Why Do Old Spiritual Texts Seem Boring?

"Illuminated.bible.closeup.arp". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illuminated.bible.closeup.arp.jpg#/media/File:Illuminated.bible.closeup.arp.jpgPart of prayer is learning to pray with all other Christians – where two or three are gathered together – and so among other things this means learning to pray and contemplate alongside Christians from the past. One of the ways we do this is by engaging traditional texts on spirituality and mysticism. Yet, when it comes to this matter, engaging such texts and traditions is neither intuitive nor easy. Moving beyond the more popular quotations that have become memes, and the standard citations in the catechism and the hours, we find ourselves lost in a sea of texts, often unfamiliar in genre and seeming on the surface to be a collation of truisms and pietisms unsuitable for dealing with the cynical postmodernity of the 21th Century. In a series of three posts, beginning with this first, my intention is to discuss difficulties modern readers have engaging such texts as spiritual aids, as well as to offer some suggested guides for working through these difficulties.

Today’s topic will be boredom because, extrapolating from my experience as both a scholar and a lay participant in the spirituality of ancient Christian texts, it seems to me that this is nearly always going to be the first reaction of the modern reader who goes beyond the clever quips and socially replicated soundbytes extracted from such works. St. Francis will catch our eye when he is telling us to preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words; St. Augustine and his heart ever restless till it finds rest in God will always find a place in our hearts; Irenaeus will not go unnoticed for talking about the glory of God as a human being fully alive. However, I suspect that anyone who digs just a little deeper into old works and authors valued merely for such apothegemic spirituality will be disappointed. At places, the texts will alienate; at other places they will challenge; but I think what modern readers will find more disappointing than either of these are the places where the texts seems altogether too naively pious – perhaps more like the mild elderly lady down the pew saying her prayers like clockwork than the wonderful premodern site of protest against modernity we want these texts to be.

We so desperately want these old texts to serve as an Orientalist “other” – the golden age before the modern theological/philosophical fall – that we are fairly disappointed when we find them telling us to do much the same as what our modern priests and pastors (at their best) tell us to do: pray, engage Scripture, follow Christ in our actions, worship etc. If you’re looking in these texts for some exotic “lost key” to your faith and prayer life, you are bound to be disappointed, and frankly bored. There is no other key to faith than Christ – O Clavis! – and if you cannot appreciate Him in the words of your modern brother or sister whom you have seen, it will be doubtful that you can appreciate Him in the words of those from the past, whom you have not seen.

To be fair, though, and to return to the topic of boredom, there are indeed many who do recognize Christ in their more modern encounters with Him, but whose eyes glaze over when they encounter the infinitely less “relevant” pieties of the past. The words seem canned and didactic; or perhaps overly obsessed with suffering; or perhaps laced with too many nasty bits about hell. Whatever the matter, readers who go deeper than the surface are bound to encounter these obstacles, the tedious and awkward things that get in the way of the more gentle, vibrant, and immediately accessible spirituality we are looking for. And so we grow bored as readers.

How many such stumbling blocks must we encounter before reaching the spiritual mother lode? How much more must we read to become wise? And why not read something more succinct, direct, and to-the-point in terms of our modern situation? Why waste time meandering through the fathers and mothers? This will be the topic of tomorrow’s post; for the moment, let it suffice to say that this is not the first time in the history of Christianity that stumbling blocks, obstacles, and scandals have turned out to be something other than what they seemed from their initial unassuming appearances.

About Karl Persson