Mindful Reading
February 13, 2012, 8:00 am
Filed under: practice | Tags: , ,

When you read, whom or what do you have in mind? This question startled me today, while working out with a friend. I need to do a bit of study—what we would call hermeneutical study, in the biz—into literary criticism, various interpretive strategies over the years, but something in the question struck me with new force I had not felt before.

A picture of a favorite text appeared into my dumb-phone this week, with delight. As I considered the text, I realized it really was well-suited to the friend who had sent the pic. I picked out the volume from my shelf and browsed it again, with someone new in mind. I saw things I remembered, things I had forgotten, but each one felt different with the potential of a new reader I’m getting to know better. 

Then another favorite essay came back into mind and recall, mentioned in an earlier posting here. Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, specifically the chapter-essay on “Holy Obedience.” I had re-read bits and pieces, in search of precise specifics of earlier thoughts, musings. When a friend wrote a bit about life’s difficulties and commitments these days, the prayer that flowed into prose back to him had Kelly’s language in it. When the friend wrote back for clarity, I mentioned the essay and offered it to his attention. I re-read the piece again, this time closely, with him—an Orthodox Jew—in mind. The experience of it, the things heard and seen, were recognizable but different too. 

When you read, whom or what do you have in mind? 

In one sense, this is a basic college-prep inquiry. How do you assess the text and its legitimacy for what your needs are—information, conceptualizing a problem in various ways, relaxation, beauty, self-improvement… The list could easily go on. In another sense, though, I find it a newly fascinating question. First, is what you have in mind a whom or a what? Do you think it makes a difference? Second, for the “whom” responses, how big or small is your “whom”? 

Think about reading scripture, for instance. I’m thinking about “in your own history or tradition,” but it could be scripture read as holy text of another tradition too. Do you have yourself in mind, searching desperately for a word from God? The famous “I just opened the bible and this page spoke a specific Word to me” approach to understanding life’s challenges and human responses to them? Nothing drives a religious leader more batty these days than this grasping for the metaphysical proof of worth. Or the pinning of God down into evidential proofs of care. At least it infuriates one religious leader I know and love dearly. 

Perhaps one reads the text a bit more critically, engaging what scholars call “exegesis” to determine—as best we can—the historical, textual-critical, form-critical, archaeological contributions to understanding the text within original context, original intent of the author, etc. In this sense, what is in mind is “what was happening” or “what was intended” or a critical-realist sense of truth-claims. (At best, in my view). But now I hear mentor-teacher Fred Craddock in my head: “Lots of folks say we can’t get back to intention or what really happened. I don’t know about a lot, but whether I can find the intention or not, I know that the author had one.” In this context, it seems Craddock, like he always does, is attempting to bring the critical apparatus back to the person of the author, the web of relations in which he (most likely) wrote, the impassioned connection between the experience of God and the distanced-form of a text describing (probable) events of “long ago.” 

Both of these senses of “mindful reading” feel different from the kind of reading posed to me these last couple days, mentioned above. The first has only self-reference, reading for what the reading offers you. The second has a distance to it, whether historical or objectifying of other events and persons. Reading with particular persons in mind feels different from both those options to me. 

I remember when I was in high school my father would “assign” me readings he enjoyed from C.S. Lewis or George McDonald, then we would go out for breakfast “to talk about them.” I was just beginning my theological education, though neither of us knew that’s what was happening. I loved those breakfasts, and the texts were good too. I didn’t think about it much, but part of what drew me to those readings was his own passion, his own “being-shaped” by them. They were ways to get to know my father a little better. Reading something another has read, has valued, does bring an intimacy into the experience of reading. 

And therefore one does have to be intentional about reading “because the other’s enjoyment requires it” and welcoming their enjoyment while still reading “for what feeds you too,” “that you enjoy for yourself too.” Intimacy is always the dance between deep connection of selves separate enough to be connected and selves so enmeshed that one can’t tell who likes what and for what reason. Learning to say “Nope, that’s not for me” can be just as valuable as saying “This feeds me too,” in this sense. 

The point drawing me forward here, however, has to do with reading considered religious in some way—scriptural reading, whether formal or not; lectio divina, or reading of smaller texts with prayerful intention and listening; textual reading for theological formation, engaged by students pursuing graduate degrees in higher education. If we experience the text differently, depending upon whom or what we have in mind, ought we not to name and claim that at the front? Ought we not to hold in a sense of mindfulness those for whom the text might be read this time? Ought we to listen for whether we’re only considering “our own,” however we may classify that phrase, “ourselves,” as we struggle against life’s inanities, our “intimate others” whom God or Providence or Grace has brought into our lives for reasons of mutual encouragement? 

I think I may have a new “thought project” to consider when I’m finished procrastinating here away from the one I’m supposed to be working on today. I invite you to engage your practice—whatever that is, whether mindfulness, prayer, mitzvot, service, etc.—and welcome the reading texts that shepherd you along your way, choosing a person or two to have in mind while you read. Allow yourself to be interdependent with him/her/them for receiving what that text’s nurture is for you this day. See if there are easier or harder persons to choose to keep in mind. Be gentle with yourself too. Choose the easy ones first. But as your capacity deepens, choose the neutral ones whom you have little affection or aversion for. Then every once in a while, choose the one(s) who drive you batty, and allow them to teach you new things about texts you never read before, or things you never saw in the texts you know well. To be honest, I’m “vamping” here on the Buddhist practice of Tonglen; credit where credit is due. But I’ve never considered it within the highly scripturally-focused environments in which I serve. 

Whom or what did you have in mind as you read this piece?


10 Comments so far
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Self-enlightenrment is often the ‘who’.

Comment by Andy Szpuk

When I began to read this post I had myself in mind, thinking that I would need to begin reading in a different way now that the new semester is upon me. As I continued though at various points I considered a friend and colleague that would appreciate the content. The “what” that I had in mind is my studies in general. It’s time to challenge myself to read with a different intent; not just for sermon preparation or preparing bible lessons but for a personal development that I can in some way translate to my larger community.

Comment by Phyllis Lemon

I have had this experience a lot. I suppose it is something teachers do. But I don’t think I have ever had any success in choosing the person whom I will think “toward” or read “for.”

I have a friend who is newly serious about being a Christian disciple and beats herself mercilessly for committing sins she has just discovered. It’s like discovering that you have been speaking prose all your life. When I write to her, the set of word sensitivities and connections and recollections are all cued by her situation and by what I hope to be able to do for her.

But I don’t think I can do it just by deciding to. I have a friend in eastern PA who thinks I am an evangelical but just won’t admit it. My cast of mind when I sit down to write him or talk on the phone with him is distinctive. I have called, sometimes, to ask if he would mind if I wrote him about some topic because I know I won’t be able to write on it unless I know he is going to read it.

Crazy, isn’t it?

Comment by hessd

What an intriguing practice suggestion–thank you! It made me think of a serendipitous time recently when some reading for my own research/formation on women’s ministry in early Christian house churches turned up a key point about Phoebe the deacon and patron for a collaborative project of expansive language NT translation. It brought that small community of scholarship and prayer into mind and heart, which led to a whole different engagement with the text and the issue as I continued to read.

I am part of a group of women doing an online study-discussion of Foster’s anthologized readings on spiritual practices, and tonight’s chapter is prayer. This inspires me to read it with my teenage son in mind and heart, as we have been discussing issues of Godde’s reality (or not) and prayer as a way to connect (or not) with that elusive reality.

Thanks also for the toolbar coaching–I am reading this in glorious 150% magnification!

Comment by Laura

This is a very interesting topic, especially as I considered the end of the article and how we perceive literature, including the Bible. I grew up in a congregation of “inerrantists” and rubbed elbows with some “KJV only” folks. I always had this odd sense that something wasn’t right or logical about either of those views. But it affects how we approach our literature. For example, when you mentioned our experience reading something someone else has experienced, there is no book more applicable to this situation than the Bible, which Christians read through and with the eyes of pastors/priests/professors. It can be very rewarding and yet in some circumstances downright dangerous. There can be an entirely different spirit toward the Bible rather than just a mere “human-inspired” book. So, if we carry the view of a book that is “divinely inspired,” it can drastically affect our approach to the book, whether with confidence or suspicion if we don’t think it’s inspired.

Comment by George Fenley

For my contextual ministry, I am interning as a chaplain with a Pastoral & Spiritual Care Department at a local hospital. I spend 10 hours a week visiting and ministering to the patients and their families. Twice I have witnessed and honored the death of a patient and the family’s response. I have more questions than answers about pastoral care. My mentor & I decided that I would spend part of my time each week reading books on pastoral counseling. My mentor & I then discuss various sections as part of our weekly meetings. I intentionly read with patients I have visited in mind – to gain insights about their response to being ill/in the hospital. I am gaining knowledge and understanding – and confidence – of my pastoral ministry.

Comment by Jane Peoples

This topic seems very appropriate for this week, as we begin to share our spiritual autobiography. When we read what someone else has written, especially a personal thing, we need to try to step into what they might have been thinking at the time. I am taking five classes this semester. We are going to be doing exegesis papers in my New Testament class. I want to get better at reading the Bible by really stepping into the context of what the writers of the Bible could have been thinking. I want to be careful to be more mindful when I read. I want to read actively. I want to pay attention to the words I am reading. Its easy to put your own feelings into what you are reading.

Comment by Michelle Wilkey

Upon engaging a reading or a text, I am mindful of trying to figure out the writer’s purpose and then how to apply the gifts within the document to my life. I also ask the Holy Spirit to teach me or reveal what is in the document that is especially for me to use for myself or on behalf of others. Once I open the gift, I can then share with others.

Comment by Charlotte Edwards

Opening the Bible and looking at a scripture on the page that it was opened to and trying to use it to relate to ones life is not mindful reading . This to me seems like doing something on a whim . Ive seen others do it and I must say that this aggravates me . The few people that Ive seen do this never reads the Bible , they just open it and look at a verse on the page where the Bible is opened , seeing if God has a message or plan for them . I do have a message , read the book .

Comment by Thomas Miles

When I do exegetical work, prepare for a Bible study of any sort, or a school project I try to open myself to experiencing the life of the reading first. I don’t try to understand or expolit it for purpose; rather, I let it wash over me and say what it has to say. Yes, I do go back and apply other filters later when I am more intentional or purposeful about the text; albeit, I want to know, to experience it as it meets me where I am before I go any place else with the work. That exercise is independent of whomever I have in mind when I consider the text for purpose.

Comment by Gene Phelps

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