EDITOR’S NOTE—Writer and teacher Marilyn McEntyre describes her work as “creating connections between language, medicine, faith and the world we share.” In 2018, we recommended her book, Make a List—How a simple practice can change our lives and open our hearts. At that time, we featured this author interview with Marilyn about Make a List. You can learn more about her other books by visiting her website www.MarilynMcEntyre.com. To introduce her new volume, Where the Eye Alights, we asked Marilyn to write a column for us that would tell the story behind the book from her author’s perspective. And, here it is …
By MARILYN McENTYRE
The invitation by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing to write this book about writing gave me particular pleasure, since I teach writing, write about writing, and have come to believe that writing can be, as my spiritual director once suggested, “an extension of your prayer life.” Writing this little book felt like that for me. Of course I hope that readers will find blessing, consolation and invitation in it. I also hope they’ll “go and do likewise.”
In the book, I reflect on 40 common phrases. I hope that, just as I did in writing the book, readers will discover how a simple phrase can open up an avenue of reflection that can take surprising turns.
A phrase like “remember that you are dust,” for instance, connects the biblical creation story with a scientific truth (that the elements we are made of are those we find in the soil, and that it’s all—literally—stardust) and to a reminder that underscores our deepest hopes for peace and equity in human community: We’re all made of the same stuff. My thoughts, as I sat with the phrase, led me to one of my favorite works of popular science, Dirt, by William Bryant Logan.
I pulled my well-thumbed copy off the shelf and took renewed delight in Logan’s introductory reflections on the story of Moses and the burning bush. After admitting he’d always wondered why God didn’t just call out to Moses to get his attention rather than resorting to the rather dramatic device of a burning bush, he says, “Now I know why. The truth, when really perceived and not simply described, is always a wonder. Moses does not see a technicolor fantasy. He sees the bush as it really is. He sees the bush as all bushes actually are.”
His phrase, “all bushes” triggered another memory—a wonderful sermon I heard on the inclusiveness of God’s love that started with the question, “What part of all do we not understand?” I thought of a line I love from an old hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” We are dust. We are beloved. All of us. All of creation. All political leaders, laborers, refugees, prisoners, patients, all the endangered animals and desecrated rainforests—all dust. All loved.
One thought led to another as I sat remembering, connecting dots into constellations, dwelling on phrase as it grew into a refrain . It opened into wide and deep places. It led me into prayer.
This is how lectio divina works: you read, you listen for the “word or phrase” that calls you to pause and reflect—this time, on this reading. Another time it might be a different phrase. You read prayerfully, inviting the Spirit to speak through the text into the lived moment in which you read. The word or phrase you pause over becomes a portal that opens onto the broad landscape of memory. Associations arise: images from stories, childhood memories, learning moments in science classes or in Sunday school. The process is meant to be an open, prayerful, receptive, and deeply subjective encounter with the Living Word. It is a moment of intimacy, always enlivening, often surprising, shaped by and grounded in our theological understanding, but not a moment for intellectual analysis so much as enjoyment of loving divine guidance.
Lectio divina can become a habit of mind we carry into all our reading and conversational life. Listening for a “word or phrase” is different from listening to grasp key ideas or arguable points. As a reader, when you come upon a phrase like this—“love in the open hand” or “heart of my own heart” or “with malice toward none”—you may find yourself catching your breath in a moment of simple delight at what it evokes. It may be a feeling of gratitude. It may be a shift of frame: I hadn’t thought of it this way before. It may be a recollection of the whole speech or poem or song that invites you back for another look at words that may bear some new blessing. What is worth reading is worth rereading—especially the words of our sacred texts and surely also the rich legacy of words poets and writers have left for us to reclaim or reframe or reflect on.
The contemplative reading that has its roots in lectio divina is certainly not the only fruitful way to read a text. We need the critical reading skills we learn in classrooms. It’s good to know how to summarize, analyze, construct arguments, and define terms for use in law and policy making. It’s good to read a whole sentence and be able to paraphrase it to arrive at a “common sense” of meaning and intent.
Our words our equipment we take into public life. But they are also instruments we play in our tenderest moments, not to deliver information but rather to delight the mind and open the doors of the heart.
Writing down what came up around a word or phrase every morning for forty days was a valuable practice for me. It changed the quality of those days. Many have done this before; many are doing it now in monasteries and pastors’ studies and in parks (where it’s still warm enough to be in parks) with pencils and an hour reclaimed from the daily schedule. That hour or so is time well spent. The returns come all day, and keep coming.
I hope that, for any who read Where the Eye Alights, the book will be both a gift for the moment and an invitation to begin a fruitful practice of prayerful, receptive reading and writing in which you find, just where the eye alights, the word you need for now.