Reading, Silence, Inner Solitude and Recollection

Spiritual reading is not like ordinary reading. There’s no skimming & skipping, picking-out interesting bits & leaving the rest, reading the end or middle first before we even begin. Spiritual reading asks us to slow down, to chew over the words and brood on them. It means letting a particular word or phrase hit home, puzzle, delight or repel us. Often we might find in Scripture something we can’t take – we need to stay with it, let it work on us, turn it into prayer. Or we find something that lights us up, leads into thanks or praise, or brings a new understanding. We let the reading read us, show us things about us.

Sometimes it helps to read aloud, so that all of ourselves is involved – our body is engaged, we hear the words as well as register them with our minds.

Reading in this way allows less room for our preoccupations and distractions. We’re trying to give our whole attention to the words and through them to the Person who communicates himself through them. Doing this produces a level of silence in us, for our internal chatter quietens down. And the more we do it the more the words become imprinted on our memory. They become part of our mental furniture, so that if we’re searching for the “right words” it will be a phrase of Scripture that comes to mind or instead of a familiar tune playing in our heads it will be such a phrase. Reading like this stills us, it draws in our scattered attention, producing a listening silence.

This kind of silence from the clamour of our own preoccupations, inner chat and day-dreams is helped by external silence but isn’t identifiable with it. We can be in exterior silence and still be full of inner noise. We avoid facing ourselves and the love of God for our messy and imperfect selves, by wool-gathering, by walking down memory lane, by rehearsing what we did, should have, or will say in any particular situation. We avoid the emptiness (and the presence within that emptiness) of the present moment. We prefer to be anywhere but NOW and so run from the God who is the eternal present. Within the legitimate demands of our different work and duties we need to forego unnecessary thinking and let our minds and thoughts be gathered into the one place and one moment. We need, that is, to practise mindfulness or recollection.

Mindfulness and recollection both have the idea of our attention being gathered in – I am mindful of who I am, where I am and in whose presence I am. I have collected my scattered thoughts and feelings so that all my attention is gathered together for this moment. Both words suggest memory, too – my memory is not preoccupied with past or present.  

It helps to have times of external silence and routine jobs where we can practise this kind of silence in the present moment. Like any kind of prayer we need to start somewhere. Combining prayerful reading (lectio) and this daily period of routine is a good way to try to begin.

Linking silence and solitude with reading helps us to see that silence isn’t empty & passive but alert and active. We are silent to ourselves so that we can attend to the reality of God in faith. Paradoxically, this usually reveals more of ourselves to ourselves than any kind of self-scrutiny – in the silence many hidden aspects of ourselves are exposed but we know God exposes them because he is able to heal and redeem whatever we have hidden.

A simple method of lectio

  • Choose a brief passage but not simply from your favourite bits.
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart and mind to hear what he is saying.
  • Read the passage 2 or 3 times, slowly and if possible aloud, without attempting to think about its meaning.
  • If any word or phrase has struck you, go back to it and give it your attention. Otherwise re-read the passage slowly; when something strikes you stop and give it your attention. 
  • Stay with your word or phrase for as long as it occupies you, then turn it into a simple prayer.

(Note: the Universalis website and apps provide a daily Lectio Divina)

By Heather Ward Nottingham group