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  • Sinking Thinking: Do You Meditate?

    Do you meditate? If I had asked you “Do you read?”, after clarifying that it wasn’t a sarcastic question like “Can’t you read?”, you surely would have answered in the affirmative. Reading is just a part of life, whether that’s reading this email, a text message, a speed limit sign, or, most importantly, God’s Word. 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. But for reading that is potentially meditative, Christians have for centuries recognized the possibility of separating reading and meditation. And as we all know by experience, reading is far easier and all too easily passive. How many emails do we read daily and barely remember by end of day what we read? 

    It was not always this way. Before there was 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 (cf Confessions). 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.”

    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.” 

    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.”

    “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.” This kind of reading is wholistic, enlisting not only more body organs and senses, but even more of the brain.

    As Ian McGilchrist has masterfully 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.

    “Meditation is the good of your souls, it is the very stomach and natural heat whereby spiritual truths are digested. A man shall as soon live without his heart, as he shall be able to get good by what he reads, without meditation…It is not he that reads most; but he that meditates most, that will prove the choicest, sweetest, wisest, and strongest Christian.” (Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices)

    Or as Eugene Peterson put it in Eat This Book, “Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul, eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.”

    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 might be better convey 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 suggestions.

    First, follow the advice from The Book of Prayer and Meditation by Luis de Granada, a 16th century Dominican friar:

    “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.”

    In other words, beware of the tendency to read at the expense of prayer and meditation.

    Second, use a simple aid to meditation, such as writing or reading out loud:

    1. Copy a sentence or two in your journal. For extra credit, try writing it with your non-dominant hand.

    2. Read the portion for meditation out loud, slowly, tracing the text with your finger.

    3. Commit a portion of what you read to memory.

    Third, whether silently, vocally, or by writing, reflect so as to engage your affections/emotions. Puritan Isaac Ambrose used this outline for affective, meditative engagement:

    1. A relish of what we have meditated on.

    2. A complaint, bewailing our wants [needs] of this relish.

    3. A wish of the soul for what it complaineth to want [need].

    4. A confession of our inabilities, to effect what we wish.

    5. A petition for the supply of our inabilities.

    6. A confidence of obtaining what we petition for.

    7. A thanksgiving.

    8. A recommendation of our souls and ways to God.

    Obviously, this kind of reading, prayer, and meditative reflection takes time. “This means that God’s people must slow their pace and have time to allow God’s truth to sink into their thinking” (David Saxton, God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation). But the benefits of meditation are surely worth the cost of time and effort.

    “Food kept cold in the refrigerator, cooking in the oven, or attractively placed on the dining table will not supply energy to our bodies unless we actually eat, chew, and digest it so that it passes into our bodies. As we have seen, meditation is like the process of digestion, for by it we take divine food into our souls…If we do not digest our food properly, we get indigestion, and we also lose the potential energy from the food.” (Peter Toon, From Mind to Heart: Christian Meditation Today)

    Toon, being Anglican, includes a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer which is a fitting close to this reflection:

    Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.