The Drunken Effects of Reading

“Reading sharpens perception, adds new dimensions of understanding, kindles an ardent desire to learn, affords fluency, warms the lukewarm enthusiasm of the mind, casts out sluggishness, tears away the web of lust, excites groans of the heart, coaxes forth tears, brings us closer to God.” Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, trans. Gillian R. Evans (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1981), p. 137.

In his “Exhortation to Learning” (Chap. 36) Alan of Lille lauds reading (lectio) and assigns great powers to it.  Alan combines the monastic tradition of sacred reading and the twelfth-century scholastic understanding of learning.  Both focused on reading to move the soul or mind toward God and away from worldly matters.

Alan continues, “If you read, idleness flees, the devil finds you occupied.  Go into the wine cellar, in which love is ordained: that is, read Scripture, inquire into its meanings. In this cellar, a man becomes drunk in such a way that he comes away more sober still.” Ibid., p. 137.

Here Alan uses a metaphorical interpretation of Song of Solomon 2:4 (Vulgate).  He instructs the readers of holy Scripture to ‘become drunk’ with its manifold meanings through careful examination of the texts.  How does one accomplish this?

Alan explains, “When you read a great deal, set one thing in particular before you, chew over one very pithy thought, that the more firmly it takes root in your spirit, that more it may please that palate of your mind.  If you set out upon any reading, do not pass over it in a moment, but dwell upon it, not passing on to something else as though you found it distasteful.” Ibid., p. 137.

Reading for understanding involves a thoughtful process of cogitation and meditation upon the texts.  Readers should ruminate the text, that is, metaphorically and mentally ‘chew’ it over and over again.  The metaphor of eating the text demonstrated the power of reading and memorization.  The text transforms the reader.  One does not guzzle fine wine for the effect of inebriation, but rather savors it.  Scripture should be mentally ingested in a similar manner.  This manner of reading does inebriate the reader, but not in a worldly sense.  It enlightens the soul toward the true awareness of God and the self.


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