St. Benedict reading a bookBooks can be holy objects, and reading is a spiritual discipline. I thought I would here present some thoughts from the Christian ascetic and monastic tradition on books and reading.

1. Antony was so attentive at the reading of the Scripture lessons that nothing escaped him: he retained everything and so his memory served him in place of books. (Life of Antony)

2. The books read at vigils should have divine authority: the Old and New Testaments and explanations of them given by recognized and orthodox fathers. (Rule of St. Benedict)

3. During Lent, they should each receive a book from the library that they are to read straight through to the end. (Rule of St. Benedict)

4. On Sundays, all should devote themselves to reading, except those who are assigned to special duties. (Rule of St. Benedict)

5. Reading is bound to silence. … Constant and attentive reading done devoutly purifies our inner self. (Peter of Celle, The School of the Cloister)

6. I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, an instrument of torture without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without ventilation, a ditch swarming with worms, a strangling noose, the empty house of which the Gospel speaks. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

7. Reading is the food, light, lamp, refuge, solace of the soul, the spice of all spiritual flavors. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

and finally…

8. Study is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of it. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. There is always something so much more important to do than reading. There is always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights now or yet or ever. (Sister Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict)

crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.


I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

evagrius.gif A few words of wisdom from the Desert Father Evagrius before hitting the sack:

Evagrius said, “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody and long-suffering and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run” (Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, 93).

stjohnchrysostom.jpgNothing makes one so dizzy as human reasoning, which sees everything from an earthly point of view, and does not allow illumination from above. Earthly reasoning is covered with mud. Therefore, we have need of streams from above, so that, when the mud has fallen away, whatever part of the reason is pure may be carried on high and may be thoroughly imbued with the lessons taught there. This takes place when we manifest both a well-disposed soul and an upright life.

St. John Chrysostom
Homily 24 (John 2:23-3:4), A.D. 390

Medieval ScrollI am often asked how I read Scripture, what my guiding principle is. The most recent occasion was one Sunday afternoon after I delivered this message to a church in Massachusetts. I usually kind of stumble over the question, because I haven’t actually given much thought to it, and because I know that my approach to reading Scripture is not at all consistent. Sometimes I read it “academically,” sometimes devotionally, sometimes homiletically, sometimes as lectio, and so on. But I’ve been thinking about it since Sunday for some reason, mostly because the gist of the question I was asked was along the lines of “is there any difference between reading the Bible as an academic in the field of religion and the Bible and the way you read it when you’re working on a sermon?”

After reflecting on the question for a few weeks now, I still don’t really have a good answer, but in trying to come up with one I’ve been able to give some some serious self-examination on it. This is still pretty much all off the cuff.

I think that what it comes down to is that many, many people think that we all read in just one way, and that this way is the way we all read. That way, of course, is to read to gather “information.” But the problem is that we simply can’t read everything that way with any production, and in fact we don’t; most of us do not read novels the way we read a newspaper or an encyclopedia entry, or a self-help book, or a technical manual. When we read for “information” we have no investment in the material itself. There’s no spiritual investment, and no emotional investment, and perhaps not even any physical or material investment, given the preference that most seem to have for electronic and virtual media for informational reading.

Because of this, people are under the impression that information and data and facts is all that reading counts for. But not every book is an encyclopedia of information, and this is especially so with sacred works and scriptures. We can’t read the Bible like an encyclopedia all the time, although of course we might have reason to do that for various purposes (like Bible classes or church indoctrinations, and so forth). But even in these environments, reading the Bible only in the way we would read an encyclopedia article really is to distort and misread it, because it overemphasizes the literalness of the ipsissima verba, the actual words on the page, at the expense of the vox or “voice” of the text that is only revealed through a different kind of reading.

This kind of reading is poetic and metaphoric. In order to get to what the Bible says in any given passage, we need to read it as if we’re reading poetry. We have to be able to hear its voice and not simply see its words. Realizing that Jesus’ parables are metaphors that draw from the stock of the real life of a first century agricultural society dominated by imperial forces in both local and regional governance opens up his parables in ways that “informational” and “factual” readings cannot. Realizing that the Revelation’s descriptions of armies of locusts are neither literal nor analogical (meaning they’re not real armored bugs or John’s misunderstandings of what tanks look like) but a metaphorical, poetic stock description of massively sized destructive armies that comes from the Hebrew Bible frees us from wooden and deterministic readings of the text.

So the way I read the Bible, and other scriptures like the Qur’an, the Mishnah, the Vedas, Avesta, and whatever else, is mostly a poetic reading. Whatever “information” these texts contain is largely incidental. The ancient writers and compilers of Scriptures did not focus on our modern ways of persuasion by information, facts, and data, and while this type of rhetorical persuasion is probably the dominant strategy of authors today, we can’t expect their ancient counterparts to have cared about the same.

Album art of The Beatles’ Hey JudeHey, Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better.

Ahhh…probably my favorite Beatles song, and actually one of my favorite of all the New Testament texts. In the comments to a post some time ago, a loyal reader and visitor to the Aedificium (alas, may peace be upon his blog) noted to me his appreciation for interpretive posts here that “get below the surface and to a deeper place.” And so, in the spirit of Lennon and McCartney, I thought I would toss up some thoughts here that try to get under the skin of one of the least known texts in the entire Christian canon to begin to make better an appreciation of it. Which is really just a way of saying “here are some of my notes and thoughts from Sunday morning’s Bible study that I was conscripted into leading at the last possible minute.”

(N.B.: If you’ve arrived at this blog looking for the sensational live concert video of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” welcome. I won’t keep you from your true objective! You’ll find the Youtube video of the performance at the bottom of this post.)

One question I am regularly asked is “How come some books are in the Bible when nobody even knows what they say, let alone actually sit and read them? How come hardly anyone ever preaches from Leviticus or Obadiah or Jude?” Indeed! While I have occasionally heard a sermon or two from Leviticus, I can’t say that I have ever, in any church or denomination I have ever been in, heard one from Jude. I have never even been part of a Bible study or Sunday School class that focused on Jude. Even in college and university textbook surveys of the Bible or the New Testament, Jude is usually lumped in with the Peter letters at best and sometimes just in the “general letters” category. So, when on Friday evening at a social function a member of our Sunday morning study group wanted to do a few short studies for the last several weeks of the Sunday “Academic Year,” I suggested that we focus on some short prophetic books or NT Letters that no one ever reads that we could maybe bang out in a week or two for each book. Enter Jude.

Hey, Jude! Don’t let her down
You have found her, now go and get her
Remember, to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better.

Yeah, baby. So anyway, two questions: Why is it Scripture if no one reads it or, if people do read it, uses it? and Why don’t people read it or use it? It’s certainly short enough; Philemon gets read and preached from and studies, so how come poor Jude gets the short end of the stick?

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that at one point in time, Jude enjoyed enough currency among its 2nd Temple Jewish-Christian recipients that the letter circulated among other Jewish-Christian congregations in the eastern Mediterranean. But as these congregations were gradually “replaced” by Byzantine and/or Roman and/or Alexandrian and/or more “eastern” versions of Christianity (like Manichaean or Syriac or Mandaean) the book’s extensive imagery from the 2nd Temple Jewish period was simply not understood anymore. Despite having been admitted to the canon of Christian Scripture in the Eastern and Western churches, once the terrific images of Jude were no longer understood, the book was effectively lost. But, as Lennon and McCartney note, I think we can find Jude again and we can go and get it, and let it into our hearts.

So what’s going on here? The book, as I see it, depends on a thorough realization that it is very much a Jewish text with fairly minimal gentile Christian overlay. It won’t do to try to shoehorn standard Christian interpretations of all the explicitly Jewish imagery; 1500 years of trying to do exactly this has turned the book into a “sad song” waiting to be made better again. In fact, some of the earliest manuscript traditions even bear witness to attempts to make it more conforming to what would eventually become orthodox Christology by changing the word for Lord in vs. 5 to Jesus himself, effectively making it absolutely clear, at least to those who followed these variants, that Jesus himself led Israel out of Egypt, not Yhwh elohim. Be that as it may, the appeal to the Exodus as God’s/Jesus’ act of salvation for the people “Israel” (a contested identity by the second century, and perhaps reflected here in Jude) out of bondage in Egypt is not the only, or even the primary, Jewish allusion in the book. Ergo, a “cheat sheet” of how a 2nd Temple Jewish-Christian community might have received this letter.

  • The image of “Cain.” Christians have long interpreted Cain as the archetype for murder and violence, and academics have added their two cents to this interpretation by pointing out that murder and violence in urban, domesticated settings is represented by Cain in Genesis 4. But, Jewish interpreters of Cain in the 2nd Temple period, such as Philo and Josephus (as well as the Rabbis in the classical rabbinic period), understood Cain less as an archetypal murderer and symbol for urban violence (though he was that) and more as the quintessential example of defiance to God’s authority, disobedience, and envy. Although this particular understanding of the Cainite semiotic gave way to the Christian one fairly early on, the author of Jude could no doubt have counted on his Jewish recipients to know what he meant.
  • Jude is mostly concerned about infiltrators to his community of Christians that have dared to “deny the Master,” as he puts it in verse 4. It so happens that in Jewish tradition, denial of the authority of God or his representatives is one of the gravest sins that a community or an individual can participate in. Jude uses a bunch of the most common Jewish examples of this, taken from the Old Testament and from more legendary embellishments of the canonical stories: 1) The “angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling” – v. 6. Has nothing to do with the fall of Satan. (Sorry, John Milton.) But it does have to do with the legend of the sons of God leaving their heavenly abode to fool around with the daughters of men, whom they apparently found more attractive and interesting than heavenly counterparts, in Genesis 6. This story has had a very long shelf life in the legends and tales of the Jewish people, and part of this cycle is preserved in the book of 1 Enoch, which was apparently dear to Jude’s heart. Result of this denial of God’s appointed place for these Jewish Titans: chained up in the deepest darkness for eventual judgment on “the day.” 2) Jude appeals to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Christian interpretation has long understood this verse to be talking about any number of sexual sins. But this is, again, only incidental to the story, according to Jewish interpreters of the age. Instead, the bigger problem is that the men of Sodom have insulted God’s honor by lusting after other flesh, specifically that of God’s angels. Result of this offense? Well, you know the story. And so did Jude’s addressees. 3) Michael’s disputation with the devil, in vs. 8, refers to an old Jewish apocryphal story about how the devil slanders Moses as a murderer and tells off God, via Michael, for even suggesting that Moses should be given a proper burial. Michael, though, refuses to treat with the devil and tells him to get lost. The point here is that not even an archangel will dare to take God’s place as judge; I think Jude is warning his community not to usurp the role of God even with the intruders they are dealing with, lest they incur God’s wrath like Korah did, like Cain did, and like Balaam did.
  • The stories of Korah and Balaam are, of course, in the Bible. Korah meets an untimely end for trying to upstage Moses and Aaron and claim God’s authority for himself, and ends up being eaten by the earth itself. Balaam is executed by Israel for attempting to induce Israel to idolatry, which is traditionally understood in Jewish metaphor in terms of sexual sins and infidelity to the Lord. Again, Jude is telling his audience not to treat with those who have infiltrated their community; they will meet their end soon enough.
  • The quotation from 1 Enoch in vs. 14-15. Here we have a fascinating situation where a non-canonical book is quoted in a canonical book, thus becoming scripture to future readers. The verse in Jude, quoted from 1 Enoch 1.9, reinforces Jude’s point with an apparently scriptural proof-text that God will come with his holy ones to judge and convict the folks who are getting under the skin of Jude and Jude’s community as “grumblers and malcontents” who indulge in “their own lusts” (whatever they are) and who are “bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage” (Jude 16).

So the bulk of the letter, as well as its entire rhetorical argument from vv. 5-16, is absolutely dependent on its audience knowing not only the particular stories from Hebrew scripture but also how these stories were used and interpreted by 2nd Temple Jewish communities who have adopted Jesus as their expected Messiah. The end of the letter reflects more-or-less standard Messianic expectations of the 2nd Temple Period, which is a bit surprising considering the community’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah. But it is entirely consistent with the expectation of the Messiah’s return in the Gospels, in Paul, and in the Book of Revelation. Jude adopts the eschatology of the apocalyptic literature of the Jewish tradition and reinscribes it with the expectation of the return of Jesus during the “end” or “last time.” He interprets the presence of the intruders of v. 4 as proof of the inevitable fulfillment of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ who predicted that these folks would show up during the “last time.” But instead of usurping God’s prerogative to judge these “scoffers” and “worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (v. 19), which Jude had just spent some 10 verses warning against, he admonishes his community to simply hold each other up in prayer and in the love of God and to “have mercy on those who are wavering” and save whomever they can.

So what is the deal here? Can we read this today with profit? Of course we can. The issues Jude faced then are issues we face now, whether we try to force a gentile Christian interpretation on the letter or whether we let its authentic Jewish-Christian voice speak to us. I’m particularly smitten with the description of those in Jude’s community who are “grumblers and malcontents” and “bombastic in speech” who “flatter people for their own advantage.” I don’t care what church you’re involved in. This could have been written Sunday after the service, and it certainly could be written of so many religious figures who promote malcontent and who are bombastic in speech in their pontificating about the moral state of the world, the failures of the family and loss of “family values” and the necessity of preemptive war or the foolishness of global warming and environmental crises. Even for those of us who reject the bombastic foolishness of the rhetoric of these folks, Jude warns us not to take matters of judgment in our own hands. In an age where the very earth threatens to swallow us up today, as it did to Korah, this seems like eminently sensible advice.

Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

If you’ve slogged through this entire post, reward yourself by clicking on the fabulous performance below.


bear-mountain.jpgHi folks, we’re taking off for the Berkshires and Bear Mountain for the rest of the week. Won’t be blogging until probably Sunday night at the earliest. Looking forward to some much needed R+R.

In the meantime, I leave you to ruminate with Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet:

And the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.

And he answered, saying:

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite. Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody. But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force unconfining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction. Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing; And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

I would have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house. Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.

Among the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows – then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.” And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky, – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.” And since you are a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

“See” you next week.

wine-cheese.jpgSome Lenten thoughts from St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Love is an affection of the soul, not a contract. Moving us freely, it makes us spontaneous. … It is stupidity and madness to want always that which can neither satisfy nor even diminish your desire. … The Just are feasting and rejoicing in the sight of God, delighting in their gladness. Here is fullness without disgust; here is insatiable curiosity without restlessness; here is that eternal, inexplicable desire knowing no want. At last, here is that sober intoxication of truth, not from overdrinking, not reeking with wine, but burning for God.”

Desire is powerful stuff. In Psalm 63, David likens his desire for the presence of God to his experience in the wilderness while he was on the run as a fugitive from King Saul; longing for the dawn, absolutely parched with thirst in a dry, sleepless land. The kind of thirst where it is all one can think about, where your entire body cries out for a drop of water.

In Isaiah 55, the writer seeks to awaken the desire of the Exiles in Babylon to turn around and walk away from their live by appealing to physical needs and desires that can be satisfied; a banquet invitation, with sumptuous wine, fresh milk, and the satisfaction of bread. The chapter, as is virtually all of the second scroll of Isaiah, is an ode to joy, the joy of being offered the chance to be redeemed.

But there is no compulsion; as the Qur’an reminds us, “There is no compulsion in religion.” And neither is there in these texts; rather, the writers seek to awaken desire to turn by likening it to the desires of the body, for food, wine, milk, music, quiet rest, the company of others, and, as in the Song of Songs, in sexual ecstasy. Isaiah loves to remind us that this is a new thing he is doing; unlike with Egypt, which was absolutely a compulsion, God’s new act is not at all forced; and our writers know that many will ignore the new thing unless it stirs desire.desire-1.jpg

Is our desire strong enough to allow Yhwh to do a new thing? Is it strong enough to live a perpetual Lent, where the call to repentence is as strong as our bodily desires for satisfying hunger, slaking thirst, and consummating sexuality?

Let us Bless the Lord.

Sister in Lectio DivinaThe ancient reading technique of lectio divina involves reading slowly, in such a way that fosters reflection and contemplation over the content read. It is typical in lectio to read only very small amounts of a text at a time so as to allow the mind to digest and the spirit to absorb. At the heart of this reading was ruminatio, or “rumination;” today, we use this word to mean a way of giving voice to something we’re thinking about (which, come to think of it, seems to be a good definition of “blogging,” at least on this site…). But it was more than that; to “ruminate” in a true spiritual sense is literally to chew on something, to allow the food and all its flavor, juices, and nutrients to be completely chewed up over a long period of chewing in the mouth. When it comes to reading sacred books, be it the Torah, the Tanakh, the New Testament, the Talmuds, the Qur’an, or exhaustive mystical and spiritual traditions of all three of the Abrahamic sibling faiths (or, for that matter the holy books of many others) in all their varieties, rumination remains a powerful metaphor.

So let’s ruminate! Here’s a sampling of things to ruminate on; my selections are not accidental, and will be leading up to something in due course. Chew, chew, chew, and wash them down with the living water of prayer if you need to.

Ezekiel: “Feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll that I give you.” I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me.

John of Patmos: I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

Talmud Yerushalmi: As the child must satisfy its hunger day by day, so must the grown man busy himself with the Torah.

Talmud Bavli: The words of Torah shall be sharp in your mouth.

Ephrem the Syrian: If there existed only a single sense of the words of Scripture, then the first commentator who came along would discover it, and other hearers would experience neither the labor of searching, nor the joy of finding.

Jane Hirshfield: Let her have time, and silence, / enough paper to make mistakes and go on.

Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B.: It was a presence, not faith, which drew Moses to the burning bush. And what happened there was a Revelation, not a seminar.

Kathleen Norris: Revelation is not explanation.

The Qur’an: In this way God makes His revelations clear to you, so that you may grow in understanding.

Czeslaw Milosz: I have lived in apocalyptic times, in an apocalyptic century… My work to a large extent belongs to that stream of catastrophist literature that attempts to overcome despair.

Take, eat…