Flannery O’Connor, the American Catholic southern gothic writer, once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
That line has always resonated with me, but never more so than when I sit down to write reflections on Scripture readings, verses that can feel so familiar there seems nothing new to uncover. My latest book of reflections, “Not by Bread Alone 2021: Daily Reflections for Lent” (Liturgical Press), is my third book of Lenten meditations and prayers, and so the challenge is real—but more real is the truth that lives within Scripture. Old passages can speak new hope to us at any particular moment if we are willing to open ourselves up to the work and words of the Spirit. Even the familiarity of Lent itself can turn a season of growth into a rote spiritual exercise if we are not prepared to be surprised by God, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
Here’s how I explained that challenge in the introduction to my book, which is meant to serve as a guide through the Lenten desert:
“It’s easy to think, as we begin yet another Lenten journey, that we know the drill. We’ve been here before; we know what’s coming. But the truth is that Scripture is a living thing, always new. I know this firsthand because every time I sit down to write a Lenten reflection about a Scripture passage I’ve heard or read too many times to count, something jumps out at me and makes me say, “How did I not notice that before?” We hear every Scripture reading differently depending on where we are on our life journey, our spiritual journey or maybe just what side of the bed we woke up on that day. God meets us where we are, and if we’re paying attention, we can hear God, see God, recognize God in unlikely places, in stories we think we know. When we take time to listen for the still small voice, a scene, a sentence, a word calls out to us as if surrounded by blinking neon lights along a dark highway, and we are found, even if only for a few minutes…
“…To be honest, there were many days when I sat down with a set of Scripture readings and could not imagine what I might have to say that could be helpful to you. But, after sitting with the Scriptures, reading and rereading, taking them for a walk, sharing a cup of coffee with them as the sun rose outside my window, something always found its way off the page and into my heart, like a delicate shoot pushing through the cold, hard earth of winter into the warmth and light of spring.”
I’m always fascinated by where the spirit leads: an Old Testament reading sparks a reflection on hiking or on the Fibonacci sequence; a Gospel reading prompts the memory of a failed attempt to grow strawberries; another leads to an observation on the martial art of Aikido and still another on the childhood game of “Truth or Dare.” None of those topics was in the forefront of my mind as I sat down with Scripture, and yet through a series of spiritual twists and turns those seemingly ordinary and odd things became fodder for the Spirit to open my heart a little bit wider.
We all have that kind of creative prayer possibility within our reach. If we quiet ourselves and sit with Scripture, turning a word or a phrase or a scene over and over in our mind, the Spirit will reveal something to us — and about us — as a way to lead us deeper into the heart of God.
Not by Bread Alone 2021: Daily Reflections for Lent is available from Liturgical Press in multiple formats: English, Spanish, large-print, and e-book. Information: www.NotStrictlySpiritual.com.