Listening, Reading, Praying: Orality, Literacy and Early Christian Monastic Spirituality
Burton-Christie, Douglas, Anglican Theological Review
Sitting near the threshold of his monastic cell, I listened as Father Wadid talked about what it meant for him to live the monastic life in Egypt today. "The center of our life," he said, "is the practice of the gospel. This was true of primitive Christian monasticism. It is still what we aspire to today. Monasticism at its deepest level is a lived response to the gospel-a gospel life." He paused for a moment, letting the silence gather before proceeding. I paused too, trying to take in the meaning of what he had just said. The idea itself was simple enough. I had encountered it often in my reading of the literature of early Christian monasticism. "Whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures," said Abba Antony, expressing simply and directly a bedrock principle of the ancient monks. Still, sitting in the open desert listening to Father Wadid express his own sense of this principle, I found myself struck, for the first time really, by the power of this idea. Suddenly, I was full of questions. What exactly did it mean to conform one's life to the gospel, to act according to the testimony of the scriptures? More to the point, how was one to do it? And what was involved, personally and existentially, in the attempt to fulfill this injunction in one's life?
For the next two hours we pursued these and many related questions in a conversation that seemed only to gain in energy and momentum as we proceeded. We paused from time to time to sip our tea or to drift for a moment within the immense silence of the surrounding desert. Then we would begin again, probing the questions before us. As the conversation unfolded, it became more and more clear to me that for Father Wadid these questions could only be considered within the entire context of his life-that is, within the context of community, liturgy, and a disciplined life of prayer, silence and solitude. Seen and understood within this rich web of life, "practicing the gospel" was something much more complex and demanding than an ethical imperative. It was an immense, all-encompassing interpretive and spiritual challenge. It was a call to open oneself to the vital, unsettling power of the gospel. It was a call to spiritual transformation.
I think on some level I already knew and understood this. My reading of the ancient monastic literature had convinced me of the centrality of scripture in the lives of the monks. But I had not understood the full complexity and intricacy of the interpretive process. In part this is because I had been too focused on scripture as text. I had imagined the interpretive process as something unfolding primarily through the act of reading. I had not yet grappled seriously with the idea that scripture could also exist as a spoken discourse, or understood the extent to which the interpretive process could be rooted in the act of listening. It is possible I could have arrived at this realization from a careful study of the ancient monastic texts. But I doubt it. It took the back-and-forth, open-ended conversation with Father Wadid that morning to bring home to me the distinctive power and mystery of spoken discourse and its importance in the spiritual journey. The words and ideas that I was being invited to consider that
morning did not lie inert on a page, but swirled about me; they were carried on the wind, mixed with sand and silence. Listening, and considering the meaning of what I heard, it felt as though I were inside something, alive and mysterious and moving with its own unpredictable dynamism. How often it happened in the course of my conversation that morning that the meaning of certain words or phrases could be gauged only by interpreting them in the light of something else-a gesture, a facial expression, a considered pause. I became acutely aware of how important these seemingly insignificant expressions were to my understanding. So too I began to see how the place itself affected my understanding of what it might mean to "practice the gospel. …