Asked to recount what we remember about our favorite teachers, we often recall reasons why their demeanor made a lasting impression on us. They may not have been the most brilliant woman or cleverest man, but they taught lessons from their heart; they related to their students on a human level, inspiring them to pursue excellence and to listen to the mystery of their own life call.
Listening is the first rule of formative reading. We allow the text to become our teacher. We shift from modes of mastery, typical of informational reading, to the attitude of docility that characterizes formative reading. As spiritual readers, we let the power of Jesus’ words form the bridge between reason and faith.
Imagine being invited by a great king to enjoy a royal banquet. The table is fantastic—fish, fowl, fruit. The options are so rich we at first don’t know what to choose. Decorum tells us to select not too much and not too little. Just the right amount of food, slowly savored, will satisfy us and show the king our appreciation. Something comparable happens in formative reading when we choose wisely the nourishment we want to receive at the banquet table of Holy Scripture and the writings of the spiritual masters. The second rule, that of selection, enables us to spiral into the words we read and to uncover their inner riches.
The third rule of formative reading is rumination. We, so to speak, “chew over” the text we select. What is it saying to us? How does this saying apply to our life? Why do these words resonate in our soul and how do they affect our relationship with God here and now? How can we apply the rich nourishment received in spiritual reading to the day to day situations in which we find ourselves? The “morsel” we have ruminated upon begins to move from our lips into our mind; it sinks deeper still into our heart and helps us to obey the directives coming from God in our daily life.
The fourth rule involves assimilation. The nourishment we have selected and meditated upon becomes the ever present background of our life. We pause frequently during the day to bring the text to the forefront of our thoughts. It prepares us to ask God for what we need; to thank God for what has been given to us; and to praise the Lord. We reaffirm our desire to both hear and heed what we have read.
The fifth rule is to foster contemplation. An inner stilling lifts us beyond the demands of immediacy towards an experience of God’s awe-inspiring presence. In the Book of Common Prayer, for the second Sunday of Advent, we read:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning: grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
Formative reading is first of all a matter of hearing, not with the outer informational ear but with the inner ear of seeking divine direction disclosures. We read not just with our eyes and mind but with our heart. We do not stop at the first clearness-or the first response to the text; we go on to discover the second clearness—what was missed on first reading. Was the text inviting us to change our life? Do we want to do so and are we ready to endure self-humiliation and self-emptying? Are we able to identify with the kenosis of Jesus? Have we taken a moment to mark what we want to return to on second reading as food for meditation and contemplative prayer?
Formative reading opens us to every facet of our cognitive and effective, our sensible and responsible heart. It teaches us to function in the world not for our own glory but for God’s. Learning in this way means taking the text to heart, letting it enter our here-and-now life and helping us to inwardly digest what God asks of us today and always.
From these holy heights, we return to the richness of the ordinary. The sixth rule of formative reading is implementation. Having become more open to the Spirit in all that we say and do enables us to flow with whatever God wills. This tranquil mood is an unmistakable mark of our having become, through the art and discipline of formative reading, a channel by which the wisdom of God’s word moves through us to others.
What is to be revealed in the life to come remains unknown even to the best of teachers, but now we can begin to implement what we have learned. By following the six rules of formative reading we can do our part, with the help of grace, to enkindle the fire of God’s love and renew the face of the earth.