Thursday, October 06, 2011

inner beauty for our heads

Since the post I set out to write yesterday on the discipline of Study didn't quite materialize into anything more than me blurting out confessions of library felonies and misdemeanors, I'm going to repost an excerpt from the first time I wrote reflections on spiritual disciplines in this blog format. As I re-read what I wrote two years ago, I'm struck by a somewhat "harsh" tone in my words (e.g. the statement "Shame on us".)  I think I've grown a lot in grace these past two years, but at that time I truly was feeling conviction.  I think it's possible to have a healthy sense of shame or embarrassment when we are convicted by something we've done or left undone.  In this case, I was just coming awake to all that I'd left undone in my spiritual practice of study, memorization, reading and prayer and so I'm resisting the urge to edit my two-years-ago self. Please accept my words from that place of conviction, rather than as a condemnation against myself or any of you, dearly loved readers.

Some examples of inner beauty for our heads (from a post originally written on September 19, 2009): consider, won't you, the following excerpts and passages.

1.  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.

2.  Memorization

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 sometimes at a pub 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)

3.  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.
She 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.

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.
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