A few months ago, I happened across this article, which discusses how great writers of the past learned their craft by hand-copying lengthy passages from other great writers. The idea coincided with some other reading I’ve done lately about how very physical our mental processes really are, and I decided the method was a definite must-try. But whose work should I copy? Whose words did I love enough to, in a sense, inscribe them on my brain?
I spent some time with the question, returning to it off and on for weeks, but as I thought back to all the wonderful books I have read that shaped not only my writing style but my world view, suddenly all I could see was their flaws. On and on, I considered and dismissed, until finally it hit me. There was only one Author I loved enough to imitate.
So I got out my Bible.
It took a quarter of a second or so to realize what I was proposing was no writing exercise; it was prayer. Half a second after that, I realized the idea could not possibly be new. In fact, it is so not-new, it’s even mentioned in the article. I was just too dense to pick up on it the first time through.
For a few months now, I have sat down almost every night with my Bible, my journal, and my pen, but the words in my journal are never my own. I think about what to pray for, and then I spend a few minutes flipping pages (not usually at random, but sometimes) until I find words that seem to “fit.” Sometimes I choose scriptures that speak directly to my intention, but not always. Sometimes I choose a passage I do not understand; sometimes I choose one that is well-beloved. It’s often no more than two or three verses, though occasionally I choose an entire canticle or parable. Whatever it is, I simply copy it several times until… until. There is no formula, no quota, no limit. It’s similar to lectio divina, only with a pen, and I find that the pen helps me keep my focus. I cannot lose my place when the words are there, in black and white, to mark it.
As the weeks progressed, I began to notice some strange things about this practice. The first is that I stuck with it. The discipline of private prayer has eluded me for most of my life because mine is not the kind of mind that takes kindly to things like repetition and silence. I need sound. I need light, which means I need to keep my eyes open. I need activity, and copying scripture provides all of these. It is a joy that makes me echo the words of St. Therèse:
…I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons; perfection seems simple; I see that it is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.
Of course, it is a sign of my own spiritual immaturity that I should find the joy of prayer to be strange. However, I noticed something far stranger, a trend in the scripture passages I chose to copy–or rather, the ones I chose not to copy–that helped me understand what God is truly doing in my life, and it was this: I do not typically write the Psalms. This puzzled me to no end because the Psalms are the prayer book of the Church, the javelins of our holy arsenal, and when I began, I assumed this was the book where I would spend most of my time. Yet, night after night, I would sit down, open my Bible to see “The Lord is my shepherd” or “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”… and I would turn the page. When I finally realized why, I knew I had to share the insight, for it is not mine to keep. It is the inheritance of all Christian people.
The reason I do not tend to write the Psalms is that many of them have already become not just part of my consciousness, but part of my body. I have been a cantor at Mass for fifteen years, and in that time, my relationship with the Psalms has become both intellectual and spiritual, but it is also physical. I have shaped them with breath and lips and tongue, felt their vibrations as they resonate through my bones, even choked upon them into a microphone. The Psalms have already become part of me. I do not mean they have nothing left to teach me (what hubris would that be!), only that a connection exists which I do not have with other books. I do not always live the message of the Psalms I have sung any more than I always live the glory of the Eucharist I have tasted, drunk, and chewed. But if we truly believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us–if we believe that, in the Eucharist, we become what we receive–then we also believe that our flesh is called to become the Word. Through my pen, God is shaping His words with my body, and my body with His Word, just as He has done through my voice for so long.
“In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[i] There is no one right way to encounter the scriptures, and I certainly do not mean to present my own way as a standard. But however we encounter God’s Word, we must do it with our whole selves. Let us read it with our eyes and ponder it with our intellect, but do not let it end there. Let us listen to it when it is proclaimed, and then proclaim it. Let us sing it; let us taste and chew it. Let us smell it, whether in bread and wine or ink and paper. Let us touch the pages upon which it is inscribed, and then inscribe our own. God grant that we may never relegate the scriptures to the mind as if they were they were made of ordinary words, but rather take them into our flesh to dwell: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart.”[ii]
[i] Ephesians 6:16-17
[ii] Jeremiah 6:16