Praying the Word of God

Photography © by Andy Coan


“Allow the Word of God to help you fall in love with God and change your life.”


I was blessed to study Scripture under Dr. Scott Hahn at Franciscan University of Steubenville and doubly blessed to work for him at the same time. In those years, I devoured everything I could to learn more about the Word of God – Church encyclicals, the writings of Pope Benedict, Scripture commentaries, and the Fathers of the Church. I studied and read and learned. Yet beyond everything Dr. Hahn helped me learn, the most important thing I think he taught me was something he taught by example- to love and pray the Scriptures.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of studying the Scriptures without praying the Scriptures. If we’re really going to love the Word of God, we need to pray with the Word of God. That’s why one of my favorite aids to conversation with God is the method of lectio divina.

A monk named Guigo II formally outlined the steps of lectio divina in letters to his brother monks. He was prior of a Carthusian monastery called Grand Chartreuse, made famous by the beautiful movie “Into Great Silence.” The monks live in silence in the French Alps, where they spend their day in prayer and work. Because they work in silence, they are more easily able to make their work a prayer.

  1. Reading (lectio) – You begin with the careful reading of Scripture in a focused manner. Reading today is a lost art. We tend to skim and lose concentration. This step must be done slowly. You aren’t reading to complete a certain chapter or section of Scripture. You don’t have a certain stopping point as your goal – rather, you have no set number of verses to complete. As you read, certain things will come to your mind. Perhaps a key word or a theme strikes you. If you are reading and something strikes you, don’t be afraid to stop and linger there. If you are using the Gospels for lectio divina, you might place yourself in the story. What do you hear, see, smell, touch? How do the other people in the story react or look? You might ask the questions who, what, when or where. Pay attention to repetition, allusion, or details – they’re there for a reason.
  2. Meditation (meditatio) – After something strikes you, sit with it. Meditation is the thorough reflecting on the ideas, themes, or key words that came to mind as you read. This meditation provides the language and subject matter for conversing with God. Guigo said, “Reading, as it were, puts the solid food into our mouths, meditation chews it and breaks it down.” Meditation turns to ask the question ‘why?’. It’s okay if this step takes awhile. You are wrestling with the passage.
  3. Prayer (oratio) – You’ll then move into a dialogue of prayer. Talk to God about the passage and about the ideas or themes that struck you. Maybe it was a prick of the conscience and you realized you need help working on a sin or a flaw. Perhaps it was a reminder of a gift in your life and you need to express gratitude. The passage might have raised more questions in your mind or stirred up concerns or wounds you need to take to Him. This is the heart of lectio divina. The steps are an instrument, but prayer is the goal. At times, we might wonder where to begin in prayer. With this process, we begin in prayer with what we were just meditating on!

You might jump back to meditation or reading, and that’s okay. This is about a conversation with God, a dialogue, and you shouldn’t allow the steps to be an obstacle or distraction. The framework should help, but the method is not an end in itself. No “method” is prayer – these methods are supposed to lead us to prayer.

  1. Infused contemplation (contemplatio) – The final step is infused contemplation. After meditation, God may move us beyond interaction with Him through His Word to an experience of Him. While infused contemplation is difficult to describe, the saints describe this as a gaze of love. It’s hard to define the movement from meditation into contemplation because it’s not really up to you. Some people use the words meditation and contemplation interchangeably. But this step is talking about infused contemplation, which is not active like meditation. It is passive. It is a gift from God. This last step is both effortless and beyond our abilities. We can make the conditions right for contemplation, we can’t make it happen. We become the receiver, and we rest in God. St. John of the Cross described the difference between meditation and contemplation “like that existing between toil and the enjoyment of the fruits of that toil; between the drudgery of the journey and the rest at its end.”

There isn’t pressure to go at a certain pace in lectio divina. Savor His word. Ask for the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to what He wants to say to us in the Word that day. Different people and different times will mean different ways of praying. Maybe some days we will find entering into conversation with God very easy. Other times we might spend a lot of time reading and find conversation difficult. A few days ago, I read one sentence and immediately felt moved to set aside the reading and enter into prayer. Was that wrong? Of course not. The steps are meant to aid that dialogue of prayer.

We might not receive the gift of contemplation at the end of lectio divina, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed. We might not “feel” anything during or after lectio divina. That’s okay too. As spiritual writer Matthew Leonard said, “The true litmus test of growth is how we’re living,” not how we’re feeling.

As we wrap up our time of prayer, we should end with a renewed commitment to living the Christian life. Many spiritual writers recommend making a practical resolution towards a specific action. They add the fifth step: operatio. As we leave this time of dialogue with God, how is that conversation going to change my life?

Sacred Scripture is a profound gift from our loving Father. We need to study it and dive deeply into the meaning of the Word as revealed through the Magisterium and the Tradition of the Church. We also need to pray with it. Allow the Word of God to help you fall in love with God and change your life.

“Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it.” -Guigo II


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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