Oct 15 2016

Praying the Text

Day 15 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


The fourth item I intentionally brought into my new home on the first day was my bible, an NRSV I’ve been using since 2001. It represented my commitment and hope that God’s Word would be foundational to my life in the Contemplative Cottage.


My life has been deeply influenced by the monastic practice of lectio divina (Latin for divine reading), a four-movement pattern of prayerful reflection on scripture dating from the early church and codified in the 12th century by Carthusian monk Guigo II. Used by Benedictines for centuries as part of their daily prayer practice, lectio divina has enjoyed a rediscovery in the past 20 years, especially among Protestants from mainline and non-denominational congregations.

A short scripture passage is read repeatedly and deeply. Words and phrases that capture heart and mind are meditated upon more intentionally. The meditation on the passage at some point turns into a conversation with God about the passage. Finally, one would rest in a contented contemplation of God, sparked by the reflection.

Another way to understand the movements, according to Guigo II: reading is akin to putting food in the mouth; meditation is chewing; prayer is digesting it; and contemplation is the satiation after a delicious feast.

Models of lectio divina place the movements in ladder or circular relationships, but I prefer a tetrahedron. It allows for the connective nature of the practice to be visualized 3-dimensionally. Each movement can shift to any of the other three movements and back, allowing for a complex relationship between the four modes of engaging the text:


I take a psalm or short passage of scripture from the larger book or epistle I’m studying, print it out and then use multicolored pens and pencils to highlight those words and phrases that are calling for deeper meditation. Sometimes, a song, person, scripture, or memory might tug at my attention while I’m reading. This may seem unconnected to the passage, but it may be a Holy Spirit nudge toward the word the passage has for me in that moment.

Prayers can be written in the margins, allowing the scripture to form the foundation of prayer. Contemplation might be expressed by simply sitting with the text and annotations as a whole, letting the yeast of the Word do it’s work in my life. Often, my meditation will include looking up Greek or Hebrew words and engaging commentaries to sharpen my own understanding of the text.


Practicing lectio divina on scripture over the years has seeped into the rest of my life. I find myself reading other texts, such as novels and poetry, art objects, songs, and visual stories in a similar, though less intensive, way. Using the pattern of lectio divina has also affected the way I read situations, conflicts, and contexts, informing the theological method I teach and use for research (my students will recognize this!). Anything can become a “text” to read, reflect, and pray through to God’s wisdom.

If lectio divina is new for you, or if you haven’t practiced it in this organic way, a great place to start is by choosing a favorite scripture passage or psalm and spend 30 single-tasking minutes coloring, highlighting, and praying through the text.

If you’ve practiced it on scripture, I encourage you to try it on a favorite poem (I’ve included one of my favorites below). While I believe that the study of scripture takes a privileged position in God’s formative work in us, I also believe God can use stories, poems, even movies, as means of communicating truth–if we would take the time to enter deeply into the work of art.

Love (III) – George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be s/he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Oct 4 2016

Sacred Spaces

Day 4 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


“Do you want to do the honors?” asked my realtor, Kelly, offering me the keys. We were standing at the front door of the cottage on closing day, about to do the final walk-through.

I nodded and then reached into my bag. “This might seem a bit odd,” I began hesitantly, “but the first thing going into the house is my icon of Jesus.”

“That’s not odd at all, Susan.” She smiled, held my bag as Jesus and I went in to the house together. For the next few weeks, the icon remained on a shelf in the main room, reminding me that Jesus was with me in the midst of the chaos of the move.

The icon of Jesus was the first of 8 important symbols I brought into my new home (I’ll share more in future posts), each representing something that I wanted to be welcomed into the life at the Cottage.


Credit Unknown

As a child, my memories of visiting the churches of Germany–small or large–are ones of color and warmth, the faces of bible people and saint people seemed to welcome me into their stories; the flowers on the altars; the hidden beauties of side chapels, crypts, and chapel gardens; the smell of old stone, old wood, wax, and incense; candles, candles, and more candles; and the deep, resonant silence, where I could hear God’s whisper. It is not surprising that crafting homey versions of these spaces in the Cottage is important. Creating sacred spaces remind me what atmosphere I want to cultivate–a place of prayer, joy, beauty, welcome, delight.

In Orthodox homes, the sacred space is called the icon corner, or even more lovely in Russian, beautiful corner, and is located in the main room.


If creating a space for prayer and reflection is something that draws you, start with three objects that capture your desire for God and arrange them on a table in the kitchen, counter, end table, or as a dining table center piece. The psalmist in psalm 84 writes, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty.” What speaks to you of God’s beauty? Flowers? Candles? A child’s drawing? A letter from a loved one? The bible? Nature? It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to draw your eyes and invite you into the Love it represents.


For many years, I’ve had a lectio table, (lectio means “read,” from lectio divina), a physical representation of my current prayer. I’ve collected found objects over the past 30 years and create a little tableau of prayer for a particular intention, person, or thanksgiving. This kind of sacred space can be a tactile and wordless option for when spoken prayer is too difficult.


A lectio table is also a wonderful way to include little ones–wordy prayer may be beyond their understanding, but having them bring an object to the lectio table helps them find beauty and offer prayer in their own way.


Sacred spaces that are beautiful and capture the eye as well as the heart remind me that I am part of a wider, larger, more magnificent multi-dimensional creation than what my senses experience. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses; the Kingdom of God is at hand, even now, even when we don’t feel it. The little homey Kingdom places of candles, icons, and images remind me to look beyond momentary trials or my limited through-a-glass-darkly vision to the reality of God’s presence.


Sep 6 2015

Creating a Scripture Study Legacy


This past summer, I shifted my approach to studying scripture on an extremely practical level in hopes of finding a way to capture my engagement with a specific book or passage each time I read it, and keep that study for future reflection.

For years, I’ve simply used an NRSV pew bible with minimal notes and a journal to record insights. In the bible, I note the date each time I read a passage, giving me a wonderful record over the years. My three bibles record dates from 1988 to 2015, and for some passages, like Proverbs 31 (describing a most fabulous, creative, diligent, wise business woman), dates upon dates.

The book of Ephesians, which the Holy Spirit has kept me anchored in for the past five years, is another one that shows consistent engagement.


While my two previous study bibles finally fell apart due to poor bindings, my current one is still intact, yet has become uninviting for new underlinings and notes.

The journal record of my study is also not easily organized, as they are mixed in with the days’ musings. My goal was to find a simple way to collect my study notes, commentary gleanings, Greek word studies, prayers, and insights with the text itself, and in a way that can be filed for future reflection.

Feline Lectio

While I love the latest and greatest technology and know that software, such as Logos, offers digital ways to study, the price tag is daunting. Even more, I know that I learn better when I have a physical text to work with. Color is also important–making the page a creative, prayerful reflection as well as a reasoned meditation on the Word.

Research in cognitive studies also suggests that our brains learn by textual landmarks–where something is on the page, even where it is in relation to the whole book. The act of writing can further embed learning–physically writing out an insight in a journal or margin is more likely to remain in long-term memory, than one that is typed.

After some research, I discovered pre-printed KJV and ESV loose-leaf bibles. The wide margins seemed exactly what I hoped for, yet the price tag of $70 and the negative reviews of the thin paper stopped me. I use fountain pens and gel pens, so the paper needs to hold ink without feathering or bleed-through.

To create my own loose-leaf bible for study, I found a free Word doc of the NET bible. Other than the King James Version, the NET bible seems to be the only version on the internet that allows full printing, rather than just copyright-limited sections.  (If anyone finds others, please let me know.)


Using a 28-pound paper with an incredibly smooth surface, I printed each book that I’m currently studying and put them in a binder. There is no need to print the whole bible. While it doesn’t allow for cognitive landmarks of where the text is in the entire canon of scripture, it still allows for mental page mapping within the context of the specific book.


With a free resource like BibleHub.com, I can look at the interlinear Hebrew or Greek, recording key words with the text, have any number of commentaries open on my desk, and capture everything in one place, all the while staying close to the text itself.

So far, the experiment has been a success. One unexpected thing I’ve discovered using this format is that that blank margins invite insights and commentary–it actually encourages me to study. It allows me to approach the passage fresh, to hear what the Spirit is saying today.

I still love my well-loved and marked up bible–it’s a record of God’s faithfulness to speak through His word for 15 years.  I still use my current bible for church and to record dates when I wrestle with a passage (it’s especially powerful when a verse comes to mind and find that I had looked at it on the same date years prior.)

...tea and Titus

I still have my two falling-apart former bibles on my shelf and occasionally take them down to smell their pages and go back in time through the notes of a young college freshman just falling in love with scripture. At the times in the past decade when I’ve lost my love of scripture, prayer, even God, God has called me back through their witness.

A bound bible is a legacy, but this new approach offers me a different form of legacy: to study, file away the notes, and over time collect multiple readings for comparing, contrasting, and deepening my personal experience of the text, and making it easier to share in teaching and discipleship.

Aug 24 2012

Friday Florilegium

I’m hard at work on the next chapter of the dissertation, focusing on lectio divina (divine reading). Here are some highlights from my reading:

[Lectio divina] is, above all, a daily, personal, intimate contact with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a contact with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Brother, which takes place in Holy Scripture. As its name indicates, it is  “reading God.” [It is a] reading with faith–God speaks, God speaks to me here and now–and with great attention; a slow, meditative, savored reading; a reading that seeks primarily the literal and precise meaning of the text in order then to seek and discover what the Spirit of God deigns to manifest to the readers; a reading so active that it engages the entire person; yet at the same time, it is passive, that is to say, a reading in which we (the readers) permits ourselves to be influenced by the Word of God who speaks to us personally, who speaks intimately heart to heart; a reading made in the bosom of the Church, the body of Christ, “with the loving eyes of a spouse”; an assiduous reading made every day without exception; disinterested reading, [meaning] to read for the sake of reading and not for having read, reading in which we seek nothing else than the reading itself.—-Garcia M Colombas, Reading God

From the quality time with the Word required by lectio divina one learns “reading” as a way of life, not just an exercise for a set number of minutes each day. Becoming adept at lectio is like mastering a language. It opens up communication with an even larger world. Reading the Scriptures is a springboard to reading the larger world that surrounds us.  For while the scriptural texts are the first material of, or prime matter for, lectio, reading them trains people to read the other texts life provides. The God who speaks in the Scriptures speaks in human experience as well.  Lectio that begins with the Scriptures speaks in human experience as well.–Raymond Studzinski, Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina

[In practicing lectio divina,] we tend at the same time to rediscover the value of the otium (leisure) of the cloister, that is, the importance of “free time” to dedicate to God and affairs of the soul…We need to react valiantly against anxiety, against the inordinate urge to produce, against the habits which our consumer society imposes on us and which oblige us to devote extraordinary hours…to mental or physical labor. It seems indispensable that in the daily monastic horarium (a schedule of work, prayer, and free time), leisure must be allowed for slow… reading, penetrated by prayer.–Garcia M Colombas, Reading God

And for another Friday literary bouquet, join Kimberlee Conway Ireton.

Photos: St John the Evangelist Monastery library, Cambridge; Proverbs 31; a Wordle of my dissertation prospectus

Oct 22 2011

{Day 22} Creating a Lectio Table

In the past two posts, I’ve written about sacred space as a reminder of God’s presence, and as a call to prayer.

Beyond having a set-apart area–a beautiful corneranother option for creating prayer space is a lectio table.

A lectio table is prayer in action, in the very midst of walking-around life, and can appear in a moment. All it takes is paying attention. The act of praying is in the act of crafting it and reflecting upon it.

It can change every day. It can be part of the beautiful corner, or it can be on the kitchen counter or dining room table or any other place where prayer is happening. Last Christmas, I created a lectio tree in place of having a Christmas tree.

Over the years, I’ve collected hundreds of found objects from a 160 year old piece of hand-cut marble from St John’s Monastery to a yellow ducky with blond hair (a gift from my friend Amy).

Each has a story. Each can represent a prayer. Sometimes I choose them with a specific prayer in mind; sometimes, I create the arrangement with no pre-planning. Sometimes, when I’m out walking, I find something beautiful, like a feather butterfly. I placed it on my candle-holder when I got home, and it shone in the sunlight, inspiring prayer for the rest of that day.

Another time, I was in a busy Boston train station, tired and aching to be home, when I found a perfect sprig of baby’s breath in my path–unnoticed and unwanted by the hundreds of commuters around me. It became a prayer of gratitude for beauty in the midst of the evening commute. No table, just an object held in my hand as the train whizzed along the track.

Once the objects are selected and arranged, I allow the four movements of lectio divina–reading, meditating, praying, contemplating–to shape how I reflect on the lectio table arrangement and allow prayer to happen organically. Sometimes, I’m surprised ast what the Holy Spirit nudges me to pray about, stimulated by one of the objects or how they are in relationship to each other.

Practice: Wander your house and choose objects and/or take a walk and let nature provide you with items. Choose a place on a counter or table and arrange the objects–follow your intuition. Then using the movements of lectio divina, consider the arrangement. How is the Holy Spirit calling you to pray?

Apr 10 2011

Visio Divina: Fifth Week of Lent

The readings for the fifth week of Lent are some of the richest of the season, from the reanimation of the valley of dry bones to the release of Lazarus from the tomb.

As I reflected this week, one aspect of the Lazarus story struck me: from where was he called back?

I try to imagine the conversation.

God: Would you be willing to go back?

Lazarus: But I love it here.

This story is a bookend to the  initial encounter story in John’s Gospel where Christ tells Nicodemus he must be “born again,”  Lazarus is asked to go through death again (once before Jesus shows up and then again at some later unrecorded date). Hidden in this is a reminder that our baptism is both a birth and a death–and that the way of the cross is a path through death to life.

The sunlit photo of the field is my imagining  of the peace and beauty from where Lazarus returned.



Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.


Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.


Psalm 130

De profundis

Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.


Romans 8:6-11

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

tombs 2

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.


As the Lenten Artist in Residence at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, I’m reflecting on the weekly lectionary scripture passages and offering a collection of photos in response.

Lectio divina, Latin for divine reading, is an ancient monastic practice of reading and praying with scripture. Visio divina, divine seeing, takes a similar approach to visual art.  The four movements of lectio or visio divina are reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. For a description of the prayer practice, a colorful handout is here.

(Delayed this week due to internet connection flakiness)

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