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Do You Meditate?
For most of us, reading is just a part of life. Whether reading this post, a text message, a speed limit sign, or God’s Word, everyday life is facilitated by reading.
But meditation is not so ubiquitous; it’s probably not exaggerating to say that 99% of our reading, as well as 99% of what we read, is not meditative. Much of that is simply natural and necessary. I wouldn’t recommend meditating on a STOP sign unless you are prepared for loud honks and crude gestures. Still, there is an unavoidable gap between reading and meditating; they are distinct activities. And if you’re like me, reading is far easier and all too easily passive.
It was not always this way. Before there was visual reading, the primary way to engage God’s inspired revelation was meditation. Whereas Moses and the priests were commanded to read the law to the people (Ex. 34:3-8; Deut. 31:1-13), Joshua and the Israelites were commanded to meditate on the law:
“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1:8)
The literal sense of this Hebrew word for meditate refers to low sounds such as muttering, mumbling, growling, or moaning. For most of God’s people throughout redemptive history, prior to the era ushered in by the printing press, the intake and pondering of texts was primarily vocal and oral rather than visual and silent. And it remained that way for centuries. Augustine was famously surprised to see his spiritual father Ambrose read silently rather than out loud.1 Roughly 800 years later Hugh of St. Victor, an Augustinian monk, wrote that
“the start of learning, thus, lies in reading, but its consummation lies in meditation.”2
During this period, writes Mary Carruthers and Jan Ziolkowski,
“reading continued commonly to be experienced as reading aloud, so that even thoroughly written, ‘‘literate’’ works were often received aurally. Silent reading, legere tacite, was used for meditation and personal prayer, as it had been since antiquity, though even silent reading often had a kind of voice, being conducted in a murmur, sotto voce.”3
In a fascinating study of the reading habits of Hugh and his contemporaries in the Middle Ages, Ivan Illich gives a comparison between reading in this period and our reading today:
“The modern reader conceives of the page as a plate that inks the mind, and of the mind as a screen onto which the page is projected and from which, at a flip, it can fade. For the monastic reader, whom Hugh addresses [in the Didascalion], reading is a much less phantasmagoric and much more carnal activity: the reader understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing. No wonder the pre-university monasteries are described to us in various sources as the dwelling place of mumblers and munchers.”4
“Mumblers and munchers” captures the literal meaning of “meditate” in Isaiah 31:4 – “As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey”. Why is this important? Illich further explains that “reading is experienced...as a bodily motor activity,” and that “by reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.”5 This kind of reading is wholistic, enlisting not only more body organs and senses, but even more of the brain.
As Ian McGilchrist has demonstrated, our Western culture is thoroughly enmeshed in a lopsided, imbalanced way of living that is predominantly governed by the left-hemisphere of our bilateral brains. This includes the act of reading. Since the direction of our reading (left to right, at least for Germanic and Romance languages) favors the left hemisphere, and since the right hemisphere is more connected to our bodies, reading silently — without using lungs, mouth, tongue, vocal chords, and ears — is primarily a left-hemisphere activity. This helps makes sense, from a neurophysiological perspective, why all the spiritual masters say meditation is absolutely necessary. Reading without meditating does not bring our whole self, our full being, into contact with God and His Word.
Using another bodily metaphor, Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 9:44,
“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”
While for the disciples in that moment this might just mean “listen carefully” (NIV), the Message translation captures the nuance of meditation intended for those who would read and hear Luke’s gospel: “Treasure and ponder each of these next words”.
Words sink into our ears when we treasure and ponder, enjoy and eat, relish and reflect.
Jesus calls his disciples to combat stinking thinking with sinking thinking: thinking that sinks deeper into minds and hearts through meditation.
So try meditating next time you read something worth “treasuring and pondering”, whether in Scripture or an inspiring book. To help, here are a few practical methods.
Copy a sentence or two in your journal. For extra credit, try writing it with your non-dominant hand.
Read the portion for meditation out loud, slowly, tracing the text with your finger.
Commit a portion of what you read to memory.
See additional suggestions here from my series on reading for transformation.
Quote from 16th century Dominican friar Luis de Granada
“Here I must advertise, that the reading be not very long, least it occupy the greatest part of the time, that ought otherwise to be bestowed upon other more principal and necessary exercises. For as St. Augustine says, “It is very good both to read and to pray, if we can do both the one and the other; but in case we cannot perform them both, then prayer is better than reading.” But because in prayer there is sometimes labour, and in reading a facility [i.e. easier], therefore our miserable heart does oftentimes refuse the labor of prayer, and run to the delight of reading, as the same holy Father complaining of himself, says, that sometimes he has done.”6
Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice, by Jessica Hooten Wilson. Haven’t picked this up yet (just released this week), but looks like a great guide to formative reading.
A Christian on the Mount: A Treatise Concerning Meditation, by Thomas Watson. One of many similar Puritan guides to meditation, Watson wrote: “Observe this rule — let reading usher in meditation. Reading without meditation — is unfruitful! Meditation without reading — is dangerous!”
What keeps you from meditating?
Cf Confessions VI.3(3).
Didascalion (London: Aeterna Press), p. 80.
The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), p. 23.
In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary on Hugh’s Didascalion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), p. 54.
Ibid., p. 54.