artisanalway


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?




Literature, Stories, and ‘Magicians’
October 9, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: identity, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Sometimes those who ‘authorize’ transformation are authors themselves. Let me share a story of one of my own…

I have been frightened of ‘literature’ since I was fifteen. The word conjures up images of poetry recitation and the public humiliation of my 9th-grade self, by the teacher, no less. ‘Literature’ unearths self-induced fears of incompetence and artistic ignorance. In my experience, the classics of English or American literature tend to be those poems, novels, and short stories whose metaphors I rarely perceive correctly, whose prose lacks the drive of today’s more familiar, media-saturated plots & pacing, and whose overall contribution to human culture continues to be a point of debate between specialists. Call something a classic of literature—English, American, Turkish, whatever—and I’m sure to find a way to avoid reading it. Until I ‘met’ my magician, Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi is an Iranian-born, university professor specializing in Western (& Persian) literature and now Iranian politics. She’s most well-known for her “memoir in books,” Reading Lolita in Tehran (RandomHouse, 2003), which shares truths and fiction across several years of her life in Iran, before-during-and-after the Revolution. As of 2008, Nafisi became an American citizen and now teaches and writes as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I call her my ‘magician’ relying upon her own sense of the word, with reference to an elusive fellow she first names Professor R, then ‘her magician’ forever afterward.

‘He’ was a fine arts/drama professor and writer who resigned his teaching-post in protest of Revolutionary curricular reform. He was elusive figure, welcoming her every week or so for tea and chocolates, but always aloof, unpredictable, challenging. For Nafisi, he was this kind of companion who welcomed, accompanied and challenged her very best self as teacher, artist, and writer. She didn’t always know he was shaping her, nor was she aware of how she was inviting and shaping him. They simply met to talk about their lives, ideas…and drink tea, eat chocolates. I have been blessed with several figures in my life who remind me of Professor R and Azar Nafisi. For our purposes, her magic has been to open my eyes and mind to ‘literature’ and its unsuspecting power to transform our minds, ears, spirits.

Apparent in the very title, Reading Lolita in Tehran posits from the start that context matters, even changes the work of literature, for any reading of a so-called ‘classic.’ Tehran marks the place on the planet where a novella is being read. Gone is Nabokov’s ‘classic’ as a reified, objective thing, guarded and legitimated by experts and those allowed within their coteries. Nabokov’s Lolita, in this case, has also become Nafisi’s Lolita, hers and her students’ Lolita, the reading(s) of Nabokov’s text within a poignant setting of Tehran, Iran, amidst the Revolution and afterwards.  In other words, every ‘classic’ needs its reader to exist anew, off the shelf, as a continuing ‘voice’ in the project of a vibrant humanity. For the first time, I heard that ‘literature’ could need me and my imagination if it wanted to say what it had to say.

Nafisi’s chosen genre of writing—memoir—complements the first observation about context. Organized around works and themes of four different authors or characters—Nabokov, Gatsby, James, and Austen—Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates on every page the intimate learning possible when literature breathes life into a person’s narrative or story. No longer is literature an aloof voice of ages past with its imagery and artistry impossible to decipher correctly. Literature becomes the intimate marriage of an author’s and characters’ voices-in-situation, experienced by a reader in her communities, and then—if one does the reflective work—given transformative significance hospitable to others beyond the specific author.

Nafisi has done the reflective work, and with her tutelage, I began to see symbols, themes, images within her chosen classics come to life in my own narrative. I devoured Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while reading Nafisi’s volume. It made portions of my narrative come to mind, newly sensitized to implications and connections with my own steeped history of a decade ago, in an institution of material privilege and relational poverty. I’m learning to listen in ‘literature’ for legitimate touchstones between author’s/characters/situations and my own life.

I suspect many more learnings could be articulated, if time were taken for such things. For now, this page-prose offers a bit of one of my own ‘authorizers.’ Nafisi’s ‘magic’ of renewal and recovery in my spirit was no mean feat, given my long ambivalence and avoidance of anything internally or externally professed as a classic of literature. As she notes herself, though, such magic is never solely the magician’s, but signals an avid learner open to being evoked or conjured anew. “Does every magician, every genuine one,” she asks, “…evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?” (p. 337).

I tender my heartfelt thanksgiving here for the voice and vocation of Azar Nafisi, an author whose voice challenges my own, and a teacher who showed it is possible to teach transformative living amidst the delights and discomforts of ‘literature.’ I also smile with appreciation for the wisdom to receive her teaching and the challenge for my narrative & writing.  Perhaps even my 9th-grade self will have new learnings to share in the days, months, and years to come.

Will yours, as you read and listen to the ‘classics,’ in print and those living in your journey?