My cousin Greta blew through Gone with the Wind in three hours. No, not the film; Margaret Mitchell’s thousand-page paperweight. She downplayed her feat by explaining that it was her second reading. And she was, after all, 13.
In the time it takes me to internally verbalize every word from the top to the bottom of a single page, her eyes suck down whole chapters. Mention a book, she has read it. Take her to a movie, she will surely walk out saying, “The book was better.”
Eventually I gave up trying to keep up with my cousin. I grew comfortable with my snaillike word-by-wordness—so comfortable that I often read to myself out loud. But now I find that my deliberate pace is … too fast. Though I still look at my shelves and hear at my back Time in his wingèd chariot whispering, “So many books, so little of Me,” I’ve got to slow down. At least for a certain kind of book, I need to pump the brakes. Let me explain.
We read for different reasons. We read to learn, we read to be delighted, we read to be moved, we read to see things from other perspectives, we read to be thrilled, we read to belong to a community, we read to know how to pray for Kris and Paula, and so on. A single book or story or essay or newsletter might give all those gifts, or just one, or even none.
But there’s another reason to read, and it’s a reason to read that requires unrushed reading.
This other reason to read might be called reading to contemplate. There are contemplative books, of which the Bible is the supreme example; and contemplative books invite contemplative reading.
What do I mean by “contemplative”? Well, the object of the contemplation I have in mind is God himself—his being, his character. The objective of contemplation is to see him, as much as possible in this life, as he is. I say “in this life” because, of course, the ultimate beatific vision of him awaits us after this life (see 1 John 3:2 and Matthew 5:8). That ultimate vision of him is the reason for which we were made. Yet Paul tells us that by faith we can have at least partial sights of him and his glory now (2 Corinthians 3:18). God gave us the Bible as his self-revelation, so that we can (according to our limited abilities here and now) “see” him and know him—and be transformed by him.
So, as I said, the Bible is supremely contemplative, and must be read contemplatively. Other books, especially books of theology, devotional writings, sermons, and so on are also contemplative. Or at least they should be. If a book of theology or a sermon doesn’t compel or at least invite me to see God more clearly, and therefore to love and adore him more dearly, then I’d be tempted to call it a failure. Or perhaps I should first look for the problem within: I failed to read or hear it contemplatively.
And that brings me to my point: When I say I need to pump the brakes on some of my reading, I mean that I want and need to learn to read contemplatively. But what does that mean? Well, I don’t yet know. I’m trying to learn. I think it includes slowing down, but it’s much more than that. I know it demands prayerful reading, for we need the Spirit to shine light in our minds, or we won’t see God (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
In the last six months I’ve also started writing prayerful responses to the scriptures, as well as making notes from other contemplative books. Many people have made good use of journaling in their quest to know God; I’m just now catching on.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Please ask God to lead me “further up and further in” as I contemplate him. He made me so that I would know him.
And I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about contemplative reading.
Our ship has come in. That is to say, the container full of our worldly belongings made it from Bratislava to Bremerhaven, where it was loaded onto the good ship Safmarine Mafadi, which plowed across the Atlantic to Nantucket, then around Florida and the Keys and across the Gulf to Houston. From there Juan Antonio and his faithful crew delivered the goods to Wayside Drive in Bryan. So our house looks and feels more like our home. Please thank God with us for his rich blessings—and ask him to use us and all he’s given us to bless others.
Now that we are settling in, we need to serve where we are. Paula has signed up for VBS and nursery, and last week went on her first outing with some women from Westminster. It sounds like I might get a chance to teach a class in the next year. Please ask God to make good use of us here.
We’ll do our first extended report to a supporting church the second Sunday in July, when we visit Christ the King in Austin. Please ask God to glorify himself in the stories of his work in Slovakia over the past four years. Ask the Spirit to encourage the brothers and sisters in CTK. And, if your faith is at least the size of a mustard seed, ask the Lord of the Harvest whether he might set aside some who hear our report for cross-cultural missions. The harvest is a big one, and a big harvest calls for lots of harvesters.
I’ll close with Thomas Cranmer’s collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, in which we ask God to make us all faithful contemplative readers of his word.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
That “everlasting life” we embrace in the word is, according to Jesus in John 17:3, that we know the Father, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. May God by his Spirit make you his true contemplative.