Saturday, September 19, 2009

study [disciplines for the inner life]

It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. A people who talk much will know little. Press this upon them with your might, and you will soon see the fruit of your labours.
...You can never be deep...without it any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days...
--From The Message of the Wesleys. Compiled by Philip S. Watson
The words else you will be a trifler all your days stopped me breathless in this meditation on study. In some way, the spirit (hopefully, the holy one) has infused this fear into the daily fabric of my being and doing. On good days, surrendered to the spirit who is holy, it could be considered purpose -- although that word is sickeningly overused these days. On bad days, surrendered to the reigns of my flesh and spirits who are not holy, it could be considered drivenness, striving. Either way, it is not trifling.

Imagine, then, my delight at discovering that someone as wise and austere as a Wesley brother would connect trifling with a lack of reading! If I had known it was permissible to say this I could have been using it with my kids and friends for years now.

This meditation on the discipline of study continued to puzzle me at the purpose of the editors of the devotional. Did they intend to lead the reader to the conclusion that the discipline of study was about Bible-reading? Well, Bible-reading is a separate discipline coming up next in the book. Many of the quoted saints and scholars had to do with memorization; was study primarily about memorization? Or -- like the Wesley excerpt suggests -- more about reading; perhaps a spiritual reading, a practice of lectio devina?

After weeks in the meditation (albeit, disjointed meditation with the whirling about of the end of summer and beginning of school for the children) I'm left to assume that study, in this case, is about all of the above. But the common thread of application would certainly be a fierce resistance of trifling all our days.

Consider, won't you, the following excerpts and passages.

Bible reading
Deuteronomy 17:18-20: “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.
Apparently reading keeps us from trifling and snobbery. Since I'm aware of a lot of readers who are quite haughty, clearly reading on its own accord is not the goal here.


How about this guy for a role model?

Without hesitation, without inner debate, I entered into the inheritance of every modern Russian writer intent on the truth: I must write simply to ensure that it was not all forgotten, that posterity might someday come to know of it. Publication in my own lifetime I must shut out of my mind, out of my dreams.
I put away my idle dream. And in its place there was only the surety that my work would not be in vain, that it would someday smite the heads I had in my sights and that those who received its invisible emanations would understand. I no more rebelled against lifelong silence than against the lifelong impossibility of freeing my feet from the pull of gravity. As I finished one piece after another, at first in the camps, then in exile, then after rehabilitation, first verses, then plays, and later prose works too. I had only one desire: to keep all these things out of sight and myself with them.
In the camp this meant committing my verse -- many thousands of lines -- to memory. To help me with this I improvised decimal counting beads and, in transit prisons, broke up matchsticks and used the fragments as tallies. As I approached the end of my sentence I grew more confident of my powers of memory, and began writing down and memorizing prose -- dialogue at first, but then, bit by bit, whole densely written passages. My memory found room for them! It worked. but more and more of my time -- in the end as much as one week every month -- went into the regular repetition of all I had memorized.
--From The Oak and the the Calf by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Shame on us. Shame on me. Tell me now, the more impoverished days?

My friend Tracy and I meet at a pub every other Thursday night to talk about life as women who follow Jesus and try to love our husbands and children and try not to be triflers all our days. Last time we were together we were wondering out loud to each other how to fight off the dark and frustrating thoughts that seem to kick up so much inner dust they cloud out truth and love thoughts. We thought, perhaps, we should be memorizing stuff. Probably Scripture stuff. Next time we are together she is supposed to bring me a passage for us to be memorizing. Solzhenitsyn had his Gulag and broken matchsticks, we'll have our corner booth under the flatscreen and chilled glass mugs.

I read in Madeleine L'Engle's autobiography one of her meditation exercises. She memorized a prayer, passage or poem that began with each letter of the alphabet. She recited them, like an invisible rosary, I'd guess. Sometimes she did this while she was swimming laps in the morning. Well then.

Ultimately, the prayer would be that we (Tracy, me, you) pursue the non-trifling days of the Russian's exile. Or of the psalmist: I relish everything You've told me of life. I won't forget a word of it. For when it comes to words bringing counsel or aid whose would I rather recall? Surely, not my own. As the humble priest Nouwen admits, so do I: I fear that in crisis situations I will have to depend on my own unredeemed ramblings and not the word of God to guide me. (from The Living Reminder)

Spiritual Reading

This application of the study discipline seems to be not only the what of our reading but the how.
Psalm 119:9-16: How can a young person live a clean life? By carefully reading the map of your Word. I'm single-minded in pursuit of you; don't let me miss the road signs you've posted. I've banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won't sin myself bankrupt. Be blessed, God; train me in your ways of wise living. I'll transfer to my lips all the counsel that comes from your mouth; I delight far more in what you tell me about living than in gathering a pile of riches.I ponder every morsel of wisdom from you, I attentively watch how you've done it. I relish everything you've told me of life, I won't forget a word of it.

In The House of the Soul and Concerning the Inner Life, author Evelyn Underhill boldly states: Spiritual reading is, or at least can be, second only to prayer as a developer and support of the inner life. She defines spiritual reading in this way: the brooding consideration, the savouring -- as it were the chewing of the cud -- in which we digest that which we have absorbed, and apply it to our own needs.

This week Pastor John will tell us a little bit about his view of the problem with teaching. Perhaps, it's not the teacher with the problem but the student in that we crave more and more and more. Like tiny, flightless birds we crane our necks out of the nest gurgling and churgling for more masticated grub when we need, instead, to look more like the sidling cow in the green field, regurgitating our own grub. Chewing it over and re-enjoying it's juices. Pastor John refers to this as marinating. And it requires peace and patience. Instead of an insecurity that drives me to shove more reading down the gullet, I live in the peaceful, grass-chomping state of the spotted bovine. This is true conviction for me.

Evelyn Underhill goes on to instruct: spiritual reading allows us to access all the hoarded supernatural treasure of the race: all that is found out about God. It should not be confined to Scripture, but should also include at least the lives and the writings of the canonized and uncanonized saints. She warms us with the truth that this kind of reading is not an isolated act but one that is truly social: It gives us not only information, but communion: real intercourse with the great souls of the past, who are the pride and glory of the Christian family. Ancient fields crowded with grass-chomping souls sharing the nourishment together. This, friends, is spiritual reading.

Read, savor, stew, question and pray. Yes, friends, chomp away: St. Augustine, John of the Cross and Gregory of Nyssa. Also C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Jonathan Edwards. Forgive me you saints of the female-image-of-God: Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa. Catherine of Genoa, Catherine of Siena and Kathleen Norris. Corrie Ten Boom, Dallas Willard and Brother Lawrence. Rich, fertile, prayer-and study-soaked lives gorge these ancient fields. Still we trifle away our days with discount-warehouse best-seller lists. Impoverished indeed.

I spent my summer with Flannery O'Connor, Madeleine L'Engle, Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard. My mental and spiritual pantry is stocked full for cold, routine-ridden winter days. Like a stew simmering on the back burner of my mind I have much to recall from those glorious reading days of summer. And, thankfully, much of it is re-recorded in my journal to remind me when things inside me get sparse and croaky, tricking me into thinking I need more, more, more.

At the beginning and the end of the day may study be the discipline that makes the prayer in Psalm 119:1-7 -- on which I meditated for weeks -- be true in my inner and outer life:
Our LORD, you bless everyone
who lives right
and obeys your Law.
You bless all of those
who follow your commands
from deep in their hearts
and who never do wrong
or turn from you.
You have ordered us always
to obey your teachings;
I don't ever want to stray
from your laws.
Thinking about your commands
will keep me from doing
some foolish thing.
I will do right and praise you
by learning to respect
your perfect laws.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...