Reading as a Spiritual Practice

Man reading

Man Reading, Vaino Hamalainen, 1897

 

I recently gave a seminar on reading as a spiritual practice, that is, that reading may be one of the disciplines that helps us pay attention to God, and grow in our relationship with God and to more thoughtfully live in God’s world. Now I know that not all who come across this post will share my faith perspective. That’s OK. Feel free to translate this in whatever way might be meaningful for you, or even just skip it. No harm, no foul. But I thought it might be helpful to share some of that material with a wider audience.

First of all, it is dangerous for me to write about this because my temptation may be to read and to love reading too much! Sometimes other spiritual practices might be better for me–silence for example, where I am not taking in information off a page; or service, where I get up off my duff and practice my faith with others. I would also say that while in one sense all my reading choices (I hope) are things I would be comfortable offering to God, not all the reading I do is a “spiritual discipline or practice.” Sometimes, I, like most everyone who reads, just likes to read for fun–a good mystery or baseball book.

O.K., enough for disclaimers! I thought I might share some of the influences in my life around reading as a spiritual practice, and then some ideas for our practice.

Influences:

  • I work for and came out of a ministry that teaches college students practices that might be called “the close reading of scripture” –observing themes, literary devices, context, what we called “the laws of composition” that taught me not only how to read scripture but made me a better reader of other books because I had learned to look carefully at the text attending to the “meaning pointers” in the text.
  • We had leadership from the president on down to my immediate supervisors who encouraged us to sink our teeth into meaty and classic works of theology as well as devotional classics and works that analyzed contemporary culture like Os Guinness’s The Dust of Death, published when I was a student. Our president would say, “not all readers are growing Christians but all growing Christians are readers.”
  • The couple who ran a retreat center we used for student programs for many years, Keith and Gladys Hunt, talk as well as wrote about the joys of reading aloud as a family. Before there were recorded books, we would read aloud as a car and some of our best shared memories are our read aloud times as a family–from Bible stories to Narnia and the Little House books and so much more. From them I first learned that reading could be a shared rather than solitary practice.
  • A later president commended the reading of history and biographies. The questions of character and how character enhances or undermines effectiveness whether in leadership or everyday life has been a source of reflection for me.
  • Hearing Eugene Peterson at one of our staff conferences first introduced me to some of the formative practices of the church and the literature around these practices.
  • Working as part of a multi-ethnic team with strong men and women leaders has challenged me to begin to listen voices of both genders and many cultures. God is not a white male and women writers and those of other ethnicity help me understand dimensions of encountering God I may otherwise miss.

Ideas for Practice:

  • Recognize that we read in various ways–for leisure, for information, and sometimes just skimming and browsing.
  • Spiritual reading is different: it is slow, reflective, and repetitive. You are not reading to get through but to chew over and reflect on what you’ve read. You might read a passage several times or even pray it. Perhaps you will read it aloud if alone. Sometimes, just a few pages is enough.
  • Protect the hours you set aside for spiritual reading. Depending on whether you are a morning or night person, the early or latest hours may be best–out of the distractions of mid-day.
  • Finding a place and time where you won’t be distracted is key, even if for just 15 minutes. (It is estimated that if a person reads 15 minutes a day, they can read 15 books a year.)
  • You might also consider finding people to read with. Talking over things you don’t understand or things that for some reason have caught your attention with a group reading the same text can shed light we may not see alone.

A few book recommendations:

  • Eugene Peterson’s Take and Read provides an annotated list of spiritual literature. His Eat This Book goes into greater depth on the practice of spiritual reading.
  • C. Christopher Smith’s recent Reading for the Common Good is the best book I’ve seen on spiritual reading in community, of how reading together may change communities. I recently reviewed it.

I believe reading is an important practice for maintaining spiritual and intellectual vitality. I don’t think this necessarily means lots of books, but rather engaging deeply with the books we do read, and allowing them, in a sense, to read us.

 

 

 

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