An introduction to ‘Prayer in Secret’ and
Lectio Divina meditation on the Scriptures
This information is adapted from
Joseph Chalmers, The Sound of Silence – Listening to the Word of God with the Prophet Elijah, (Faversham:
Saint Albert’s Press, 2007).
When we pray, in some way we enter into a relationship with God. Prayer is our response to God who first approaches us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church understands prayer firstly as a relationship with God and only secondly as a special activity. Article 2558 says:
“Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.
Personal relationships take time, energy and a commitment in order to develop. We must find something in common with the other person. What we have in common with God is Jesus Christ. He is the culmination of all that God has done for the world, and in Christ can be found everything that God wants to say to humanity. In the Scriptures we read the story of how God spoke to the people and what God wants to say. The whole of Scripture leads us to the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. We cannot say that we want to know God if we ignore the divine message in Sacred Scripture. There is always something new to discover in the Scriptures.
The rediscovery of the centrality of the Word of God in the Church led to the rediscovery also of the ancient practice of Lectio Divina (holy reading). This was the normal way of prayer of the ancient monks and from them passed on to all the older religious orders. This way of prayer has had a profound effect on the history of Christian spirituality and can be said to be a constant in the Christian life. Lectio Divina is not only a method of prayer, but is a way of life; it is not simply yet another thing to be fitted in to our already overcrowded schedules, but rather is the element that shapes our whole day according to the will of God. It is, in fact, the form of all Christian prayer.
According to an ancient tradition, there are four fundamental moments in this way of prayer:
Reading, Meditation, Prayer and Contemplation. Or to put these another way: Read, Reflect, Respond and Rest. These moments are not strictly separated but flow into each other naturally and other moments can be added. Prayer is a very personal thing and each person must follow where the Spirit leads. The four traditional moments of Lectio Divina are simply an indication of the basic elements that make up Christian prayer.
Prayer is rather like soup. Good soup (prayer) has these four elements as basic ingredients, but each cook will have a different recipe. The soup will have a different taste according to the quantity of each ingredient and according to what other ingredients are added. We have a great freedom in our relationship with God but Lectio Divina contains the wisdom of centuries of living the Christian life. Lectio Divina is not a rigid method but changes according to the person who follows its rhythm.
The first ingredient is Lectio (the traditional name), or, in other words, a time to read the Word of God. We can read the Scriptures in many ways. With the rosary “we read” the Word of God in the sense that the prayers come from the Sacred Scriptures. Looking at frescoes and stained glass windows was the way in which uneducated people in the Middle Ages could “read” the Scriptures. Of course these things can still speak very powerfully to us today. The same can be said for statues, tapestries and any way of telling the biblical stories. We can read the Sacred Scriptures during daily Mass and in the Prayer of the Church, the Office. To read the Word of God with profit, we must listen attentively in order to receive what God wants to give us. Clearly it is not sufficient to listen to the Word; we must also put it into practice, as Mary the mother of Jesus did (cf. Luke 11:27-28). It is possible to listen to the Scriptures in a perfunctory fashion without allowing the words to touch us. It is necessary to make an effort to receive what God wants to say to us at each moment.
The Word of God is the story of God’s relationship with the human family; it is the story of my and your relationship with God. We learn from the Old and New Testaments how God speaks to us and what are the problems inherent in this dialogue. By means of the Word, God speaks personally to you and to me. God wants to say something particular to us, and if we do not listen we will not receive this very important message. When we read the Scriptures, it is necessary to take time, lest the Word goes in one ear and out the other without touching our hearts. It is important to reserve every day a little time to read or listen to the Word of God.
If one stops praying, it is difficult to get back into a rhythm. Although it is not necessary to be rigid in the exact time set aside, it is a commitment that must not be forgotten if we want to maintain a healthy relationship with God. There will also be days when all our plans are thrown into confusion and we hardly have time to bless ourselves. On those occasions we can say something like, “Today, Lord, I am really busy. Perhaps I will forget you. Please do not forget me!” However, these occasions must be an exception to the normal rhythm of our personal relationship with God.
The second moment or ingredient of Lectio Divina is meditatio. This term, which means meditation, is very wide and so it is necessary to define it a little. In our western European tradition, to meditate is equivalent to reflect on God or on the things of God. In Buddhism, on the contrary it means “not thinking”, and includes the various techniques used to arrive at this. Because of the influence of eastern religious practices, the normally accepted meaning of meditation in the world at large is this, and in particular because of the widespread use of “transcendental meditation”. However there also remains the traditional idea of reflecting on God or on some point of our faith. In this type of meditation we try to enter more profoundly into the mystery of God or the mysteries of the faith. For example, we can spend a little time thinking about the Eucharist, starting from a text of Scripture. Then we could think about what the Eucharist means for us today. We receive Christ as our food so that we might begin to live like him. This is only one example among many of a meditation. We have a brain and we must use it also in the area of our faith life.
There is another type of meditation, more ancient than that described above. At the beginnings of Christianity, meditation involved the whole body. When the first Carmelite hermits lived on
Mount Carmel in the early 13th century they understood meditation as a method for affixing the words of Sacred Scripture – and especially the psalms – in the mind and heart. Every hermit repeated the scriptural words over and over, with special emphasis on the psalms, in a loud voice. That is probably one reason their cells were originally quite far apart so that each would not be disturbed by the noise of the other. Gradually it was hoped that the Word of God would transform their hearts.
Meditation, then, can have for us today also these different meanings: to reflect on the Word of God in order to apply it to one’s own life, or repeat the words slowly in order to fix them in the heart. What does this Word say to me today, or what does the Lord want to say to me at this particular moment?
It can be useful to consult a Bible commentary to find a brief explanation of the chosen text. For the person of faith these comments help the reader to enter more easily into the Word of God presented by these ancient stories. It is not necessary to spend much time studying the text, but it is important to take a moment in order to get an idea of what God really is saying and so avoid the risk of making the Word say what we want to hear.
The third traditional moment or ingredient of Lectio Divina is oratio, which means prayer. This is our response to the Word of God. You may wonder has not everything we have been doing up to this point not also been prayer? Of course. However, according to the ancient monks from whom we have received Lectio Divina, prayer was understood as an opportunity for a heart-to-heart dialogue with God. The two previous moments – reading the Word and reflecting on it – are really a preparation for this intimate conversation with God. This intimate dialogue can take place in the midst of our normal daily tasks and can easily interchange with moments of meditation. For example, while we are working we could perhaps think about the passage of Scripture that we had chosen, or, like the monks of antiquity, we might choose to repeat some word or phrase so that the Word of God might take hold of our heart. We have to adapt ourselves to the circumstances of our lives. These words or our thoughts are aimed at touching our heart and starting a real dialogue with God. The conversation with the Lord can take many forms and is very personal. If it starts to rain and you are caught without an umbrella, your prayer might be one of complaint. If you are very worried, your prayer will probably focus on what you are worried about. You can praise or thank God. The psalms cover the whole spectrum of human emotion and they teach us that we can speak with God about anything. The goal of Lectio Divina is to open the human heart to God so that it might be transformed.
Spontaneous prayer sooner or later tends to diminish and silence becomes more and more normal. In the silence we leave a space for the Spirit of God to pray in us. Scripture says: “The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words; and he who can see into all hearts knows what the Spirit means because the prayers that the Spirit makes for God’s holy people are always in accordance with the mind of God.” (Romans 8:26-27).
The traditional name for the fourth moment or ingredient of Lectio Divina is contemplatio or contemplation. This is a concept with a lot of history behind it and not a few difficulties connected to it. I prefer to use a more common term that is easily understandable: rest. At this point we are invited to enter into the mystery of God. It is no longer necessary to think holy thoughts, or to speak but simply to rest in God. “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
When our prayer becomes silence, perhaps it may seem that we are wasting time. There will be a temptation to return to a form of prayer where we were in control, or at least where we had the sensation of doing something. However, silence is a normal development of prayer. There comes a time when we must leave behind our beautiful words because they cannot express what is in our heart. In silence, God can listen to what is in our heart and we can listen to the still small voice of God.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2712 Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more. But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God. Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.
2713 Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, “to his likeness.”
2714 Contemplative prayer is also the pre-eminently intense time of prayer. In it the Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit “that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith” and we may be “grounded in love.”
2715 Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: this is what a certain peasant of Ars used to say to his holy curé about his prayer before the tabernacle. This focus on Jesus is a renunciation of self. His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus illumines the eyes of our heart and teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. Contemplation also turns its gaze on the mysteries of the life of Christ. Thus it learns the “interior knowledge of our Lord,” the more to love him and follow him.
2716 Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God. Far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child. It participates in the “Yes” of the Son become servant and the Fiat of God’s lowly handmaid.
2717 Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.
2718 Contemplative prayer is a union with the prayer of Christ insofar as it makes us participate in his mystery. The mystery of Christ is celebrated by the Church in the Eucharist, and the Holy Spirit makes it come alive in contemplative prayer so that our charity will manifest it in our acts.
2719 Contemplative prayer is a communion of love bearing Life for the multitude, to the extent that it consents to abide in the night of faith. The Paschal night of the Resurrection passes through the night of the agony and the tomb – the three intense moments of the Hour of Jesus which his Spirit (and not “the flesh [which] is weak”) brings to life in prayer. We must be willing to “keep watch with [him] one hour.”
When we read the Word of God, or meditate on it or pray about it, we are using our own words and thoughts, but the Word belongs to God and possibly God wants to comment on it. God often does this by inspiring a thought or a feeling. The ancient monks believed that it was important to leave some time for God, and they called this time contemplatio (contemplation). Many people can be rather suspicious of this word. By calling cloistered nuns “contemplatives” we may often think that we can leave contemplation to them. However if we translate the word “contemplation” by another term like, “an intimate relationship with God in Jesus Christ”, we can perhaps begin to see that it cannot be exclusive to cloistered nuns. Contemplation is for everyone.
The fruit of prayer is not the brilliant ideas that we may have about Scripture or the feelings of love that rise up in our heart. At times it is impossible to have a single holy thought. The fruit of prayer can only be seen outside the time of prayer in the way we relate with others on a regular basis. If our prayer is authentic, our life will begin to change, probably not in extraordinary ways, but in the small details of daily life. It is quite possible that we ourselves may not be at all aware of any of these changes, but they will begin to strike those with whom we live and work.
We need some quiet time when we leave behind our own words, thoughts, and ideas and simply rest in God, who loves us with a love that goes beyond anything we would imagine. At the end of this chapter I suggest a method of silent prayer dubbed ‘Prayer in Secret’. This method is based above all on the work of Fr. Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O.
It is a method that helps one move from the third phase of Lectio Divina, that of responding to God in spontaneous prayer (oratio) in order to simply wait for God in silence, so that we will be ready when and if God wishes to bring us into greater depths. This method can be a preparation for contemplative prayer (contemplatio).
Finally we can add a fifth moment or ingredient of Lectio Divina: actioFirst letter of John: (action), which is also important because it moves prayer into daily life. The goal of Christian prayer is to enter into an intimate relationship with God but this process must have effects in daily life. According to the
My dear friends, let us love one another, since love is from God and everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love. This is the revelation of God’s love for us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might have life through him. Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent his Son to expiate our sins. My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another. No one has ever seen God, but as long as we love one another God remains in us and his love comes to its perfection in us. (I John 4:7-12).
The example of Saint Thérèse can help us to remain faithful to God in times that are not always easy. Let us journey together with her to Christ, the Word of God.
Prayer in secret
Lectio Divina is the most traditional way of growing in an intimate relationship with God and it is through this relationship that we are transformed and made capable of living the Gospel in all its fullness. A monk of the 12th century has described the key moments of Lectio Divina: read the Word; reflect on the Word (meditate); respond to the Word (prayer during which we allow our hearts to spontaneously turn towards God); and rest in the Word (contemplation). The key moments are not rigid points to be followed one after the other but are descriptions of the way prayer normally develops, with one flowing into the other. There are some methods to help us when we begin to experience that all our words and thoughts are no longer sufficient. We may feel a call to silence but we do not know what to do.
I want to propose a method of prayer which can make silence very fruitful and can help us wait for God in silence. It is a method of Christian prayer that is based on the very rich contemplative tradition and especially on a classic book of this tradition called The Cloud of Unknowing written anonymously in the 14th century.
I am not suggesting that one should leave other personal ways of prayer, but this method could deepen these other methods and make them even more fruitful. The most important thing for this way of prayer is to be convinced that God is not far away but is very close. God is at home within us (cf. John 14:23).
This method of prayer is usually called Centering Prayer but could also be called the prayer of silence or the prayer of desire because in the silence we stretch out towards God with our desire.
It has also been called prayer in secret, following Jesus’ counsel to go into one’s private room and to pray to the Father in secret (Matthew 6:6).
The first phase of this prayer is to find a suitable place where the interruptions will be reduced to a minimum. Then get into a comfortable position that you can hold without fidgeting for the whole time of the prayer. Usually a minimum of 20 minutes is recommended.
One can begin this prayer with a short reading from the Bible. Now is not the time to think about the meaning of the words; that kind of meditation is for another time. Now is the time simply to be in the presence of God and consent to the divine action with our intention. Then, with eyes closed, introduce very gently a sacred word into your heart. A sacred word is a word that is very significant for you in your ongoing relationship with God. For example, the little word “yes” can mean a lot of things. “Do you want an ice cream?” “Yes”. Or “Will you marry me?” “Yes”. Such a little word can mean very little or a great deal and can change the whole of your life. In a close relationship two people can use pet-names for each other that may sound rather silly to outsiders but are highly significant to those involved in the relationship. The sacred word, then, should be sacred for you. According to the teaching of The Cloud of Unknowing it is better if this word be very brief, one syllable if possible.
I can suggest some possible words:
Choose a word that is most significant for you. Perhaps one will come to you if you ask God’s help.
When I said to introduce the sacred word into your heart, I am not suggesting that you pronounce it with your lips or even mentally, but rather welcome it within you without thinking of its meaning. It is not necessary to force the sacred word. It should be very gentle. The sacred word is not a mantra to be constantly repeated. The word focuses our desire and we use it always in the same way simply to return our heart to the Lord as soon as we become aware that we are distracted. This is a prayer of intention and not attention. Our intention is to be in the presence of God and to consent to the divine action in our lives. The sacred word expresses this intention, and so when we become aware that we are thinking of something else we can decide either to continue with the distraction because we find it more interesting or return to our intention to be in the presence of God and consent to what God wants to accomplish in us. We return our heart to God by the very gentle use of the sacred word. It is a symbol of our intention. It is not necessary to repeat it frequently but only when we wish to return our heart to God.
During this prayer it is not the time to talk to God with beautiful words or even to have holy thoughts, even if we think that these are inspirations from God. These things are best left for another moment. Our silence and our desire are worth far more than many words.
By means of the word that we have chosen, we express our desire and our intention to remain in the presence of God and to consent to the purifying and transforming divine action. We return to the sacred word, which is the symbol of our intention and our desire, only when we become aware that we are involved in something else. The prayer consists simply in being in the presence of God without thinking of anything in particular. It is a prayer of relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you understand how to be in silence with another person without thinking or doing anything in particular, then you will be able to understand what this prayer is all about. This method of prayer is not for everyone. If you feel an interior call to greater silence, it may be of help to you.
At the end of the period that you have decided to dedicate to prayer, perhaps you can say an Our Father or other prayer very slowly. It is good to remain in silence for a few moments in order to prepare yourself to bring the fruit of your prayer into your daily life.
Let’s summarise the simple steps for this method of prayer…
Practical guidelines for Centering Prayer or the Prayer in Secret
There are four simple guidelines to this method of prayer.
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to the presence and action of God within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and then silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Open Mind, Open Heart, (Massachusetts: Element Books, 1992). For a simple introduction to this method of prayer and its background, see Elizabeth Smith and
Joseph Chalmers, A Deeper Love, (Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Burns & Oates, and New York: Continuum, 1999).
Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, translated by Clifton Wolters, (London: Penguin Books, 1961).
Centering Prayer was taught originally by three Trappist monks in the
U.S.A. who had made a profound study of the Christian contemplative tradition. Fr. Basil Pennington has written many books, such as Centering Prayer (London / New York / Sydney: Image Book, Doubleday, 1980). Fr. William Menninger has concentrated more on The Cloud of Unknowing; see his The Loving Search for God (New York: Continuum, 1994). The basic book to learn more about this way of prayer remains that of Fr. Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart
Joseph Chalmers, A Deeper Love, (Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Burns & Oates, and New York: Continuum, 1999). (Massachusetts: Element Books, 1992). For a simple introduction to Centering Prayer and its background see Elizabeth Smith &
See Thomas Keating, Manifesting God, (
New York: Lantern Books, 2005).
Cloud of Unknowing (op. cit.) chapter 7, p. 69.
See Thomas Keating, Manifesting God, pp. 133-139.