Saturday, November 17, 2007

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Private Prayer

Having completed my discussion of the use and interpretation of Scripture in liturgical contexts, I can turn to the remainder of the topic, beginning first with private prayer.

Lectio Divina

A particular famous and important use of the Scriptures in private prayer is of course the practice known as sacred reading, or in Latin, lectio divina. This has sometimes been worked up into a fairly detailed four-stage method of prayer, but this is perhaps not true to its real nature.

Instead of the most common description of sacred reading as being about particular stages, I want to look "under the hood," as it were, and see what is particular to this form of the use of Scripture which can perhaps illuminate other non-liturgical uses.

The primary thing we notice in attending to this monastic practice of sacred reading, is that it is not merely the text which is sacred, but the manner in which it is read. Moreover, there is reason to think that for monks this was for a long time the only way to read a text, rather than merely one, that it was what it is to read a sacred text.

The conviction then is that the proper way to read the sacred text is to do so in a particular way. Only later does that way become understood as a particular method of prayer. So embedded in this particular method are some convictions about what it is to read properly.

First, and most clearly, reading is done with no particular goal beyond edification. The reading is not targeted at reading any particular amount, or to establish some point or other, or to address a particular question. Of course, these had always been ways Scripture is used, but the prayerful sacred reading of Scripture, as practiced by the monks, was not this.

The assumption is made that God will be met in the text, and if that assumption is correct, if God will be met there, then it will be the transcendent God who cannot be controlled and refuses to be at our beck and call. Indeed, the more sure we are that we will meet God in our reading of the text, the more careful we inevitably will be that we approach without a presupposition of what we will find.

The reading is undertaken slowly as if we were savoring every bite. (And the word ruminatio, rumination, is associated with this practice, after all.) There is an attitude of reception, of waiting, of hearing. This is very different from exegeting Scripture for the purpose of proving a point, or just the scholarly task of hearing what the text says.


Scripture also forms a great source of material for private prayer. The psalms are not merely a great source of prayers for liturgy, but they are also prayers which can be used at need as one's own prayers.

And there are of course a whole host of quasi-liturgical devotions, whose words are substantially from the Scriptures, for example, the rosary, the angelus, novenas, and so forth. As a general rule, the observations I have already made about the Scriptures as liturgical source texts apply here.

But there is an additional aspect to the use of the Scriptures as sources of private prayer, and that is that they are chosen by the individual in a way that the liturgy is not. (And for quasi-liturgical devotions, there is a spectrum here.)

The private use of the Scriptures as prayer then is something chosen, and the question of how the individual can adopt the words of Scripture as her own prayer becomes manifest. What remains, however, once a given text is used and is appropriate, is that it can be a tremendous asset to many to have words provided. This is particularly true at times when words fail, or with individuals who may not know how they feel until they find words for it.


The question now is what implications the use and interpretation of Scripture in private prayer may have for the remainder of the church's life. In one sense, the answer is not at all, and in another, it is immeasurable in every way.

In the former sense, the understandings reached in private prayer have no authority for the church. What one encounters in sacred reading, or the understanding one uses in taking a text as one's own prayer, is not therefore the correct use of the text in preaching or otherwise ordering the church's life. As I have already argued, the liturgical use is primary, and therefore cannot be dependent upon the private use.

This does not mean that the preacher's private prayer and encounter with God in Scripture is irrelevant. It simply means that, once the prayer is over, the preacher must now ask the questions of what must be preached, and there is no question of taking the encounter in private as normative in public. What is to be preached must be judged on a liturgical basis (as I have already argued) and is not to be subject to any particular private encounter, even that of the preacher himself.

But if the prayer is genuine, it will also be that the encounter with God in the text will be transformative, as any true prayer and encounter with God can be expected to be. And this will in turn bear its fruit in all areas. As a Christian becomes more and more conformed to God, especially through prayer and contact with God, we can expect that all their life will become more embued with the will of God, and this applies to their use of Scripture no less than the rest of life.

On the Use and Interpretation of Scripture: Index

1 comment:

liturgy said...

Wow - I am delighted to have fallen over this site. There will be much for me to reflect on here.
I run an Anglican Liturgy site:
It is ecumenical and international, has a focus on the
"Liturgy of the Hours":
and includes lectio etc.
I hope you will visit,
and would be delighted to link our sites.
Let me know
I'll now go & visit the other sites you have.

Blessings on your venture