Lent is only a few weeks away. If you live in a Christian monastic community, then your “spiritual adrenalin” begins to go up as Lent approaches. This is “monk’s season” to be sure! Even for your basic Catholic parishioner Lent takes on a special tone–beginning with an initiation into the season with ashes on that unusual feast of Ash Wednesday; then the Liturgy speaks in a very different tone; and finally there is the age-old call to “give up” something for Lent, to renounce something, or to do something special spiritually/religiously for Lent. This is inculcated in you from childhood in the Catholic setting. Sometimes all this is presented as a kind of preparation for Easter Sunday. True, but way too vague and doesn’t really reveal the deepest meaning of Lent and its attraction to those of us on a spiritual path. Nobody ever explained to me exactly how all these little acts of sacrifice or what have you actually “prepares” you for Easter. Unfortunately also all this “giving up” or “doing something special” stuff gets presented as isolated acts that are kind of like spiritual “weightlifting”–you get “stronger” by doing these things. With that we are pretty far from the real meaning of Lent, but alas too often that is what happens in Catholic formation. In so many other Christian communities Lent is often so ignored or downplayed that that becomes another kind of problem which I won’t discuss at this point.
Ok, let’s try looking at Lent like this: as a refocused, intensified “reading” of our lives, our very selves in relation to God, and a “reading” of God Him/Her self. In a sense we are doing this all the time, but Lent is a kind of renewal, an intensification, a refocusing, a clarifying of this “reading” that goes on all the time. In that sense it is similar to a Zen sesshin where Zen practitioners sit in intensive sessions to push their meditation to newer depths–a kind of Buddhist version of this “reading” of our personhood and identity. So, yes, Lent may involve all kinds of little and big sacrifices, renewed acts of piety, a true spiritual refocusing, etc., but all these acts are for the sake of this: we read Life, we read our own life, we read our own personhood, and ultimately we read God. And we do this “reading” continually, on automatic pilot if you will, but in Lent we become more deliberate, more focused perhaps, refocusing and perhaps relearning how to do this reading–because we are all too easily prone to “misread” it all! And this “misreading” is also, alas, always with us. And when you “misread” God you are bound to make some serious mistakes.
The Bible: In the Christian setting the Bible’s main role is to help us and guide us in this “transcendental reading.” To read the Bible with intelligence and with a heart filled with Prayer will open one’s eyes to new depths in this “reading” of God and one’s identity in God. The text is filled with stories, myths, histories, oracles, rules, injunctions, wise advice, prayers, even grief and desolation, etc. Almost nothing of human experience is left out. However, things are not as simple as all that! The Bible itself is very vulnerable to being misread and even manipulated and distorted. And if your misreading of the Bible is serious enough, you will end up in a very serious darkness. Jesus spoke of the darkness that inhabits the eyes of the Pharisees and those other religious leaders. Here I won’t get into an extended discussion of all the facets of this misreading of the Bible, but I would like to touch a couple of important issues that could help one to avoid some pitfalls and maybe adjust one’s approach to the Bible which could become a true instrument of “deep reading” at the heart level.
The primary issue is this thing of inspiration: the Bible as “inspired by God.” This is a very vague term and can mean all kinds of things and has in fact taken on various shades of meaning over the centuries. Conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians take this term in its strongest and most literal sense and build their house on this foundation. They admit that there is a human author of sorts–the Bible itself names some–but this human author is like a robot, simply doing what it is commanded, or a secretary simply copying down “divine dictation.” This then leads to the notion of the “inerrancy of the Bible”–after all God cannot make mistakes! Well, this then leads to all kinds of problems. What are we to make of all the killings and massacres and rapes and pillaging supposedly sanctioned by God. Does God really call for the stoning of people? Is God simply ISIS writ large! Slavery? The Bible is ok with it. The Bible was used by Southerners to justify slavery–one awful consequence of misreading the Bible, and you see how this leads to misreading our relationship to God and our fellow human beings. I mean this is just a small list of these kinds of problems. Hard really, also, to reconcile some aspects of the New Testament with the Old Testament yet it supposedly is “inspired” by the same God. Conservative Christians either ignore these problems or “sweep them under the rug” or what’s worse is that it shapes their image of God–and this is a real disaster. What’s odd or interesting about all this is how very liberal or anti-Christian people get it all wrong also when they accept this theory of inspiration. Theirs is an anti-Bible stance based on these kinds of points of evidence: the utter brutality within the Bible, the absurdity of some of its claims, etc. I saw an article recently on Alternet that claimed the Bible justified torture and so the implication is that we are fools for “reading God” there. I could see what the author was getting at; I could even agree with many of her claims about the horrors within the text; but her presupposition is this “fundamentalist inspiration theory.” And that I don’t think we need to subscribe to. And if we are not misled by that theory the Presence of God in the Bible becomes much more subtle and more complicated.
The Catholic Tradition has its own adherents of this conservative, fundamentalist reading, but the main approach of the Church is more nuanced and relying more on human intelligence and rationality. It places much more emphasis on the human authorship of the Bible with divine inspiration being a more subtle and hidden factor. The human author is taken very seriously and the text studied with the scientific precision provided by linguistic, literary, and historical scholarship–granted that has been true for only the last hundred years or so–a sign of changing attitudes and positions in the Church. This very human element of the Bible is a relief (at least to some of us) from that “magical inerrancy” that others seem to find there. However, in Catholic contemplative communities the scientific analysis of the text is not all that welcome because it seems to really eviscerate a prayerful reading of the text, the text as meditation material. ( I can vouch for that experience after all my scripture classes!!) Monks have used Lectio Devina, this is what it was called, since the beginnings of Christian monasticism, and the Psalms were always used in prayerful chant, which created an ambience for going deep into the heart and living attentively with the Transcendent Presence which is the Ground of all and which we call God. What did the monks do with the “bad passages,” the problematical texts? There were two approaches: first, they did what a lot of conservative Christians do–ignore the bad stuff; but secondly, they did a nifty “sleight of hand” thing–these all became symbolic, metaphorical. So, you were not really smashing skulls and committing genocide but rather overcoming evil within your own heart. Thus the reading of the Bible continued to be a vehicle of a prayerful reading of one’s life and identity in relation to God. What’s important here is that for the most part these monks did not let the awful texts shape their image of God–as a kind of Super Transcendent Ego, which gets angry and smashes people when they are “bad.” The monks had an experience of God that they brought to the text, and this truly varied but generally guided their reading. Much more could be said about all this but we need to move on.
If the Bible is going to be a true help in “reading God,” “reading our life,” etc., then we need to more fully confront this human element in it. Yes, we can take beautiful passages from it and employ it for our Lectio Devina and contemplative prayer, but that is not a full, total, complete reading. We are either engaged in a terrible distortion of the Transcendent Reality or we are practicing avoidance, which is “misreading lite.” The fact is that the Bible is a human work, a human artifact, which tries to communicate the human-divine encounter–thus called “inspired”– within the Semitic-Hellenistic world, limited by its language, its culture, its hang-ups. (Abhishiktananda railed against this limitation time and again in India as he tried to reinterpret the language of Scripture into the Indian matrix.) But precisely because of this totally human nature of the text it is a record not only what these people “read right” concerning the Transcendent Reality, but also what they got wrong. And this is very very important. Years ago there was a remarkable book by a Protestant Scripture scholar, Phyllis Trible, called Texts of Terror. It detailed the really horrible, almost unbearable passages in the Bible that we somehow ignore to our detriment. I would not follow her in her conclusions because the text as a whole can be termed “inspired” and a true guide in “reading God,” etc. as long as we recognize this totally human baggage there. The blindness, the monstrous distortions, the wrong turns, the desolation, all this is part of the record. Our religious ancestors had many instances of misreading God and their own identity in God, and this is all part of the record as a kind of therapy for our own proclivity to misread God. To put it in a way our fundamentalist friends would say it, God is not afraid to show that we can make terrible mistakes in His Name, that we can deeply misread His Presence in history. God is not afraid to have His Name associated with these horrible mistakes because there is something else in the text also. And here we must add something that our fundamentalist friends would not be comfortable with: this implies that God wants us to use our intelligence and our rationality(after all they are God-given also and reveal God in their own right) to sort all this out, and it is God who calls to us from the text to read Him right!
We bring our lives and our experience of God to the text and then there is this marvelous exchange. We see where our spiritual ancestors “misread” God and this warns us and guides us away from our own “misreadings.” But we also encounter the places where our religious ancestors experienced God with an intensity that opens our own hearts in a new way and so we can journey on. We shape the reading of the text, and then the text shapes our reading of God and Life.
To conclude, for this Lent I hope to touch base with and discuss 2 books of the Old Testament that almost nobody ever reads today: Lamentations and Ecclesiastes. Two works that are a serious challenge to our contemporary mindset, and two works which are not easy reading! But, hey, this is Lent!!