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Reading Contemplatively

By Tim O’Malley

If you’re like me, your reading habits have changed for the worse in the internet age (I recognize the irony that most of us are reading these very words on a screen). The screen has introduced a new technology of reading, one where the eye passes quickly over the words, jumping from sentence to sentence. Even in the most engaging of articles, I’ll find myself scanning through paragraphs, reading a first sentence and a last sentence, hoping that I can find a way in the day to read even more.

This “screen” reading has led, according to studies, to an inability to contemplate, to think deeply about what the eyes have perceived. Even when the intellect grasps something from a text, there is little time to consider both the textual and existential meaning of what is read. We either must move on to the next text to be consumed, or we react immediately on Twitter or Facebook.

This decline of a capacity for contemplative reading has had an effect in the classroom. Students often struggle with the contemplative reading that professors in the humanities require. When given a large text, one that requires attentive, careful interpretation, students often find themselves drowning in prose. They don’t know how to read slowly, to take a step back, letting the words of the page become an occasion for interior conversation. They want bullet points, a summary of what the text means, why it’s important, and what they’ll need to know about the text for the next exam.

While the decline of contemplative reading is a problem for the professor, it’s a threat to the Christian, especially those of us operating within a sacramental tradition. Sacramental Christians require a contemplative approach to world and text alike, aware that there is more to be grasped than perception bestows. And this grasping — the illumination of the human person through the practice of contemplative reading — takes time.

We can’t just wander thoughtlessly through the book of creation, not paying attention to the splendor of the starry skies or the awe induced by the depths of canyons. We can’t scan quickly through the sacred Scriptures, looking for instant insights into the moral life. Often, we need to take time with the Word of God, letting it form us as we daily meditate on the words of Psalm 95, learning to hear the voice of God penetrating our quotidian lives.

In the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, we need to learn to see more than can be seen. This parish, gathered for an act of worship, is not just a community of agreeable individuals. Instead, they are the convoked, those called by the living God into the communion of divine love. In this sacrament, in the sacrificial praise they offer to the Son of God who died upon the cross and rose again, they are to become as St. Augustine remarks, what they receive — the mystical body of the Church. There is more to what looks like bread on that altar than meets the eye.

The task ahead is then to invite women and men to learn once more to read contemplatively. Such reading will involve three parts:

  • Material encounter: Reading is not reducible to the intellect scanning over printed words, a quick way of communicating from the author of the text to the receiver of the word. A contemplative reader is engaging in a material encounter. There is the text of the page, the way that light shines upon words, the crinkle of the paper as the hand moves from page to page. There is the reader him or herself, speaking aloud the words upon the page. Through speaking the words, the text becomes even more material. It becomes sound. That’s why we chant or read the Psalm of Morning and Evening Prayer aloud. To be a contemplative reader is to trip over the materiality of the text, allowing oneself to wonder — in the philosophical sense — over the materiality of the word.
  • Intellectual encounter: The intellect is often understood exclusively as the reasoning faculty of the human person. If Christianity holds up this capacity to reason, it is because the world is ordered, created by God, who knows it perfectly, to be known by the human person. But this reasoning capacity, one often reduced to scientific knowing, is insufficient. Nonetheless, the human person is an intellectual creature, one who moves beyond what is perceived to the spiritual or non-perceivable. This often takes time. When we read a Psalm, we hear the words upon the page. If we have received a basic education into the psalms, we might be able to identify the genre of the text, its history, perhaps the poetic structure of the speech. But we also might begin to read the text slowly, seeing how the speech of God is addressed to us. We might read across the various texts of the Scriptures, seeing how this phrase or word connects to the person of Jesus Christ. These insights into the text often take time. We must often sit in silence, awaiting such fruitful engagement with the text, the sacraments, even the created order. The Christian perceives all existence as permeated by, infused, with divine wisdom. And if we take the time, reading slowly, we learn to participate in this wisdom.
  • A personal encounter: For the Christian, contemplative reading does not mean an escape from the world. St. Augustine’s mystical preaching often challenges the Christian to become the incense that rises up to heaven or to become the divine praise that we sing in Psalm 148 at morning prayer. Christian existence is about a becoming. But this is not a matter of “application” of text or sacrament to life. The language of application implies that the text, sacrament, or the created order has nothing to do with us. We apply it, make it practical, because otherwise it remains pure theory, divorced from human existence. In fact, Christian reading assumes a deep connection between theory and life because of the personal nature of the encounter. The text or ritual act speaks to us, because it addresses the entirety of our personhood. We are creatures who imagine, think, will, muse, ponder, hope, love, suffer, and even more. In lived experience, we don’t often assess these various dimensions of what it means to be human, experiencing existence as a kind of flow. But the act of contemplative reading implicates us. It interrupts the flow, bringing the self into engagement with a text outside of the self. For this reason, the text or practice always has something to do with our very lives. It may take us years of reading the text, of letting it marinate in our memories, to bring us to the pivotal insight that leads us to pursue anew wisdom. That’s why we listen to the same Scriptures, pray the same collects, listen to the same eucharistic prayer year after year after year.

If screen reading, therefore, is about conquering, reading as much as possible, contemplative reading is more like marinating in divine wisdom. Until we foster this contemplative reading within our parishes and schools, we may find that we’re forming Christians incapable of reading existence as infused with glory, with a meaning bestowed by the logos, or Word of God. We’ll continue to form passive Christians who are looking for quick fixes to life, rather than those who have learned to read the world according to the lens of the Word made flesh.

Dr. Timothy P. O’Malley is the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life. He is also a professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.




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