I’ve always enjoyed reading books aloud and being read to; I suppose this is due to the emotional and spiritual calm I experienced when my parents gathered us together and read to us when we were very young. There were no screens dividing us into isolated units of humanity in those days, just radios, and the huge televisions reserved for parental or supervised viewing, so listening to stories has always made me feel safe, loved, and highly entertained. Maybe there’s something about the voice telling us stories that awakens ancient cells, reminding us of our connections, our need to gather near the fire’s warmth to listen and imagine together, to remember who we are, where we have been, and to ponder what is asked of us as humans beholden to the rest of life on earth.
We were read to in the morning, at lunchtime, and before bed, often falling asleep to the soothing or repetitive story we favored. There’s something more intimate about the reader and listener sharing space than a narrated book on tape, but NPR’s “A Chapter a Day” was my mother’s daily treat as she completed tasks that kept her from devouring her always-present stack of books.
The written word, spoken, was modeled as ritual and offered as spirit food, and so it has always been, for me.
Later, I read to my middle school students, long past the age some colleagues thought it appropriate. My students loved it. It calmed them and gave them a bit of that peace and security I had felt as a child, a time of stillness that required listening, and offered the gift of being together, hearing stories. No academic expectations existed for this little time in the middle of our busy days, and if it lulled a few into needed naps, then the words were twice-blessed medicine. I read to my hospital and hospice patients frequently, too. There are a million ways to pray and awaken to Spirit.
On our long drives to my parents’ home for holidays, Phillip and I read books to each other, making the miles fly, and very early in our relationship, the practice spilled over into our daily morning rituals. At lunchtime and bedtime, we usually turn to separate books we’re reading, but it’s not uncommon for one of us to stop and share a paragraph or two that we’ve found especially startling, musical, or enlightening.
During this time of year, as our bodies and spirits journey into darkness towards the solstice that signals the light will rise again, we have always chosen books that are especially nourishing food for our spirits. In the early hours of morning, Phillip walks the dogs; I feed the cats, make our coffee and tea, and light the Christmas tree and candles. Then, we sit and read to each other, a blessed time for all of us. I think of it as reading ourselves awake rather than to sleep.
This Advent, I’ve chosen Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, and Phillip has chosen Malidoma Patrice Somé’s The Healing Wisdom of Africa. While neither is new to us, reading them aloud, in small bites, has created a beautiful synchronous chorus of ideas echoing and underscoring themes that resonate with who we are, what we believe, and what we need to hear again during this time. These sacred hours and books seem to clarify and enhance our dreams for all the ways the world might work to solve the problems facing our Earth and all living beings. What else is the darkness for but to listen and to examine what we will become in the light?
I highly recommend both books and authors we’re reading this year. In past years, our Advent reading has been wide-ranging, including poetry collections, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; writers like Rumer Godden; Wallace Stegner; Richard Rohr; Aldo Leopold; Wendell Berry; Parker Palmer; Annie Dillard; Joan Chittister; Loren Cruden (we traveled with her book, Spirit of Place for one entire year) and so many more. We’ve shared a very eclectic mix and genre of books, whether the authors were famous and the books old friends or newcomers with fresh stories, wisdom, insights, and beauty to share. It’s always interesting to hear how our chosen pieces augment each other’s melodies and ideas. We sometimes pause just to allow the gifts to bless our spirits and settle.
Living alone requires amendments to the practice, but a little creativity can help. Most phones have speakers, so friends can read to each other; there are many ways to video chat; there are books on tape; and simply reading aloud to oneself and pausing to reflect, or perhaps incorporating a lectio divina practice (meditating on small bits of any text that touches your heart and spirit) can deepen the season’s meaning.
You may discover this is a practice you’d like to follow every day. Perhaps you already do, and might share some of your favorite titles and authors in the comments. And please share any other rituals and practices that feed your spirit this time of year.
There are, of course, many ways to waken ourselves to the deep needs of our spirit and the world. In this dark season during this darkest of years, consider reading aloud and allowing the sacred magic of words to create light for your spirit and the way ahead.
All the blessings of the season to you. Be well and safe, and gentle peace.
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