Holy reading, holy families

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One of the favorite activities for young children is a book at bedtime. When parents, grandparents, or big brothers and sisters curl up with a young child to read a good book, relationships are strengthened, bonds are built, and both heads and hearts are opened to God.

This activity can be strengthened even further by integrating an ancient monastic tradition into modern family life. Lectio Divina — or “Holy Reading” — is a technique that turns Bible reading into a form of prayer. While it is consciously practiced by adults and older young people, the principles of lectio divina can be understood as we read with our children.

Work, reading, and prayer

Life in Benedictine monasteries is broken down into three basic activities: work, study, and prayer. These three areas of life nurture the physical body through work, the mind through study, and the heart through prayer. These three aspects are not separate from one another. They are woven together in the monastic life like three strands of a braided rope.

In family life, therefore, our prayer, work, and study also become integrated. We pray about our work concerns, while our reading informs our prayer and work life. Children can learn this integration by praying together about their concerns at school and in family life. This can be accomplished by using the ancient tradition of lectio divina.

The object of lectio divina is to pray in such a way that the heart is engaged spiritually while the mind is active in meditation. There are four stages of lectio divina: reading, reflection, response, and contemplation. These four stages take us step-by-step from simple reading into deep prayer.

No speed-reading allowed!

The first stage is to simply read God’s word slowly and carefully. No speed-reading allowed! Adults should choose a passage of Scripture that is not too long. The Mass readings for the day are a good place to start, or it is a good idea to work through a particular book of the Bible step-by-step. It is important to read slowly in order to savor not just the words, but also the ideas. We are so used to reading quickly to gather information that it takes time to shift gears and read slowly to absorb the text with our head and heart — not just to gather information.

Did you know that the ability to read silently is a comparatively modern skill? In the past everyone read the words out loud or at least mouthed the words as they read. One of the ways to slow our reading is to return to the habit of moving our lips while we read. This also reminds us that the words on the page or screen are only the printed form of what really should be spoken.

Another way to slow the reading is to follow the words on the page with your finger. This not only slows adults down, but it also works perfectly for a child who is learning to read. As a first grader sits on your lap to read a Bible story or the story of a saint, both of you can read slowly together.

Stop, look, and listen

The second stage of lectio divina is “reflection.” This is where we pause to meditate on what we have read. This meditation is an opportunity to use our imagination in reading and use our logical mind to ask questions and probe more deeply what we have read. Reflection is a time to “stop, look, and listen” more carefully to the text.

For adults, this stage is an opportunity to sit back and imagine the scene from the Gospels or to ponder more deeply the ideas we have read. This is also the time to look up footnotes or cross references in the text in order to understand more fully.

If we are reading slowly with a child, this is the time to pause naturally and engage the child in conversation about what we have read. Asking questions that captivate the child’s imagination and prompting thought about the implications of the text will engage the child’s mind and spark his or her curiosity. This is the time for the child to ask us questions and for conversation about the child’s day and work to come naturally.

Here I am, Lord

A favorite psalm response is, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will.” The third stage of lectio divina is “response.” In this stage we engage in conversation with the Lord about what we have read. We have stopped, looked, and listened; now we respond with our own thoughts and feelings.

This is where we can bring our concerns to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving. Prompted and informed by what we have read, we speak to the Lord from our own circumstances and needs.

When reading with a child, it is natural to move from the stage of reflection to the third stage of responding by turning the conversation to the child or the family’s particular needs. The adult can ask the child what he or she wants to ask God for, and conversation about his or her day and world can lead into concerns and worries he or she can pray about. In the next section I will give an example of how this might work.

Be still and know

An old archbishop was asked how long he prays. He replied, “Two minutes. But it takes me 20 minutes to get there.” What he meant was that after he recited the Divine Office and read his Office of Readings for 20 minutes, he then spent time in silence with the Lord.

The final stage of lectio divina is “contemplation.” At this point we move beyond the text, beyond our meditation, and beyond our conversation with God, and simply rest in his presence. In that silence and stillness, we can know at the depth of our being the truth of the verse, “Be still and know that I am God.”

The adult will learn to find this “still small place” with some practice and will move quickly through the stages of reading, meditation, and response to that place where they commune silently with God. It is possible also to go with a child to this place of stillness and silence.

In fact, children are naturally contemplative. They don’t mind silence and will sit quite happily in silence for a time if they are led into it confidently. After reading with the child, discussing the text, and speaking with God about any concerns, the adult can simply sit in that silence with the child, saying, “Now we’re going to just sit still with the Lord for a moment.” Before long the child will learn that this is the end point of the Bible story and look forward to the intimacy and calm of contemplation.

Get real

It might seem unrealistic to involve a child in the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, but I’m convinced it can work. To illustrate what I mean, here is an example.

It is bedtime, and 7-year-old Sally and 10-year-old James are all ready for the nighttime ritual of being tucked in and lights out. They climb into the comfortable old sofa with mom or dad for stories. They begin with a favorite fairy tale or a chapter of an adventure like the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis. 

Next they turn to a children’s Bible storybook or the Bible itself. The best parts of the Bible to read with children are the Gospels. Maybe Sally and James are ready to read the Gospel of the day together, so they find the chapter and verse — thus learning how to navigate through the Bible — and together they read out loud, each one taking a verse. They are reminded to read slowly and carefully. Sally is happy with this because she’s still learning to read at school and slow is good.

The reading can be interrupted with questions such as, “What do you think Jesus means by saying that?” or “How do you think the disciples felt when he did that?” The object at this stage is to reflect and meditate on what was happening. The third stage is to turn to God in prayer. If they didn’t make it through the whole story or passage, it doesn’t matter. The reading turns into a prayer before bedtime, and when the prayers are done, there is time for a formal prayer like the Our Father or a Hail Mary before ending in a few moments of silence and peace.

This ancient form of prayer can therefore be a natural way in family life to nurture prayer and lead children into the presence of God. When this form of prayer becomes real, the head and the heart are engaged creatively, and as the prayer becomes real, the whole family’s encounter with God will become more vital and dynamic.

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