I've been doing a lot of thinking about ways to deepen spiritual experiences lately. (Like my whole life, perhaps? Perhaps.)
Thinking about things like trying to arrange spiritual friendship groups at my meeting, or maybe--as a friend of mine suggested--trying out something like spiritual formation groups. I've been reading the Bible, not because I'm a convert to Christianity, but because I feel that I need to become familiar with its poetry and the resonances of its myths in order to be able to hear the depths in vocal ministry and the writings of other Quakers, and wondering if there might not be a way to reach out to other non-Christian Friends interested in doing the same thing, or maybe to Quakers without regard to their theology who are interested in being in a theologically-mixed group that is trying to do this same thing, either through reading the Bible together, or reading the scripture-saturated (but also sensuously experiential) works of early Friends.
And I've been thinking about the practice of lectio divina--contemplative, even prayerful reading of spiritual material.
That's a practice I've actually had for a very long time, though it has been many years since I've engaged in it regularly as I once did. But I well remember, as a new Pagan, in the two years before I discovered Pagan community to worship with, how I would regularly cast a circle in my bedroom--light the incense, the quarter candles, set up an altar and make an offering to the gods--before settling in with my latest Pagan reading material. This was back in the day when there was no Internet shopping, and, though there was a terrific small bookstore within walking distance of my home, finding out the titles of books that might be worth reading was itself a matter for intense study. So when I put my hands on a book of some value, it was something I knew to be very grateful for; I still remember the reverence with which I cracked the cover of Stewart Farrar's What Witches Do.
I realize the title will not appeal to many Quakers. Nor is it the best possible reading material for Pagans, of whatever tradition, any more. Nonetheless, I find myself remembering everything about those long ago reading-as-ritual sessions: the flickering of the candles, the smell of the incense (pine--still a favorite), and the quiet happiness of touching on Mysteries unfolding and unfolding and unfolding as the pages turned. I loved the peace of those moments, and (the old cliche, but it is still true) the feeling of coming home.
As I say, I've been rethinking this process, as I deepen into Quaker life. One of the things often recommended for a regular spiritual practice and for preparation for meeting for worship is a "time of daily retirement" for reading spiritual material.
Participating in the Quaker blogosphere has become a kind of spiritual practice for me. Contrary to the prevailing image of the Internet as a hasty, addictive world, I'm finding it leading me deeper and deeper into spiritual reflection, on a near-daily basis. I am drawn to Quaker bloggers like Liz Opp, Peggy Senger Parsons, and Robin M., and as I read their words, I find myself drawn deeper into a kind of spiritual reflection... and sometimes, on to another title or another blogger. Some writers speak to my condition immediately and deeply, while others wait their turn--the overt Christianity of Micah Bales' The Lamb's War blog initially put me off, for instance, but I am finding his ability to search and sit with truth and Spirit is calling to me more and more lately. And all of these writers both challenge me to greater integrity, and refresh my spirit when I need that.
Typically, though I have no time to write during the week, I will spend my lunch break skimming over whatever is new in my favorite blogs. This is not an exclusively Quaker pursuit--I never miss a new post at Jason Pitzl-Waters' The Wild Hunt, for instance--nor is it always fruitful; even the best bloggers have off days and ordinary entries. But often, in the middle of the harried day of a high school teacher, I find an encounter with a spiritual writer that causes me to pause and remember--oh, yeah! There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong... As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other...
And my heart grows more quiet and gentler within me. I become more open to the Light that owns my soul, and that's a good thing, in the middle of a day of hard work.
So, the concept of lectio divina is one that speaks to me, and seems important to me. But, perhaps because I am such a lover of good books, I am realizing how, for me, it is not avowedly spiritual reading material alone that can bring me to that good place, but that, very often, it is a work of fiction that can have that power to scour away my bitterness and cynicism, and open me up to God.
This morning, I have been trying to feed my hunger for a "time of retirement" for slow, spiritually-sounded reading. I've got quite a stack of books I've latched onto recently for that purpose: Bownas' A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, and a book on Quaker Bible reading which I'm gradually making my way through, Michael Birkel's Engaging Scripture: Reading the Bible with Early Friends. On the Pagan side of the bookshelf, I've set aside copies of Diana Paxon's Trance-Portation and Brendan Myers' The Other Side of Virtue. And I have been reading, a bit at a time, from all of these books over the course of the winter. (Birkel has been especially helpful for me.)
Still, after picking up and putting down one or another of these titles this morning, I realized that what I really was longing to read was Wally Lamb's latest novel, The Hour I First Believed. I yielded to that longing, and I think I rediscovered something very important to the place that reading plays in my spiritual life.
Wally Lamb's previous novel, I Know This Much is True is one of a handful of novels that do such a good job depicting the Truth of human experience, including the ugly and terrible alongside the loving and good, that they wind up being a kind of affirmation of God. (Michael Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, and Sarah Stone's The True Sources of the Nile are three other books that do much the same thing.) Lamb has such a talent for telling the truth about who humans are and how we fail one another, and how we still haltingly, hesitantly, try to do better, that his characters have the ability to crack the hard shell around my heart wide open. My compassion for his characters--not a cheap bathos or sympathy, for his characters are far too real for that--teaches me compassion and deep listening in the world beyond the covers of his books. His novels open me up to God, and I am better for reading them.
I think this may say something about the inherent value of telling a truth fully, richly, and unflinchingly.
So, though I am still intrigued by the notion of doing explicitly spiritual reading with a community of other readers, I think I'm going to try to remember that, for me, at least, reading certain masterful works of fiction can also be a sacred study for me. Not because Wally Lamb and others like him have mastered great secrets of religion or philosophy, but because, like me when I am at my best, they are willing to sit with the ambiguity and pain of the questions at the heart of human experience, their books are, for me, great spiritual teachers.
Novels as lectio divina. It may not be a universally valuable practice, but I think I'm willing to name it as one of my own.