Faith Matters

A path back together through reading contemplative classics

My students and I are finding our way into the world again with Evagrius, Teresa of Ávila, and Howard Thurman.

A few years ago, I wrote in this column about a course I teach on contemplative prayer in which we read six books and then read them again. My hope is to explore reading and rereading as contemplative practices in their own right—and to discover how differently texts can speak at different moments of our lives. The second goal sometimes feels a bit artificial; we and the world don’t always change enough within the short space of a semester to shape our rereading in noticeable ways. But the last time I taught it, in the spring of 2020, we first read our six books while COVID-19 was beginning to move across the globe. By the time we began rereading, we were looking at each other from boxes on a screen, already in a different world.

This semester, I’m teaching it again—and we might experience something like the reverse of last time. Although classes are meeting in person, our school still feels quiet and empty. We still have to raise our voices to make ourselves heard through our masks, and every class leaves a Zoom link open for anyone who has tested positive. Most meetings and events take place online. But as the sun shines a little bit longer each day and our COVID dashboard shows decreasing cases on campus, it’s possible to imagine a fuller reopening of our life together—much slower than the rapid closing down we experienced two years ago, but an opening nevertheless.

What has this meant for how we read these books? In 2020, those thrust into an unwelcome solitude searched the books for ways to inhabit it that would help them resist loneliness, isolation, despair. “The monk is one who is separate from all and in harmony with all,” Evagrius wrote from the 4th-century Egyptian desert. We took heart from the “and” in that sentence—more than a “but” or an “and yet,” the simple “and” made it seem as if keeping separate and connected at once were an ordinary thing to do. It must be within our human competence, we told each other, to physically distance ourselves from one another while remaining connected enough to harmonize.