In popular usage and in technical writings, the word contemplation is used to mean all kinds of things. The result is that the word immediately evokes confusion. Now, in the context of lectio divina, contemplation refers to a very simple experience. It is easy to understand. God gives this biblical contemplation to all who will accept the gift. God does not reserve it for a few specially chosen mystics or for especially holy people. The bread of this contemplation is like the Eucharist in that it is given to all God's children.
To explain this contemplation, let me refer to a familiar experience from everyday life. All of us have moments when we are struck into awareness by some natural phenomenon. Walking in a wooded valley you approach a stream. You are not particularly conscious of the stream until, coming to a place where the water rushes over rocks, you are caught by the sound of the water. For a moment it seizes your attention. It seems as if the babbling water is telling a very important message, but in a language you do not understand. You are drawn to listen closely, to attend exclusively to the lovely sound. In some way your heart does understand what the sounds of the water mean, even though your head cannot translate the message into human language. You simply say: "It is beautiful."
Another typical example would be the times we have been struck into awareness by the sound of wind rushing through the leafy trees. Surely, also, every one of us has been taken into contemplation at times when we suddenly lifted our eyes and beheld an unexpected splendor in the sky...a sunset, a rainbow, a glorious array of starlight. That first instant of awareness, before we begin to formulate thoughts and words, when we were simply and exclusively engaged in concentrated loving attention: that is the contemplation we are speaking of here. It can last a longer time, but ordinarily and typically it lasts only seconds or a few moments. Then we have our usual recourse to thoughts and words about the beauty we have seen or heard. We quickly descend from contemplative gaze to reflective mental or verbal description of what we have seen.
There will be times in our lectio divina when the Word of God strikes us into awareness of the Divine Mystery. The contemplative awareness may last seconds or moments; rarely, if ever, it may last hours. What is it like; how can it be described? It has the character of being sudden and unexpected. It must not be striven for or greedily sought. It is a special visitation by the Word. God comes in this way when and as God chooses. Our part is simply to welcome God when God comes. We are not responsible for God's coming. We are responsible to be awake, alert, ready to open immediately when God knocks.
The contemplative moment of lectio divina is an experience of illumined consciousness. It is a heightened awareness of God. It is a brief time when you are totally occupied in being lovingly aware of God. It is a "little while" during which you are completely and exclusively engaged in loving attention to God. You are united to God now, but not by means of the words and thoughts of Scripture. These thoughts and words have stirred you into awareness of God's Self. Your loving act of knowing is itself the medium of your union with God.
There is no saying when, or by what passage, this contemplation will be given. Even the simplest word of Scripture can strike you into awareness of God when God chooses. It could be an "insignificant" phrase such as "...and Jesus, wearied as He was with His journey, sat down beside the well" (John 4:6). Suddenly you are overcome by the wonder of God Incarnate, walking, wearying, sitting on the ground by a well! A monk we know reported having the following graces of contemplation for a long period. She would go to her cell to engage in lectio divina. As soon as her eyes and hands touched the Sacred Book and before she could even open it, her heart and mind were lifted to an intense awareness of God.
You should understand that this contemplation is not a rapture, not an irresistible ecstasy. It is entirely free, voluntary and inter-personal. It comes as an inviting possibility, an attractive invitation. But it can always be neglected or refused. The Christian can decline it at the beginning and can interrupt it at any point in its course. That God should offer us this grace does not proceed from our free will. That we should accept it or refuse it is an exercise of our personal freedom.
Contemplation, in lectio divina, is a wordless response to God evoked by God's Word. It does not think or speak. It just knows and loves God. It perceives God by a grace of elevated consciousness. It is aware of God in a gift of concentrated attention. The person receiving this contemplation has no desire to read or think or speak. He or she desires only to celebrate his or her loving attention to God. This kind of knowledge is most deep and broad, having the Mystery of God as its object. It is correspondingly poor in quantity and distinctness of thoughts. This contemplation knows God; it does not think thoughts about God. And so, after this experience all we can say is that we were lovingly aware of God, of God's Love, of God's Goodness, of God's Son, of God's Presence, of God's Being, of God's Mystery, or some such global description.
Let us desire this contemplative gift humbly, realizing that no creature could merit or produce it by its own actions. It is not a goal we can attain by striving. It is not a reward we can win by our good works. It is always and purely God's gift. A gift we can and should desire since we know that God wants to give it to us. We can, and we must, cooperate with grace to make ourselves ready to accept it. We become disposed for contemplation by giving ourselves to each instant of life in the fullest measure of faith and love of which we are capable.
Contemplation includes many and diverse experiences. We have been considering here only one special category of contemplation in lectio divina. When you are doing lectio you should flow freely into the experiences of meditation, prayer and contemplation. When the grace of contemplation, meditation or prayer is complete, return at once to your practice of reading.
The time between Vigils and Lauds, 4:15 to 6:30 A.M., is the ideal time for lectio divina. Try to defer other activities to times later in the day. If you have the grace and desire, you can practice lectio divina once again or more times during your free periods during the day. But do not force yourself to the point of disgust or nervous tension. Lectio divina is hard work and requires generous effort. When it is done under the inspiration of divine grace it yields joy and refreshment of spirit.
We have seen, in theory and practice, how lectio divina is a principle medium in which the monk receives the Word of God. This Word of God Incarnate, Jesus can be addressed in direct prayer. The Word of God, Jesus, is near to us, in our hearts and on our lips. Now we will introduce the practice of short, frequent prayer addressed to Christ-God in the heart.
My sincere thanks to Fr. Stephen Verbest, vocation director, who wrote to give approval to use this material on 2003 08 28. You may also find it helpful to look at the homilies they have online. Go to the liturgy section and click on the Sharing the Word Index for Homilies and Spiritual Talks presented this year.