Lectio Divina for Spiritual Directors (edited) – Bradley Jersak

I happened upon a fresh form of lectio divina meditation specific to spiritual directors. It happened quite by accident, if there’s such a thing in the contemplative life.

I had assigned my grad studies students readings from six of Paul’s epistles. They were to read each book in one sitting, summarize them in just a few sentences and with a key text, then demonstrate their engagement by composing a few questions for further thought.

One of the students, Lisa Meier, offered penetrating questions that saw through to the heart of the matter. I was reminded that she’s a seasoned spiritual director. As I read her questions, I imagined the apostle Paul in Lisa’s study, having just poured out his heart (the contents of one of his letters) to her. I could see her listening attentively, seeing through his words into the soul that spoke them, then asking the type of questions that, like my own director, would lead Paul deeper into self-discovery.

The surprise was that as I listened in on their session, I found it surprisingly easy to hear his responses. Call it creative composition, or contemplative reflection, or communion of the saints … but the exercise took me further into Paul’s spiritual context and, hopefully, gave me clearer eyes and ears for his intent.

Here’s an example of how I might process this approach to lectio.

Paul: Here is a faithful saying and worthy of universal acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief  (1 Tiimothy 1:15).

[What would you ask Paul? I’m not a spiritual director, so please excuse my breaches in good protocol, but…]

SD: “Chief of sinners?” I’ve not heard you speak of yourself that way before. You’ve called yourself an apostle or a servant of Christ. Perhaps even his slave. But most of all, you speak of being “in Christ,” which seems to be your truest self. Your identity. Why “chief of sinners”? Where is that coming from?

Paul: Yes, en Christo I live and move and have my being. I know I am beloved of the Father. And I know the magnitude of this love because it found me in the depths of my sin. As our Lord said, those who have been forgiven much, love much. I have been forgiven much. I know the depth of God’s love for me by the depths he descended to find me. How great a love he lavished on me that when I was his most ardent enemy, even then he never ceased to pursue me! 

SD: But I notice that you didn’t say, “I WAS the chief of sinners.” You said, “I AM the chief.” Having already been forgiven, why, “I am.” What am I hearing in that? What do you feel when you say that? Is there a residue of shame or condemnation? Self-loathing? Or is something else going on behind those words?

Paul: [reflects for a bit… nods] First, I don’t associate the word “sinner” with my identity. I’ve truly been remade. I’m not who I was … I’ve become a new creature. But the grace by which I live today and the mercy I receive every day is as great as that day when Christ confronted me on the Damascus Road. It is the air I breathe and the message I preach every single day. God’s grace is my very life. I don’t reckon it as something I merely met long ago. I wake up to it and in it every morning.

So when Jesus said, “I did not come for the righteous, but for sinners,” I feel no shame at all in confessing that I still qualify and always will. Yes, Great Physician, here I am! Touch me again today! It’s not that I wallow in scorn for myself. But I’m more aware than ever that I’ve not yet arrived. The Spirit has sensitized me to ways I still need the medicine of mercy. And may I never live to see the day when I think I’m beyond it!

SD: I’m glad this seems clear to you. I wonder… how might those in the assemblies hear these words. What do you sense they’re experiencing?

Paul: [tears fill his eyes] Here is my reality. Wherever I travel, if the Lord opens a door for me to visit his churches, I look out and gaze into their faces. It’s not easy. I see faces that hate me and have come to hear words they can twist into slander. And I see faces that adore me, whether because of our shared history or because they imagine I am someone I am not. And I see faces that are filled with grief or distrust, because I rarely visit a church whose families were untouched by the harm I’ve done or the murders I engineered. 

So, how shall I identify myself to them? To my accusers, to my acolytes, to the families of my victims … far better to plead guilty and cast myself on God’s mercy and on theirs. In Corinth some years ago, I became defensive and tried to press my apostolic credentials. It was embarrassing and largely fruitless. But the older I’ve grown, the more I see through those charades and have lost my taste for competition. If there is some need for bragging rights, fine. I’m the foremost of sinners. I win. 

But I also want those who worry about their own spiritual state to know that if God could rescue me, forgive me, and love me, then there’s no one he can’t embrace. For those who believe they’ve gone too far or are irredeemable, I say, “I have such good news for you. I was far worse than you can imagine and yet he found me. And he’s found you, too. Be at peace.”

SD: [I sigh. My shoulders relax. And so I am. At peace.]

Having read this post, Lisa followed up with me and asked, “I also couldn’t help wondering if you had noticed any moments where Paul’s responses might be touching into your own story? Seems like potential for a beautiful opening into something more.”

I responded to her:

Aha! Ever the spiritual director…  the answer as to whether Paul’s responses may touch into my own story: absolutely. Which is to say, I don’t know if these are Paul’s answers at all so much as I am using Paul and the SD as two voices in me as you might in two-chair Gestalt therapy. That is, I was entirely conscious that Paul’s answers were, at the very least, projections of my own inner process–things I would want to say to others from my story and things that I need to hear for myself that speak to my own story. A fascinating experience.
But also, by doing the exercise as I did it, the conversation did go further than I expected.
I had imagined “Paul” would talk about the people in the congregation who had experienced harm through his former zeal. What I didn’t expect was that he’d bring up the haters, the intimates, and the dangerous acolytes… all very real dilemmas from my own experience.
When I saw that, I could really see how “chief of sinners” can function as a safe harbor from the mixed messages, accusations, and flattery. Far from self-shaming, it felt more like Matthew 5:25, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.” 
Funny enough, in the Orthodox church, just before communion, we make a confession that starts with “I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.” This just never feels like ‘worm theology’ to me. I typically sidle up beside Fr. Moses and as I say it, I nudge him, he looks at me, then I point at myself and emphasize “I am the chief.”  A lovely moment of false humility followed by the sobriety of remembering that I don’t make myself worthy of the Eucharist but rather, I’m drawing near for a spoonful of divine medicine.


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Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More