Prayer, the Sacrament of Penance and Divine Reading (Lectio Divina)
by Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, D.D., J.C.D.
Prayer is the fount at which we nourish our Christian life. Prayer, which is — in simplest terms — conversation with God, is our source of inspiration and strength for living in Christ each day. In his apostolic letter “At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000” (Novo Millennio Ineunte), our Holy Father Pope John Paul II reminds us that growth in holiness is marked, above all, by prayer: “Prayer develops that conversation with Christ which makes us His intimate friends” (n. 32a).
The high point of our prayer is the Holy Eucharist and Penance. Through the Holy Eucharist, we unite ourselves to Christ in the offering of His life for our salvation. We share, in the fullest way possible for us on this earth, in the life of Christ who alone is our salvation. God our Father, through the overshadowing of our gifts of bread and wine by the Holy Spirit, transforms them into the Body and Blood of Christ as the spiritual food of our pilgrimage on earth and our passage from this world to the world which is to come. From participation in the Holy Eucharist comes a strong desire for daily communication with God through prayer and devotion. In the same way, in our daily prayer and devotions we anticipate, with longing, sacramental communion with Christ.
With regard to daily prayer and devotion, I commend once again the enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in our homes and also, when possible, in our places of work and recreation. Beholding the image of the Heart of Jesus, our minds and hearts turn to Him in the Holy Eucharist and we spontaneously renew the union of our poor hearts with His Most Sacred Heart, finding in His Heart rest, strength and peace.
The Sacrament of Penance is also the high point in our prayer life. The closer we draw to Christ in prayer, especially participation in the Holy Eucharist, the more we recognize our own sinfulness and long to speak our sorrow to Christ and to receive His forgiveness. Christ, who knows our minds and hearts much better than we ourselves do, wanted us to have the sacramental means of confession of sins and reception of God’s forgiveness. After His Resurrection from the dead, He appeared to the Apostles in the Cenacle and conferred upon them the power to hear the confession of sins and to forgive them in Christ’s name. He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and spoke these words: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:22-23). In our daily prayer, especially our Examination of Conscience and praying of the Act of Contrition each evening, we renew the sacramental confession of our sins and reception of forgiveness, and also prepare ourselves for our next confession. The Sacrament of Penance or Confession is a most powerful tool for the purification and strengthening of our relationships with God, our neighbor and our world.
I commend to you a particular form of daily prayer. It is my hope that it may become, if it is not already, a part of your prayer each day. It is called Lectio divina or divine reading. It is an especially effective means of communication with our Lord, as you will soon see.
Lectio divina, although it may sound difficult, is most simple. It centers on the divinely revealed Word of God in the Holy Scriptures. It also imitates the Sacred Liturgy, in which every sacred action is preceded by the reading of and meditation upon the Word of God. It is an efficacious form of prayer, for it leads us more deeply into the Sacred Scriptures and into participation in the sacraments.
How does Lectio divina work? It takes place in three steps. The first step is the prayerful reading of a passage from the Holy Scriptures. By prayerful, I mean two things. First, that we have put ourselves in the presence of God and put all other thoughts out of our mind before we begin to read the scriptural passage. Second, we are reading the text of the Scriptures in order to pray.
What text do we choose? Since the entirety of the Word of God is given to us for our inspiration, we can choose any passage from the Bible. For my part, I have found it particularly helpful to choose a text from one of the Gospels. For example, the Gospel of Luke makes an excellent font of Lectio Divina, for St. Luke’s Gospel underlines so strongly the Divine Mercy. It is good to do a continuous reading of one of the Gospels by choosing each day a passage for Lectio Divina. The passage chosen should be brief, so that we may thoroughly reflect upon it.
Having chosen the passage from the Sacred Scriptures, we read it carefully, attempting to understand the full meaning of the words. To do so will mean placing the passage within the context of the Gospel in which it appears. It may mean, too, reflecting upon the Church’s interpretation of the text. For example, if I were to use the passage which I quoted above regarding the Sacrament of Penance for Lectio Divina, I would understand that it contains the words by which our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance. After reflecting upon the true meaning of the text, the second step is to apply it to our own life. I ask the question: What do these words mean for me? The Word of God is given to us for our salvation, and, therefore, we must always apply the Word of God to our daily living. We know, as the Lord Himself testifies, the Word of God descends upon us as a gentle rain which always brings life and growth in us spiritually (cf. Is 55:10-11). We should take the time to reflect on the many possible meanings of the text for our daily Christian living.
After having studied the meaning of the text and having applied the text to our daily living, the third step is to pause in silence before God, so that He may speak to us in our hearts. In other words, we are simply quiet, keeping the image of Christ before our eyes. In the silence, God will speak to our hearts, confirming us in our love of Him and drawing us forward in love. We should restrain our own thoughts and preoccupations, so that God may enter and communicate with us in the mysterious words of prayer.
Perhaps you are thinking that this must take a lot of time, which you do not have to spare. You may be wondering how this can be done within the busy schedule of your day. Lectio Divina does not require a long period of time. It can be done in 15 minutes each day. The important thing is to prepare well by choosing the passage from the holy Gospels, not taking too long a passage and by quieting oneself for prayer beforehand.
Lectio Divina is also like every good habit. If you work on it each day, you will develop a stronger and stronger habit of praying with Christ through the reading of the Word of God.
If you are not already doing so, I invite you to pray by way of Lectio Divina or divine reading. You will find it an excellent way to grow in your relationship with God and to find inspiration and strength for all of your other relationships. May your prayerful reading of and meditation upon the Word of God lead you to become more like Christ.
Previously published in the Saint Louis Review