The ancient practice of lectio divina is a gentle discipline. Reading Scripture slowly, listening for the word or phrase that speaks to you, pausing to consider prayerfully what gift is being offered in those words for this moment, is a rich practice that can help maintain spiritual focus and equanimity at the center of even very busy lives. That practice can be adapted and imported into the way we read other kinds of texts. It can change the way we listen to the most ordinary conversation. It can become a habit of mind. It can help us locate what is nourishing and helpful in any words that come our way—especially in what Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said”—and it can equip us with a personal repertoire of sentences, phrases and single words that serve us as touchstones or talismans when we need them.

I have long valued Kenneth Burke’s simple observation that literature is “equipment for living.” We glean what we need from it as we go. In each reading of a book or poem or play we may be addressed in new ways, depending on what we need from it, even if we are not fully aware of those needs. The skill of good reading is not only to notice what we notice, but to allow ourselves to be addressed. To take it personally. To ask, even as you read secular texts, that the Spirit enable us to receive whatever gift is there for our growth and our use. What we most hope for, those of us whose lives are full of reading and who teach others to read, is that we, and they, might continue as we make our way through a wilderness of printed, spoken, and electronically transmitted words, to glean what will equip us to navigate wisely and kindly—and also wittily–a world in which competing discourses can so easily confuse us in seeking truth and entice us falsely.

Periodically, when I find myself involved in conversations about reading life, I am moved to share a few of my gleanings—phrases and sentences that have helped me over the years to regain perspective, or a sense of direction, to get over myself when I need to, to heal from sorrow, to laugh, to reclaim my deepest desires, to remember my deepest purposes. My point isn’t to show off my personal collection, but to suggest how I have been helped by various pieces of equipment for living in the hope that you also, dear reader, will consider the richness of all you have allowed yourself to learn “by heart”—a phrase that doesn’t simply mean verbatim, but rather refers to what you keep nearby and available for ongoing encouragement and direction.

I think, for instance of Henry James hope for Isabel Archer, that she “be a person upon whom nothing is lost.” I’ve loved that phrase. It reminds me of a way of living to be aspired to: to be a person for whom every encounter is food for thought, reflection, prayer, or perhaps lively resistance, who notices word choices and recognizes need and gets the joke and pauses over what might easily be passed by. The hope expressed in that line is fueled by a reassurance I have found in words Robert Bolt assigns to Sir Thomas More, whose deep moral intelligence links piety to precision of thought: “God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!” Wit is the sharp instrument that prunes away what obscures the things that matter most.

In a similar way I am inspired by a line in Richard Wilbur’s “The Eye”: “Charge me to see in all bodies the beat of Spirit.” It is a reminder to look beyond what we’ve been conditioned to consider attractive, to recognize how the Holy Ghost not only “broods over the bent world,” but inhabits it, even the bent and broken parts, and provides for the humblest life forms the “force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Wilbur’s prayer points me back to one of George Eliot’s loveliest lines at the end of Middlemarch, when she reminds us of what we owe “to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” I thought of that line the day my mother died, and think of it thankfully when, in churches, I cross paths with so many inconspicuous men and women who are not leaders, but faithful followers, who embody the truth that “charity . . . vaunteth not itself,” but who, as Mary Oliver would put it, “blaze” in the light that illumines them.

I thought, too, when my mother died, and when one of my most revered teachers died last year, and another this spring, of the large and sobering truth we find at the end of King Lear, “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.” Ripeness arrives subtly, not only in the fruit, but in the farmer who recognizes it. It has been my privilege to be near a few people who know they are in the process of dying or preparing for death, and who take on that last assignment with dignity and grace—some even with a kind of quiet joy. Such readiness is ripeness, indeed.

I cherish relationships with other mentors I’ve met only in print, who have modeled for me epiphanic and transformative ways of seeing. Annie Dillard is one; when she looks at a tree she sees a process rife with energy and purpose: “A tree stands there, . . . mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes; it splits, sucks, and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green, fringed fling.” She, and Thoreau, and Mary Oliver have helped me to see, as Auden put it, “all objects as subjects,” and, in a sense, all nouns as verbs.

I have also been helped at important times by poets who gave me words for the darkness. The Psalms and Job and Jeremiah offer a strong and important tradition of lament, outrage, bewilderment, anguish, a language for human suffering that must not be bypassed on the way to joy. But even in lesser sources I have found lines that, in enabling me to name the darkness, have helped me remember the light. The bleak last line of Randall Jarrell’s poem, “90 North,” for instance, which a beloved professor of mine often quoted, tells a truth about pain that needs not to be neglected: “Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” I believe all pain can be turned to God’s good purposes, but I believe also in the importance of plumbing the depths of loss, if only because that gives us, finally, some measure of what redemption means.

There are other lines that come when I need them, to comfort, to remind, to lighten my spirits, to offer respite from bureaucratic drivel: Basil Rathbone’s exclamation, for instance, when, as Sherlock Holmes, he burst into a room and looked around, “Hello! What’s this?”– a line that cheerfully greets whatever appears on the day’s landscape as a clue or an invitation rife with possibility. Or Auden’s “look if you must, but you will have to leap,” which helps me accept that we can’t hedge all our bets before we make decisions. Or a line from Gloria Anzaldua that helps me imagine and empathize with those who straddle cultures or classes: “To live in the Borderlands / you must live sin fronteras / be a crossroads.” Or the lively admonition of Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer that I have passed on to numerous graduating seniors, about to make their way into a marketplace replete with seductions and incentives to compromise:

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

It is a vision of generous unorthodoxy worth holding as a standard even as we put on our business suits and rush out with a mug of morning coffee. My hope for those in our exam-driven public schools as well as those in private colleges or professional reading groups or suburban book clubs is that they will make the effort to learn by heart words that will foster loving kindness and sustain the long gaze that refuses to be averted even from what is hard. If we dwell on them and dwell with them, the words we need will find their way into our dreams and into the rhythms of our breath. Lines like this one, for instance, that still stuns me with its beauty and hope: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me.” Or the simple command from Deuteronomy that sometimes redirects my flagging energies: “Therefore choose life.”

“In the Beginning was the Word.” The rich gift of words that have come from that originating Word that is ours to use and care for is a mystery worth much pondering. Surely, among our most urgent and joyful responsibilities as stewards of that gift is to tell stories, to listen well, to resist the forces that flatten and inflate and beat language into alluring lies, and to stay in conversation—a word whose original meaning was to dwell in community or walk together. We need words that will surface when it is time to speak peace to violence or truth to power. To memorize poems is to prepare for those moments, and to put away for a time of need provisions that will fuel us and see us through.  There is enough for the journey, and more than enough.

Back to the Essays Page