July 10, 2020

Spiritual Formation Talk: Sacred Reading


The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.

• Psalm 119:130

• • •

In our second post on Fr. Charles Cummings’ book, Monastic Practices, we take up the first of the three basic practices of monastic daily life, in order to consider how they might inform the spiritual formation of those who follow ordinary callings.

Sacred reading, manual work, and liturgical prayer constitute the threefold footing of our daily life. (p. 7)

The first practice is sacred reading (lectio divina). Cummings notes that St. Benedict devoted two to three hours each day to this practice in the warmer months, and four to five hours in the winter months.

As Fr. Cummings describes this practice, sacred reading is a conversation with God.

The monk or nun would sit with the text of Scripture and begin to read attentively and reflectively until a word or phrase struck the imagination or the heart. At that moment the reader paused, put the text aside, and gave himself to prayer. The prayerful pause might last less than a minute or might be extended for a number of minutes. When attention faltered, he or she would resume reading until the next moment of insight or movement of love. The rhythm of reading and pausing would continue peacefully, unhurriedly, until the bell announced the next exercise of the monastic day. (p. 8)

The alternation of reading and pausing for contemplation or prayer is key to this practice and makes it conversational. It is about listening and responding, just as we do when we have a talk with a friend. It also gives us space to focus on small passages of text so that we might draw deeper meanings and implications out of them.

These are the words the author uses to describe this process: assimilation, impregnation, interiorization, personalization. It involves “savoring” and “relishing” the words we read, tasting, digesting, and drawing nourishment from them. And like taking meals, the effects may not be evident immediately. The goal is not to have spectacular “experience” every time, but to maintain a good diet that promotes long term health and well being.

Fr. Cummings warns us that we will run into obstacles as we pursue this practice. First, the texts we have before us may not always lend themselves to sacred reading. This is true of the Bible itself — though all Scripture may be “inspired,” a given passage may not be inspiring in a way that lends itself to this approach. Some texts may be beyond our present capacity to understand. Certain questions and issues may distract us from the conversational purpose of our reading. If we are reading devotional materials from another author, the style may be unfamiliar to us, the language or idioms difficult to grasp. “At some point the reader has to make an honest decision about whether a particular text is worthy staying with for sacred reading” (p. 10).

13390768785_a2c5019e02_zAnother obstacle is our own impatience. Sacred reading is meant to be a leisurely conversation, understood as one small exchange in a lifetime relationship. In our day, many of us tend to expect an instant pay-off whenever we give ourselves to a practice. That is not the goal here. Nor is this reading in order to gain a bundle of information or to get through a certain amount of material. “Speed reading is useful, and even necessary, for digesting the contents of textbooks, periodicals, or newspapers. But when the time for sacred reading comes, I have to be able to read slowly and patiently, in a relaxed and open spirit, ready to “taste and see how good the Lord is” (Ps. 34:8) (p. 11).

We are encouraged to prepare for this kind of reading. Set aside time. Have a suitable place. Take a few moments to relax and quiet the noise within. In prayer, ask God to meet with you as you read.

Although Charles Cummings is hesitant to set any “rules” for the practice of sacred reading, he does give examples of how others have practiced lectio divina and encourages us to learn from them. For example, the twelfth century Carthusian prior Guigo spoke of a four-runged ladder of (1) reading, (2) meditation, (3) prayer, and (4) contemplation. Guigo compared this to the way we eat: (1) taking food into our mouths, (2) chewing our food, (3) swallowing the food, and (4) enjoying the refreshment and fullness our food gives us.

Cummings also compares this with the fourfold patristic way of interpreting the Bible: (1) the literal sense, (2) the moral sense, (3) the allegorical sense, (4) the spiritual (or anagogical or eschatological) sense. When we read, we grasp the meaning of the words. Then, through meditation we search for what the text has to say about life and God’s values. Through the third step, prayer, we learn what the text says about God and his Kingdom, and in the fourth we enter into a vision of the heavenly realities that the text represents.

Finally, Fr. Cummings suggests the fruit that may grow in our lives from this practice.

Continual exposure to the power of the word of God in sacred reading must have noticeable effects on the reader. Gradually the word will become flesh in the reader’s daily life. He or she will become not merely a hearer, but a doer, of the word (Lk. 6:47). Sacred reading makes an opening through which the life-giving word of God can enter the reader’s heart and carry on its work of healing and transforming. The word once received is received more readily the next time.

The habit of listening during sacred reading fosters the attitude of listening in other situations to what the word of God is asking. The habit of mulling over words and phrases or murmuring them aloud fosters the practice of repeating short, ejaculatory prayers during free moments or while working. Fidelity to sacred reading should work a gradual change in the reader’s relationships with other people, helping him or her become more generous, considerate, gentle, and less selfish, cranky, gossipy, touchy. Sacred reading spreads out into daily life as a power of ongoing reformation and conversion and enabling the reader to recognize and respond to the word of God spoken at diverse times and circumstances. . . . (p. 18)


  1. Lectio divina was introduced to me years ago by Larry Crabb – he used it in a group setting. I have used sacred reading in small group ministry and it was well received by others. Thank you for sharing this practice. I’m wondering how many at IM practice this method of reading God’s Word.

    • @Trish….I am just re-discovering sacred reading. I use either lectio divina or I place myself somewhere in the scene (for Gospel accounts) and after settling in and seeing, hearing, feeling, and even smelling the background, I listen.

      The only “MUST” in any of this, in my experience, is finding a place alone and apart, in quiet, to focus my mind. Otherwise, the exterior and interior noise pulls at me, like a pesky 3 year old yanking on Mama’s skirts.

  2. Thanks Chaplain Mike. I am 2 weeks into my “silence journey” and was very frustrated yesterday as to what to include in my day in an orderly way without becoming “mechanical”. I want this to be living, communicating with my Father. I asked the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction. This article has helped very much.

  3. Every morning for 6 years or more I get up read a devotional now it is up to 3 or 4 depending on time then I write something. Most of the time when I am writing something I am trying to listen to the words. Sometimes the words seem like my own but many times it seems as if I am being told something.Then as I go out and have to live life these things tend to get watered. Either they stick out in a song and the song doesn’t need to be “Christian” or I hear them in a sermon. Sometimes word for word I will pull out what I wrote from my pocket and reread it. Most of the time when these things happen it tends to be jaw opening. That’s the way it has been. It would seem what I have just read above is like this. The thing is it is the life I must live in the surroundings I must go to are what give it all meaning. I am not called to be alone yet it is my desire to be alone at least most of the time. I remember entire days with not a sentence to others. The pull to go back there is always strong. Yet it is in the life I am living that I find He is the one at work. It has been a slow process and sometimes I cannot see the gains that have been made. Looking back from the beginning there has been a lot. Coming to this place every morning I simply cannot live without. If that is religious then that I am. Every morning for 6 years He has met me here and it is the dearest thing to me. Even when I am pushed and late it is simply better to be late. Mostly though I know I have so much further I need to go in a love that would have me go there. I heard a young man at the gym say it is not about me in our discussion which triggered it mostly certainly is about you otherwise why would someone hang on a cross so that you might know such love. I had to add it is about us, all of us as I saw a young man that reminded me of me and I know his life will change as will the love that comes from it.

  4. Every time I pass cattle in a pasture (Texas) I am reminded to ‘chew the cud’. Whether it is chewing a word or chewing the silence, it’s always a great reminder and they are often close to my house so I get an effective spur in my early going and on my return home. When I see the cattle the radio gets turned off. I only wish I could keep at it like they do.

  5. The minimal response here should not be taken to indicate minimal importance of this topic, nor of spiritual discipline in general. What w speaks of is highly important, tho probably not for the majority. A subject which can be addressed with the intellect gets much more response, but intellectual discussion is not going to get us where Jesus calls us to follow, Oneness with him as he is One with our Father. Thank you, CM, for being open to this way.

    • Charles, your comment is interesting. I agree that the relative quiet in the comments here doesn’t indicate the unimportance of the subject. However, I need to poke at the following statement, just a little:

      “…intellectual discussion is not going to get us where Jesus calls us to follow, Oneness with him as he is One with our Father.”

      “Intellectual discussion” is, for some of us, a very effective way the Spirit draws us deeper into ongoing engagement with Christ, towards transformation.

      As a spiritual director, I have sat with individuals who had very powerful, heart-changing encounters with the Holy One that were initiated by academic or intellectual discussions of doctrine. I’m sure it’s not the only way our hearts and minds get caught, but it is one way.

      Once caught, Chris’s chewing metaphor seems an apt response to the Spirit’s prompting.

      • Charlotte, I recognize that indeed intellectual discussion can be “a very effective way the Spirit draws us deeper into ongoing engagement with Christ . . . .” Just look at what goes on here most of the time. In my view the intellect is an extremely useful tool in gaining spiritual understanding, but only that, a tool. If it was the determining factor, entrance into the Kingdom would be stacked against those occupying the lower half of the IQ scale, and biased toward those at the upper end. I hasten to add that I don’t regard IQ as a measure of real world smartness, only an indication of likely success or lack thereof in an academic environment.

        When the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to participate in an intellectual discussion or argument, he usually side-stepped the issue, or derailed it with a pointed question that couldn’t be answered. He did not seem to be interested in what we would call theological doctrine. Paul, on the other hand, was highly educated and intellectual wrangling has continued from then to now as people try sorting out his sometimes impenetrable thought processes.

        Yes, it can be fun, but perhaps not so much profitable in terms of Kingdom values. Certainly there is a segment of the wide range of humanity that only responds to intellectual issues and it is good you are ministering to them in an effective way. It seems to me that one of the things that should be taught is that an intellectual understanding can only take you so far, and that beyond that an understanding of the heart becomes necessary. Guaranteed to make some froth at the mouth. Thanks, Charlotte, take care.

        • I take your point. I’m afraid I have little patience with purely intellectual banter around doctrine– I want to know how Christ meets a person and what happens next in their life as a result. But I had one spiritual direction trainer who told me that, “evangelicals never experience God, they just think about him!” I completely disagree, even though I no longer consider myself an evangelical. That’s what my response to you was flowing out of.

          Chewing the cud, frothing at the mouth– we have some great metaphors going.

    • Charles, it is interesting that there is little participation by the majority of readers . . . and yet while I find the intellectual discussion at IM stimulating, I believe spiritual formation is a work of the Holy Spirit. While IM may be used as part of the process, I believe it is most effectively wrought through God’s Word. Here is where there is an infinite treasure to be mined as I learn more about God, His love for me-just as I am, and the ongoing story of His plan for us in HIS Kingdom. From knowing God’s Word, I find echoes of God’s Truth affirmed in what I encounter in my daily experiences and in relationships with others. Sometimes the lessons are hard but the outcome has not failed to be good . . .I consider the sufferings of this present time not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in and to us.

    • @Charles…I was thinking the same thing….not too much chatter on a spiritual practice like this, but mention homosexuality, Sola Scriptura, or church plantings in evangelical circles and the comments hit the hundereds!!! It matter not, since we are here to share and learn…

  6. Sometimes a post is just very complete and bears little comment, just reading. Thanks, CM!

  7. While in some monastic traditions there may have been the pause for reflection, in most monastic traditions, passages were read straight through. Either practice is a good practice in that the Word of God is read. When the monastic lectionaries are followed (whichever version) almost all of Scripture is heard on a regular basis.

    The problem for the Church is that the Sunday lectionaries, of whatever type, do not take us through all of Scripture. By their nature, they cannot cover all of Scripture on Sundays. Rather, they cover important passages that will contribute to your understanding the Gospel message. They ensure that the Gospel and its consequences are regularly heard.

    I am sure that liturgical prayer will be talked about this week. But, I will mention that liturgical prayer is often full of allusions, or direct quotes, from Scripture. Thus, liturgical prayer not only guides you in prayer, but also inculcates you with Scriptural thinking.

  8. Charlotte and Trish, it’s all good, including the lack of response to the contemplative way of growing in God. Evangelicals certainly can experience God as well as seminary professors, maybe better in some cases. We’re all different, like snowflakes, and this just to confirm the judgement of many that Christians are a bunch of flakes.

    What I really like is that the contemplative path, which has always been a minority path and mostly frowned upon by the majority, at least in the Western world, is given equal recognition here, if not equal time. To the Eastern Church, this is two thousand year old news, but we in the West have a lot to learn. Good to have you here helping sort things out.

  9. I am glad that IM is posting this series (and others like it). In my case, reluctance to post isn’t so much a reflection of lack of interest as it is the need for the material! I’m out of my depth here, and I know it. One of the difficulties of leaving my original tradition is that I lost the support of the vocabulary, belief structure, and devotional tools I knew. A portion of these had long stopped “working” for me. In a sense, it’s like being unable to speak or move, or at least not as easily. Unless, of course, I could find a replacement tradition that provides a replacement pattern of speaking and living. But this doesn’t happen overnight. Being in the “wilderness” has a logic of its own, and it offers choices, but its hard to go deeply into a pattern if one is not rooted somewhere. And even once one settles somewhere, growing roots is not an overnight affair.

    When I left my evangelical patterns, the easiest place for me to run, being analytical, is into careful reading and thinking. If one can no longer be certain about one’s convictions or experiences, the tools of the academy at least provide one method of trying to understand things, and to get one’s bearings of the religious landscape. Participating in another tradition’s services helped a lot too, because here there’s a whole structure for learning a new pattern and slowly working one’s way into it. Evangelicalism was practically in tatters for me when I arrived in Oxford for a stretch, and started dropping into Anglican churches. Starting then, I’ve used liturgy as a handrail to follow in recovering faith and trying to find a pattern. In this, though, I’m one trick pony. Or a mouse: I’ve got that wall I run along, because I don’t see real well. I don’t come off it, unless you spook me. Drop me in the middle of the floor, and I’m going to shoot back to that wall.

    What I’ve had the hardest time replacing or reconstructing is private devotional practice or what we’re calling “formation.” I know how to think and reflect on a text or a topic. Call it reverent analysis. Both evangelicalism and academe teach this. But spiritual practices or disciplines that do not look this way are more troublesome because I’ve never been trained in them or even seen most of them done in real time. How exactly does it work? Like this? Am I doing it right? The sensation of this is like listening to an explanation about how to do something, and it seems to make sense while you are listening. Then you try to do it, and realize that actually you don’t really follow. One winds up feeling a bit shy and awkward with it.

    • Danielle, part of this particular discipline of lectio divina, and many other formation practices, and an important part, is giving up the habit of constantly analyzing and judging one’s own state and progress and performance during the time of the practice, and to a certain degree also while reflecting about it afterwards or in preparation for it. This is very hard to do, because one may and should be acutely aware, as you are, of the need to evaluate what is working and what is not, or where one is putting unnecessary obstacles in one’s own way.

      In a monastic setting, the need to make sober assessment of the appropriateness and fruitfulness of a spiritual practice for any particular individual is usually done in the context of spiritual direction. This, to a degree, relieves the pray-er of constantly having to interrogate herself with all the questions you enumerate. Without the context of spiritual direction, one may easily get bogged down in those questions and quit, or never really start. On the other side of the problem, one may persist in practices that are not fruitful for a very long time, only to find out after years that one has merely been treading water instead of learning how to swim.

      If you are really interested and motivated to undertake a formation practice, and are willing to spend some time and effort, it’s not unusual for local Roman Catholic churches to have contacts with networks of spiritual directors in the area, usually associated with a monastery or convent. And many or most of them will accept non-Catholic directees (don’t worry, they won’t try to convert you to Catholicism: directors tend to be remarkably ecumenical and accepting of one, wherever one is on the journey with Christ).

      • “…giving up the habit of constantly analyzing …”

        Well, this could get interesting. 🙂

        Seriously, though, thanks for the perspective and links. It’s helpful.

    • Father Thomas Keating has an organization called Contemplative Outreach that has chapters around the country. At one of their meetings, you can practice centering prayer in a group context and under supervision.

      This is a rich resource: http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/

    • And then there’s the World Community for Christian Meditation: http://www.wccm.org/

  10. Danielle, you might try Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault. If you find it helpful, she has other books along the same line, and a few on other subjects that may or may not be your cup of tea. Contemplation is less an intellectual skill, and more a matter of setting aside the clouds the ego/mind throws up so that the sun can break thru, and realizing it was there shining all the time. A gradual learning process and one that most people are not attracted to.

  11. The pictures on this blog are so beautiful I have to look at them again and again.