By Paul Connelly
I recently had an insight that was so forehead-slappingly obvious that I’m embarrassed to admit it took so long. (So if you already have had this insight, I apologize for wasting your time. You may want to skip this blog.) It’s this – read Scripture aloud.
Many years ago, the pastoral assistant at my church asked me to join the team of lectors who take turns reading Scripture at mass. I said yes, partly because I have trouble saying no and also because I had warm memories of my father, who read for many years at his parish in Oshawa. It works out that I read about once a month, so over time I had the opportunity to explore many different books of the Bible.
When I started out, I quickly realized I needed to practice the day before I was scheduled to read. Just showing up at Church a few minutes before the service is pretty well useless. Once I started practicing, I was surprised how much different reading aloud was from just scanning the passage silently. Actually hearing the sounds made a much larger difference to my learning than I had anticipated. I guess the “learning-by-doing” people are onto something here.
I found the main advantage of speaking (and hearing) was that I could try out different tones and methods. It helped me get out of a tendency to read every line with the same cadence, regardless of punctuation. It also allowed me to find the correct word in each sentence on which to place the emphasis. All of a sudden passages started to come alive and take on new meanings.
A retreat in 120 seconds
One example is 1 Corithians 13. I think for many of us this passage has been repeated so often it has lost its impact. Much to my surprise, when I read it aloud earlier this year, it was almost like someone talking admiringly to a friend about a common friend. (“You know, so-and-so is really patient and kind. I really admire that, since there’s so much impatience and willingness to take offence at trifles these days.”)
And it also gave me the opportunity for self-reflection, even while reading to the congregation. “Love is patient (pause while thinking Jeez, why do I lose my patience so much), love is kind (such a little word, kind. But what a challenge, to be a kind person). It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. (Such little words, so commonplace, but when I hear them spoken simply, conversationally almost, they hit like a hammer.) It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (Why can’t I be like that?) Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” By the time I had finished reading, I felt I had spent an entire retreat examining my inner life in the 120 seconds it had taken to read the passage. I think we all know how easy it is fall into shallowness and cynicism. As Leonard Cohen says in Villanelle For Our Time, “We loved the easy and the smart.” But St. Paul shows there is another way.
And here’s where I think reading aloud really makes a difference. Once we’re shown the way, we need to commit to it. If I use my lungs, vocal chords, and mouth to physically proclaim the words, then in a way I’m embodying them. I’m committing myself to them in a way that psychologically doesn’t always happen when I read silently.
And I think this commitment can go beyond myself and can reach out to others. I’m thinking of my mother here. She’s getting on in years, but each year that she’s been able to attend mass on the anniversary of my father’s death, she has arranged with the pastor that I would do the reading for that day, which includes this passage:
And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25, 7-9)
The opportunity to read those words to the assembled people has been a gift to me, I think. It has allowed me to make a statement of faith. And I believe my mother has also been consoled by the promise that death isn’t the final word, that because of God it doesn’t all end in tears: This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Friends: Tell us your own experiences with reading scripture. What has made it come alive for you?