an absence of some twenty years, I found my way back to formal religious
observance. I began attending church and eventually made it official,
joining that faith community as a member. In Sunday worship, I found challenge,
solace, provocation, and bread for the journey. Gradually, though, it
occurred to me that I was supposed to be doing something during the week.
Praying? I squirmed at the thought. The whole notion was vaguely embarrassing.
How did you do it? Should you talk out loud, or say words to yourself?
What was the format? Was it like a letter, with salutation and closing?
A phone conversation, with no call waiting? What about the diction? Colloquial
language felt irreverent, but the formal cadences of public prayer seemed
fake. Any way I tried, it felt totally unnatural. After several weeks
of this, I arrived at just one absolutely clear insight. Prayer was like
sex: worrying about "doing it right" was the fast track to disappointment.
And then, I heard about lectio divina: holy reading, or devotional
reading, a form of prayer used in monasteries since medieval times. Reading!
I could do that.
But this was a strange new kind of reading, one that challenged and changed
my usual reading habits. I'm an enthusiastic and eclectic reader (okay,
I have no standards). A voracious consumer of print, I rely on an elaborate
set of routines to maintain my supply. I trade paperbacks with other readers
and regularly frequent a couple of neighborhood bookstores. A cards-carrying
reader, I am an active borrower in seven library systems, including the
modest one-room library at my church, the county and city public libraries,
the specialized libraries of a local museum and a Philadelphia seminary,
the Washington consortium with its pooled riches, and the library at the
University of Delaware, among the top 100 university libraries. As I make
the rounds to find new books and return ones I've finished, I often feel
uneasy about the time I spend maintaining my habit. But in the end I'm
remorseless, my qualms quickly forgotten as I anticipate the pleasures
of a new stack of books. I read constantly and quickly. Eager to get on
to the endless riches ahead, I almost never re-read.
Lectio divina, though, calls for a deliberately slow pace, a meditative
reading. It involves pensive reading of very short biblical passages,
a reading that gives weight to each word, so that the words might lead
you into a deepening reflection. Lectio divina invites imaginative
participation, opening a space for ancient words to speak over the centuries.
In lectio divina, less is more. Virtuoso practitioners take it
down to one word at a time, and spend years on a single sentence. By comparison,
the medieval saint who devoted her whole life to reading the Lord's prayer
was a short hitter.
Slowing down was hard work. It felt like dawdling or wasting time; restraining
myself from plunging ahead made me impatient and anxious. But why? What
was my hurry? Thinking about these questions led me to re-evaluate the
restless energy that drives my usual reading. As I worked on slowing down
with scripture, I found myself more open to the poetry of psalms, the
strange power of Hebrew prophets, the compelling mystery of the gospels.
Lectio divina also brought new appreciation of its secular counterpart,
close reading. As an English professor, I've been doing this myself and
teaching it for years, but I have to admit it always felt like work--
dutiful plodding, far less appealing than the freedom of flying through
books. Now, I've found new pleasures in reading slowly, in savoring the
words and stopping to reflect. More often, I read poetry for fun. Sometimes,
I re-read a book I loved years ago, and often discover a whole new book
in the return.
And in lectio divina, I'm reading for new purposes. For years,
and still today, I read for delight, respite, encouragement, instruction,
solace, catharsis. Now I also read as part of a spiritual journey. In
lectio divina, reading is listening-a practice that draws me into
the silence where God might speak.