Reading matters in faiths that have scriptures. In oral traditions or in pre-literate societies whose belief system was not expressed in writing, everything was passed down orally. Shamanism in Siberia and Voo-Doo in the Caribbean islands live on only because generations of people continue to learn, use, and re-contextualize the rituals and ceremonies. In and of itself, it is not bad. If anything, a living oral tradition does not run the risk of ossification that opens a gap between the crystallized version captured in some medium (a book, engravings, etc.) and the subsequent generations that take the captured version frozen in time as a sacred source. But faiths whose central tenets are captured in a durable medium endure difficult times and don’t undergo radically altering changes that break the continuity from past generations.
Christianity (like Judaism and Islam) belongs to the group of faiths that has a scripture, and as such it has incorporated reading into its rituals, worship services, and spiritual disciplines. You can hear the Bible during your worship service, in small Bible studies, or in private spiritual exercises. But the public’s relation to reading the Bible has not always been the same. Up until the Protestant Reformation and in the Middle Ages, only the small and educated elite, church officials, and monks read the Bible. The rest had to listen to what they were told. That in return marginalized the spiritual discipline of reading the Bible. With the Gutenberg Bible and Luther’s translation of the scripture into the vernacular, everything changed. Not only did the masses have easier access to the Bible, but they read the book in their own language. As the education of the masses became the norm, reading the Bible became more common. Today everyone can read the scripture. Moreover, there are millions of books in many languages devoted to the Bible and faith that people can have access and develop their own understanding of Christianity.
Nevertheless, none of these developments resolved the ambiguous status of reading religious (or non-religious) literature as a spiritual discipline within Christianity. Especially when it comes to deepening our spiritual maturity, the value of reading any religious literature (in addition to the Bible) does not pass without its challenges. Mystics witness to this tension.
I will give three examples. The first comes from The Imitation of Christ, a classic spiritual masterpiece, written by Thomas à Kempis, who himself was a monk in the fifteenth century and knew the religious literature well. His book is characterized by a strong otherworldliness and sees our worldly attachments as barriers on our path to God. Reading as an activity is implied in its list of vanities. More specifically, it does not deny the value of reading but does not differentiate it as a spiritual discipline and clearly privileges a hands-on experience. Right in the first chapter it says, “What availeth thee to dispute highly of the Trinity if thou lack meekness and thereby thou displeasest the Trinity? I desire rather to know compunction than its definition. If thou knewest all the Bible without book and the sayings of all the philosophers what should that avail thee without charity and grace? All other things in the world, save only to love God and serve him, are vanity of vanities and all vanity.” You can perhaps recognize the influence of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs in this book, which sets the general tone and implies that an acquired wisdom without practice is simply vanity.
The second example that marginalizes reading as a spiritual discipline comes from Brother Lawrence, but he touches on a very legitimate point. Brother Lawrence lived in a French monastery in the seventeenth century and had no formal education. Yet he was renowned for his spiritual wisdom. In his first letter in The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence says, “Having found in many books different methods of going to GOD, and diverse practices of the spiritual life, I thought this would serve rather to puzzle me than facilitate what I sought after, which was nothing but how to become wholly GOD’S.” Against this background, he decided to give himself wholly to God by using his imagination rather than through the elaborate techniques of ancient books. The puzzlement over diverse spiritual techniques comes up again in his second letter in which he says, “I have not followed all these methods. On the contrary, from I know not what instincts, I found they discouraged me. This was the reason why, at my entrance into religion, I took a resolution to give myself up to GOD, as the best return I could make for His love; and for the love of Him, to renounce all besides.” As one would expect, Brother Lawrence’s practice of God’s presence is simple, has no elaborate techniques, and assumes intentionally and continually imagining one’s life in God’s presence that stems from humility.
The two examples above can be contrasted with the third one, which elevates reading to the highest rank of spiritual disciplines. The Cloud of Unknowing, a book written by an unknown Christian author, describes contemplation as the best spiritual practice to get closer to God. It advises three interdependent practices for beginner contemplatives: reading, thinking, and praying. In this book, reading as a spiritual discipline is grounded in the reflective nature of the scripture. The Bible is a mirror to the soul. Reading is a way of hearing God’s Word, and “Without reading or hearing God’s word, a man who is spiritually blind on account of habitual sin is simply unable to see the foul stain on his conscience.” The Cloud of Unknowing is an exceptional book written somewhere during the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries by a learned believer who probably had a theological education. The book offers deep insights and the apophatic theology (knowing what God is not rather than what God is) as a path for contemplation. Moreover, like a true theology book, it addresses certain technical details pertaining to prayer that perhaps neither Thomas nor Brother Lawrence cared to address. The book also touches on the issues of interpretation of the scripture that can arise only in the context of reading the sacred text.
All these books and their attitudes to the discipline of spiritual reading have passed the test of time. They are all valuable. I personally love reading and writing, and being a theology geek helps me appreciate The Cloud of Unknowing. But I also love imagining God and his work in my life, so I appreciate Brother Lawrence’s teachings. Among all three spiritual masterpieces, I’m not yet sure what to make of The Imitation of Christ. The book is good, and I’m drawn towards its terse style. It packs a lot of wisdom into short sentences and invites you to explore the possibilities of its unsaid yet hinted insights. But its pessimistic tone (similar to that of Ecclesiastes) and the uncompromising theme of denial of the ego is overwhelming.
But I digress. So my question for you would be how do you feel about the spiritual discipline of reading? If you are a person who loves reading, then Christian spirituality offers you a path to use that love for your spiritual maturity. If you are a person who loves a hands-on or experiential approach to spiritual growth, well, Christian mysticism offers you a path to utilize your disposition without burdening yourself with intellectual intricacies.
Comment and let me know what the role of reading (the Bible and other religious literature) plays in your life as a spiritual discipline. If you liked this blog post you may like the related posts linked below. Also, please share this post on social media so that others may read and understand the value of reading in Christianity.