By Bren Dubay
He does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and its meaning spreads through his blood.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
There’s a stack of books beside my bed. I’m going to read every one of them. There are stacks by the chair where I sit in the living room and more stacks in the room that doubles as a dining room, home office and library. I guess that’s “triples as.” Along one wall of that room are bookshelves where there are all sorts of books in (mostly) neat rows. I’m going to read every one of them.
When a virus came a calling and life changed, I worked with others to find ways to keep us safe and I had big ideas about shortening those stacks. I attacked them voraciously sometimes reading a book or two in each and every room at once.
Where was the balance? Was I reading to learn and experience beauty? Or was I reading just to get through a to-do list in the shape of a stack of books? Sacred reading is a practice I have done in the past. Where was the sacredness in the way I was attacking reading now? Slow down, something told me. So I did.
There are many good books and articles about sacred reading so don’t hesitate to search them out should you be interested, but I thought I’d share a bit about it here.
Sacred reading is about reading slowly, very slowly. Often Scripture is the preferred “sacred reading.” It doesn’t have to be though. Author Charles Cummings writes, “Other literature, such as T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Hellen Keller’s The Story of My Life and C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, … may … be sensitive to the deeper mysteries of life and draw attention to ultimate values. These classic and contemporary writings can sometimes speak forcefully to the reader and become a place where God’s word is encountered.”
It is about an encounter. It is about reading slowly, sometimes even aloud, listening and pausing to reflect on a word or a phrase that captures you. It is about letting the text work on you rather than you working on the text. It takes time. It takes regular practice. It is something I do twenty minutes a day. I don’t try to read as much as I can in twenty minutes, which had been the case when I was trying to get through as many books in the stacks as possible. Sometimes I read no more than a sentence, sometimes not even that. Sometimes I re-read the same few words many times. It is prayer and it leads to prayer.
I started with the Gospel of John. I have one place in the house that I go to for this reading. I’m not running from room to room. I pray, calling on the Holy Spirit to open my heart. I read not afraid to stop. I reflect. Sometimes I write down my reflection. The reflections are like talking to myself and I notice that they keep me focused on what the text may be saying to me at this particular time in my life. My prayer at the close is sharing with God what I am bringing away from the time spent … as if he doesn’t already know.
If sacred reading is something you have never done or haven’t done in awhile, I invite you to give it a try. These are not easy times what with this pandemic. But what can we do with the time it has afforded so many of us? Slow down? Read sacred material. Listen. Reflect. Respond. Come out changed on the other side.