My guest today is Byron Rempel-Burkholder, one of the editors for Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal. Thank you, Byron, for sharing your practice of lectio divina.
Every January 19, in Gondar, Ethiopia, thousands of Coptic Christians gather around the edge of a crumbling moat surrounding a house built by the 17th century King Fasilides. Priests and deacons in colourful robes and turbans chant the Timket liturgy that celebrates the baptism of Jesus.
Toward the end of the ceremony, a priest dips a cross into the pool to bless it and deacons flick water over the crowd. And boys jump into the pool—two meters of water diverted from a local stream for the occasion. Drums beat, censors spread the aroma of incense, priests chant—and young people swim.
When I was eleven, I was part of a group of other kids and their families, living in Gondar, who came out to the Fasilides pool to experience the pomp and mystery of Timket. The event is one of the region’s tourist magnets to this day.
Decades later, memories of the young men’s splashing at Timket clinch an insight that I have been living with for a few years: swimming and prayer make good companions.
In 2008, when I began working out of a home office, I needed some kind of physical workout to replace my daily bicycle commute. I’m not into team sports, running is too hard on my shins, and I’m a morning person. So the route to fitness that I chose was early bird lap swimming.
Swimming had two downsides. First, it gobbled up the few minutes I had been trying to devote—with dubious success—to a morning discipline of reading and prayer before work. Second, paddling up and down the length of a pool over and over again was downright monotonous, with no chance to listen to an iPod or appreciate the scenery as runners do.
But boredom, like necessity, is the mother of invention. After a few days of length-swimming and meandering, unproductive thoughts—including regrets over the loss of my “spiritual” disciplines—I suddenly found myself praying the Lord’s Prayer. I devised a plan: break up the prayer into or six or eight sections, and take a lap to repeat the words of each section.
“Our Father” (repeated on the out breath for three or four strokes), “who art in heaven” (three or for more strokes), “hallowed be thy name…” As I felt moved, I would linger over a single word for a few strokes and see where that word led me in my imagination or in my intercession.
So I was doing some kind of spiritual discipline after all—and it helped me keep track of how many laps I had done. I didn’t have to waste my time thinking about my aching muscles. My time seemed to pass more quickly.
Special thanks go to Simone Weil for getting me used to repeating the Lord’s Prayer in the pool. The French mystic and philosopher converted from agnosticism to Christianity as a young adult, in the 1930s. For the rest of her short life, the only prayer she felt she needed was the Lord’s Prayer. She prayed it daily with “absolute attention.”
I couldn’t claim to have achieved that kind of attention—still can’t—but the rhythm of my front-crawl strokes and my breathing has certainly helped with focus. Praying the Lord’s Prayer in the pool turned my workout into a lectio divina (divine reading)—except the “reading” centred on memorized, not read texts. The thing about lectio divina is that you don’t cover a lot of Scripture, but whatever you do cover you do so in depth. Pool lectio is a great way to plant and root the Word in one’s soul.
Fairly early on, after my discovery, I began adding other texts to fill out my half-hour of swimming. Some were already memorized (such as Psalm 23—six laps) and others I had to memorized specifically for pool lectio (the Magnificat for Advent—eight laps).
One standard that I use at almost every swim, in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, is the Beatitudes. Each beatitude occupies one lap. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example, takes me the length of the pool; “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” is for the return trip. Each time, I try to imagine how these blessings might be at work in my life, or in the people I am praying for.
As with any spiritual discipline, there is a certain ebb and flow to the benefit of pool lectio. Some days I skip. Sometimes I’m distracted by the people and noises in the pool. Sometimes I get bored by the same old words, and I wonder if I’m in a rut. But what keeps me going is that there are enough moments of inspiration that I haven’t given up—yet.
The young men’s splashing in the Fasilides pool is meant to remind people of Jesus’ baptism, the moment when the Spirit descended, when God spoke a heavenly blessing, and Jesus was launched into his vocation. Similarly, the rhythm of swim strokes combined with the breathing of Scripture can help renew us in our own call. It’s as if the water has become the amniotic fluid of the Spirit. And then we’re reborn to a new day and a fresh sense of God’s call.
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