For fun, I asked Wade to take this staged photo
of me "meditating" in South Africa last August!
Benedictine monk John Main has reminded me of something I first learned reading one of Gore Vidal’s historical novels. Reading silently to oneself became a thing only in recent centuries. “The spoken word is the essential medium for the communication of the gospel,” Main wrote in 1982, the year he died. He explains:
…To meditate is to listen to the word. In the early days of our literate culture, the link between the book and the spoken word was not broken—St. Benedict warns his monks not too read too loudly while at their private lectio; and St. Augustine was reading aloud from his Bible when his great awakening occurred. Today our books are too private experiences that rarely communicate themselves to others. --Letters from the Heart: Christian Monasticism and the Renewal of Community, p 19.
I did not intend to offer two spiritual imperatives in a row on this blog. Last week’s “Be Still!” was a reflection on another book of Main’s. I ran across both books on my shelves, having no idea how I came by them and why I haven’t read them till now. This second one has a bookmark from Newman Bookstore in Baltimore, so maybe I purchased them on a speaking trip there, one of my favorite cities. If someone gave them to me, I thank them!
In a conversation about speed reading with fellow English majors in college, I remember now retired Episcopal priest Gary Hall commenting how we needed to “hear” literature at least in our heads to get the full effect intended by an author, as we were not reading simply for information. Tom Boomershine has argued the same for scripture, coaching readers in the art of re-telling rather than simply reading a text. Oral transmission was the original way many of these stories and teachings were “traditioned,” or passed on, after all.
John Main suggests “that tradition becomes just a historical memory when it is not one with personal experience.” That’s why I often invite listeners to hear a biblical text as personally addressed to them.
One of my novice mistakes was asking the brothers at Mt. Calvary Retreat House not to read to retreatants from my then congregation during mealtimes, explaining that one of the reasons church members go on retreat is a chance to talk among themselves. I had no idea I was denying those church members the monastic experience of listening.
I’ve written that the most challenging monastic vow for me would be that of “obedience,” thinking little of how the word obedience comes from a word meaning “to listen,” to attend to what another is saying.
We use the phrase “listen up” when we want to convey something vital, something important, possibly urgent. How true this is also of things spiritual.
For Main, in his other book, Word into Silence, silence is needed to catch the deepest cries, ahas, and awes of our hearts, of our world, of our universe. He writes, “The qualities we need in this fundamental encounter between ourselves and the ground of our being are attentiveness and receptivity.” [p 34] Main later adds:
The understanding of prayer that makes it merely a matter of telling God what we want or need and reminding God of our sins of omission only compounds our alienation from reality. For this was the liberating message Jesus came to bring: “I bid you put away anxious thought about food and drink to keep you alive and clothes to cover your body. Surely life is more than food, the body more than clothes (Matthew 6:25).” [p 65]
Main writes that the Lord’s Prayer was “a series of rhythmic phrases in the original Aramaic,” thus memorable. I have found each phrase can serve as a centering word, a mantra. Mine lately has been “Thy kingdom come.”
Along with other centering prayer advocates, Main believes such a mantra can quiet the mind and welcome a “reverential silence.”
I will again be co-leading a 5-day contemplative retreat: April 27-May 1, 2020 in Cullman, Alabama, through the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary. It is open to the public.
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