Adele Calhoun is pastor of spiritual formation at Christ Church of Oak Brook in Oak Brook, Illinois. She is also author of The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP, 2005). Building Small Groups talked with her about the need, benefits, and challenges of using lectio divina and contemplative prayer in small groups.
Building Small Groups: What are the differences between contemplative prayer and lectio divina?
Adele Calhoun:Lectio divina is a method of reading Scripture in a transformational way rather than an informational way. It's a sense of the immediacy of the Word, the experiential awareness of the Word—that I'm listening for a word for me.
And as I get that word, it often holds an invitation. And that invitation invites me into contemplative prayer. And so I think that's the place where they connect. There's a response in lectio divina, the oratio, where I'm led into prayer. So, contemplative prayer moves out of this deeper meditation on the Word of God.
People are often uncomfortable with phrases like contemplation or meditation because of a perceived connection to Eastern religious practices. Is that a valid fear?
As I understand Eastern meditation, the practice is to empty yourself. But in a biblical worldview, meditation is used to fill yourself with the fullness of Christ. So, I see them as two quite different goals, but they may use some of the same techniques—breathing techniques, centering techniques, and so on. But I see the goal as being very different.
Contemplative prayer and lectio divina are often described as "ancient practices." Can they still aid in the process of spiritual formation today?
Yes, they can. I have a real burden for the contemplative life, including contemplative prayer, to be something that the evangelical church embraces. If it doesn't, we won't have anything to say to this world that can never stop. Part of what the church has to offer is the ability to approach this completely out-of-control, over-packed, inundated, overwhelmed world and say, "There is a way to stop. There is a way to breathe. There is a way to live in a different rhythm of life." And the only way we can give that to the world is if we have it ourselves.
So, I feel like the contemplative journey is a really necessary journey, and if we don't make it, we'll be just like the world. We'll be shaped like the world—shaped by doing and productivity and outcomes and measures that are not godly.
What are the benefits of using contemplation and lectio divina in small groups, specifically?
One benefit is that I get to hear how God is uniquely speaking to all of the people in my group. His word to me may be different than his word to you, but he's spoken to all of us. And out of that, there may be a point where a leader can say, "As we've listened together, is there anything you want to share with this group? Is there anything that's come to you for anyone in this group?" And then I can share, if I have something.
I think lectio and contemplative prayer take people to a more real, true place of community. And it can sometimes do that more quickly than a conventional Bible study. It's a very wonderful way to be in community together.
You've mentioned that lectio allows us to find "a word just for me." Is there a danger of misinterpreting the Scriptures that way? Of making them subjective?
Part of the question has to be, "Is my hearing of this word so subjective that it loses touch with the objective Word of God and what it meant in a particular context." I don't know how God can be anything but subjective in some ways—it comes from a subject to a subject. But if I really trust the Holy Spirit, and I really believe that the Holy Spirit lives in me, there ought to be a willingness on my part to be very open to receiving something directly for me from the Holy Spirit.