A couple of years ago, I got on an Alaska air flight from Santa Barbara to Seattle on my way to a ten-day MFA residency on Whidbey Island. I’d been pushing up to the last second, prepping for an intense week with a cohort of bright and hard-working creative nonfiction students. But my work was not yet done. I’d assigned them Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek without having re-read it myself for over twenty years. And they’d figure that out as soon as I opened my mouth. So the minute the plane took off, I pulled out the book for some desperate skimming.
Moments later I came across this paragraph:
The mountains are a passive mystery, the oldest of all. Theirs is the one simple mystery of creation from nothing, of matter itself, anything at all, the given. Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.
And suddenly I found myself weeping. Not so much because of the words themselves, though obviously they were beautiful and profound. Instead because I’d just been sent to another place, one I had once inhabited and nowadays often longed for but was always too busy and distracted to find. And that was the hauntingly lovely country of great literary writing. In a flash, I’d been plucked out of my disciplined, teacherly life and set down in an open space of art. The tears I was shedding were tears of relief. Relief, because I’d just been shown that this space still existed after all. And relief because I’d begun to fear that even if it did, I’d somehow been banished from entering it.
Yet it hadn’t always been this way. Years ago, I wandered into the foreign landscape of a difficult novel or essay collection with remarkable ease. I got pneumonia in my early twenties and had to stay home from work for three weeks. “Great!” I thought. “I can finally read War and Peace! ” My idea of a good time during my early thirties, despite being a single working mother of two, was staying up past midnight, engrossed in one of the Pushcart Prize or Best American Short Story anthologies. The great joy of finally getting to complete my degree as an English major a few years later was that it gave me an excuse to study big, dense, glorious novels like Middlemarch and To the Lighthouse and Sons and Lovers.
But something had intervened. Over the past ten years, reading literature had become difficult—in fact, nigh unto impossible. David Ulin, book review editor at the LA Times, describes my experience in his essay “The Lost Art of Reading” with eerie exactitude:
Sometime late last year—I don’t remember when, exactly—I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That’s a problem if you do what I do, but it’s an even bigger problem if you’re the kind of person I am. Since I discovered reading, I’ve always been surrounded by stacks of books. I read my way through camp, school, nights, weekends; when my girlfriend and I backpacked through Europe after college graduation, I had to buy a suitcase to accommodate the books I picked up along the way.
But almost overnight, he finds that he can no longer focus on literature the way he once could.
I’m not sure exactly when it was that I began noticing similar tendencies in myself. That if a book didn’t catch me on the first page, I would either lay it aside or force myself to finish it with a kind of grim determination that seemed antithetical to that old love of reading. That I was becoming less inclined to grapple with language, even beautiful and metaphoric language. That I was now looking for predictability rather than mystery. That if I started to suspect a novel was going to slay me emotionally, my tendency was to veer off and find something “safer.”
What had happened to the two of us, Ulin and me? Ulin conjectures that our problem may be at least in part a spiritual one. “It isn’t a failure of desire so much as one of will,” he says. “Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine.” He is speaking here of what I would call the “contemplative stance,” which is to say, the bringing to bear of our full and sustained attention on someone or something that is not ourselves. But as the ancient monastic tradition has been pointing out for centuries, we cannot engage in contemplation without first eliminating distractions such as undue noise and chatter, self-indulgent urges demanding immediate attention, and unrealistic expectations of success.
Yet the immensely attractive wonders of today’s technological revolution pull us in exactly the opposite direction. Easy-to-use, powerful devices like the iPhone—plus the seemingly limitless reach of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—have made constant noise and chatter the hallmark of our culture. And these distractions are affecting our ability to attend. In an Atlantic essay entitled “Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?” Nicholas Carr says, “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” And he feels this the most strongly when he is trying to read:
Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
According to Adam Alter in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, the human attention span, which not so long ago was twelve seconds, has over the past few years dropped to eight, while goldfish are holding steady at nine.
The Internet is also increasingly attuned to our most private and compelling urges and desires. It knows when we look at a particular pair of high heels on Amazon, and it will present us for days afterward with ads that remind us of what we thought we wanted during that first entranced moment of looking. It tracks our political opinions on Facebook and Twitter and makes sure that we find ourselves inside cozy groups of like-minded strangers who will rarely, if ever, disagree with us. If they do, we can instantly unfriend them. As Michael Patrick Lynch notes in an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance,”
Everything from the ads we read to the political news in our Facebook feed is tailored to our preferences. That’s incredibly useful for buying shoes and finding good restaurants. It is easier than ever to get and share information, but the information we get often reflects ourselves as much as it does anything else. Less noticed is that this has an effect not only on how we regard others, but on how we regard ourselves.
These days, it is almost impossible to think of a want—or even the barest of whims—for which the Internet cannot immediately provide. Such prompt and eager accommodation is teaching us to evaluate life on the basis of a single standard: whether it pleases us or not.
This high level of service also creates high levels of expectation in other areas, such as when we are doing research. Given the astonishing power of our devices, we can almost always find what we are seeking in a matter of moments, and thus we have become considerably more demanding—and correspondingly more restless and impatient—than we once were. We have learned to “power browse,” to skim a lot of dense material for quick wins. Yet power browsing is in many ways more like a game than it is like real reading. We find ourselves experiencing bursts of euphoria when we get a “hit” and flashes of irritable frustration when we don’t. Like magicians waving a magic wand, we expect all this to “work” and are affronted when it does not.
None of this prepares us to be contemplatives—in fact, the opposite. Is there a solution? David Ulin says that “there is still time if we want it. Contemplation is not only possible but necessary, especially in light of all the overload.” If we can believe this, the question becomes more practical than theoretical. How do we create the circumstances that will allow us to once again read deeply and well?
As a Camaldolese Benedictine oblate or lay member of an order of contemplative monks, I’ve been grappling for over twenty years with the conundrum of how to live more contemplatively. Three practices in particular have helped me resist the distractions listed above. First, I have developed a love of solitude and silence, which means that for part of every day I am free to live and work outside the limelight and away from the constant chatter. Second, I have slowly embraced simplicity through reducing choices and turning down the dial on constant stimulation. And third, I have learned to question my high expectations and consequently become more satisfied with what comes to me in its own way and time through a daily practice of lectio divina.
Sacred reading or lectio divina is an ancient discipline that has its roots in the 3rd- and 4th-century deserts of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, the era of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Monks and hermits made a practice of reciting a number of the Psalms each day. In the beginning, they did all this from memory. When St. Benedict came along in the 6th century, he codified this practice in his famous Rule, written to help the monks in his communities live harmoniously with one another, develop humility and self-discipline, and build a solid structure for their spiritual lives.
I first learned about lectio divina twenty-five years ago when I came into contact with New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The Hermitage is part of a thousand-year-old congregation that was started by an Italian solitary known as St. Romuald of Ravenna. Romuald began as a regular monk in a large abbey but early on received a call to much more solitude and silence than was available in the dormitory-like setting in which he lived. He eventually received permission from his abbot to go live and train with a local hermit and spent the rest of his life either living alone or forming very small communities of solitaries, then moving on to do it again.
What linked these communities of hermit/monks was the conviction that our ability to see—by which they meant to know reality—is dramatically hampered by over-stimulation, hurry, stress, the taking on of unnecessary responsibilities, too much talk, too many distractions, too much self-indulgence, and too much emotional turmoil, especially anger. Lectio divina trains the mind to follow a different track. Modern Camaldolese monks thus devote a significant amount of time each day to the practice, and oblates are urged to do the same. It is meant to be a time of refreshment and rejuvenation, not a chore, and it was one of the first disciplines I adopted when I became an oblate two decades ago.
There are four basic steps involved in the process:
1) Slow, careful reading and rereading, often aloud, of a short piece of Scripture, looking for the literal meaning of the text and noticing how it may connect to other passages in the Bible.
2) Meditation, or meditatio, which involves ruminating on a word or phrase in this paragraph that has begun to “shimmer,” or call attention to itself; noticing what images, concepts, memories, and other thoughts come to mind in this pondering phase.
3) Oracio, or prayer that arises naturally during this time of pondering; we speak to God about concerns that have revealed themselves to us during the time of rumination; we confess; we talk to God about the needs of others; we give thanks.
4) Contemplatio, or resting silently in the presence of God. Nowadays this is often referred to as “contemplative prayer” and there are several different methods we can use to help us still our minds.
Just as the Camaldolese promised it would, a twenty-year practice of lectio divina has moved me closer to a contemplative way of life. Yet as David Ulin clearly points out, reading great novels and short stories is a contemplative act too. Why, then, have I been having so much trouble focusing on the literature I once loved? Writing this essay has helped me see that to a significant degree, I am still walling off my spiritual practices from the rest of life, drawing a line between the sacred and the so-called profane. This realization comes as a shock. I had no idea that I was such a “compartmentalized contemplative.” I have also realized that somewhere along the line, I developed a spiritual hangup about literary writing, which for the long years before my reconversion to Christianity served as my substitute religion.
The beginning of a solution for me has been to incorporate a form of lectio into my reading of literature. Obviously, it’s not a perfect fit. Lectio divina involves ruminating on very short passages of Scripture, whereas novels can go on for four hundred pages. But there are basic principles to the practice that are helping me slowly recover my ability to read deeply and well. What are these?
1) Eliminating distractions before I even start: Part of my preparation for doing lectio on Scripture each morning is to make a wide berth around my phone and my computer and head for a quiet place where I can be completely alone. I don’t eat breakfast before I do lectio because then I would be thinking about food. I don’t listen to music or read other things while I am focusing on that scripture passage. As best as I can, I give it my undivided attention.
2) Not making personal demands on the text: My receptivity to what Scripture has to say during lectio is almost entirely dependent on my bringing an open mind and heart to the enterprise. If I start complaining to myself that the passage is dry or boring or too difficult, I immediately get stuck and nothing further happens.
3) Working at listening well: This is the flip side of making demands. The skill of listening is highly prized in the Rule of St. Benedict. Listening well to literature is in many ways the same thing as listening well to another human being, particularly if that person is sharing something complicated and intimate. Good listening requires consciously remembering particular words, paying attention to tone of voice, observing gestures and facial expressions—in short, carefully storing the details in my memory. It takes humility to listen well, both to people and to literature.
4) Proceeding with anticipation. Anticipating that something good and possibly even wonderful will emerge every time I do lectio is different from making personal demands on the text. Anticipation is a joyful, expectant, and grateful attitude that predisposes me to enter into mystery with eagerness and courage. It keeps me from shying away when I see something on the horizon that might upset me. Instead, I must trust that the work has something important to teach.
These four principles can be applied to texts of any length. Obviously, if I am trying to read a difficult, 400-page novel, I can’t do it in one setting. What I try to do in this case is simply set aside a chunk of time each day just for this book. Maybe it’s only a half-hour, but if I come to it early enough in the day, before my mind is too tired to focus, it can become a little sanctuary in the midst of my responsibilities, something I look forward to rather than dread. I recently tried this method with Eugene Vodolazkin’s amazingly beautiful and complex novel Laurus, and I know I got much more out of it than I would have if I had tried to power-browse my way through.
Ulin ends his essay this way: “Reading has now become an act of meditation, with all of meditation’s attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.” And thanks to what I have learned from the practice of lectio divina, I, too, am starting to recover my lost capacity for reading literature.