Last week I mentioned the importance of reading old books, largely—as C.S. Lewis puts it—because “A new book is still on trial, and the amateur is not in a position to judge it … The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it), which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can only be acquired from old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

A question that comes to mind—once we’ve established the importance of reading in general and reading old books in particular—is “how should we read?” This may appear initially to be a silly question, for most of us have been reading for all of our adult lives and most of our lives as children and young adults.

Rarely, though, have we slowed down and asked, “How was I taught to read?” This question came to my mind this week as I was reading Matthew the Poor’s Orthodox Prayer Life, published by St Vladimir’s Press. Mathew (Father Matta El-Meskeen) was a modern Coptic Christian who spent most of his adult life living as a monk in the Egyptian desert, following the pattern of great desert dwellers such as Antony the Great.

In the midst of a detailed discussion of the spiritual discipline of meditation on Scripture, Mathew describes how ancient and modern monks were taught to read the Bible. He speaks of a way of reading “in which the mind and heart were diligently handed over to the word of God. This was done to renew the mind and heart through that word.”

Mathew comments that our choice of reading material is crucial, for “inward meditation can imprint its impression on the emotional and intellectual makeup” of God’s image-bearers. “What words,” I ask myself, “am I choosing purposely to imprint on my intellect and emotions?” Mathew is concerned that we can stamp words, ideas, and images on our minds and hearts that can damage rather than deepen, harm rather than heal, confuse rather than clarify.

More positively, we can meditate upon the riches offered to us in Scripture and other great books that have proven their worth to generations of Christians. To do so, Mathew encourages us to enter “the first degree of meditation.” It “begins with reading the words slowly, relishing them, and repeating them in an audible voice. Reading, to the fathers, always meant doing so in an audible voice and was called reiteration.”

To reiterate a text is to ruminate it; this is a slow, paced reading, a reading that engages our eyes, ears, and mouth. When we read a book out loud or listen to it read—audible books come to mind—we are forced to slow down. In Mathew’s words, “In this manner, it [the text] can find rest in our innermost recesses. Reiteration here is like rumination. After a while the words actually become one’s own words.” The happy, life-giving result is an image-bearer who “becomes a faithful storehouse for the word of God.” Our hearts “become a divine treasury for it … The gospel, or the word, is thus kept safely inside one’s heart as a precious treasure.”

I have experimented with reiteration and rumination by using my iPhone. Most mornings and occasionally in the evening I spend time with the Scripture. I read it, ponder it, and often, thanks to encouraging technological advances, listen to it. Sometimes as I listen I simultaneously read the biblical text with my eyes, an ocular and auditory reading if you will, employing two senses rather than one.

For a while, I practiced this new kind of reading on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. And as I did so, I sensed that Jesus’ sermon was slowly seeping into me, a deep down inside kind of seeping. In this slow saturation, Jesus’ words were soaking into my intellect, my imagination, my emotions. They were forming me, shaping me, healing me. The graced result? Christ’s mind, slowly, ever so slowly and painfully, was gradually becoming my own.

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