Why Sacred Reading?

When I was a little kid I already had an anxious disposition. One of my earliest convictions was that all adults had access to the secret meaning of life. That they were deliberately keeping it from me, laughing at my inability to decode the universe. I don’t know where this idea came from, but I remember it disappeared pretty quickly after the Columbine shooting, which happened very close to where I grew up. That’s the first time I recall thinking that no one knew what they were doing, and we were all doomed to muddle through life, purposeless and alone.

Those were two pretty extreme beliefs to swing through before I even hit puberty. My purposeless and alone phase lasted much longer than my “all the adults are deliberately withholding enlightenment” phase, but it was equally shallow. Spurred on by untreated mental illness, a brain that was still developing, and too much emo music, my philosophy of meaninglessness was more of an aesthetic and collection of empty phrases than a real understanding of what I meant by any of it.

We’re two years into the pandemic now. I turned 30 in the first year, and while I don’t usually celebrate my birthday it felt kind of sad. But I assured myself I’d have a catch-up celebration the following year. 30 came and went. Celebrating the end of my 20s on my 32nd birthday sounds exhausting and pathetic. I have to accept that it’s a landmark that has simply passed me by. So many people have had experiences like this over the last couple years. Significant moments delayed, but still with a hope that we could make up for lost time, slowly fading into the realization that lost time is now the reality of our days.

I’ve been feeling a lot like I’ve lost a sense of interiority. I pump so much information in, constantly seeking out stimulus, that I have very little time or spare cycles in my brain to really absorb the things I do take in and integrate them into my own headspace. The pandemic was not the cause of this trend, but it accelerated it to the point where moments of reflection and silence are almost non-existent. Since I very seldom leave my home anymore, I suffer from a lack of stimulus in my external world, so I’m always checking twitter, listening to podcasts, playing video games, often all at the same time. At the beginning of the pandemic this felt like a survival strategy, but now sometimes it feels like I am retreating from any moment of solitude I might have. As a result, I’ve noticed a lack of attention and connection to my own thoughts in recent months.

Additionally, I spend much more time thinking about mortality, legacy, and what it means to live a meaningful life. I don’t have a religious tradition that can help bring context to life’s big questions. Not for lack of trying. Especially after college, I explored the idea of joining different churches. I studied music in college. Listening to the evolution of liturgical music over the centuries lit something up inside me. So I tried, I gave the arguments from various religious leaders a good listen, but the idea of God never settled into anything satisfying or real. But the music was always there. And books have also always reached out to a secret something that feels more significant than just electrical impulses tickling my brain meat. There is something profound and beautiful that happens when two entities reach out across space and time to engage in a piece of art together. Something new is created every time someone visits sparks from other minds. In that I see something divine.

I’ve been reading The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile. I’m very interested in the idea of starting my own secular sacred reading practice. ter Kuile argues that even when looking for meaning and connection in a secular life, returning to the rituals and traditions that have been carefully honed through religious practice over centuries can give us a roadmap for exploring meaning. Sacred reading is a broad term encompassing many traditions over many different faiths, but at the core boils down to approaching texts repeatedly with intention and attention. Really mulling over the text, approaching it slowly and deliberately. The idea that “sacred” is something we do, rather than something that is conferred on a text, object, or practice from an authority figure really connects with me. I hope that revisiting some of the texts that impacted me will create a conduit to examine my life and the world around me.

So why share this journey? One of the things that Caster ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan posit in their podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, is that one of the things that makes something sacred is the act of community. So I’m putting this out there in the world where other people can see it and possibly comment on it. Maybe even join me in looking at texts through the lens of sacred practice and ritual. If you’re here, I invite you to participate to whatever degree feels comfortable.

This experiment is somewhat out of my comfort zone. When I did my little church tour in my early twenties, Bible study and reading felt foreign and uncomfortable. The stories of the Bible were not engraved on my soul like they were for people who grew up in the church. I felt as though I were failing an English assignment, missing something on the page that was plainly visible to everyone else. Zoltan and ter Kuile, two agnostic/atheist divinity students, were able to explain the process of sacred reading in a way that I have never been able to access before, and now it’s time to try to put it into practice.

Harry Potter was an important text growing up. My mom read the first book aloud to me and my sister when it first came out. We ordered a British copy online on the recommendation of one of my mom’s AOL book friends. As the books came out, this group reading between the three of us remained an important ritual. When the last one was released in 2007, my mom asked if we felt that we were too old to read the books aloud together. My sister and I both exclaimed that of course we weren’t. It was something that brought us together. HP was also the first time I got involved in transformative fandom works. So when I started listening to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it connected in a way that Bible stories didn’t.

Of course, in the intervening years, the author has made the Harry Potter series something I’m not sure I can return to with that level of generosity and reverence. I still appreciate the podcast, and enjoy hearing ter Kuile and Zoltan work through the familiar story beats through different lenses, but it cannot be a scared text that I choose for myself. Instead, the first book I’m going to attempt is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. It’s an odd move – an avowed atheist to choosing a famous work of Christian apologia for their first secular sacred reading. However, I first read this text a few years ago in the throes of a very serious depression. While it failed to convert me, it did act as a very important source of solace and an interesting lens with which to view my life and my struggles with mental illness. It was the first book I thought of when I decided I wanted to take this on as an experiment. I have no idea how well it will go.

The actual plan:

I plan to spend a few days with each chapter. On the first day, I will read the chapter through the lens of a theme that I draw randomly from my Sigil Cartomancy Deck from Amanda Lee Anderson. Then, I will spend a couple days interacting with that chapter using different sacred reading techniques I’ve learned about from ter Kuile and Zoltan, and possibly make some of my own up. Then I will spend a day reflecting on what I might have gotten out of spending several days with the same small snippet of text before moving on to the next one. I don’t anticipate it will always be a success, but I’m excited to give it a try. That’s the thing about practice – it won’t always go well. But you have to keep the faith that you will get better at the skill. And that improving the skill improves something inside the core of your person. My two decade long love affair with the piano prepared me well for this.

So I’ll be back soon with my initial impressions of the first chapter of The Screwtape Letters as read through the theme of Connection, which I just drew from my deck. This should be interesting. The Screwtape Letters is an intentionally sardonic text, laying out the ways not to live a life, rather than acting as straightforward instruction. I look forward to embarking on this journey.

A sigil card for "Connection" containing an illustration of deconstructed letter forms of letters contained in the word "Connection"

All in all, this idea seems cute. Might delete later.