Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Readings: Shelter From the Storm

I am going to provide several excerpts below from a remarkable little book that came to my attention recently, and that I experienced a great deal of pleasure in reading. I learned of the book through an old, yellowed newspaper clipping that I found in a file at work. The reason that the clip came into my hand—there are no coincidences in these things--is that this book, My Brother’s Place: An American Lutheran Monastery, is a fitting complement to The Ascent to Truth, the Thomas Merton book on the contemplative life, which I am currently reading, and which I have quoted below. If there can be said to be a coincidence here, it is that the author, George Weckman is, among many other things, the organist of my parents’ church.

But, wait—a Protestant monastery? In Michigan? In contemporary America? I mean, I grew up in Michigan; my mother’s whole side of the family is Lutheran; one of my first cousins is a Lutheran pastor; and I hadn’t a clue. Nonetheless, it’s there:

[A] monastery is a place where people go to pursue a private path to religious self-awareness, self-consciousness in the presence of God. That must be something one does alone, even in the midst of other people, even in an institution dedicated to it. [My Brother’s Place, p.52]

Prof. Weckman stresses the value of the monastery on several levels. One that struck home particularly with me is the value of the monastery as a focal point of ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church, towards the much-longed-for goal of a unified Communion. But it’s Weckman’s writing on the value of monasticism’s primary activity—prayerful contemplation—and particularly on reading as contemplation, and the relationship of contemplation to education, that most struck a responsive chord in me. Without further comment, I will now provide the promised excerpts:

First, contemplation as the careful, sensitive examination of ideas and stories is very close to scholarly study. This kind of contemplation consists of reflection and meditation on the meaning of the Bible and other religious texts. It explores the stories, images, and ideas found in such writings. It does not concern itself with footnotes and bibliographies and it does not worry over historical accuracy or systematic consistency, as academic scholarship must. It is, nevertheless, intent on deriving meaning and message from the inspired classics of the tradition. It dwells especially on the various connections and implications of the words and the personal dimensions of passage.

This kind of contemplation is very important for religions of revelation and books, while other kinds are more central in other religious traditions. The emphasis on words, understanding and communication, has its Christian charter in John 1: "In the beginning was the Word." Listening to the Word is the beginning and heart of Christian contemplation. The Word is a person, not words, of course, but the person speaks in words and is known through words. If contemplation also moves beyond words it never completely rejects them in a religion of incarnation. Through the words, the Word becomes incarnate and dwells in the presence of the listener and reader. [My Brother’s Place, pp.53-54]

Education is an instrument of the search for God. Such contemplation is a slow, unhurried process. It is symbolically associated with the central organs of the body, not with the speed and accuracy of a calculator. As Luke (2:51) says of Mary's cognition: "she treasured up all these things in her heart." The heart as an organ of thought connotes the correlation of ideas and emotions, getting used to things, and integrating them into one's personality. [My Brother's Place, p.54]

My advice: Set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. Rise before the dawn and read deeply, while still awash in the alpha waves. Read both early and often.