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2019-04-26

Sacred Reading

Practice of the Week
Sacred Reading

Category: Worth a Try, Occasional, or Might Be Your Thing. Give it a try. Maybe this will become an occasional practice for you. Or it might become your central daily spiritual practice. Or maybe it won't. Try it once and see.

from Susan Ritchie, "Sacred Reading," in Everyday Spiritual Practice, abridged and adapted.

For a somewhat different approach, see "Spiritual Reading"

In my mid-twenties, I completed a doctorate in English. I could plow my way through an impressive amount of material in a relatively short time. I prided myself on being able to move through texts of all sorts, quickly identifying the valuable nuggets and throwing all else to the side.

Eventually, I realized that I was not reading as much as strip mining. It took me a long time to recover a way of reading that enhanced rather than impoverished my sense of the wholeness and beauty not only of the text but also of everything within and beyond my own self.

The spiritual practice of sacred reading has been empowering. I have not become, I should say from the start, any less of a critical reader. Sacred reading is not anti-intellectual reading. And yet my approach is different than it was in my days of high-yield mining.

With sacred reading, the mindfulness given to the text is a reminder of the power and holistic character of the life within and beyond me. Something hitherto silent has been given voice within me.

Sacred reading – also called lectio divina -- has been an important mainstay of the Christian monastic tradition since the middle ages. The stages of the discipline have not changed.

1. Select a text. Scripture from one of the world's great religious traditions is one possibility. However you choose your passage—whether it be from scripture or from the bestseller list, whether it be by lectionary, inclination, or random chance—the only requirement is that you be prepared to be surprised.

2. Read it aloud. Over and over again. This might seem bizarre at first. But as one of the goals of sacred reading is precisely to restore a sense of bodied-ness to the reader, it is important to read the words out loud. This is to return to the medieval practice, where reading was done not with the eyes, but with the lips. Reading aloud allows the sounds to pull you from the safe confines of your head, back into your body, back into a fuller and fully sensual experience of the world and the text.

The mouth is the most important organ for this process, for what, finally, is sacred reading but a form of eating, an ingestion of other-than-earthly food? The spiritual literature of the middle ages referred often to reading as a form of ruminatio, or rumination -- a chewing of the cud. The words must be felt in the mouth. They must be masticated before they are thoroughly and wholly taken in.

The text is there to be taken apart and put back together a thousand times over. The holy lies in the activity and experience of the reader.

So speak the text out loud. Hear the sensuous combination of sounds: Hear them first not as mere vehicles of meaning, but as sounds. Feel how good it is to say them. Feel the mouth work its way around the vowels, feel the force of the consonants. Enjoy the very materiality of language. And repeat your passage over and over again. See if you cannot learn your text by heart.

3. Memorizing texts, unfortunately, has associations with a stale classroom. But to learn a text by heart, to know it, as we say, backwards and forwards—this is an important element of the spiritual discipline of reading. In learning a text by heart we truly remember it, and truly begin the work of taking those well chewed syllables and integrating them anew with each other and with our own selves. I have a friend, raised in no particular religious tradition, who when in a difficult or distressing situation finds himself mouthing under his breath a confused combination of the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Pledge of Allegiance. The result is both ludicrous and oddly comforting.

Perhaps it is not so strange that we should find such comfort from words repeated and remembered, for in the process words allow us to live for a while within their own music and their own rhythm. For a while we are embodied not only within our physical selves but also within time. Reading can extend the present moment and make it habitable. Those moments when we allow the text to animate us are a blissful relief from our usual sort of existence.

For a while I served as a chaplain on a hospital ward of Alzheimer patients, most of them quite advanced in their illness. Little would restore these patients to anything that we fully remembering adults charged with their care recognized as presence -- little, that is, but the Lord's Prayer, memorized by those folks as many as ninety years ago. Something sacred indeed was present when a roomful of desperate human beings, each lost in his or her own universe, would nonetheless come together, every last one of them, on "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, ..." only to have the brief light of presence flicker away at the end of the recitation.

4. Meditate on the remembered text. In the original understanding of meditation, in both rabbinic and monastic contexts, meditation on remembered texts was the only possible form of meditation. For them, meditation was a grappling with, a working of, the text by one's understanding and will.

Some practitioners of sacred reading recommend spending time imagining it. Recreate it, as well as you can, with sights, sounds, and smells, within your mind. Others suggest free associating on the text, bringing to mind events in your life that seem similar to the passage, and imagining the scene from the vantage point of different characters. Or you can try to feel the passage, deliberately using it to evoke and explore particular emotions. In time, you will find your own way of engaging the text.

The joy of sacred reading is that it is, finally, a way of giving voice within to something that was originally without.

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