Praying with the Bible

Published on: 1 January 2018

Keith James shares a practical guide to two ways of praying – Imaginative Contemplation and Lectio Divina.

On April 23, 1962, Karl Barth, the Swiss-German theologian famous for his series of mighty long and complex theological volumes, spoke at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago. During the question and answer time, a student asked him if he could summarise his theology in a single sentence. Barth paused and then replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And if reading the Bible tells us this simple, profound truth – then praying with the Bible enables us to experience it.

Before we begin…

This is not Bible Study.

It has its place, and it’s an important place, but this about prayer – conversation with God.

This is not a lucky dip approach to the Bible.

Some passages are more suitable for use in prayer – that’s true – but praying in this way opens us up to receive the consolation as well as the discomfort God can bring (albeit with the aim of our healing).

This is not quick, slick or speedy.

God does not reveal himself to anyone in a hurry!

This prayer has an organic speed.

It is repetitious.

Be prepared to be fidgety – as well as surprised, moved, and changed.

And with those warnings in mind, let’s begin…

Imaginative Contemplation is associated with Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), as it is one of the ways of praying found in his Spiritual Exercises, but it was practised long before the 16th century.

In imaginative contemplation we enter into an event, parable or story of Scripture, often from the Gospels, by way of our imagination, making use of our senses and intuition.

Some passages that can be used for this way of praying include: Mat 8:23–27 and 14:22–33; Mark 10:46–52; Luke 5:1–11 and 19:1–10; John 4:1–42, 12:1–8 and 20, 19–22.

The Spirit of Jesus guides and teaches us, enabling us to let our present reality meet the reality and truth of the God.

Getting started:

  • Choose a passage. Take a few minutes to get into a relaxed attentiveness.
  • Read the passage a few times to familiarise yourself with it.
  • Ask God to show you what he wants you to discover.
  • Place yourself in the scene.
  • Take time.
  • Imagine that the events described are happening now.
  • Let the story play itself through with you in it. You may be a bystander – a character in the story.
  • Look at the expressions on people’s faces
  • Listen to the tone of people’s voices.
  • What else can you hear, see, sense, smell, taste or feel?
  • Speak – is there anyone you want to engage in a conversation?
  • Take part in what is happening. If there is something you don’t understand, ask Jesus or another character. Listen to what is said.

Perhaps you will notice things not mentioned in the text.

Don’t worry if your imagination takes you away from the details of the passage, or the historical or geographical facts; it is a sign that you are really involved.

Imagination is a means to an end – a present encounter with Christ.


At the end of the payer time, reflect: what do you want to say to God?

Help? Please? Thank you? Why?

Speak as you would with a friend.

Rest – be quiet – know that God looks on you with love.

Don’t lose heart if you find yourself distracted.

Keep returning to the passage, gently bringing yourself back to it.

Remember the Manchester United principle of prayer. Man Utd played Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League Final. They struggled for most of the game but won the game in extra time. The breakthrough so often comes in extra time – right at the end of the game. If nothing happens at all, then speak to God about your feelings of being stuck; ‘nothing happening’ times can also be significant.

Some people feel that they lack imagination and cannot ‘see’ the detail but they can nonetheless sense that they are in the story without the details.

When you’re ready, end your prayer using your own words or words that are familiar, such as the Lord’s Prayer; whatever feels right.


It might help to write down what struck you; you may want to return to the passage again.

A final word for those who have their doubts…

Imaginative prayer seemed silly, as I told my spiritual director. “Isn’t it all in my head?” I asked. “Aren’t I just making it up?” His wise answer freed me from my doubts. “You believe that God can work through all sorts of things in life—your mind, heart, soul. Right?”

“Yes,” I said tentatively.

“So why can’t God work through your imagination?”

Of course, not every experience of imaginative prayer will feel satisfying or produce earth-shattering results. Sometimes nothing will seem to be happening. But even in these seemingly dry prayer periods, spiritual transformation is taking place at a deep level, even if you can’t see it. Spending time with God always changes us.

Other times, this kind of prayer plunges you right into a gospel passage and you are noticing things that you never noticed before—about Jesus, about the apostles, about the people he touched, about yourself. Once that happens, you may never again hear that gospel story in the same way.


Lectio divina (Latin for ‘godly reading’)

This is a simple and profound method of prayer. Sometimes it is called “meditative reading” but could be described as praying with a listening heart, since many of the people who have used this approach to prayer throughout the ages could not read.

It dates back to the early Church Fathers around 300 AD. The four steps were first recorded by a monk, Guigo Cartujo, in 1173. These steps Lectio (Reading), Meditatio (Meditation), Oratio (Prayer) and Contemplatio (Contemplation) remain central today although methods differ.

Getting started:

Choose a passage.

What options can you choose from to decide which Scripture to read?

  • Use a reading plan or lectionary that prescribes what to read each day
  • Work through a book of the Bible
  • Focus on a theme of the Bible (e.g., love, patience, or various attributes of God) that you find using a Keyword Search or in lectio divina resources

There are an infinite number of ways to choose daily Scripture readings. Be creative and use your resources!

Take time to relax, get comfortable and settle.

  • Allow eyes to close and hands to rest.
  • Notice sounds around you. Allow your mind to quieten.
  • If distracted, notice the distraction and let it go.
  • Remember God’s love for you, and his desire to be present to you.

Read (Lectio) slowly and notice when a word, image, or verse strikes you.

No need to ask why – be attentive and trust that God will speak. Something may leap out immediately – sometimes it takes repeated readings

Ruminate (Meditatio) chew it – turn it over – rolling it round. Where does the word, verse, image take you?

Respond (Oratio) – what do you want to say to God?

Help? Please? Thank you? Why?

Speak as you would with a friend.

Rest (Contemplatio) – be quiet – know that God looks on you with love

Review – make a note of anything that seemed significant.


Lectio Divina with others

This way of praying can be very effective in a group setting.

  1. Moving in and out of silence

Invite people to get comfortable – close eyes – quieten the mind.

After the scripture is read for the first time, allow three to four minutes’ silence, then invite people to say out loud the word or phrase that struck them.

After a second reading, allow three to four minutes’ silence for people to ruminate and then invite people to turn to a neighbour, share where prayer has taken them.

Listen to a third reading, allowing for silence afterwards and then invite people to pray out loud one sentence prayers.

After the fourth reading keep silence together.

2. Dwelling in the Word

Invite people to get comfortable – close eyes – quieten the mind.

Read the passage out loud. Allow five minutes’ silence as people notice a word or phrase or image that what strikes them.

Next, ask people to find someone [a ‘friendly stranger’].

Listen as they answer these questions:

  • What captured your attention in the passage?
  • What would you like to know more about?

Each person will be asked to report to the rest of the group what their partner said. Some take notes to help them remember.

Turn people loose for 10 minutes. When you come back together as a group, ask them to tell what heard from their partners.

Invite the group to be quiet as they reflect on what they have heard – you could invite simple one-sentence prayers – or finish by praying the Grace together.

Sunday Takeaway

Prepare a handout for people in church on Sunday to take away, which has the text of one of the Scriptures for the following Sunday and an outline of Lectio. Invite people to pray with it in the week on their own or in a group.


Further Resources:

  • The Word is Near You – Martin Smith SSJE
  • Lectio Divina – Enzo Biachi
  • God of Surprises – Gerard W. Hughes
  • Taste and See – Margaret Silf
  • See links below

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