Spiritual Reading: Ignoring the ‘Take Up and Read’ Command

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Today, the loss of spiritual reading is a reality across the Christian spectrum.

Bible study and interpretation used to be a Protestant thing to do. For the Catholic, the fog of the digital distraction descended just before they could be taught that the Bible placed into the hands of every Christian by the Catholic Church could now be dusted and actually begun to be read. Until then, every Catholic’s Bible diet was passively consumed mainly in course of the Holy Mass and the Holy Rosary.

‘Learning Style’ and Reading-Resistance

Increased awareness about ‘learning styles’ (the theory that each person differs from the other in how one learns, retains, and uses information learned) since the 1970s, has led to a brand of self-advocacy that insists “I am a visual person,” “I am an auditory person”, and the like.

The smartphone ushered in a society of fake equity. One can watch, read, listen and touch. Blame me not if I missed something meant for olfactory learners. There is something for everyone regardless of age or literacy level. A toddler plays with it in preference to age-appropriate toys. An adult chatting online wears an air of erudition by copy-pasting and editing information fished out from the Internet on a parallel ‘window.’

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) explains how as a child he picked up the use of speech by observation of the verbal and the non-verbal language of those around him. But he was able to employ speech to express himself once “the process of speech [was] subjected to the necessary training and discipline,” which helped him step out in “the stormy society of human life.”

A Disciple is ‘Rooted’

One can surmise the role of training and discipline in integrating the verbal and the non-verbal. The roots of the word ‘discipline’ are closely tied to ‘disciple’, an apprentice or trainee who essentially follows a leader in order to learn. The word ‘train’ comes from ‘dragging behind,’ which affirms that the trainee drags himself behind the teacher. It also informs us that ‘training’ requires a certain stretch, investment of time and effort on part of the trainee/disciple, in order to gain proficiency in what one sets out to learn or achieve.

There is no conclusive evidence that awareness of one’s ‘learning style’ can be put to good use to enhance one’s learning skills. Sure enough, we come across people saying they cannot read but yet read long tracts of information of interest on the Internet, or social media, or claim they cannot write, but write elaborate diatribes inspired by pet peeves and disagreeable persons.

Reasons for Reading-Resistance

The learning gap among adults of the age is not so much about ability or learning style as it is a lack of humility and a kind of acedia. The smartphone-toting cohort nonchalantly thinks all knowledge is in their handheld world available for anytime-access. No knowledge is so wonderful or lofty for them to attain (Cf. Psalm 139:6), for it is a disposable asset that can be summoned at will, without the invested employment of one’s intellect or will. Dilemmas, questions, and directions can be referred to as Siri, Alexa, a search box, or a chatbot. Whither then a human teacher, contemplation, or the Holy Spirit?

Indeed, a key reason for reading-resistance can be what Saint Augustine addresses at length in his Confessions: A tough and unpleasant school life, where he was forced to learn subjects whose usefulness was nothing more than leading him to honors and riches or to escape whipping and other cruel punishments.

While Augustine’s excuse for the avoidance of study, while young, was (understandably) a desire to play, he acknowledges that the rudiments of ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’ afforded him “the facility of reading whatever [I] find written, and writing [myself] what [I] want to express.”

Why Are Readers Revered?

Although reading has come to become a burden for various reasons, the pride one takes in university degrees, and higher learning has never been out of vogue. (They must, however, simply serve to find and keep a job, and earn social prestige.)

It is a boast to have read a book, especially in print form. Similarly, a person who reads, regardless of their level of reading, is regarded in esteem. Everyone knows that those ridiculed for being studious are merely objects of philistine jealousy.

There would hardly be a parent who does not agonize over a child that is unable to read or take every effort to remedy the situation. Everyone takes great delight in knowing or having for a relative a person of great erudition or scholastic excellence. Yet, it is possible for a person of erudition to face isolation simply because others look upon them as unsociable, or themselves as unworthy of them.

‘For it is Written’: The Moral Compass

In the context of spiritual reading, what is the source of this reverence despite resistance?

We find a clue in the equation between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist. Mark’s gospel informs:

Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him (Mark 6:20).

Even an evil man like Herod “liked” to listen to the truth. Is not every human heart hardwired for truth?

Although John the Baptist did not preach out of a book, this verse lets us know that he held out a moral compass to the people of his time, including Herod. This moral compass pointed Herod to the law of God written on his heart (Cf. Romans 2:14-15). Herod feels in himself a churning, and a righteous fear (Cf. Proverbs 9:10), which we know he chose to ignore.

One of the oft-repeated phrases in the Bible is ‘(for) it is written’ (e.g. Matthew 4:4), which indicates the ‘new’ teaching as founded on (an) authority. However, while some dismiss that which is written as being mere letter (and therefore inferior to that which is its spirit), others hold the erroneous belief that all truth lies outside of books, or within oneself, and is up to each one to discover. When Christians believe in these fallacies, they pose themselves the danger of denying the action of the Holy Spirit, and the authority of the Church’s Magisterium.

Ceaseless Curiosities vs. a Hunger for True Knowledge

Although I was well-catechized, I went to law school with a resolve to break free from the ‘Catholic clutch’, and for a couple of years, allowed myself to be lured by friends into Hindu nationalism, and communism. However, it was at law school that I also encountered (among others), Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas More, and other Catholic greats. I was yet to encounter the God of the Bible.

Augustine notes:

[C]uriosity pretends to indicate (or prompts) a desire for knowledge, whereas it is You Who most perfectly know all things.

A Christian who is yet to encounter Christ in the Scriptures is rudderless and led away to explore/accept half-truths from inferior teachers.

When Augustine moved to Carthage to study law, “a cauldron of insidious loves” roared on every side of him. Several philosophies from the Far East were being peddled in Carthage, much like the counterfeit gospels that self-styled spiritual gurus market on every media these days.

Augustine did not find in the Scriptures the zing he found in Cicero and took instead to the syncretism of Manichaeism.

Often people who accuse fellow Christians as fundamentalists are faithful consumers of content concerning New Age, astrology, self-improvement, and other syncretic philosophies. While criticizing organized religion, they themselves assiduously practice the spurious rituals of their own spiritualities. Others’ lives are directed day-to-day by meme and internet-wisdom.

Augustine admits:

[I] pursued a sacrilegious curiosity for knowledge that led me, in forsaking You to the treacherous depths below, and the deceitful service of devils.

All humans have a natural desire for knowledge. According to Augustine, this desire (insufficiency) of knowledge must lead a person to pursue God. However, curiosity for any knowledge is lauded by culture. We spend endless hours consuming purposeless news all packaged to seem important. This is also true of Catholics without temperance. He warns:

We are forbidden to be curious: and this is a great gift that temperance bestows.

We become who we spend the most time with. Was not Saint Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin) chided in a vision by the Lord: “Thou art not a Christian, thou art a Ciceronian.”    

In the careless years of my life, the Bible was not among the books I was seeking to read. Yet, whenever I happened to read the Scriptures, I would be filled with great satisfaction and delight. At the end of the day, I would even have forgotten I had read the Word of God that day—often it would be among many things I would have read. Yet a sweet sensation would remain with me as I went to bed. Only over several years did I realize I had met the person of Christ in the pages of the Bible.

The Striving of Non-Readers

Can the illiterate or those with learning disabilities not receive the Word of God? Not so. The first to receive the good news of Christ’s birth were humble shepherds. And we know of enough saints with learning disabilities. Holiness, after all, is for everyone.

Years ago, my family met Esther, a stranger who lived in a thatched hut with her family in a remote location. Once, we were in the area and had gotten hungry. Having gone over to Esther’s home to inquire about the nearest restaurant, we ended up being served a delicious hot meal over a fulfilling spiritual conversation. To our surprise, although she was unlettered, Esther knew the Bible better than we could boast of.

There are others who hunger for the truth although reading is not their thing—either for lack of time, skill or opportunity. We find them glean nuggets of their faith, and constantly building themselves in the knowledge of Christ, and His Church with the help of technologies like radio, television, internet, and various apps. There is a wealth of Catholic resources available on every known medium.

It must, however, be noted, that every media is a cauldron of the good, bad, and the ugly. They literally leave discernment and temperance in the hand of the user. Users lend themselves to the danger of rabbit chases while channel-surfing and app-switching.

The saddest may be the plight of those who have hardened their hearts out of self-described reading disability. God waits for them too.

Not Every Bible-reader Has Met Christ

I believed that every person who could quote the Bible authoritatively did so driven by the love of Christ. And because I could not muster any offhand memory of a Bible verse, I thought I did not love Jesus enough. I acquired a better perspective of things as I persisted in seeking Christ in the Scriptures, and also when I came across the atheist Biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou.

Augustine turned to the Scriptures after having tried everything else, but his loftiness was too great for the simple depth of its veiled mysteries. However, his conversion came about after being goaded by an innocent voice to “Tolle Lege” (‘take up and read’) the Bible.

If reading is the stepping stone to gaining knowledge; and spiritual reading the gateway to finding a more perfect life, (then) what one needs to penetrate the mysteries of the Scriptures is humility and love. According to Augustine, understanding the Scriptures cannot be a proud ambition to achieve. In a Letter, he writes:

The depth of the Christian Scriptures is boundless. Even if I were attempting to study them and nothing else, from boyhood to decrepit old age, with the utmost leisure, the most unwearied zeal, and with talents greater than I possess, I would still be making progress in discovering their treasures.

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3 thoughts on “Spiritual Reading: Ignoring the ‘Take Up and Read’ Command”

  1. I really enjoyed your essay, but especially how you noted that some view the internet as an oracle of truth, rather than as a highly efficient data storage and retrieval system, thanks to modern engineering. However, I was discouraged when I realized we have to resort to engineering lingo to understand that truth is the natural object of the human intellect. It is “hardwired” for truth.

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