Attending to the Word
Reading as Spiritual Practice
Below are the 14 weeks of reflections and meditations diving deeper into the different aspects of reading and writing.
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The Church teaches us that the Lord comes to us in Word and Sacrament. Both are incarnational: the union of visible and invisible. In the Eucharist, we experience Christ in bread and wine. In reading the Bible, we experience salvation history through words, language. Or, to put it another way, we come to understand the “content” of God’s presence in our lives through the “form” of writing. As the Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe said: “Christ is present in the eucharist as the meaning is present in a word.”
The Catholic intellectual tradition insists that a sacramental worldview values both flesh and spirit—they are inseparable from one another. So in that sense, God’s Word—the meaning of His love for us—can not be grasped apart from the language in which it is contained.
The better we are at reading—any kind of reading—the more able we will be to embrace the fullness of our faith. Just as putting love and care into the preparation of a family meal enhances our understanding of the Eucharist, so becoming more skilled and sensitive readers can enrich our engagement with the Word.
This series is devoted to the ways that serious reading can become a spiritual practice, attuning us to the gifts of language and literature and inculcating in us the virtues of attention, discernment, humility, and empathy. We hope you’ll…read on!
One of the best-known sentences in the world is the opening line of the Gospel of John: “In the Beginning was the Word.” Have you ever wondered why “Word” was chosen here? It seems like there could have been other choices – in the beginning was…Light? Truth? Being?
The answer is partly found in the various definitions given to the Greek word used here: Logos. Logos can mean “word” but it can also mean “discourse” or “reason.” So you can see something of a pattern taking shape here: a word is an utterance, the beginning of a conversation – a conversation that has to make sense (be reasonable), a way of knowing reality and ordering that knowledge (words become a sentence).
In Christian theology Logos has so many resonances: to utter a word is, in a sense, to create something. Speaking brings something into being, even if only in our minds. If it is also the beginning of a conversation, it might be seen as the dialogue between persons of the Blessed Trinity. The Father speaks the Son. The Son speaks creation. The Spirit speaks God’s presence into our hearts.
No doubt God communicates through various means – nature, music, etc. – but in our Catholic tradition the Word has a central, enduring place.
Before we move on to explore how reading can be a spiritual practice, let’s stick for a moment with Scripture. After all, as Christians we’re obligated to read Scripture, not Tolstoy’s War and Peace. So if any link between the two is to be made we have to start with how Scripture itself works.
When the Church speaks of Scripture it uses words like “revelation” and “inspired” to indicate that God is speaking to us through the words of this sacred text.
In Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution of the Second Vatican Council on divine revelation, we are told that “divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
At the same time, Dei Verbum acknowledges that the words of Scripture did not drop directly from Heaven but were written by human beings who lived in particular times and places – and whose words were shaped by the historical and cultural forces present when they were set down. So, “since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion…attention should be given…to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.”
When we think about Scripture – the paradigm of reading in the Christian tradition – we often think of it as containing teachings, dogmas, and moral principles. And that, of course, is absolutely true. But the temptation is to imagine that these things are conveyed to us in purely propositional language – abstract and philosophical.
The truth – startling to some, perhaps – is that only a small portion of Scripture consists in what might be called discourse or expository writing. Can you guess how much? It’s actually only 24 percent of the Bible.
The rest of the Bible is made up of narrative (storytelling) – 43 percent, and poetry – 33 percent.
If we believe that Scripture is inspired – and the Church tells us it is – then this proportion of different literary forms is no mere accident: it reflects something deep and true about the ways that language conveys meaning and human beings process and absorb that meaning.
Narrative and poetry are concrete, not abstract: they use human experience and symbolism to help us understand divine mysteries. And in a sense they are deliberately crafted to invite us, their readers, to enter into acts of interpretation: they are not “complete” until we’ve used our imaginations to draw out their meaning.
There’s an old expression for this activity: “reading between the lines.”
One of the clichés that has been applied to writing is the “message in a bottle” metaphor. The idea is that the writer has a “message” (reducible to some abstract proposition) that is inserted into a piece of writing (the bottle) and then we, the readers, remove the message and discard the bottle.
This is a misleading metaphor for writing and reading. For one thing, the message in a bottle metaphor contradicts the Catholic insistence that grace inheres in nature – in the Eucharist bread and wine cannot be exchanged for soda and popcorn. When it comes to writing, the particular “stuff” of language matters.
In short, you don’t discard the form to get the content. They are inseparable.
A better metaphor for the best forms of writing – including Scripture – is that of bridge building. The writer uses narrative, metaphor, symbolism, and other techniques to extend outward their half of the bridge – and they invite us, their readers, to use our reason and imagination to extend our half of the bridge by actively interpreting the writing. When we meet in the middle, meaning breaks into our hearts and minds like the sun coming over the horizon at dawn.
Our faith teaches us that we cannot save ourselves. Salvation comes from God. Still, that same faith tradition tells us that we still have an active role to play in our destiny: we need to say yes to God’s saving work and then we need to live as if that “yes” actually means something: by emulating the One who saves us through sacrificial love.
Learning how to live a good life means developing the virtues needed to do good. And if we know anything about virtue we know that it requires practice to acquire and make a deep, consistent part of our way of living.
Reading can become a spiritual practice because it invites us to develop many of the virtues that deepen and broaden the life of faith.
To be a good reader one needs to learn how to pay attention – to the stuff of language (such as metaphor, symbol, irony), the twists and turns of plot, and the nuances of the characters who play roles in a story.
A good reader is someone who can set aside distractions, who is capable of “losing” their self-preoccupation to fully dwell within the poem or novel or memoir, and ultimately to make wise judgments about what they have read.
When it comes to the question of truth, most of us would prefer to be handed The Truth on a platter rather than have to work for it.
Jesus was not a fan of this way of approaching reality. He seemed to think that no matter how many “facts” we had before us, we still need to be perpetually discerning the truth. He seemed to think that even the “facts” of salvation are not enough – knowing the facts doesn’t guarantee that we will live out their meaning in our lives.
So he constantly provoked his disciples to engage in acts of interpretation and judgment. Mark says of Him, “he did not speak to them without a parable.” What are parables? They are short stories, generally employing common, everyday elements (farmers, property owners, bridesmaids) but couched in such a way that our usual habits of thinking are challenged – even overturned.
Over the course of a day, workers are hired each hour to work in the fields but at the end of the day they are all paid the same amount. That seems to go against justice and basic common sense. The parable knocks us off balance – and suggests that there is a deeper truth about God’s love we need to learn. Think of it as subversive storytelling.
Simone Weil, the twentieth-century Jewish thinker and mystic (who fell deeply in love with Catholicism), wrote some of the most profound reflections on the nature of education ever produced. The core of education, she thought, was developing the virtue of attention. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” she wrote.
How so? Well, when we focus deeply on some aspect of reality we temporarily set aside our own selfish preoccupations and allow ourselves to open up toward creation in wonder. In losing ourselves we gain everything. “Attention, taken to its highest degree,” Weil said, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
What’s fascinating is that contemporary science backs up these spiritual insights. Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and author of such books as Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, demonstrates how reading actually creates neural pathways in the brain, aiding the human capacity to develop “critical analytical powers and independent judgment.”
Wolf also cites studies proving that reading printed matter develops attention and judgment better than reading on a screen. Attention, reading, prayer: the resonances here are real and rewarding.
Who doesn’t like Jane Austen? There are probably a few anti-Janeites out there but I’m not sure if I’ve ever met one. Her books combine cozy drawing room banter, dance floor drama, unforgettably eccentric characters, witty – sometimes even barbed – gossip, and plenty of romance.
And what’s not to like about her classic, Pride and Prejudice? We naturally side with the spirited heroine of this book, Elizabeth Bennet, who struggles with a passive father, domineering mother, and often immature sisters. Along comes a haughty local landowner, Mr. D’Arcy, and we cheer for Elizabeth when she gets a few digs in against Mr. High and Mighty.
But as it turns out, our heroine – for all her virtues of independence and integrity – doesn’t at first see the whole truth about Mr. D’Arcy. Her pride causes her to be prejudiced against him (and vice versa!). What makes the novel so delightful is that we see their mutual attraction and admiration and feel the satisfaction that comes when they acknowledge their faults and come to see each other truly.
Like the parables of Jesus, all great stories invite their readers to overcome pride and prejudice: reading demands close attention and the sharpening of discernment – and often that means we learn to temper our passion for justice with the mercy that comes from humility. Reading can encourage us to deepen our compassion – in that sense, reading can even become an experience of conversion.
When we experience emotional and spiritual distress, one of the classic phrases we use to describe our predicament is that “I feel trapped inside my head.” Our subjective experience is often overwhelming. That is why we need friends, lovers, mentors – companions of every sort. Jesus seemed determined that his disciples live in community – like the Blessed Trinity itself, we are made for communion and communication.
Reading is one of the most reliable ways that we can experience an encounter with the “other”: sometimes it is with the author directly, as in autobiographical stories or a poet speaking from her life experience. But even when it is encountering a fictional character, serious reading asks us to imagine a life that is not our own.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
When the Harry Potter books became international bestsellers, a lot of jaded parents said they were just glad their children were reading anything at all. The sentiment is understandable: in this age of visual over-stimulation from movies, television, YouTube, and beyond, one can hope that anything a child reads can grow into the habit of reading.
But we need to be cautious here. Few of us would say that we’re glad our kids are only eating Big Macs or deep-fried Twinkies. Kids and grown-ups alike need a balanced diet – plenty of fruits, vegetables, and proteins allow us to occasionally indulge in ice cream sundaes.
For the same reason, the quality of what we read matters. Writing that demonstrates a mastery of language in all its nuances, characters of depth and complexity, difficult moral dilemmas that grow out of real-world experiences: these constitute reading that expands the mind and the heart.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not just “high” literature – from Homer and Dante to Virginia Woolf and Annie Dillard vs. “genre” writing like Westerns, science fiction, and mysteries. There are great writers in both literary and genre worlds. But it’s worth searching out the better genre writers: the Raymond Chandlers, Elmore Leonards, Ursula LeGuins, et al. You are what you read.
In what is now an often-recounted story, acclaimed British novelist Ian McEwan and his son gathered up a couple boxes’ worth of novels and went out to a local park. The idea was simple: offer the books free to passersby: “He said every woman he approached asked for three, whereas every man ‘frowned in suspicion, or distaste’ and usually said something like: “‘Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks, mate, but no.’”
Perhaps it is no surprise that McEwan also once said: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” When it comes to fiction, women constitute 80% of the readership.
There are many theories about why women are better and more voracious readers than men – including differences in the brain – but a lot of those theories are pretty speculative.
Still, I would personally wager that women read more than men because they are more focused on others, less prone to abstraction and more attuned to the rhythms of human relationships, more capable of empathy and imagination. Like any gift, we can pray that it will radiate outward and be shared with others, especially children.
The quintessential image of a reader is someone comfortably curled up in a window nook or overstuffed chair, alone and absorbed. And of course that touches something primal about how most of us understand reading – as an intense, interior event, experienced in solitude.
But that image really only tells part of the picture. In ancient times, what we call “books” were not written but remembered and passed along by bards who would memorize and recite them in public. All good writing has its roots in speaking, the sound of the voice. Perhaps that’s why we’re living through an explosion of podcasts and audiobooks today.
The crucial issue is that even while reading is a solitary act it begs to move from my head to yours: when you love a book, you recommend it to others – you might even buy copies and give them away. We become evangelical about the books we love.
This also accounts for the rise of reading clubs, some of which are now attached to churches.
And then there is the most vital form of shared reading – reading aloud to children. In our family we prayed and read aloud every night – those two related activities that use words to help us become more aware of God’s gifts to us.
As this series on reading as spiritual practice comes to an end, here’s a seemingly silly question: would you ever pray for a fictional character like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina? Of course not, you respond.
But are you sure? As we follow her encounters and choices are we not rooting for her – cheering when she does a good thing and weeping when she makes a bad choice?
The classic Catholic tradition of reading Scripture is called Lectio Divina (Divine Reading). It involves four elements: lectio, or reading; meditatio, or meditation, where we ponder the meaning of what we have read; oratio, prayer, where we lift up to God what the passage is evoking in us; and contemplatio, contemplation, the silent attentiveness to what God has revealed in the.
It isn’t crazy to think of a “secular” version of Lectio for literary reading. Remember: as Catholic sacramentalists we believe in our experience of the world as a two-way street: flesh and spirit, grace and nature – these mingle and mediate God’s love to us.
So everything we read with care, every time we develop our capacity to attend to the meaning and beauty of words, we are moving closer to embracing the Word who was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. In 1989 he founded Image—one of America’s leading literary journals, which he edited for thirty years. He was also the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program. He is currently publisher and editor of Slant Books, an indie literary press. Wolfe’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, and America. In 2005 he was a judge for the National Book Awards. His books include Beauty Will Save the World, Intruding Upon the Timeless, and The Operation of Grace. He is married to the novelist Suzanne M. Wolfe. They are the parents of four adult children and live in Richmond Beach, Washington.