When St Benedict wrote his Rule for Monasteries few people in his society were literate. Yet he insisted that members of his community should read daily and in particular have a book they would read with special attention during Lent. Reading at that time would have been slower and more communal. Anyone reading would have done so aloud, murmuring the words quietly under their breath, as this would have made it easier to break up the solid text on the page. If people were reading in physical proximity it might have sounded like a busy beehive. I experienced this once in the long reading room packed with Orthodox Jews studying the Bible adjacent to the Wailing Wall in the Temple Precinct in Jerusalem. They were so focused they didn’t notice the intruder among them.
Reading is a very different way of learning from watching YouTube. Literacy is a learned skill, like prayer half-active, half-passive. There is a stronger sense of intimate encounter with the writer’s inner consciousness. It doesn’t matter what they were wearing when they wrote down their inner thought processes or what they looked like or their accent. In reading, we encounter another mind – perhaps long dead but still alive in the words – which calls us out of ourselves in an act of other-centred attention. We can respond or disagree as we savour and reflect on their words and style but, first of all, we have to listen to what they say rather than what we think. Good reading is therefore a step towards pure prayer.
I am preparing for a series of online sessions later this year on how to read sacred texts. This is a particular form of reading that can bear great spiritual fruit. We have to read scripture aware that the meaning is not only in the words but also in the ‘white spaces between the words’ and in the way our heart-mind responds to them. Someone with a serious contemplative practice may have the advantage of feeling how the words are expressing her own inexpressible experience of silence in their meditation. In the 5th century Cassian, one of Benedict’s great teachers, whom he met through the written word, said that the meditator will ‘penetrate the meaning’ of scripture not just through the written text but by ‘experience leading the way’. The contemplative reader becomes like the author of what he is reading, grasping the meaning directly and intuitively.
‘Sacred scripture’ can be a stimulus for metanoia. It has a transformative effect on a mind already being trained by a contemplative practice, like the mantra. The spiritual power of the words is released and stops them from becoming objects of fundamentalist worship that can be misread to reinforce minds already set and unwilling to change.
Scripture and other practices have been compared to a raft taking us to the other shore. In a famous sutra, the Buddha said ‘monks, I have taught the Dhamma like a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.’ Yesterday someone brought this alive for me by saying that they felt scripture is like a manual, valuable for showing us how, how to be or how to do, but not life, not the being or doing itself. A finger pointing at the moon, but not the moon.