I mentioned in my last post that 2021 is going to be about delight. A big part of this includes resurrecting this blog for the purpose and practice of delight.
I’m serious about this. So serious, in fact, I’ve decided to dedicate the next thirteen weeks of the blog’s content to material I’m currently co-teaching in a Sunday School class at my church. No, not the five year old’s, though that could be fun. We will be spending some time “getting our hands dirty,” so to speak. But, I promise, it’s an adult class.
The subject matter? Beauty.
Welcome! Consider yourself a member. And please don’t tap out if you’re reluctant to the Christian faith, or a skeptic, or a non-believer completely. Beauty is our common tongue. We were all made for it: to recognize it, delight in it, and cultivate it in and through our daily living.
We had our first class last week, Sunday, Jan 3rd. Near the end of class I introduced a concept I termed Imaginative Prayer. It is a beautiful practice for reading and meditating deeply on any Scriptural text. It finds its roots in the medieval monastic culture. I found the name, Imaginative Prayer, in Diana Shifflett’s book, Spiritual Practices in Community. The practice of imaginative prayer as she suggests it is similar to what I am going to discuss here. Shifflett’s practice of imaginative prayer focuses primarily in the outward, sensorial aspect of medieval monastic reading—a rich, and beautiful practice in and of itself. What I am going to share here continues the practice in two more directions: inward and upward. It is a full-fledged physical, emotional, imaginative, and intellectual activity.
My primary resource for the points to follow were gleaned from James Fodor’s essay, “The Beauty of the Word Re-membered, Scripture Reading as a Cognitive/Aesthetic Practice” (161-183), from the book, The Beauty of God. I also studied Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God, as a specific example of the medieval reading practice.
The medieval monastic culture held a hierarchically ordered, multiple sense of Scripture: the literal, allegorical (hidden spiritual meaning), tropological (moral), and anagogical (mystical). Even here, you begin to get a sense of the movement inherent with reading and rereading any text, flowing (or halting as the case may often seem) from the outward (literal) to the interior (allegorical and tropological), and finally the upward (anagogical or mystical).
Also critical to medieval monastic culture was the role of the memory; a decidedly more robust understanding than we have of memory work today. This is not simply the power of recall. Rather memoria denotes the “essential roles of emotion, imagination, and cognition with the activity of recollection.” (Fodor quoting scholar, Mary Carruthers, on the topic) Medieval readers were trained in memoria through a three-part process: lectio: primary reading for sense (employing the five senses); meditatio (or rumination): process of reflection and memory processing—“chewing on the text” or “making it one’s own”—internalizing a text into one’s ethical character; and finally contemplatio: moments of estactic self-loss and spiritual union with God.
In this full sensorial way—engaging the outward senses, then engaging the full interior of the memoria, the monastics awakened the spiritual senses by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit through the Scripture and upward into the heart of God.
Here is an interesting aside. I recently finished listening to Deep Work by Cal Newport. On the surface, Deep Work has nothing to do with delight or beauty or learning to read like a medieval monk. Except, it does. Newport’s argument is that as the economic landscape heads ever deeper into the Information Age, the best opportunities and successes will go to those individuals who can do “deep work.” In other words, those people capable of disconnecting themselves from the tyranny of the urgent (especially the urgent dinging from one’s smartphone) and engage in deep, hard, creative, thought work.
In the second half of the book, Newport gives practical suggestions for training one’s ability to do deep work. One of his pieces of advice is to memorize a deck of cards. He describes how memory champions (did you know there was such a thing as memory championships?) master the art of memorizing. Contrary to popular practice, the brain remembers best not through rote memorization—that horrible method of study employed by students everywhere—but rather spatially. When a memory master works at memorizing a deck of cards, he or she interacts mentally with the cards in multiple ways, engaging multiple senses through a series of imaginative, emotive, and intellectual processes connecting each card with an object or person in a room of his or her home.
What science has now determined is the most effective method for memorizing, medieval monks had figured out long before.
My next post will (hopefully) be some expression of my own practice in Imaginative Prayer, along with concrete suggestions for moving through any deep reading of Scripture in a medieval monastic way.
For now, simply practice reading any passage of Scripture with all your five senses and imagination engaged. Jot down your impressions as you go. It is a beautiful way to spend some time in your day.
Go in delight!