Reading the Great Spiritual Writers of the Past

A stained-glass depiction of Saint Julian at Norwich Cathedral.
Photo: Ian, https://flic.kr/p/5gHBTp

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. – Julian of Norwich, “Long Text 27,” Reflections of Divine Love
Many of us come to know spiritual writers and mystics through a quote that resonates, challenges, comforts, or inspires. We are so taken in by the quote that we want more of the same, But when we go looking, we do not always find exactly what we were searching for. Often, we encounter something complicated, demanding, strange, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes troubling. Is it worthwhile to read the difficult texts of spiritual writers who write such inspiring words? I think it is.
The truth we meet in the quotes that strike our souls is meaningful because it is grounded in the infinite, complex truth of God. This means that, beneath these quotes, there is wisdom that informs and shapes the quality and resonance of this thought. Without this undergirding, the quote’s few words lose their true power. To search for the structures of deep truth is part of the search for God. The truth of God always stands the same, but the way we understand truth on the surface changes over time. Just so, every era has gifts to offer. There is always truth that people of one era know, which has not been understood before or is forgotten by the ages that follow. These texts that have lasted show themselves to be able to reach into the deep structures of truth that resonate across the ages. Thus, these truths offer new insights and possibilities into our own limited worldviews. Writings from another time can also chasten and awaken us to see something afresh, or to recognize a long overdue need to repent and turn to God. Just think of what we have learned in the last few years from our Indigenous brothers and sisters about the dangers of believing that we have the only way of seeing the world, and not listening to wisdom of the elders.
So, how do we go deeper? Here are some ideas.
1. Do not be afraid.
Follow the quote that pulls you, or let someone you trust lead you to a good fit, and just begin. If you don’t know where to start, don’t worry; you have already started by going to church. Scripture is of God and it is a strange and ancient text. You are already grappling with a hard book. Going beyond the lectionary and reading the strange stuff alongside the Gospels will help you grow acclimatized to the complexity of Truth. Reading with wonder expands thinking. Reading scripture will help spiritual texts because most ancient spiritual writers are steeped in scripture.
2. Look for love.
A fundamental teaching of our faith is that we are called to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Thus, spiritual reading should help us do this. Saint Augustine teaches that, if we read scripture in a way that does not build up love for God and neighbour, we are not understanding it, but when we do find love in a text, even where others don’t find love, it is good. I think this principle of Saint Augustine can be applied to all texts that are intended for our spiritual growth. Love is not always evident on the surface of a work, but this is when we are called to look again. Julian of Norwich, who penned the epigraph, says that her work is useless unless it makes the reader love Jesus more. When we read, we should always ask, “how does what is being said here increase my love for God and my neighbour?” In so doing, we follow God’s desire for us.
3. Read humbly.
When we come to ideas and imagery with which we are uncomfortable in spiritual writing, we might feel tempted to stop reading, glaze over the text, or criticize the writer. In order to really receive from spiritual teachers of another time, it is important to throw away, at least for a moment, any doctrine of progress that says we moderns know better. Assume that the writer is more intelligent than you are – after all, the book has stood the test of time. Give up the assumption that every culturally uncomfortable thing is wrong. Instead, when you are uncomfortable, ask yourself why you are uncomfortable and what assumptions are you bringing to the text. If there is fear in your assumption or discomfort, what are you afraid of? What would it look like if what this text teaches was true in your life? How do the uncomfortable parts work with the parts of the text that resonate with you as truth? How does the puzzle work together, and why does it work this way?
4. Let the text read you.
When we ask questions of ourselves, we let the text lead. This does not mean we have to agree with all the details of what the text teaches. But if we have suspended judgment long enough to be vulnerable, and if we let the text ask us questions about ourselves and about truth, then the text becomes more than a piece of new information to accumulate: it becomes a friend and a teacher through whom we can grow and learn about ourselves and about truth. Truth is always larger than what we can grasp on our own, so letting a spiritual writer stretch our truth is integral to the life of faith. If Truth is infinite, our truths can always use some expanding and they will not expand if we always come to a text as the one in control.
Spiritual writings are meant to change our lives. Even if you are not ready to be changed, they are good to read anyway. If you are prepared to be changed, then read slowly and prayerfully, searching for God. You may not agree with or understand everything you read, but, in the end, the God of truth and love is always willing to be found. All we have to do is look.
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a counsellor and writer currently learning from the medieval theologian and mystic, Julian of Norwich. She is part of St. Margaret’s Anglican, where she served for a long time as a pastor. To learn more about her work visit the Anchorhold.

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