Reading fiction could be seen as even further from “spiritual reading” but I believe in its own way the practice of reading novels as a spiritual discipline or core practice can bear rich fruit. One of the things that confirms this for me has been the growing awareness that my life has been transformed many times through the reading of good fiction (Watership Down, The Brothers Karamazov, The Clowns of God, Winnie the Pooh and several books by Chaim Potok are just a few examples).

A key difference in the reading of novels is that the first focus of attention in a novel is empathy with the protagonist. I actually think that reading novels has been my most important training as a therapist. If you’re not learning empathy when reading fiction, you’re not reading well. This is one reason I am greatly frustrated with newer novels that don’t stick to a central focus on one person’s experience (novels that alternate chapters focused on two or more central characters are alright with me too, but I can’t stand when the perspective just shifts at will within a chapter). We’re meant to dive in and feel the life the main character is living.

Good novels, however, are also about ideas. As a result, even though it may happen less frequently, the same kind of transcendent moments described in my previous post on spiritual reading can happen to me as I read a key passage of a novel. This happened at least two or three times for me while recently reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One time was when I was struck by how the son’s obsession (against both his rational and social judgment) with the girlfriend from his teens, seems to provide a sense of grounding and commitment that nothing else seems to provide in his free(?) life. This is so skilfully done, that you feel the pull inside of you between the head and the heart. You open yourself to wondering whether an unhealthy (by contemporary psychological standards) commitment to a neurotic girl might actually save him in spite of what the self-help books would say.

These kinds of moments connect my empathy with the characters with a slightly removed intellectual engagement with the author. I consider this to be like a secondary channel in my mind as I read a novel – like intuitive music playing in the background to which I might stop from time to time to give attention. With a really good author, this “background music” might become more important as I explore more of his works and come to appreciate the character of the author herself almost as a friend. The author then becomes not just the source of ideas behind the novel but another character that becomes part of the novel-reading experience – like learning to appreciate the conductor on stage and not just the musicians, seeing how her interpretation and way of being transforms the music.

I was slower coming to appreciate this kind of reading as spiritual reading because I experience it much more indirectly as prayer. I wonder if we need to mature into a posture of “prayer without ceasing” before this somewhat consciously becomes spiritual reading. The more we make all of our engagement with life into walking with God, the more this can become natural. Perhaps one of the conscious steps in this process, specific to the practice of reading fiction, is choosing to respect fiction and the characters within in a way not unlike our respect for actual people. I take my reading of novels as a spiritually serious (not sombre – perhaps significant is a better word) activity. I want God with me as I read just as much as I need him with me when I counsel someone in my office. And in both cases, I expect to grow spiritually as this happens.

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This blog post is too long. This means some of you won’t make it through (in spite of how good it is – much better than the short list, in fact). So just in case you don’t read it all, here is a summary of the actual “core practice”:

  1. Find something worthwhile to read in a subject area that matters to you.
  2. If the author seems worthy, commit yourself to trying out the author’s way of thinking (kind of life being an empathic listener).
  3. Minimize (or maximize, depending on how you look at it) the risk in this by asking God to be with you as you open yourself. Ask God to “light up” what’s important.
  4. If anything does light up as you read, then let yourself read at a pace where you allow your mind to roam around in what is opening up (What changes if this is true? How might this change how I think? Feel? Act? What part of me is resisting and why? God, what are you thinking?)
  5. Be changed (or chuck the book because it’s crap), and, if possible, do something right away to help it last – tell someone, write your new thoughts down, do something different, etc.

If this sounds at all interesting, you might want to read the rest of this post; if not, then you should still read the rest of the post to see if it changes your mind.

One of the most life-giving spiritual disciplines in my life has been the practice of “reading with God” whenever I am intentionally remembering to read well. Everything that is worth reading is worthy of lectio divina in a broadly understood way. Personally, I think many principles here could be extended to other interactions with culture such as watching a movie, but I will focus here on two main versions of spiritual reading: reading non-fiction (Part 1) or fiction (Part 2).

I have always loved reading and have always done a lot of it. In my youth I was pretty indiscriminate in my reading, but still tried to do it well. I think the fact that I was simultaneously learning to read the Bible prayerfully helped me naturally to begin to apply some of the same practices and disciplines into my other reading. At a conscious level, this would have applied firstly to non-fiction reading.

My interest in non-fiction is focused primarily on thoughtful reflection at the boundaries between the human experience and the presence of God. So I enjoy writers who honestly engage biblical theology with an insightful interpretation of culture, history and psychology. Or conversely, I enjoy those who write about culture, social justice and psychology with a perspective that seeks deep truth and that is informed by a real love of humanity.

The closer an author comes to inspiring me, the more I am likely to read intentionally looking to hear from God. (Of course, I don’t have a great deal of patience with non-fiction, so if I am not either inspired or required to read a book for some reason, I am not likely to continue with it for long.)

The main focus of spiritual reading of non-fiction is trying out the way of thinking of the author. I am trying to see what new things start to come into focus or make sense better or differently if I accept the author’s way of looking at things. I am looking for insights that have exciting new potential. I believe this is both a necessary and dangerous way to read – necessary because reading is not worth much without it; dangerous because it puts one’s present point of view at risk. An author needs to prove herself to me before this happens deeply. You don’t just open up your thoughtworld to anyone. But if you pay attention, you can actually feel it happening: something emotional and exciting starts to occur and you resonate with the ideas and become aware of your sense of truth shifting. New things start to make sense. Sometimes old things stop making sense, and so even though new understandings are being birthed, it can be disorienting. Other times it is a purely spiritual high as the pieces of the puzzle seem to fall into place.

Since this is so dangerous, I want God along for the ride. Sometimes consciously and sometimes intuitively, I am asking God to jump into this process with me, filtering my thoughts, grounding me in my relationship with Him. I want God to light up the thought-ways that lead to truth, that inspire more loving obedience and better ways to live in this world.

Though I usually start at an average pace, I usually end up reading either very quickly or very slowly. If nothing is inspiring me, I start skimming, looking for something that might change my mind as to my growing sense of the irrelevance (or familiarity) of what I am reading. When that doesn’t happen I start scanning ahead, perhaps skipping whole chapters or just chucking the book altogether. Why would anyone waste time on a non-fiction book that is not waking something up inside of them?

If I do start to feel myself waking up (spiritually) as I read, I slow down. I really know an author is “hitting the spot” when I find myself lost in thought on a page for long periods of time. I’ll have more inner dialogue in my head than I am reading words on a page. Right there in the middle of the page, I find myself trying on a new look at the world through the lenses the author has given me. I waver back and forth between giving myself permission or even encouragement to open a computer to write down some thoughts I find inspiring versus reading with trust that what is truly gold will stay with me. At least two different times, what I am writing now is because I felt so many thoughts overflowing while reading something that I had to start writing. Without exaggeration, it feels like the Spirit within me is released during these moments of reading in a way that I can almost never achieve through simple prayer alone.

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Lying on a rock at the top of Simpson Hill, I could see the clear, blue sky through the pine needles.  Everything in me relaxed- more like ‘let go’.   “Thank you.”  The words seemed to fall out of my lips.  All I felt was an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  “Thank you, this is it. This is why.”

For as long as I can remember, I have retreated to the woods at every opportunity.
It was away, but not just away.
It was going to something and feeling connected.
I was alone, but not alone.
Somehow very full and yet seeking more.

I would take hammock, blanket, water and of course my Bible and usually a journal, find a peaceful place, by a stream whenever possible, and crash.  More often than not, I would not take out the Bible or the journal.  When I didn’t I would feel a sense of guilt as if I was not trying hard enough to connect with God and was not giving Him every opportunity to speak to me.  On the days when I was able to ignore the nagging guilt, I would often just fall asleep, awake refreshed and slowly make my way home.  I didn’t know what had happened, but it was good and my heart was full.

The day atop Simpson Hill, I realized that deep gratitude opens my heart immediately, almost violently.

This is home.  This is where my heart rests.  This is where I am open, connected, available.  It is here that God has access to me.  My mind may not know what or how, but something is changed.  Something has happened inside that shapes me, recreates me, prepares me and gives me the hope to go on.

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About a year ago, I finished going through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in daily life, a journey that took approximately two years. One of the things I appreciated about the Exercises was their structure. The Exercises provide a framework for prayer that encourages attentiveness and openness. Plus, their structure helped with two real problems I have had with prayer: figuring out where to start and then staying focused during prayer (i.e. not “wandering off” somewhere in my mind).

After “making” (that’s the official parlance) the Exercises, I was looking for another resource that would provide a similar structure for prayer when I stumbled upon a Benedictine Breviary. The Short Breviary I have (check it out on amazon.ca) provides prayers, hymns, psalms, readings, and litanies for going through the Liturgy of the Hours. While the Breviary has a liturgy for all eight of the canonical hours, I typically pray in the mornings before work, so I usually only pray Lauds. Lauds is the divine office for the early morning hours and is one of the two major hours in the (Roman version of the) Liturgy of the Hours. I do, on occasion, pray Compline (the last prayer of the day) when I go to bed and I have found it to be a very comforting and calming practice, especially throughout the winter months.

Another thing I have benefited from in praying with Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary is that it includes liturgies for the seasons of the church’s liturgical year. I had, for some time, been interested in gaining a better understanding of the traditional church calendar. Praying through the year with the Breviary has, I think, helped to more fully immerse me in the life of Jesus.

Using the Breviary takes some practice, especially during liturgical seasons other than Ordinary Time, since praying one of the major hours (like Lauds) means some “flipping” around through different sections of the book. However, with a bit of patience, and the judicious use of the Breviary’s multiple book marks, it soon becomes quite natural.

I sometimes combine praying Lauds (from the Breviary) with journalling, wherein I simply record any words or phrases from the liturgy that stand out to me. I find that writing these things down “grounds” me in the thing(s) that God wants to say to me in/through the prayer time. One of my recent favourites is from a litany for the season of Lent, in which we ask that “the fertility of silence give life and power to our words and deeds.”

I have found the Breviary to be one of Borgmann’s “focal things” and it has provided the kind of structure that, for me, makes prayer happen (when it so easily can not). If you give it a try, I would love to talk with you and share experiences of praying with a Breviary.

 

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I’d forgotten how to pray.

Sure, I could still say a prayer before a meal, and even manage to say something that sounded half decent when gathering around to pray for someone. And when there was a crisis, I would tilt a thought upwards and call it prayer.

But when I would even try to think about having a “prayer time” I would give up.

So when at the leaders’ retreat we were talking about using a blog to share some core practices that we were finding life in, I didn’t think that I would be writing about prayer.

In the course of the retreat we were brainstorming on what kinds of things we could do with the church to encourage core practices. The idea of getting someone in to teach about the rosary was thrown into the ring of ideas. When I got home from this retreat, the idea of praying with the rosary was still in my head. Maybe this could help me get over this barricade between me and God. I certainly recognized that there was a problem and maybe it was time to address this.

So that night I searched online to see what the rosary was about and if it could help me. In the course of the search, I found a site on the Anglican rosary, and I resonated with a lot of what it said and how it was said.

A few days later I received my new rosary and a book about it. I confess that I didn’t research the Catholic rosary enough to know that much about it, but I really like the simplicity, the contemplative focus and the flexibility that I found with the Anglican one.

So for the last couple of months, I’m praying again and starting to feel more connected with my maker.

You may ask, “Why does praying with a rosary help?”

The book I got has various different ways of praying with the thirty-three beads of the rosary. Generally, each bead corresponds to a prayer. For the first couple of weeks I played around with some of the suggested prayers in the book and ended up with a liturgy for myself that is a blend of a few different ones, plus a few lines added from a song that has inspired me over the last while.

So now I have only to pick up the rosary and the prayer is laid out before me. There is a flow that I can just jump into. I don’t have to choose my words, but I can simply let my head and heart listen and echo. The first prayer is an affirmation of my relationship with God the Father, Son and Spirit. The next is a prayer inviting God to surround me and for me to be more aware of this. Then there is a pattern of praying for myself and others, ending with the Lord’s Prayer.

Praying with the beads helps me not to get lost in mental tangents; physically holding the beads and slowly, meditatively moving along them keeps me focused (and awake!) during the prayer.

Praying with the rosary may be for a season. It may be for my life. I’m not worried about how long it will “work.” I just know that it is giving me life now, and that’s good enough.

(You can find out more about the Anglican rosary, or order one if you’re interested, at fullcirclebeads.com )

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I thought I’d have a go at the first post. A Core Practice that has been most meaningful to me in recent months is the Examen. The Examen (a.k.a. Awareness Examen, Daily Examen, Highs & Lows) was developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th Century and is super easy to practice.

  1. Get some quiet mental space and invite God into it.
  2. Think back over the past day as if you were watching a movie of all that happened.
  3. Think about where you experienced God’s presence during this time. When did you feel alive, peaceful, joyful, excited, compassionate, etc.? Allow your thoughts to be drawn to one (or more) of these moments that stand out to you as a “high” and talk to God about it. Ask God and yourself questions about why this feels like a high point? Is there anything that God might be drawing my attention to?
  4. Now do the same process but this time focus on times that felt like “lows”. These may be times when you hurt others or when they hurt you, or when you encountered some sort of hopelessness, stress, lack of peace, frustration, etc. Often one or two of these moments will stand out to you; press into these moments a bit and reflect on why you felt disconnected from God’s presence during these times.
  5. Consider if there are some things that you can take away from this time of reflection (from the highs and/or the lows). Contemplation is at it’s fullest when it leads to some sort of action. What challenges do you sense God might be calling you to? Do you need to forgive someone? Is God reminding you to slow down and spend more time with family? Is there anything you’d like to try to do a bit differently tomorrow in light of today’s reflections?
  6. End by giving thanks to God for this time. Remember to give thanks for the high points and for an awareness of the low points. And be honest about the low points too – give thanks for God’s presence in the midst of both seasons.

This process can be done in as little as a few minutes and seems so simple that it doesn’t even feel like “hard work”. But I’ve been amazed at how often this process has brought to mind things that I wouldn’t have normally noticed in my day.

For example, most of my highs relate to interactions with people. They are often little moments in the day when someone gave me a hug, or I played with my daughter, or when a few of us cooked in the kitchen together. Moments that I could have easily overlooked and assumed that the real accomplishments that I made in the day related to “getting stuff done” (for anyone who knows me, you’ll know that this is very counter-intuitive for my personality type).

The other way that I’ve found this exercise helpful is that during the day I often feel negative emotions that I can’t always identify at the time. I’ll just notice that I’m feeling an unpleasant emotion, but since I’m rushing around, I may not give it much time. But the emotion does not go away and I find my self feeling a bit down but not knowing why.

Often by reflecting on it I’m able to identify times when: someone was rude to me and I thought I was over it,  I hurt someone else,  I was disappointed, I was tired, I handled situations badly, I was stressed/anxious, I was aware of brokenness in the world around me, etc. Identifying these times helps me to then talk to God about them in lament and allows these moments of disconnectedness to reconnect me with Him.

Last thought. One surprising by-product of this practice has been that I am sometimes more aware of highs and lows during the day and not just when I stop to reflect in the evening. I’ve found that this exercise has underlying principles that work 24 hours/day to help me be more connected with reality and to invite God into it.

P.S. Rachael Barham did a great talk about the Examen last year. You can listen to the audio here.

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