Is meditating on Scripture the same as Bible study?
I run a Facebook group called Authentic Contemplative Prayer, where more than 10,000 members discuss growth in holiness. Recently a member asked a question about meditating on sacred Scripture. Not being a Bible scholar or theologian, he was concerned that some of his meditations would stray into heresy. How could he know that his musings remained faithful to the teachings of the church?
This person fell prey to a common misconception about Christian meditation. He equated meditating on Scripture with Bible study. Bible study is a wonderful endeavor that enriches our faith and can enrich our prayer. But Bible study – in the sense of looking up word meanings, consulting maps, or digging into Bible history – should generally be separate from mental prayer. In mental prayer, we read Scripture not in order to know facts, but in order to fall in love with the God who is love.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called prayer “a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God” (“On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” no. 3). Reading Scripture during prayer is not only a preparation for that dialogue, it is part of it.
When we sit down to pray, one of the first things we should do is ask the Holy Spirit to speak to our hearts through the Scriptures. Then when we read, we do so slowly, with attention. We engage our minds and hearts with the text – not so much to understand our faith better, but to discern what difference it makes to our relationship with God.
I teach my children to meditate on Scripture regularly, with instruction beginning at age 12 or 13. As a first step, I have them complete a worksheet about a short passage of Scripture. After they have chosen 10 to 20 verses to read, they identify a lesson the passage teaches. The next step is more critical. They write down several questions to ask themselves about that lesson, such as: How does this affect my life? How is God asking me to change? Do I need to repent of the sin Jesus is talking about? What can I resolve to do better? Questions like these make prayer personal.
God speaks to us through the Scriptures. We let the words soak into our hearts. We ask what the message is for ourselves. Then we speak to God about our reflections, asking him for help, thanking him for grace, and praising him for his goodness. This is mental prayer.
St. Teresa of Avila famously said about prayer, “The important thing is not to think much, but to love much” (“Interior Castle,” 4.1). Great thoughts about God can coexist with a refusal to do his will. Great love for God motivates and empowers us to do his will. One can be a Bible scholar and a heathen. On the other hand, as St. Alphonsus Liguori said, “It is impossible for him who perseveres in mental prayer to continue in sin: he will either give up meditation or renounce sin” (“Prayer, the Great Means of Salvation and Perfection,” Part 3, Ch. 1).
We do not need to be Scripture scholars to practice Christian meditation. We do not need many tools. A Bible and an open, loving heart will do. The Holy Spirit will supply the rest.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.