The bishops in Rome at last month’s synod on the bible have asked us to see scripture as a living word. They want us to understand the bible as part of a wider relationship with Jesus Christ, the ‘living Word of God’ which is both personal and rooted in the church community.
They are calling for a deeply spiritual way of reading scripture that doesn’t end up in ‘empty piety or parsing the text to death through historical and literary study’. I think one such deeply spiritual way is praying like a cow.
I wonder what would happen if everyone reading this article committed to imitating a cow between now and next Sunday by trying Lectio Divina (holy reading). I call it the Cow Prayer—no, there is no mooing involved. From my vantage point as a small child on a dairy farm, a cow’s behaviour could be observed closely and many lessons learnt.
Lectio Divina is an ancient Benedictine spiritual practice that invites us to chew the words over and over again like a cow chewing a mouthful of grass. We have to ruminate on them. The Cow Prayer has four steps, each with a Latin name: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. You could think of them as the four legs of the cow.
Step 1: reading
The first step is easy. Find your own paddock (a comfortable place to pray) and just read slowly this well-known gospel passage:
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matt 25:1-13)
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
If a word, phrase or sentence doesn’t leap out at you then read the passage again.
Step 2: meditating
Now prayerfully reflect on the word(s) that struck you, eg, ‘our lamps are going out’ or ‘the bridegroom came’ or ‘the door was shut’.
Remember the cow. Chew the words over and over again slowly. Memorise them, don’t swallow them. Use your imagination (if it helps) to picture the lamps or the bridegroom or the closed door. Otherwise, just stay with the words.
Step 3: praying
Our ruminating will stimulate personal prayers—prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving or petition. There may be many or just one. The number is not important. There are no rules except to remember that this is God’s work and not ours. As we pray in the fourth Preface in Ordinary Time, ‘Our desire to thank you is itself your gift’. So just respond to the gift (God’s grace) that is being offered to you.
Step 4: contemplating
The final step is really resting in God’s love or simply being in God’s presence. Again think of a contented cow at rest in the paddock gazing with those beautiful contemplative eyes. You may not get to this stage initially, because once again it’s all God’s gift, but that’s no reason to give up.
In the meantime befriend a cow and observe her behaviour. Check out her legs and see if you can remember the four steps. I guarantee you won’t end up in ‘empty piety or parsing the text to death through historical and literary study’! Cows can’t stand either. They prefer to chew the cud.