Contemplating Sacred Stories


As I write this, we are in that phase of the lunar calendar when the Judeo-Christian world retells two of its most sacred stories: Moses leading the Hebrews out of bondage, and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This is a great opportunity to reflect not only on those specific tales, but also on how to derive the most benefit from religious lore and spiritual texts in general.

The scriptures of every tradition can be seen as multilayered gifts whose value grows with each new level of meaning we can unveil. To some people, the ancient stories are primarily historical documents. To others they are teaching tools that convey moral lessons. Some use the stories to reinforce beliefs handed down by tradition, and to indoctrinate their children. But why restrict them to such conventional uses when we can mine these treasures for greater illumination and profound transformation?

One way to dig deeper into spiritual texts is to read metaphorically, not just literally. It has been argued that the stories that endure century after century, whether religious or secular, are those which resonate with archetypes embedded in the human psyche. We respond to the characters because they represent parts of ourselves, and we are moved by the plot developments because they reflect processes that unfold inwardly, in the landscape of the mind and spirit.

When contemplating the Exodus story, for example, you might want to ask yourself questions such as: Is there a part of you that acts like Pharoah, keeping your soul enslaved? What miracles must the Moses in you perform to lead you out of bondage? How would you describe the land of milk and honey that you strive to reach? What psychospiritual wilderness must you traverse before you can reach the Promised Land?

In considering the drama depicted on Easter weekend, you might ask yourself: In your personal Gethsemane, what forces are trying to pull you away from your highest destiny? How does the Judas within you betray your godly self? What is the inner Pontius Pilate that falsely passes sentence on you? What is the nature of the cross you bear? Which part of you must be crucified so your spirit can be resurrected?

Another way to extract deep personal meaning from spiritual literature is to suspend your previous concepts and interpretations as much as possible and read or listen innocently, meditatively. The process called lectio divina (divine reading) is one good model to emulate. Created centuries ago by Benedictine monks, it begins with simple reading and moves into deep contemplation. Here are instructions for using the process in a small group (in the absence of spiritual companions, simply adapt them for private use).

  1. One member of the group slowly reads the selected text aloud (the passage should be short enough to read in less than five minutes). Others read along silently or listen receptively, with an open mind and heart.
  2. The passage is read again. This time, be alert to any word, phrase or section that leaps out at you and resonates in a personal way.
  3. Take a few minutes to reflect on the passage you selected—or that selected you. This is not an analytic process but an intuitive one; the personal meaning that arises might even seem disconnected from the actual reading.
  4. Each person speaks aloud the word, phrase or section they chose, without offering an explanation.
  5. Take 10-20 minutes for extended contemplation. Open yourself to what your selected passage reveals to you. Don’t force anything. Just allow your mind to go where the spirit leads you. And if you are led to feelings rather than rational thoughts, or into the depths of silence, consider it a gift.
  6. Within the constraints of your schedule, those who wish to share their experience with the group are given time to do so. Comments from others should either be disallowed or limited to questions that might help the person derive deeper meaning.
  7. Close with a short period of silence, a prayer or an invocation.

If you follow them to their hidden depths, the sacred stories, spiritual lore and holy texts of every tradition can be a magnificent source of knowledge, inspiration and personal growth. Use them well, and your own sacred narrative will move forward with greater coherence and happily surprising plot twists.

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Philip Goldberg Written by Philip Goldberg

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