Language is one of the things that makes human beings human. Science has shown that the acquisition of language shapes the development of the early brain. Basically, our thoughts are shaped by language – the way we think is shaped by the words we learn and use.
For most spiritual traditions, there are sacred texts – texts which tell stories, proscribe behavior, and explain philosophy and theology. For some traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these texts are central to belief and practice. On the other hand, many Buddhists have a devoted practice without ever having read the Dhammapada (I didn’t read it until more than 15 years into my own practice.)
Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the theology of the Bal Shem Tov which describes one thread of Jewish philosophy of sacred text:
When God created heaven and earth He created also a light, the infinite light, the marvelous light that is absolute, ever warming, penetrating, eternal. But because of the failure of creation and the decline of goodness in the world, God hid that eternal light. Where did He hide it? He hid it in the words of the Torah.
But then there are the modern complexities around sacred text in a Christian context. Peter Gomes says in his wonderful book “The Good Book”:
What can be believed about the Bible? What do we need to know about the Bible? Can the Bible survive the efforts to interpret and understand it? Can we? Is it wrong to ask critical questions of the Bible? How do we reconcile the parts we understand and perhaps dislike, with the parts we do not understand but which may be salutary? When we speak of the authority of scripture, as certain Protestant traditions delight in doing, does that mean that we suspend all of those faculties of mind and intelligence which we apply to all other books and all other instances of our life?
For many, including me, sacred texts contain important wisdom. But there are also pitfalls. This post is not about the problems of literal interpretations of scripture – its about how to use sacred text in a life of contemplative practice. Sacred text, in fact, words of all sorts, are great fodder for contemplative practice. One of my favorite practices is called “Lectio Divina”, which translates as “Divine Reading.” It is a practice that allows you to get into the words in a much more personal way – to visit and embrace your feelings and thoughts about a particular text. This practice lets the text sink in in a very different way, and gives rise to very interesting and unexpected ways of interpreting a text.
I love teaching this practice, and using different kinds of text. For instance, I taught this once to a group of Buddhists, using the Dhammapada. I’ve taught this practice using Rumi and Hafiz (Sufi poets,) as well as more modern poets. A friend of mine and I even used prose by James Baldwin once. It’s all good, as they say.
What’s important about this practice is to reserve judgement about the feelings and thoughts that come up when you do it. Sometimes, I have used passages I really don’t like – and it has felt hard to reserve judgement about the fact I don’t like those passages. But looking at the feelings that come up, examining them is really powerful, and in my experience, helps me understand any text a lot better.
This can be done alone, or in a group. Start with a passage that is relatively short. A paragraph or about 5 verses of the Bible or other sacred text that is verse based.
Lectio: Read the text, slowly and with deliberation. When you are done. Say aloud one word that jumped out at you while you were reading.
(If you are in a group, leave room for everyone to say their word, and then pass the book to the next person to read.)
Meditatio: Read the text again, and say aloud a thought (one or two sentences) that come to mind as you reflect on that word you said first.
Oratio: Read the text again, and say aloud a prayer (a few sentences) that come to you.
Contemplatio: Read again, and sit in silence letting the text sink in for about 2 minutes.