How to Read Literature Like a Monk

Monastic Monday
Brother Monday’s lectio largely consists of beer labels and TV guides

I mentioned last Monday that I sometimes apply the monastic method of lectio divina (sacred reading) to the first few times I read a poem. Following Parker Palmer’s suggestion that students need contemplative reading practices to balance the institutional leaning toward shallow “speed reading,” Mike Ruso and Paul Corrigan developed a variant of lectio for literature that you can read about here.

With the help of Br. Monday, I want to expand their model a bit and explore today how we can incorporate this practice into our own reading.

For me, having my lectio practices bleed into all of my reading was natural at first. I might not do it with every text, especially not journal articles, but I tend to do it automatically when a poem or novel strikes me. These are those moments when you can’t continue on and you have to set the book down, but you also can’t stop thinking about it.

Read (Lectio)

When lectio was first developing, the act of reading was a more communal event. Perhaps a table reader in the monastery would read during a meal or during set times for lectio divina in the community’s horarium. Even when alone, a reader would tend to say the words out loud. Think of Augustine’s famous experience of Ambrose reading silently.

At this stage, I read the passage or poem out loud too. That way I can enter into the music of the language in a very bodily way. Here it’s important to read slowly, maybe at an unnaturally slow pace. Read through it this way a few times. Give the text more of a chance than our fast-paced 21st century lifestyle usually allows.

Maybe I’ll underline words or phrases that strike me in pencil. I tend to use a pencil in lectio because I feel like the softer and fainter graphite mark imposes less on the text than a pen would. Then in later readings, my past experiences of the text are still present but not in a way as to hinder my current experience.

Reflect (Meditatio)

Now lean back, and maybe even set the book down. Continue letting those words or phrases that stood out to you run through your mind. Maybe glance back at the parts that you underlined. Don’t worry about finding any grand statement of meaning or dissecting the text. This isn’t the time for the critic’s scalpel.

Why did those words strike you? What do they remind you of? How do those memories affect your relationship with the text?

Respond (Oratio)

Russo and Corrigan don’t include this stage in their model, and I can see how it doesn’t seem to fit in the way we read literature. But I think oratio is a central part of any form of lectio and the only possible bridge between reflecting on the text and then resting in the text.

After reading the text slowly and reflecting on its implications for us, comes the moment when we enter into dialogue with the text. Respond to the text. What feelings does it bring up? What thought processes does it make easier? Where do you struggle with it?

This could be a time to start freewriting about the text and not worry about what comes out.

If you’ve ever written a poem or short story or anything creative that was inspired by something you’ve read, then you’ve experienced this stage. That was your delayed oratio to the text. The longer the delay, the more you can’t shake the text, the deeper the dialogue goes.

Rest (Contemplatio)

What I consider the primary mark of literature as literature is that it leads to this stage. Unless you’re Br. Monday, you look at the TV guide for your next program (he’s a fan of Passions) and then set it aside without any real change. You could take a look at the guide again and become swept up in the real human mystery of its writer, which is embedded in every thing written by a person, but the structure of the text doesn’t require that of you.

But with a great novel, you just can’t go on afterwards. You have to sit with it. You’re even done actively thinking about it. The plot, the characters, the little linguistic tics of the writer, all of it is present to you in a way that defies articulation but can’t be shaken off.

That’s contemplation. That’s when you’ve entered into a relationship with the text and its author. Analogous to the monastic practice this stage is based on, this moment is received from the text and is not accomplished by the reader like the first three stages. Every relationship has two sides.

In lectio, it’s important that we receive from the text. That’s what separates it from academic reading practices like index hunting. We’re reading to be changed by the text, not to use it for the next thing we’re writing.

Write

Here, we write down those lines that affected us most. This last stage can really be done at any point in the process. Sometimes it will be part of the lectio, and at other times it will be the primary way that you enter into dialogue with the text. Do it slowly by hand, with the same rhythm of your original lectio. Maybe have a special journal set aside just for this practice. Keep writing down the moments in poems and stories that strike you and over time you’ll build your own florilegium or bouquet of words.

Remember lectio is originally a communal event, so let everyone know in the comments something from your own florilegium.

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