Words That Nourish
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.
I think, for instance, of Henry James's hope for Isabel Archer, in The Portrait of a Lady, that she "be a person upon whom nothing is lost." That phrase reminds me of a way of living to be aspired to: to be a person for whom every encounter is food for thought, reflection, prayer, or perhaps lively resistance, who notices word choices and recognizes need and gets the joke and pauses over what might easily be passed by. The hope expressed in that line is fueled by a reassurance I have found in words Robert Bolt assigns to Sir Thomas More, whose deep moral intelligence links piety to precision of thought: "God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!" Wit is the sharp instrument that prunes away what obscures the things that matter most.
In a similar way, I am inspired by a line in Richard Wilbur's poem "The Eye": "Charge me to see in all bodies the beat of spirit." It reminds me to look beyond what we've been conditioned to consider attractive, to recognize how the Holy Ghost not only "broods over the bent world" but also inhabits it, even the bent and broken parts, and provides for the humblest life forms the "force that through the green fuse drives the flower."
Wilbur's prayer points me back to one of George Eliot's loveliest lines, at the end of Middlemarch, when she reminds us of what we owe "to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." I thought of that line the day my mother died, and think of it thankfully when, in churches, I cross paths with so many inconspicuous men and women who are not leaders but faithful followers, who embody the truth that "charity … vaunteth not itself," but who, as poet Mary Oliver would put it, "blaze" in the light that illumines them.