lectio divina consists of four (or five) steps. Entire books have been written on this process (here’s a helpful blog post), and I’ll have more to say in future posts, but in summary, here are the steps:

  • Reading: a slow reading of a passage from Scripture
  • Meditation: a prayerful reflection on the passage
  • Prayer: one’s attention now turns from the passage to God, addressing Him in light of the passage
  • Contemplation: now instead of addressing God in prayer, one simply rests in His presence, contemplating Him
  • (Some add Action: a resolution to a specific action based on this time of prayer)

Over the last four years lectio divina has been an important part of my own personal prayer, helping me listen more and talk less (a topic on which I have much to say, pun intended  ;-).

What forms of praying with the Bible have you found helpful?

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Who Worships False Idols These Days?

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In yesterday’s post I referred to doctrine, morality and piety as (potential) false idols. One might have rightly asked, “Really? Who worships false idols these days? I haven’t seen any golden calves around in quite some time.”

That’s certainly true: we no longer build statues made out of precious metals and worship them as deities. But that doesn’t mean that idol worship has gone completely by the wayside… it’s simply become more subtle and sophisticated.

I’d like to take a short post to briefly explain.

In short, we commit idol worship anytime we place at the center of our lives anything but God. Yesterday’s post was focused on some of the ways that those who are striving to follow Him can unwittingly fall into idol worship by placing some good things at the center.

And that gets to an important point: a false idol isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we “worship”: it can be a good thing, too. It’s simply giving anything — good or bad — greater centrality in our lives than we ought to.

So idol worship could be drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc., but it can also be good things that we actually overvalue: our work, our hobby, or even our relationships… it’s possible to replace God at the center of our lives with our friends or family, even our spouses or children.

We are both called and empowered to live an integrated life, in which we give everything its due. When we fail to do so, when we over- or undervalue anything significant… we run into problems. And that’s not to say that an angry old guy with a white beard “up there” is going to shake his finger at us… it’s to say that when we misprioritize anything of significance, the result is dis-order in our lives… dis-integration.

Like it or not, we are hardwired by God, for God. In the oft-quoted words of St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” When we get the center right, everything else falls into place. But when we don’t…

Yesterday I mentioned that one of my temptations is to overvalue doctrine; another of my temptations is to overvalue technology, to give it greater due than I ought. I tend to do this by having my cell phone at hand and obsessively checking my email — work & personal — when I might be spending that time being fully present to my wife and my children.

I find it helpful to reflect regularly on this: what are the things in my life that I overvalue? What are the things that I’m giving more time or effort to than is due them? In short… what are my personal false idols?

The False Idols of Doctrine, Morality and Piety

How’s that for a title? As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s entirely possible for a Christian to make false idols out of certain teachings (doctrine), certain behaviors (morality) or certain prayers or ways of praying (piety). How? By putting them at the center of his faith in place of what belongs there: Jesus of Nazareth. As odd as it may seem to you, I know that it’s possible… I’ve done it.

I need to be absolutely clear here: in no way am I saying that doctrine, morality and piety are bad or even unimportant. On the contrary, they are both good and essential.

What I am saying is that they are not the beating heart of our faith. No, that place belongs only to Jesus Christ. Right doctrine, morality and piety flow from Him… they cannot replace Him. As soon as we elevate any of them to the center of our faith we have erected a false idol and have reduced Christianity to something else: ideology, moralism or pietism, none of which is authentic Christianity.

Continue reading “The False Idols of Doctrine, Morality and Piety”

New Foundations

 

In Monday’s post I discussed the importance of faith impacting every aspect of one’s life. Many people agree with that sentiment, but it can be challenging to actually implement it, beyond the basics of living rightly. How to we build our entire life on our faith?

In other words, faith-impacting-life is about more than morality… it goes deeper than that. But how? How am I to bring my faith to bear on my life in a deep and substantial way? How am I accomplish living in a way that is thoroughly structured by my faith instead of by the world?

One important answer is this: by saturating myself in the liturgical life of the Church, by allowing the rhythm of the liturgical day, week and year to form and shape my life.

To that end and to get some specific proposals, I’d recommend this post on “Living Liturgically”. The author, Michael Bradley, gives some examples on how he strives to “live liturgically”:

I try, now, though so far with little success, to orient my instinctive reactions to days of the week or weeks of the month or seasons of the year more toward the liturgical calendar and away from secular calibration. I try to reflect on the sorrowful mysteries even amid the excitement of an impending Friday night. I try to work more on Saturdays so that I can stay away from the computer on Sundays, or maybe plan to socialize on Saturday evening so that I can dedicate my Friday night to something other than a major social event. I try to greet solemnities with the same general excitement that the Fourth of July elicits in me.

A personal example: for a number of years now I’ve tried to take seriously the Church’s expectation that we perform some penance on each Friday of the year. I do this in part out of a desire to shape my life by my faith: because Jesus died on the Cross for me and for all on a Friday, I try to offer some act of penance, in union with His ultimate self-sacrifice.

Another (one-time) example: a couple years ago my family organized a Pentecost Party to observe this great solemnity that has essentially no significance in our culture.

In this and other examples, my desire is that observing and celebrating the liturgical calendar will — over time –shape my life “Christianly,” to make it… cruciform.

Again, this is a theme to which I will return repeatedly, but for now, this will suffice as a short introduction, to hopefully whet your appetite.

What about you? How have you used the liturgical calendar to bring your faith into your life?

Good News, Not Good Advice

Christians in the First World today have a serious image problem, one which cripples our attempts to share our faith with others, and — sadly — one which is in many ways our own doing. As the Anglican scholar N.T. Wright has noted, the unfortunate reality is that many people — including many Christians! — have fundamentally misunderstood the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Good (or Not So Good) Advice.

To put it another way, many people — again, including many Christians — see the essence of Christianity as a moral code, as a set of rules and regulations which require certain behaviors and forbid others, as a bunch of “Thou Shalt Not’s”.

 

We’ll dive deeper into this topic in other posts, but for now I simply want to note that while Christianity certainly entails a morality, it is not, at its heart, defined as a morality. Rather, it is the proclamation of Good News: of something that has happened, that is happening, and that will happen.

 

What are these things, these events, that have happened, are happening, and will happen? They are

  1. the coming of Jesus Christ into the world 2000 years ago and the redemption which He accomplished and initiated then;
  2. the encounter with Him which is offered to each and every human being in the midst of their lives, and encounter which has the capacity to slowly but surely transform them and their lives; and
  3. He return at the end of history, at which point the transformation which began 2000 years ago will be fulfilled, completed and accomplished.

Let me conclude this “teaser” post which this quote, describing the essence of Christianity: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Google the quote… you might be surprised at who wrote it.

The encounter with the Risen Jesus can transform your life now… today.

Do you believe this is possible? Why, or why not?

 

Tom Cruise, First-Rate Philosopher

Theatrical Poster

Okay, maybe not.

But one of his characters was more intellectually- and existentially-consistent that many (or even most) Americans of any religious affiliation, including Catholics, living his life in a way that corresponded with his belief-system.

I’m talking about the hitman Vincent in the 2004 film Collateral, starring Cruise and Jamie Foxx and directed by Michael Mann.

Read on…

Continue reading “Tom Cruise, First-Rate Philosopher”

Prayer & Babysteps

Jean-François Millet, The Angelus, 1857-1859

If someone were to ask me what the most important thing is for growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ, among my first answers would be a regular, deepening prayer life. Not a perfect prayer life, mind you, nor a profound one — at least initially — but a regular and deepening one.

I can personally testify to the utility of a “babysteps” approach to prayer: if you don’t pray regularly right now, start with thirty seconds… maybe one Our Father, said slowly and attentively. Then bump it up to a minute or two, maybe with some prayers of thanks for the gifts of the day and/or intercessions for someone — maybe you — who is in need. Then maybe five minutes… then ten. Read the Scripture readings read at Mass that day, prayerfully and carefully. Listen for the word, phrase or sentence that jumps out at you, and meditate on that.

You’ll probably plateau at some point, but that’s okay… like any relationship, the time spent together is more about quality than quantity. But also like any relationship, don’t let that become an excuse either.

As I said, I’ve found this to be a helpful way to consistently improve my prayer life; what about you? What’s worked for you in your own prayer life?