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Archive for February 15th, 2015

imageReading Aloud:  Not Just for Little Kids Anymore

It can be a stretch to pay attention at morning prayer, but concentration can yield dividends now and again.  So it was last month when, in my early-morning fog, I distinctly heard the prayer leader ask God to assist “women-bearing children.”  What?!  What’s that about?  Then I realized that he meant “women bearing children.”  What a difference a hyphen and a slight inflection of the voice can make.

An instance like that isn’t all that rare, and one of the treats of Advent for a few of us is the prayer that opens with “Shirley, you are not far from us.”  Of course the reader means us to hear something with an alternate spelling, and minus the comma.  But I no longer care what the reader intends us to hear.  I hear “Shirley,” and I look forward to Shirley showing up every Advent.

I bring this up because monasteries are among the last bastians of public reading in the western world.  Once upon a time, in the  neolithic era before radio, it was common for families to gather together as someone read.  A few parents still read to young children, and they do so not just for education’s sake.  In contrast to the screaming inanity on television, there’s something warm and endearing about the human voice reading a story.  And there’s the unexpected benefit that prompted medieval monks to read aloud, even when they read alone.  Seeing the words on the page, forming the words on their lips, and hearing the words with their ears, they become one with the words they read.  The words pass via the senses, through the brain and into the soul.  This was how monks “chewed” on the word of God, and it also explains why they remembered so much of the Bible, effortlessly.image

That said, not all readers are created equal, and Saint Benedict cautioned that not just anybody should pick up the book and read to the brothers. Then, as now, there are some monks who struggle through public reading.  There’s also the occasional monk who emotes just a little too much for some people’s tastes.  Still others have been known to read in accents that are foreign both to these shores and to their own up-bringing.  And then there are those who just can’t resist a little editorial inflection.  It’s every monk’s temptation to read the chapter-heading from Benedict’s Rule that goes: “What kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  In pretended innocence it comes out “what kind of man the abbot ought to be.”  But the reader fools no one.

Every now and again you have the combination of a good reader and a great text that leaves monks wanting for more.  That happened these past few days as we marched through the Book of Esther at morning prayer.  For those who don’t know that story, Esther is not one of those pious bits of the Bible that lets a monk drift back to sleep.  No, this is high drama, involving King Artaxerxes, his close advisor Haman, a Jew named Mordecai, and the latter’s adopted daughter, Esther.

imageThis is a story of vengeance, love, palace intrigue and all the other stuff that makes for a great movie.  But this had to be a miniseries, spread over the course of a week.  Ask any monk and he’ll tell you that it’s not the morning reading that keeps him coming back for more.  But in the case of Esther, the deft editorial eye of the arranger left us hanging each day, and not a few kept coming back just to hear the next installment.

On day one Mordecai introduces Esther to Artaxerxes, who’s doing a national search to expand his harem to provide greater variety.  But Esther so enchants the king that he gives her the queen’s crown.  You know immediately that this story has legs, because the Bible doesn’t do Cinderella stories.  It’s never a matter of living happily ever after, because there’s always bad things coming down the pike.

In the next installment Haman concocts a plan to exterminate all the Jews in the empire.  And for the sheer pleasure of it, he’s built a scaffold in the courtyard of his home.  That’s reserved for Mordecai, of course.

imageI certainly would not want to betray the surprise ending, and I’ll leave it to you to guess how Queen Esther’s dinner party ends.  Her only guests are the king and his minister Haman.  The evening so pleases the king that he offers Esther whatever she might wish.  Needless to say, she doesn’t ask for that pearl necklace she’d seen in the shop window earlier in the day.  No, these people play for keeps, and no one wants to see a nice scaffold go to waste.

There’s much more to the story, and the successive readings created a dramatic tension that left us wanting more.  Strangely, even though all of us had heard the Book of Esther many times, we wanted to hear it again — like children who beg to hear their favorite story.

I’m not sure what the take-away is from this, but there’s two lessons I would draw.  First, the Bible warrants reading and rereading, and reading yet again.  There’s so many passages that bear a reread, and they nourish us with new insights every time.

imageA second suggestion has to do with Lent, which begins in two days.  If you want a taste of a bygone experience that monks still practice, read from the Bible each day of Lent.  Select a chapter each day, and read it in a soft but audible voice.  Let your eyes see the words on the page; let your lips translate the words into sound; and let your ears carry the sound to your inner soul.  In doing so you crowd out the noise from the world, even as  you and the words become one.

This may feel a little goofy at first, but  you’ll get over it soon enough.  In the process you’ll discover why our ancesters enjoyed it and why little kids love it so much.   You’ll also discover that this kind of reading isn’t just for little kids.  And in these days of Lent you may even discover the Lord speaking to you in ways you scarcely imagined.

Notes

+Occasionally I have the opportunity to contribute a piece of my writing to venues other than this blog.  Wonders in Our Native Place appeared in the February 2015 issue of Give Us This Day, published by The Liturgical Press.  It’s a reflection on Mark 6: 1-6.

image+I don’t often have the occasion to attend a baptism, but on February 13th I took pictures for Tim and Emily Enright, as my confrere Fr. Don Talafous baptised their daughter.  Tim is an alumnus of Saint John’s University;  he and Emily were married in the abbey church;  and his father’s funeral was in the abbey church.  Tim and his family have just relocated from his posting in the American embassy in Nigeria.  But once settled in their new home in Virginia there was never a question that they would fly to Saint John’s for the baptism of their first child.  In the abbey church, of course.

+On February 14th I crashed the celebration of the Chinese New Year at Saint John’s University.  The dinner was so well-attended that it spilled over into an adjacent room.  But he Great Hall was the scene of the most colorful activity, as the pictures in today’s post attest.

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