Reading the Celtic Way by Ellyn Sanna

In Reading the Bible the Celtic Way: The Peacock’s Tail Feathers, Ken McIntosh explores the way in which the early Christian Celts considered the Bible and Nature to be equally the Word of God. Many of us find that concept attractive, both because of the value it puts on the natural world and because it indicates a new balance for biblical literalism. But from our modern perspective, it’s a only metaphor, and I don’t think we totally grasp what the metaphor points to—because we don’t really get how the medieval mind thought about reading.

Today, we read for pleasure. (I do more than my share of binge reading, I have to confess.) We also read to acquire knowledge about the world in all of its many aspects. We read for STORY, on the one hand, and we read for INFORMATION on the other. Both are good things, but the two tend to be quite different experiences. (Or at least I find them to be so.)

I’ve noticed, though, that my morning reading is neither one of those things. I’m not escaping reality by sinking into a story and I’m not in quest of information, not in the usual sense. Instead, I’m engaged with the words on the page in a different way. It’s a lot more like sitting down with a friend (with a cup of coffee in my hand), never knowing what my friend will have to say but always confident that whatever it is, I want to hear it; I want to listen and be open, I want to let the conversation into my heart and allow it the potential to grow there. When the Celts talked about reading scripture (whether the Bible or Nature), the experience they had in mind was closer to this.

The Didascalicon by Hugh of St. Victor is a medieval guide to the arts that’s given me a better sense of what the Celts meant when they talked about “reading.” Considering that The Didascalicon was written in the twelfth-century, it’s surprisingly easy going, but I highly recommend Ivan Illich’s commentary, In the Vineyard of the Text, for extracting Hugh’s ideas out from the depths into a place where our modern minds can see them better.

Illich explains that our vision of reality, steeped as it is in modern physics, sees things quite differently from the medieval mind. When we “enter” a book, we see ourselves in control of the process, pursuing an end goal, even if we don’t yet know exactly what that is. Illich compares this to the image of shooting a gun: we assume that we pull the trigger that propels the bullet on its trajectory toward the target. The medieval person, however, sees things the other way around: the target sets the trajectory, and thereby pulls the bullet. The meaning at the heart of all reality (whether written words or natural phenomenon) brings new things into being “by tugging rather than pushing.”

With this basic shift in understanding in mind, Illich then points out that the word “study,” which we often think of as what needs to be done when we read (engaging intellectually with something, whether text or Nature), also meant something different to the medieval mind. In Middle English, “to study” meant “affection, friendliness, devotion to another’s welfare, desire, inclination, taking pleasure or interest in something.” This sounds a lot more like what I experience in my morning reading, when I sit down with a book as though it were a friend.

“The wise student" (the person who studies),” wrote Hugh, “gladly hears all, reads all, and looks down upon no writing, no person, no teaching. From all indifferently he seeks what he lacks, and he considers not how much he knows but of how much he is ignorant.” This reminds me of the Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind, that openness of thought that lets go of all existing ideas in order to welcome and consider everything we encounter. (At the risk of being judgmental, it doesn’t sound much like the way some people read the Bible today! Having said that, though, it’s time for me to consider the beam in my own eye…)

Medieval thinkers—including the Celts—related the concept of being a wayfarer to the act of reading. A wayfarer is always on journey; she never settles down and becomes attached to one place but instead continues to take steps into the unknown. Illich points out that while later medieval thinkers interpreted the command to leave all and follow Jesus in a more physical way, the early monastics connected it directly to reading. It is a constant journey toward discovery—of both God and one’s own being—so that the reader may not only perceive the Divine but also, in Hugh’s words, “recognize his own self.” Illich writes that this commitment to engaged reading was a whole-person process (not merely a mental activity) that led to enlightenment: the entire person—body, soul, mind—would “be kindled and brought to sparkle.”

The early Celtic monastics, like other medieval orders of the time, committed themselves to a lifetime of reading. Yes, they read books—but for them, reading was an activity that had a far wider scope than merely the written page. In fact, their metaphor of Nature being like a book was turned around 180 degrees from how we see it: Nature is not like a book to be read, but rather Nature is a book (a place where meaning is collected), and human-made written text is like Nature.

Hugh writes this sentence, which I love: "All nature is pregnant with sense, and nothing in all the universe is sterile.” For Hugh, reading was “an act of incarnation,” “of midwifery,” what Illich calls “a bodily act of birth attendance, witnessing the sense of all thing encountered by the pilgrim,” a “decipherment of reality by which the reader, like the midwife, brings forth—in God’s invisible light—the sense with which all things are impregnated.” This means that all things, without exception, are in some way scripture. They are all “words” of God.

In Tracy Balzer's lovely little book, A Listening Life, which serendipitously ended up in the same pile of morning reading as In the Vineyard of the Text, she describes what it looks like in her life to "listen" to life—which seems to me to be the same thing that Hugh called "reading." For Tracy, it's at an intimate and personal living out of Celtic spirituality that involves both wonder and the longing for kinship, for relationship, as she opens herself to ordinary life.

If you've ever witnessed childbirth, you've experienced the sheer, overwhelming wonder, combined with immense tenderness and welcome, that this event inspires. So, today, I’m going to try to learn from both Tracy and Hugh—and remember to think of myself as a midwife, called to bring forth light from a world that is pregnant with meaning, staying open to wonder, to tenderness, to relationship....

May we read—and hear—scripture everywhere, in everything, in everyone.

Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich