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?


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Culture Shock 101 at the Table

I have been thinking about ‘culture shock’ lately. Not the real kind, by which I mean the “travel, adjustment, return home” variety that many students experience after a lengthy “study-abroad” experience. Or that a military service-person knows who trains at home, is deployed to Afghanistan and ‘adjusts’ to survive, then returns home again. Both of those are noteworthy, marked with an intensity that does not match my meaning here.

No, the ‘culture shock’ I have been thinking about comes within environments of higher education in which one leaves a ‘home’ environment of some kind, voluntarily enters a different-but-related community committed to learning and critical exploration, then returns back to the home environment in which some kind of sense-making has to occur. During a recent campus lunch with students, I landed in a conversation with several levels of what could only be described as ‘culture shock.’ The remarkable thing—the element that seems worth musing about here—is that it was clearly a shared culture shock.

So here I’m going to share a secret: faculty experience culture-shock with students just as students experience culture-shock with faculty or institutional learning environments. Let me tell you one of my own favorite stories of culture shock. A couple of you will know this already, as I shared it at lunch, but your body-language of surprise and bemusement taught me it might be worth sharing more broadly.

About five years ago, I was teaching an introductory-level course on spiritual disciplines and educational ministries. One element of the course was exploration and commitment to a particular spiritual discipline of choice—either student chosen practice or, strangely-said but recognizable, practice-chosen student. A discipline, in other words, that seemed to make a claim on a student’s learning somehow. Each student was to identify a discipline to which s/he would commit, then weekly, ‘accountability groups’ of that practice would check-in with one another, to reflect on the practice and the learnings.

As faculty, it was my responsibility to sculpt the definition of discipline wide enough to include aspects of classical Christian disciplines most students hadn’t considered as ‘disciplines’ before—hospitality, contemplative practices, generosity, manual labor/work/service, artistic expression, etc.—and narrow enough that purely scriptural-centered disciplines could be chosen as well, such as devotional-reading, praying the psalms, etc. Some of our community require highly structured disciplines within highly literal nuances of the Word; others of our community are urged by Spirit to risk less-structured disciplines with more flexibility, different nuance and dimensions. As faculty, it’s my job to create space for all to learn.

Imagine my surprise when a student from West Virginia announced his spiritual discipline would be hunting. This may not surprise some of you at all. Me? I was horrified. Talk about culture shock. I could not have imagined that any Christian would choose an activity that required taking life in God’s creation. I was also horrified because when I reviewed my hand-written definition of a spiritual discipline there on the dry-erase board, I had not specified: and does not do harm or does not take life. [And remember, for those who may not, my own, more recent Christian tradition is Brethren, peace-church ancestry. Roots still in Nicene confession, but through the River-Brethren faithful…] Ultimately, the student’s request/announcement had to stand. I had established the boundaries and what he said was clearly within them. Culture-shock.

What do I remember of the feeling of this experience? As I’ve said: horror, but one that went both ways. I felt an incredible, negative energy directed outward toward the student who named the practice and inward, toward myself for not articulating more clearly an important distinction I still hold true (i.e. that spiritual discipline is about life-giving commitment to a practice in which Spirit shapes our hearts, minds, souls toward the image of God, the Christ, within each of us). This negative energy could be described as sadness, a bit of anger, disbelief, desire for distance, etc. I also felt guilty. Not only the ‘easy’ kind, meaning: I had crafted a learning environment found wanting, in my own view. But also a complicated kind: I was now participating in a conversation and learning situation that went against my own convictions. I felt in a bind, one I had both chosen and not chosen.

The class took its course over the next three months, with the student committed to his practice and with me listening alongside, feeling a bit helpless and not a little divided. It was uncomfortable, probably for both of us. By the end of the course, however, the student admitted with a smile that his practice was not about the hunting at all. It was the only time he and his son had together all week. It was the only time they could share the quiet beauty of nature and talk about God as father and son, amidst lives overrun with responsibility and challenge. I remember feeling relief, but also a kind of wonder and appreciation of the student and his articulate experience. I knew and felt more of a glimpse into his world, because of this experience and because he had let me see it, know it. For my part, I can say that this was probably one of the most significant events in my own professional development, one which has grown me the most, expanded my heart and mind the most, not to mention my capacity for carrying two contradictory positions in my spirit at the same time. My definition of spiritual discipline now clarifies “must do no harm; must not take life” whenever I make use of this curriculum, but I’m wiser and thankful for the unwelcome ambivalence of culture-shock received. I didn’t change my belief, in other words, but I learned a lot about a lot of things—different norms for communities equally Christian and faithful, my own teaching vocation, role in the classroom, dynamics of Spirit-led teaching (discomfort, sustenance of the discomfort, a-ha moment when a larger frame appears, articulation or interpretation of this larger frame of reference…),different ways of being with another faithful while not sharing worlds, etc.

So what am I trying to say here? I’m not sure all I’m saying, but at least this: one of the most significant challenges for any learning community rooted in an orthodox Christian confessional tradition and committed to Spirit-led renewal is keeping as many voices that want to be at the table at the table. Just like any good family drama, heated disagreements without tempered humility and grace result in blusters of indignation, pushing back from the table and storming away, perchance with slammed doors. Sometimes such distance is necessary to regain perspective, to blow off a little steam. But then lament and grief also become necessary: a voice has left the conversation that requires as many voices as God desires—which is all of them. Had I slammed down the rules in my own conviction, the student would not have articulated the heart of his own practice, nor would I have learned to trust Spirit’s tether in the teaching of us both. The task was one of sustenance and listening, not proclamation and posturing.

The felt-challenges of staying at the table, however, are most usually refused in today’s political-ecclesial climate. Most of us are not trained nor desire to sustain the felt-ambivalence of learning with those whose life or ideas or beliefs or presence contradicts something deeply held within our own. Rarely is the experience of such costly-but-natural-discomfort named either. Rarely are we encouraged to sustain the feeling of discomfort or guilt or risk for participating in something perceivedly against our own dearly held beliefs or against our own home community norms.

But until more of us learn how to carry that weight—yes, that cross—then we’ll just have more and more of what a dying church already has. Until more of us surrender to God’s sovereignty and learn to listen unreservedly and with sustained grace, we’ll continue to ‘feed’ tribalizing factions who profess Christ with their lips but refuse to welcome the least of these as Him to their tables. On the other hand, the better we get at rooting our faith in Nicene confessional tradition, moving in Spirit-led directions, the more culture-shock we will face. The better we get at bearing up under this increasing weight, with grace and humility, the stronger and more worthwhile our conversation will be, the more we’ll know how to share this complicated but expansive Feast with all who hunger.

Yes, food for thought. Blessings upon you and yours, no matter where you live, or what your community’s norms are about hunting. 🙂 I welcome you to the uncomfortable but life-giving learning Spirit brings for all who yearn to be at the Table.