John and Jesus

Irina Dumitrescu has published a captivating article at Longreads.com, entitled Reading Lessons. It is a bit of a long read, but well worth it. She offers a lyrical meditation on deep reading and the way in which her experience of, and appreciation for, reading has evolved over time.

I like the article because she touches on the physical experience of reading. Not just the active mechanics of  reading but the way in which reading evokes a physical response.

That reading aloud is a physical act is a key principle that informs the approach we take at Hear the Gospel. Here we embrace the physical aspects of reading.  Perhaps even more fully than Ms. Dumitrescu because a) we concern ourselves with reading ALOUD specifically, and b) scripture often places greater physical demands on the reader than other works of God or man. But it’s a pleasure to discover that the author’s experience of reading also touches on the physical.

Reading aloud is physical

While reading, the author describes how  she has experienced, “… flashes of grace, spaces of half an hour here and there when I could connect so directly to the language of a poem that it felt as though an electric charge were surging back and forth between my heart and the page…”

She describes the way in which her body, “used to help me find my way into difficult texts; it was a matter of synchronizing it, aligning it, relaxing it to accept the words.”

As Lay Readers, our encounter with the text of the Bible, and our acceptance of the experience it offers us, can have a powerful and even transformative effect on us; not just intellectually but physically. To reach and fully realize the text for listening audiences requires physical engagement. It requires not just articulation, but physical ENERGY. As readers, we are the catalyst for that experience that provides an “electric charge.”

Discovering the physical aspects of reading

I’ve long held that the best way to practice a speech or public recitation of any kind is to take a long walk (preferable out of earshot.) Speak out loud as you walk. Speaking, or even reading, while standing and walking requires physical engagement on the part of the reader. We breath more deeply, we project more, and our reading becomes infused with greater energy as a result of our physical exertion.

So, I was delighted by the author’s report, by way of Hazlitt, that Coleridge like to compose his poems while walking through the copse-wood or over uneven ground. The key to discovering the pace and rhythm of his poetry is to retrace those steps with your voice. Similarly, Wordsworth walked as he composed but preferred a straight gravel walk. The author reports that, “To read Wordsworth’s verse, I had had to imitate the movements of his body as he composed it.”

For me, the key to the writings of Paul was to imagine him on his feet, pacing while dictating letters to congregations of fledgling and often unruly Christians hundreds of miles away. This gave me a greater appreciation for the urgency and often emphatic tone of voice he adopts. He felt urge and understood the need to project in order to grab and hold the attention of a listening audience.

The terror of reading aloud

The author goes on to describe the writings of old English poets and poems, Aldhelm and Solomon and Saturn. The former likens training to read difficult texts to a kind of athletic or warrior training.

Saturn wants to hear the Lord’s Prayer so that he might be “gebrydded” by it, which is thought by some to mean frightened or even terrified by it. As Ms. Dumistrescu puts it, “Solomon and Saturn imagines that a text can grab the reader so profoundly and emotionally that the act of encountering it might feel like terror.

Reading aloud can feel like terror to some, but the idea here, I think, is that the act of reading and hearing scripture read aloud itself can have a physically transformative and profound effect on the reader and listener.

A bias for action

The author even describes the effect that rehearsing a play can have on actors – even untrained actors. She describes the way in which the text of a play invokes instinctive gestures and movements on the part of the actors. The text exerts this power over the human body and commands physical responses.

As readers, we engage with the text, respond to the text and invite — and even calling — the congregation to respond in kind.  We invite the audience to become physically engaged. The Bible has a bias for action. We are called to do something.

All of this calls to mind another core principle of reading scripture aloud. Any reading has both emotional as well as intellectual appeal. Emotional engagement requires physical engagement. We read not simply to parse words for meaning, instruction and law. We read for the experience. And that experience is physical.

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