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The ancient practice of lectio divina is a gentle discipline. Reading Scripture slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, pausing to consider prayerfully the gift being offered in those words for this moment, is a rich practice that can help maintain spiritual focus and equanimity at the center of even hectic lives. The practice can be adapted and imported into the reading of other texts. It can change the way we listen to the most ordinary conversation. It can become a habit of mind. It can help us locate what is nourishing and helpful in any words that come our way—especially in what poet Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said"—and it can equip us with a personal repertoire of sentences, phrases, and single words that serve us as touchstones or talismans when we need them.

I have long valued literary theorist Kenneth Burke's simple observation that literature is "equipment for living." We glean what we need from it as we go. In each reading of a book or poem or play, we may be addressed in new ways, depending on what we need from it, even if we are not fully aware of those needs. The skill of good reading is not only to notice what we notice, but also to allow ourselves to be addressed. To take it personally. To ask, even as we read secular texts, that the Holy Spirit enable us to receive whatever gift is there for our growth and our use. What we hope for most is that as we make our way through a wilderness of printed, spoken, and electronically transmitted words, we will continue to glean what will help us navigate wisely and kindly—and also wittily—a world in which competing discourses can so easily confuse us in seeking truth and entice us falsely.

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Words That Nourish
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February 2011

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