Reading As a Spiritual Practice
A healthy spiritual practice of reading is more than simply loving to read.
I have loved to read since I learned how to do it. It teaches me about the magic and power of words.
Developing contemplative life strengthens our love for words and reading. It is ironic how appreciating contemplation and stillness feeds the ways we value words. Our practice of reading is a combination of the words and the space between them.
Some of the books I enjoy are part of my spiritual practice of reading, but I try to savor them. There is an intense sadness in coming to the end of a good book, like leaving after visiting a close friend.
This practice is not exactly the same as sacred reading or lectio divina. We are not about trying to keep up with all the new books about spiritual life constantly being published.
We can incorporate the spiritual practice of reading into our lives. Some of us set goals for what we hope to read each year or each month. We might commit ourselves to read scriptural books each day.
Some of the people who see me for spiritual direction choose to read books and talk about them together. That is a particularly enjoyable aspect of our spiritual practice.
One of my practices focuses on online conversation groups in which we read spiritual books together. People participate in the groups over four academic years, and the conversations cover all four years. Each year is organized around a guidebook called a Reading & Reflection Guide.
My practice also includes reading books to review them. I write book reviews for Spiritual Directors International, and sometimes include book reviews in this blog.
Reading As an Organized Practice
I also read a few series of detective mysteries. There is joy in anticipating the next book to be published and the comfort of spending time with people I already know.
My spiritual practice is not limited to sitting and running my eyes over the words on the pages. While I often rely on the public library for mystery series, choosing and acquiring books is part of my practice.
I took time this summer for some bookshelf maintenance. One of my goals for this year was to purchase a full set of books by one author, and I needed to clear some space. It had been some time since I had surveyed my bookcase with an eye to sorting and shifting.
There were some challenges, but I felt better when I had finished clearing space. I have begun reading my new collection, which will probably take me into next year. I already have a couple of candidates for my next acquisition project.
My spiritual practice of reading is not a race; neither a sprint nor a marathon. It is not my way of training myself to read faster or more efficiently. I am not in a hurry. My regular reading will be interrupted as new mysteries are published.
Reading as a spiritual practice is a contemplative exercise. We are not pushing ourselves to become better readers. It is more about listening and being open to what a text has to tell us, whether it is scripture or a mystery novel.
We listen to hear what an author is trying to tell us and what it sparks within us. Reading is how we develop relationships with people who may have lived hundreds, or thousands, of years ago.
Reading As Building Relationships
Some of the people who have taught and influenced me the most were because I read what they had written. Women and men who died centuries before I was born have helped me though difficult situations. The mentors who inspired me and shaped my thinking reached me through their writing.
We have become accustomed to making friends we have never met in person through social media. Some of us have developed supportive, encouraging online communities of people who live far away from us.
My socially distant friends are not only far away geographically, but also chronologically.
People like Benedict and Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich and Kathleen Norris are friends I have never met. Even when their words have been translated and retranslated, they speak to me.
When we read to build relationships we do not necessarily need to have all the background information. We do not need to argue about exactly what they were trying to tell us. What they wrote sparks new insight in us today. When we struggle with situations they could not foresee, their words still comfort us.
Reading the books on our shelves again and again, our relationship to the people who wrote them grows stronger.
We read their words and listen to what they have to tell us. Our conversation continues.
Reading Our Way Toward the Future
Reading is something we enjoy doing. We want to find more time to read and more ways it can become a spiritual practice for us.
There are many books to read by many people about so many subjects.
One significant step for me is spending time with other people who encourage me. You can always talk to me if you would like to build a spiritual practice of reading.
Each of us needs to find more practices which strengthen spiritual life within us and in the world around us. The more time we spend practicing our way into spiritual life, the stronger our practices will become.
Some of us might want to look through the books we have which we have not read to begin developing our practice. Those books can lead us to new books to read this year and next year.
The books we read, and the people who wrote them, are steps into reading as a spiritual practice.
Each step we take helps us read our way toward the future.
How will we begin reading as a spiritual practice today?
Where will reading as a spiritual practice help us go this week?
[Image by Monika Kostera (urbanlegend)]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.