Summer Reading

Interlude:  Sonata in G Minor for Cello & Piano, Op. 65: Largo, performed by Ofra Harnoy and Cyprien Katsaris, on the Cello for Relaxation album

What are you reading to inspire your meditation this summer?   Are you reading something old, that you’ve read before?  Or something new — that you may not finish?  How do you find something new?

As a kid, I joined the summer reading programs at the library.  One summer I remember going through the science fiction shelves, looking for books that weren’t “space cowboys”.  At first, I could go by the author: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark. But then it was just looking at what was on the same shelf, checking out at the cover, reading the liner notes.  This strategy works for me today, as well.  Before I go to the library, or at a terminal right there in the library, I go on the library website, find a book or author I’ve read and liked, click on Availability, and write down the call number.  The high 200’s have books by Eknath Easwaran, so that’s where I’d start looking for meditation books.

As a college student, I raided my stepfather’s personal paperback library in the summer — Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Frank Herbert.  With no classes or tests on the calendar, it was nice to be able to read, without worrying that a book would be a page turner and keep me up half the night!  Are there books on the shelves at your own house you haven’t read, that might inspire your meditation?  Perhaps something that you read long ago, before you took up meditation, that might have a whole new level of meaning now?

Another way I find out about new books is on public radio, or here at meditation, or in a homily at church.  My first stop is Amazon.  I check out the sample pages, read some of the reviews.  Next to the library website.  Do they have it?  Yes — okay, put in a request to have it sent over to to my branch.  Start reading, … oh, but if it’s really good, I want to highlight passages.  I have to buy the book.  This doesn’t mean finding space on a shelf, though, this means buying a copy for the Kindle app.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have an Amazon gift card that hasn’t been used up.  

I love being able to read books on my tablet, or my phone.  I can search for passages, I can highlight passages to my heart’s content.  And — especially when I’m travelling in the summer — I can carry around lots of reading material, and it doesn’t weigh anything!

That’s all new reading, and I confess, I don’t re-read books very often.  For my Kindle books, I do refer back to highlighted sections from time to time.  Daily Readings with John Main, Silence & Stillness in Every Season is a favorite.  But then, there’s the Bible.  Every Sunday in church, and every special occasion and holiday, we’re hearing the same lectionary on a three-year cycle.  Have you noticed that sometimes, you’ll hear a reading a whole new way?

A few weeks ago we celebrated the installation of the new rector of my home church, St. John the Baptist in Aptos.  A lector read a passage in Isaiah chapter 40,  often read during Advent, as well on the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but this time, I heard it differently.  This time, these became inspiring words for meditation [Isaiah 40:3-8]:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
 make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
  and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
 and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
  and all people shall see it together,
 for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
  And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
  their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
  when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
  surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
  but the word of our God will stand for ever.

When we sit down to meditate, our minds are a wilderness.  Our hearts may be heavy with grief, or regret, down in a valley of despair.  Our minds may be grinding away at some problem with a relationship, or a project at work, or some other challenging mental mountain we need to climb.  Our bodies may make meditating more difficult, if we’re hurting, or suffering from a cold or allergy — what is normally peaceful can be a “rough place”.

And yet, we persist, we meditate.  We release those feelings and thoughts and invite God to be with us.  We gently silence our minds so that we can sense that Peace which passes understanding. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

As we continue our meditation, we bring ourselves again and again back to the breath, back to our prayer word, our mantra, staying in the here and now.  The thoughts that tempt us into the past or the future drift by, and we practice being in the present.  

Over time, I believe this meditation practice of staying in the here and now spreads beyond our minutes in meditation, and finds its way into our everyday life.  We become more aware of the transient beauty of our surroundings.  We can appreciate the kindness and skill of strangers.  Friends and family can become more dear to us, as we release old expectations and baggage, and enjoy them in the here and now.  “The grass withers, the flower fades.”  The transient nature of living is so much richer, as we live each moment.

It is remarkable to me that we are spiritually fed from a passage written over 2500 years ago.  But then, the passage itself reminds me, “the word of our God will stand for ever.”

Whether we find inspiration in the Bible or a hymnal, a book of prayers or a book of poems, or the writings of a sage from centuries past or a modern-day spiritual mentor, may our summer reading bring us words that inspire us, and nourish our meditation practice in the months and years to come.

Delivered at Resurrection Catholic Church, Aptos, California, on July 1, 2017 and at La Selva Beach Community Church, July 18, 2017.