I have a middle-aged colleague who recently joined a Crossfit gym. Crossfit has become the rage, as Crossfit gyms are cropping up everywhere. On her initial visit, surrounded by buff guys and fit females, when asked about her fitness goals, she answered honestly, “When I’m 85-years old, I want to be able to get off the toilet unassisted!”
The secret to Crossfit’s success is that it works through the element of surprise. By varying the workout daily, it tricks the body, keeping it off balance so that it does not get used to an established regimen. This element of surprise keeps the body on edge. When muscles are kept off-balance, they expend more energy, netting more effectiveness from the workout. Before a workout at her Crossfit gym, she has no idea what the workout is going to be, which tricks the body—clever beast that it is. By contrast, I have been doing the same repetitive, tried-and-true workout for the last few years. Long ago, I hit a wall as my body has gotten used to this regimen. Apparently, the body needs a diversity of physical challenges to stay fit, to build muscle. This diversity keeps the body engaged so that it does not fall into an exercise rut. If the body needs such diversity, so does the spirit.
With greater communication across denominational lines and greater access to our various stories in Christianity, the Body of Christ is coming to appreciate the many and varied spiritual practices that we can cull from those stories that may enhance our spirituality. Spiritual theology recognizes two major categories of spiritual practices: kataphatic and apophatic. Both Greek words, kataphatic means spiritual practices characterized by words, images or symbols. Apophatic means spiritual practices not characterized by words, images or symbols. The liturgy, music, icons, statues, reading the scriptures, chanting the scriptures, studying and meditating on scripture are all kataphatic in nature. Contemplation, centering prayer, is apophatic.
Kataphatic spirituality derives from positive theology and apophatic spirituality derives from negative theology. Positive theology ascribes to God the virtues that we see in humanity but to an eternal degree. Humans are merciful, kind and intelligent. God is merciful but to an eternal degree. Negative theology refuses to posit what God is because God is utterly transcendent. It speaks of what God is not in relation to flawed humans who often take ownership of God to be an apologist for their tribe and culture. This is the source of religious evil.
The distinction between positive theology and negative theology is informed by the fact that no language or symbol can exhaust God. Martin Luther spoke in the same vein when he distinguished between the Deus Revelatus and the Deus Absconditus: “The Revealed God” and “The Hidden God.” According to Luther, we deal only with the revealed God in scriptures. And yet, God does things in a hidden way that we can never understand. God’s thoughts are not ours. There has to be a healthy respect for the transcendent God who reminds humanity that it is not the yardstick of universal value. God refuses to be humanity’s cosmic bellhop. This healthy respect is preserved by the distinction between the revealed God and the hidden God.
We dare not set up a dualism when speaking of kataphatic spiritual practices and apophatic ones. This is a challenging thought for some Christians: we need spiritual practices that are both kataphatic and apophatic. We need to experience God through images, words and symbols and we need to experience God without them. Your relationship with your beloved is illustrative. As an example, you do not have to use words to experience the loving bond that you have with a beloved—you can talk, but you can also simply sit in your beloved’s presence and use no words at all and your bond would be just as vital and alive. That bond transcends words, especially your words, which sometimes are difficult to manufacture. This may be one of the many reasons that people turn off to prayer. They think that they have to say the right things to unlock God’s bounty, to get God’s attention. In contrast, the relationship you have with God is not limited or confined by words. This love, the grounding of the relationship, can be experienced with or without words. Western spirituality has been of the kataphatic variety. We have created great art, liturgies and systems of doctrine. We have not been as adept at apophatic spirituality.
Because westerners have so much trouble with apophatic expressions, Lectio Divina is an accessible entrée to contemplation. Lectio Divina is a hybrid of kataphatic and apophatic spirituality. It is difficult to get the western mind to sit for 20 minutes in silence; yet, this is just what the psyche needs. Lectio can initiate you into the discipline of sitting in silence. The Lectio Divina that I suggest is a model—it can unfold in many ways. However your practice of Lectio Divina unfolds, it must have two key elements: meditation on God’s word and contemplation, resting in the completed work of Christ, or resting in God the Beloved. Contemplation presents a greater challenge to us westerners, for the idea of sitting and doing nothing is counterintuitive to our cherished notion of multitasking and production. Here is a suggested method for newcomers to Lectio Divina:
The Practice of Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina is a Latin phrase meaning “Divine Reading” or “Sacred Reading.” It derives from the 5th century
Benedictine community. Its purpose is to foster a deep reading of the text, whereby one reads not merely with the head, but with the heart as well. Luther may have used this practice in his days as a monk. The German mystics who influenced Luther, Johannes Tauler to name one, certainly did. Lectio Divina provides a good entrée into contemplation. For further reading, see M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998).
Getting Ready: Choose one or two verses to pray. With your feet flatly on the ground and the palms of your hands on your lap, inhale and exhale measured breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly, filling your diaphragm without hyperventilating. As you breathe, tell your body to relax. Where you sense tension in your body, tell that part of your body to relax. Throughout the Lectio, discipline yourself not to move except when picking up the Bible to read it and setting it down after reading it.
Step One: Reading (Lectio): Read aloud slowly and deliberately the verse(s) you chose. Read it seven times. Between each reading, pause for a few moments. This is scattering the seed of the word.
Step Two: Meditation (Meditatio): As you read, you were drawn to a word, a phrase or even an image. Continuing to inhale and exhale measured breaths, mentally say to yourself that word or phrase every time you inhale. In the case of an image, observe it as you inhale and exhale. This is implanting the seed of the word into the soil of your soul.
Step Three: Prayer (Oratio): Continuing to inhale and exhale measured breaths, ask God why you were drawn to that word, phrase or image. Dialogue with God. Ask questions and wait for God to speak through your inner voice. God may also speak in images. You may see a series of images that tell a story like a dream. What’s going on in your life that you were drawn to that word, phrase or image? This is harvesting the fruit of the word.
Step Four: Contemplation (Contemplatio): Continuing to inhale and exhale measured breaths, now rest in the love and grace of God. Be fully in the moment. Listen to the sounds of the environment. Get out of your head; ignore the thoughts of your ego. You can never be rid of thoughts, but you can certainly ignore them as you focus on stillness and peace where God’s love is experienced. The prophet Elijah heard God’s voice not in the wind and earthquake, but in stillness.