by Nabil Habibi
In my Lebanese Evangelical tradition we treat the Bible as a sacred text. Here is the thing though: growing up in my local church and Evangelical community I was rarely taught any sacred reading practices!
I have been consistently told to read my Bible daily – which is great advice. But how should we do this? Sure, I was told what to look for in the scriptures (the famous duo of promises from God and commandments from God) but I was never told how to engage with the text.
You see, I think we are afraid of ritual in our spiritual and communal lives. I think the reasons for the general absence of liturgy in our Lebanese Evangelical worship services, and the absence of teaching on sacred reading practices more specifically, stems from our fear of rituals.
We look over our Evangelical fence to our non-Evangelical Christian neighbors and see them practicing rituals without understanding their meaning – or we judge so at least. Consequently, we throw all types of rituals out the window altogether.
We are very good at telling our people what should be done, but we stutter at explaining how actually to do what should be done.
We tell people they should read their Bible every day. How? “Well, just open it, read it, and pray it.” But how? The answer sometimes evokes the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit aids us in our readings. This is followed by a disdain of organized sacred reading practices.
It is as if, in some illogical manner, the Holy Spirit cannot and will not be present and engaged with and through us if things are planned. But we do not use this logic anywhere else in our life. We utilize pre-planned and tried and tested strategies in all levels of our life. Similarly, we should be open to utilizing sacred reading practices passed on to us from previous saints over hundreds of years of personal and communal worship.
It was unbeknownst to me until I took a course in spiritual formation in my theological studies that we do have a number of ancient Christian sacred reading practices to help us meditate on the Bible. But I never used them. Perhaps because they were not modeled to me in my church surroundings. My education on spiritual formation these days is coming from an unexpected source.
During the past two months I have been taking advantage of every free minute (driving, washing the dishes, hanging the laundry…etc.) to listen to a wonderful podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” The podcast is presented by two secular people who treat the novel series Harry Potter as sacred text. They discuss each chapter through a theme and end the podcast by doing a sacred reading of the text.
That is, they choose a theme, for instance sacrifice, and discuss the events and characters of the chapter through that theme. Then they choose a certain passage from the chapter they are discussing and do a close reading of that passage through a spiritual sacred reading practice.
I have been using these sacred reading techniques, borrowed from secular podcasters drawing from Christian traditions, during my own devotional readings of the Bible. I love it! I plan to teach them to my youth and church.
So far (halfway through the seven-book anthology) they have used three sacred reading practices on Harry Potter from Christian tradition: Lectio Divina, Sacred Imagination, and Florilegia.
Lectio Divina, meaning “divine reading,” is a monastic prayer method usually applied to the Psalms (although I think it can bring great benefit on any text of the Bible). It consists of four steps:
Step 1 is Lectio (reading) whereby you choose a short passage of scripture and read it repeatedly.
Step 2 is Mediatio (meditation) whereby you attempt to understand the passage in its context and think how it applies to your own life.
Step 3 is Oratio (prayer) whereby you pray to God through and from the passage.
Step 4 is Contemplatio (contemplation) whereby you simply sit in God’s presence and allow this scripture and prayer to bring you closer to God.
This will help you engage and pray through a verse or phrase of scriptures, and allow God to speak to you in a specific manner.
Sacred imagination is a practice from Ignatius of Loyola (Spanish Catholic saint, priest, and theologian in the sixteenth century) whereby you immerse yourself in a biblical story (hence this practice is more beneficial when applied to biblical narrative) and try to imagine what the characters were feeling and experiencing. You read the story more than once and each time prayerfully insert yourself mentally alongside the characters of the story. This will help you draw closer to the people of faith as they lived out their experiences in our scriptures.
Florilegia is a sacred reading practice that comes from the church fathers and has been practiced across history. It derives from Latin; flos is flowers and legre is gathering – so the meaning is flower garden. While reading the scriptures you keep a notebook nearby and write any phrase or verse or words that “sparkle” out at you. Over time you will have a collection of sparklets, flowers. You read those together and to gain new deeper meaning.
I have been practicing Florilegia over the past few weeks. It has added immense depth to my devotional readings. I had already started using the Revised Common Lectionary (A protestant lectionary with daily readings according to the church calendar) in my devotions and preaching for a year now. With Florilegia I now add three new sparklets to my notebooks each day (from the Psalms, Old Testament, and New Testament). It is a joy to open the notebook and read and meditate on those arrangements together. This aids my prayers and meditation. I even plan to start a similar notebook for my readings in theology.
It is a shame that although I grew up as an active member in the Lebanese Evangelical community, I had to see sacred reading practices modeled in a secular podcast. These Christian rituals have been present during centuries of faithful Christian worship and prayer.
I pray that over the coming months and years I will continue to learn how the people of God before me translated the what’s of Christian faith into the how’s of spiritual growth. I want to dive deeper into the rich Judeo-Christian worship traditions. I pray that these ancient rituals will receive new life in our churches today, and that the Holy Spirit will use them to breathe life into our worship as individuals and communities.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” (Albus Dumbledore in book 7 of the Harry Potter Series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
Nabil lectures in NT studies. He enjoys reading literature, especially Harry Potter and the like. He works with the youth in his local church and loves to spend time with his magical wife and two young sons.