Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Purpose of Reading

As I mentioned in my previous post, I love books and I love to read. I love getting new books and reading through them in my excitement so that I can move on to the next one. For some reason I just get a major sense of accomplishment when I finish a book that I've been reading for days, weeks, or months. To finally read that last page and with a deep breath close the book gives me a sense that my little world is complete. But St. Theophan the Recluse gives very specific instructions about reading that I believe it would behoove all of us to follow.

First he says that when we read spiritual books we ought to read slowly and carefully, applying what we read to our lives. The purpose of our reading is not to satisfy curiosity, but for inner transformation, conversion of heart. Here's what Theophan says:

You have a book? Then read it, reflect on what it says, and apply the words to yourself. To apply the content to oneself is the purpose and fruit of reading. If you read without applying what is read to yourself, nothing good will come of it, and even harm may result. Theories will accumulate in the head, leading you to criticize others instead of improving your own life. So have ears and hear. (Art of Prayer page 130)

Here what Theophan is describing is what many Western Christians would call "Lectio Divina." Although the phrase Lecio Divina is most typically applied to a slow, meditative, deliberate, and careful reading of the Scriptures, it can really be applied to the reading of any spiritual text. Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., one of the world's leading historians of the Byzantine Liturgy, recommends in his wonderful little book Liturgy: Model of Prayer - Icon of Life that priests and seminarians do Lectio with the Liturgical texts. But here Theophan is recommending that same deliberate reading not only of the Scriptures, but of the spiritual writings of the great Eastern Fathers and Mothers (or Western for that matter). We must read their writings slowly, carefully, sometimes several times through in order to fully understand and "digest" what exactly it is they are saying to us, so that we can then take what they say and apply it to our lives.

His admonition, "So have ears and hear," is also quite interesting in this context. In the Scriptures, whenever someone is commanded to "listen" or says that they are "listening" or heard the words of another, it doesn't mean that they received sound waves through their eardrums and passively understood the meaning of those words. To "listen" or to "hear" in the Scriptures is an active listening whereby we understand and then act on the words of the other. In this sense, by ending his suggestions with the phrase, "So have ears...," St. Theophan has come full circle in his thought, encouraging us to an attentive and reflective listening that bears fruit through application in our lives.

But we see that Theophan also gives us a warning. Passively reading without applying what we read to our lives can actually harm us spiritually. If reading, like prayer, remains in the head and does not descend into the heart, transforming our lives and bringing us to deeper conversion and repentance, then it does nothing but build up new theories in our minds. We can be lead to believe that we have achieved higher levels of holiness than we actually have; and sadly we can be lead to focus on the spiritual failings of others instead of allowing working to improve our own lives and relationship with God. Later on St. Theophan warns:

It is easier to philosophize than to pray or pay attention to oneself. But since it is a work of the mind, which falls so easily into pride, it predisposes a man to self-esteem. It may altogether cool the desire for practical effort, and consequently hinder sound progress by flattering successfulness in this mental activity.

He concludes:

It is wrong to become too much attached to reading. It leads to no good and builds walls between the heart and God. It leads to the development of a harmful curiosity and sophistry.

So what can we conclude from what this great saint has to tell us? Well, it seems to me that we can conclude first, that in this time when we are so lacking in experienced spiritual guides, reading is good and we ought especially to read the writings of the great Fathers, Mothers, and mystics who have gone before us. Secondly, reading must be careful, deliberate, and above all practical. We read not to satisfy our curiosity, but to apply that which we have read to our lives. Thirdly, it is not necessary that we read extensively, as though we are preparing a doctoral dissertation. Such extensive reading, as Theophan points out, can be dangerous and lead to pride. Rather it is better to read just a few books, taking the teachings contained therein and applying them to ourselves as best we can, hopefully with the aid of someone more knowledgeable than us.

St. Theophan's teachings here serve particularly as a strong reminder to me personally. I know that at times I get way too caught up in my head with the various theories presented in what I read, and I tend to lose focus on deepening my relationship with God the Trinity. In the past, thanks to my loss of focus, I have said things to others in pride that I regret today. So these words from St. Theophan, I feel, are particularly poignant for me personally. I don't doubt that there are some of you out there who feel the same way.

May heaven consume us!

No comments:

Post a Comment