It is not uncommon for children in their early years of school to participate in butter making as a class activity. In my own experience, the cream was put into coffee cans which we kids rolled back and forth with our classmates. (In case you’re wondering, yes, one of the lids came off.) By rolling the cans, we accomplished the churning necessary to form butter from the cream.
Simple as this process may be, it serves as a good metaphor for the way we engage in the practice is lectio divina or “holy reading”. At the start, we simply read the section we have chosen. However, this is not the same kind of rapid, information-gleaning that generally characterizes our reading. We do not read the section once, but twice, or as many times as seems appropriate. Our goal in this kind of reading is to let the Scripture wash over and saturate us rather than looking down upon it and analytically sifting through it. This stage is much like pouring the cream into the can. We seek to let what we read fill us.
Next comes meditation on what we have read. Typically, as we read there will be any number of particulars that stand out to us, catch our attention, or stick in our minds. It is upon one or more of these (depending on time constraints) that we focus our meditations. In meditating on the word or phrase, we consider it and carefully examine it, not as a scientist examines cells under a microscope, but more like a connoisseur examines a fine dish, employing all the senses in order to search out and be immersed in each subtle flavor, texture, scent, etc. It is not a passive process, but an active immersion. We may liken our meditation to the churning of the cream, which turns it over and over. Similarly, as we meditate we turn the word or phrase over and over in our hearts and minds.
As we meditate on the Scripture, it naturally gives rise to prayer. The content of these prayers can vary a great deal depending on our meditations. For example, we may become aware of a sin that we still serve and therefore pray to God to help us overcome it by His love and strength. It may also be the case that we are filled with thankfulness for God’s blessings in our lives and offer up prayers of thanksgiving to Him. As we meditate we may become more acutely aware of God’s holiness or some other characteristic and pray in the silence of reverential awe. These are but a few of the possibilities that may play out as we are guided from meditation to prayer. This transition is very much like the way that our churning of the cream gives rise to butter. Similarly, our meditating of Scripture gives rise to prayer. This is not to say that we are in control of the process and cause these things to happen by our own effort. It is rather the case that we are cooperating with the Holy Spirit by taking action which allows Him to do His formative work within us.
There may be a fourth stage (often called contemplation) which comes forth as a gift from God. It is difficult to pin down a precise description of what contemplation is; therefore it may be best to approach it by way of analogy. After the butter has been made, we use it as a condiment on foods which we eat with others as an act of fellowship, enjoying good company with good food. In contemplation, it may be said, we enjoy godly food with Godly company. We no longer fill or churn or even speak, but simply rest in God’s presence and are satisfied by Him Who is our all in all.