Reading to know we are not alone, part 2

Giles Fraser, erstwhile Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, has a regular column in the Church Times. On 28 October 2011, written before but published after his resignation, he wrote: “one of the most interesting things about these challenging times is how scripture comes alive. Indeed, I do not remember the Bible ever speaking to me as vividly as it does today. As the saying goes, I don’t read scripture: scripture reads me.”

He may have been using the ancient and modern monastic practice of lectio divina, which is one means of opening ourselves to God’s word. Lectio divina can be loosely translated as ‘spiritual reading’, but does not just involve reading. It consists of four movements: lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio.

Lectio is the slow, attentive reading of the chosen scriptural passage, and noting of words or phrases that grasp the attention. Meditatio is the pondering over the text, ruminating on it in God’s presence, maybe focusing on one of these words. In oratio, we allow the text or word to sink into our deepest selves, and allow God to work through them for healing and wholeness. And then all things fall away, and we remain in contemplatio, a simple, wordless contemplation of God and a resting in God’s presence. It is not always that ordered, and sometimes lectio might lead straight to contemplatio, for example.

Ideally, lectio divina is practised at a regular time, daily if possible. The scriptural text should be chosen in advance, and might be the gospel for the day set in the lectionary. The place should be free from distractions, and some visual focus might be helpful. It is important to spend some time in transition from daily activity to the time of prayer, maybe through focusing on the breathing and a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

At Mucknell Abbey, I learnt a practice of corporate lectio divina, a weekly gathering for prayer and sharing of insights about Sunday’s gospel reading. We spent 45 minutes together:

  • Start with a moment of recollection.
  • The leader reads the passage through, pauses for a moment and reads it again.
  • In turn, each member of the group shares the word or phrase that has struck them. Anyone may simply “pass” if they wish.
  • The leader reads the passage for the third time, after which there is a silence for 10 minutes during which people are free to remain seated or go to wherever they wish to ponder/sit with the text in whatever way they wish.
  • Once everyone has returned the passage is read again, after which every member of the group, in turn, shares whatever they wish. Each must feel free simply to say “pass”.
  • When everyone has had the chance to share, the leader invites the group to pray for the person on her/his right for the space of a minute, after which there is the opportunity for a general sharing.
  • End with the Grace or Lord’s Prayer.

Reading to know we are not alone, part 1

In the film Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis is given the words “we read to know we are not alone”. They may well have been his words, probably from An Experiment in Criticism.

We might also read to gain knowledge, and even if we can’t remember what we read, hopefully we can remember where we read it, so we can go back to it later. Or we might read so we get high percentages in one of those “how many of the BBC’s Top 100 Books have you read?” polls, or to appear well-read at dinner parties, and there are many aids to faking the latter.

I am pretty well read, in theory. In practice, I remember very little of what I’ve read. I read quite quickly, but even if I read slowly I wouldn’t remember what I’ve read. But this means that I get the pleasure of reading a good book twice, and it doesn’t matter whether I recall the ending as I read, because I can appreciate the journey again. So my reading resembles my experience a little. Thankfully, we don’t have all our memories in front of us all the time. But we receive a trigger – a sight, smell or sound – and memories flood back. “Do you remember when…?” Although it would be useful to retain some memories, so I can learn from my mistakes.

Reading can also create experience. Scientists have found that “when we read a story and really understand it, we create a mental simulation of the events described by the story”. It is as though reading a novel or biography adds to our experience of the world, a safe way of trying things out, though it shouldn’t substitute for real experience.

Lewis also wrote of “the few” and “the many” readers. “The few” are those who seek out space to read, who must read, who often re-read books, and who are open to being deeply changed by what they read. “The many” read when there is nothing else claiming their attention, do not re-read, and show no sign of being  changed by what they read.

As I’m considering where and what next, I’m reading and re-reading books by people who have similar interests: who have or are seeking a sense of place; who are living and working prophetically; who have experienced the struggles and sometimes the successes. I am not reading in order to follow their example or recreate what they are doing, but because their stories change me. I learn that I am not alone, that I am not particularly special or different, that others doubt and lack confidence and have struggles too. And that somehow gives me hope and the energy to persevere a while longer.


On speed

On 29 September, Phil Hammond, the then Transport Secretary, proposed increasing the speed limit on motorways to 80mph. We’ve been here before. In 2002, the Commons Transport Select Committee looked at raising the limit but decided against the move because it would result in a 5-10% increase in casualties on motorways. We may as well, mayn’t we? After all, Department for Transport figures show that as many as 49% of drivers currently flout the current 70mph limit. But on the other hand, road safety charity Brake claims a move to 80mph would see speeds on Britain’s motorways pushed ever higher.

Higher speeds would lead to more accidents, and more serious accidents. Remember v2 = u2 + 2as and E = ½ mv2 from your school physics? Stopping distances increase according to the square of your speed. Likewise the energy of a collision. The Association of British Drivers says despite the UK’s motorways being significantly busier than other European motorways, there are far fewer fatalities. It seems to me that setting lower speed limits, in order to keep traffic flowing on busier roads (e.g. on the M25), could well be the reason that fatalities are lower.

Seven people died in the terrible multiple pile-up on the M5 near Somerset, and 51 people were injured. If Justine Greening, the new Transport Secretary, goes ahead with the increase in the speed limit, so this sort of event becomes more likely, I wonder how she would sleep at night. And then if – when – it happens again, how will she look the families of the victims in the eye?

But of course, the policy is not about road safety. It is about increasing tax revenues, a ‘stealth tax’ if you like. Most cars are most fuel efficient at a speed between 40-60 mph. Supposing a car has its highest mpg at 55 mph, then it will be 17% less efficient at 70 mph and 28% less efficient at 80 mph, i.e. will use 15% more fuel for the same journey at 80 mph than at 70 mph. That’s 15% more fuel duty revenue into the Treasury coffers. It will be needed to fund the extra cost to the NHS and emergency services.

It’s also a 15% increase in carbon emissions, at a time when we urgently need to reduce them.