lectio divina

by Jess

Lectio divina, or “divine reading,” is the classical monastic practice of the prayerful reading of the Bible, but in this Atlantic piece, Karen Swallow Prior discusses how this practice of spiritual reading can inform all of our reading–not just of the scriptures. She cites Annie Murphy Paul, whose research shows that “deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience,” a kind of reading that differs in kind and quality from “the mere decoding of words,” what we might call carnal reading. She goes on:

It is “spiritual reading” — not merely decoding — that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won’t make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might. …

As Eugene H. Peterson explains in Eat this Book, “Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul — eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Peterson describes this ancient art of lectio divina, or spiritual reading, as “reading that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes … love and wisdom.”

This article resonated deeply with me because I have just last night finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and it left me sobbing big, loud tears. That doesn’t really ever happen to me. The last book to make me cry was All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr–which I’ve been recommending to every last person I know, even going so far as to give copies as Christmas presents–but even that was a soft weeping. This thing that overtook me last night on the last few pages of Home was ugly. This is, no doubt, because of the ways the book echoed the story of my own family and the troubled emotions it stirred in those deep waters.

But it’s a beautiful book, regardless of the reader’s family history. James Wood describes Robinson’s writing as Melvillian, and it’s true. The prose requires that kind of “deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity” that Paul wrote about, and since my days are filled with the chatter of children, I often found myself having to re-read passages to let them fully sink in. I wish I’d kept a list of words to look up, but I was too engrossed in the story to stop and write them down as I encountered them. (And–as a side note–you know how I love good food writing, and Robinson’s characters’ days are filled with cups of coffee, chicken and dumplings, fresh bread and biscuits; food is a form of communion for these people; food is a form of love.)

It’s beautiful, yes, incredibly so, but there’s something so keenly sorrowful even–or especially–in the beautiful moments. Leslie Jamison says it eloquently in her review of another of Robinson’s novels, Lila:

Robinson’s fiction also exposes the vexed terms of our devotion to the wonders of the immanent world. A boy blowing bubbles, a tree covered in dew, a handkerchief stained by black raspberries, the rustling of sheets as a husband and wife settle into bed: there is sublimity in these details, but also a preemptive sense of mourning—our mortal attachments are only ever distractions from the eternal, precursors to inevitable loss.

And Sarah Churchwell writes in The Guardian:

At the end of Home, Glory thinks of Jack in terms of the famous description of the Messiah as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face”. Home is a book of sorrows, of disappointment, and of the fragile, improbable ways in which home, even when it is shadowed by failure and guilt, can offer hope. Near the end of Gilead Ames observes: “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. ‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” This sentiment, that all will be weeping, and in need of divine comfort, is the foundation of Home, one of the saddest books I have ever loved.

The titular conflict of the novel regards the adult child coming home, which–mutatis mutandis–everyone has experienced. One character ponders: “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?” There is so much that goes into exploring this question in the novel, and it’s a question that’s captured my own curiosity, insofar as I’ve attempted to reconcile childhood perceptions and ideas with adult realities.

One of the first passages to choke me up was fairly early in the story, when Glory reflects on her childhood experience of religion that has persisted into her adulthood has habit. She says:

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.

That was church for me too. I can picture that airy white room so clearly, even down to the smell of the musty old carpets and the gleam of the sunlight on the tall brass ribs of the pipe organ.

Wyatt Mason has a truly lovely interview and essay at The New York Times Magazine, almost an etude on the person and work of Marilynne Robinson. I found it very informing and appropriate that Robinson believes that to read a text well “makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content,” again echoing Paul’s premise that good people are not created by the reading of good books, but perhaps in the manner by which we read and comprehend and apply what we have learned, some progress can be made.

Mason goes on to say: “For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is ‘testimony,’ a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.” This belief, too, is evident in her writing. Mason quotes Robinson as saying:

A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’

There is something about this sacredness in things that Robinson conveys in her writing that simultaneously sorrows and succors you. I wish I knew how she does this. It’s magical to experience. It is divine.

I started with Home because it was what my local library branch had in stock, and now I’ll have to track down Gilead and Lila, both of which novels concern the same characters around the same time (I also picked up one of her books of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, which deserves its own entry here). I’m glad I started with Home. In fact, I may re-read it before I return it and move on to other books, because I don’t know what else to do with the devastation I feel in having no more of it to read. It’s the best kind of loss, that sorrow you feel down to your bones when you’ve finished a truly exceptional novel, one that has changed you somehow, or wounded you, or killed you even, and resurrected you.

Home was written for me. And it was written for you. Robinson is a master storyteller at the height of her powers. Reading her work truly is spiritual reading, it is so much love and wisdom disguised as ink on paper.