Session 1 – Reading as a Spiritual Practice
Session 1 – Reading as a Spiritual Practice
This first session draws on two of the writers in Twelve Great Spiritual Writers, Sarah Clarkson and Marilynne Robinson, to provide further insight on how reading shapes us as people.

Bible passage: Daniel 9:1-23


This home group study explores reading as spiritual practice: what it means and how it may inform and direct us towards loving God. It draws on two of the writers in Twelve great spiritual writers, Sarah Clarkson and Marilynne Robinson, to provide further insight on how reading shapes us as people.

The study begins with discussion of what reading as a spiritual discipline means. A look at how God spoke to Daniel after he had been reading follows. The writer Sarah Clarkson who is an avid reader and a capable writer is the first chosen guide to choosing what to read and getting the most out of the text, followed by Marilynne Robinson, a well-established novelist. Questions and action points are provided to facilitate engagement with the material.

Introduction: What does it mean to read for spiritual nourishment?

I have always loved reading. In fact, if there isn’t a book around I’ll read the side of the cornflake packet to see what is in it. A lot of reading, like the words on the cereal packet are conveying information. But there are all kinds of reading, including pure pleasure, work-related texts, research and so on. There is also a further dimension of reading which is formative of our character and it’s this kind of reading that we are exploring in this study.

Some people reading this will already be familiar with the practice of slow reading or lectio divina using Bible texts. This involves reading a portion of the Bible slowly and meditatively, chewing on the words, rather like a cow chewing the cud to extract all the goodness of rich grass. Gradually the meditative process turns into prayer as we talk to the Lord about what we have noticed in our reading. This leads on to simply resting in God before moving on to begin the process again. Sarah Clarkson sees the capacity for learning as a gift that is ‘holy, set in us all by a God who made us to respond, grow and discover through the power of language.’ (Book girl, p37)

Pause to read the Bible passage

Discuss Daniel’s response to what he read in ‘the books’ and share any stories of your own where you have acted in direct response to something you have read and with what result.

Introducing Sarah Clarkson

Sarah is a young writer who comes from a book-loving American family. She has published a number of books, one of which, Book girl, explores what the books she has read have meant to her at different stages of her life.

Sarah Clarkson has a lovely phrase, ‘story-formed’ to describe how books shape us. Her whole life has been shaped by books and through her own writing she aims to pass on her love of reading and how to do it well. We may imagine that reading well is concerned with being fluent or educated, but reading well has more to do with becoming a discerning reader, knowing what to look for and how to interpret the literature we choose. This means learning to see what underlies the author’s intention in writing a book, its worldview, what messages are being conveyed and so on. As she developed as such a reader Sarah discovered a renewed sense of herself as an agent with power to learn, to discern, to grow and to create.

Reading in this way can become a spiritual discipline, especially if we think of this kind of reading as paying attention. The practice may help us gain wisdom rather than simply knowledge. Such wisdom is not just about whether a book is suitable for a Christian to read or not, but how would a Christian worldview understand and evaluate this text? The question that directs Sarah’s personal reading is: ‘what is it I hope to become?’

What it means to be human is a vital question for Christians to investigate and our go-to text is God’s word. Sarah is clear that stories – which form a large part of the narrative of Scripture are key to forming us and good stories help to form us in the image of God. She has a love of what is known as fantasy literature, having been brought up on CS Lewis’ Narnia books as well as JRR Tolkien among others. In a chapter entitled ‘books can stir you to action’ she describes how her encounter with Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the rings as a teenager, was a turning point in her idea of herself and her faith because that story helped her to perceive the epic narrative of Scripture itself, the real divine drama by which her own life was defined. It demanded a response from her:

‘Tolkien’s story helped me to recognise Scripture as my own story, the one in whose decisive battles I was caught, the narrative that drew me into the conflict, requiring me to decide what part I would play: heroine, coward, lover or villain.’

Later on she says:
‘the choice was clear. I simply said yes – to believing in God’s goodness despite pain, to acting creatively and lovingly even in discouragement, to fighting for light in the midst of whatever darkness I found myself.’

A later gloss on the term ‘heroine’ notes that it is not about ‘taking your own life in your hands; it’s about being taken hold of by something much bigger and more beautiful than yourself, by a story that draws you into its larger drama and empowers you to act in hope.’ Book girl, pp93-4; 96).

Marilynne Robinson and novels as a source of spiritual nourishment

Twelve great writers explore truth-telling in different formats and genres. It takes as its cue words by the poet Emily Dickinson: ‘Tell the truth but tell it slant.’ One writer featured, Marilynne Robinson, is best known for a trilogy of novels set in the small US town of Gilead. Through the lives of its characters, especially the aged preacher John Ames, his young wife Lila and Ames’ godson Jack, the author explores values that matter, questions that daunt us and the growth of the human spirit. In her evocative memoir, Robinson comments that she sees fiction more like painting than reportage, which gives readers freedom to imagine and make their own connections. Gilead has been described as a novel that talks about religion to non-religious people in ways that resonate with and indeed empower us.

Many novels explore universal themes like redemption, forgiveness and love that offer rich seams of human experience for readers to engage with at a theological level. Such themes may be explicit or implicit, the writer Christian or not, but all give the reader the opportunity to deepen their understanding of what it means to be human.

For many people the most accessible way in to reading non-biblical texts is through poetry. To end this study watch one of the authors in Twelve spiritual writers, Mary Oliver, read one of her own poems called ‘Why I wake early.’

Questions for discussion

  1. What kind of reading do you most enjoy? Do you consider it to be spiritually uplifting, informative, challenging, or all three?
  2. Sarah’s Book girl includes discussion of fairy tales as well as serious theological literature. She explains how these genres have been meaningful at different times in her life. Is there a book or type of literature, besides Scripture, that has ‘saved’ you at a critical moment in your life?
  3. How do you respond to Sarah’s over-arching question as she reads: ‘What is it I hope to become?’ Could you put into words your own response to this question?
  4. What would you include in your top 10 books? What is special about these chosen titles for you?

Action points

  1. In her introduction, Sarah Clarkson identifies three gifts of reading: filling our hearts with beauty, giving us strength for the (spiritual) battle and reminding us that we are not alone. What gifts of reading would you want to pass on to someone?
  2. Does your church encourage reading as a spiritual practice? How could you help to foster this more?
  3. Start a notebook for memorable quotations and key ideas gleaned from your reading. Alternatively, you could incorporate these into a journal.