I’ve written before on FiSchas well as elsewhere, about my research on prayer. Today I want to look at a particular idea which jumped out at me recently, speaking to my own life and practice as well as to the medieval recluses it was meant for. This is the simple statement in Ancrene Wisse, a guide for women recluses, that ‘Reading is a good way to pray’.

I wonder how that strikes you. Depending on your church background, or lack of it, it might make more or less sense that reading could be prayer. Growing up, I was used to thinking about ‘Bible reading and prayer’ as the main ways to spend a quiet time, or structure a church meeting. They weren’t really the same thing, because prayer was almost always spoken, spontaneous, and personal. Other traditions will be much more comfortable with praying ‘through’ Bible texts, or other written prayers, and I’ve come to appreciate the blessing in that approach much more, as I’ve studied highly liturgical, textual modes of medieval prayer.

But could the ‘reading’ in this equation go beyond the Bible, and other ‘religious’ texts? Here I’m most likely departing from what the medieval author had in mind (although recluses’ reading material wasn’t limited to Scripture by any means). But is there something about reading – whether it’s the Bible, secular poetry, academic monographs, novels – that is like prayer, or open to prayer, in some way?

In the autumn I heard a talk from the poet and peacemaker Pá​draig Ó Tuama, in which he described both poetry and prayer as examples of ‘thinking in the second person’. Both are ways of moving beyond our internal monologues, reaching out for an Other, a ‘you’ to be spoken to (whether or not you have full confidence that this other person is there – the closet poet, the doubting believer). Ó Tuama was speaking about writing poetry, but I think reading it participates in a similar openness – an awareness of others’ voices, the possibility of encounter.

Prayer is all about encounter: we reach out for God, and he meets us, even before we’ve thought to do so. Reading also requires us to listen and reach out in our understanding – generally to another person. Combining them makes intuitive sense when reading the Bible, which has another Author behind all its human writers. But keeping this practice of openness in mind, no matter what we’re reading, seems to me to be a way to practise prayer, to listen for what God is saying through every voice and to reflect it back to him in praise. Is this a discipline you could foster in your life?

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.