News of the World Lectio Divina
News of the World Lectio Divina is an exploration of what it means to be prayerful as we listen to the news and an invitation to go deeper into the experience of prayer through the powerful and disturbing prayers of the psalms.
This project began as part of a week long silent retreat at the Garrison Institute in March 2013 on the theme of how we bring contemplation into everyday life. On the last evening of the retreat I experimented with reading short passages of the New York Times interspersed with chanting from the psalms and ringing a singing bowl, calling it News of the World Lectio Divina, based on the traditional practice of lectio divina, a method of listening to scripture with the ear of the heart. In lectio divina a passage of scripture is usually read several times, interspersed with periods of silence. The listener lets go of intellectual, studious, or effortful ways of reading and listens with sacred attention, allowing God’s voice to rise up out of the silence and scripture. The evening of News Lectio provoked a lot of reflection and discussion about how to be with the news in a contemplative way and left me feeling that I would like to continue exploring the juxtaposition of news and the psalms.
Eventually I was spurred to produce these videos in the context of a course on spiritual practice and digital media that I am teaching at General Theological Seminary. I have assigned students to produce a project using digital media that is intensely interesting to them and relevant to their ministries. I decided to produce the News Lectio to provoke conversation and provide a model of going beyond one’s comfort zone using a medium with which one is not familiar in the service of spiritual practice. After the initial period when the students were assigned to watch the videos I found I wanted to keep making them and that the videos were becoming an important part of my daily practice, although I’m not quite sure where they’re leading me.
In the earliest videos I gave instructions for using the breath to ground oneself in the body and the present moment while listening to the news. I continue to think that this is a good idea but found that I wanted to get away from the didactic and into a more deeply prayerful feeling, while keeping the videos very short.
Now I begin with an excerpt of a news story from the New York Times, find a brief passage of a psalm that seems to go with it, and sometimes comment briefly on the questions or prayers or issues about prayer that the juxtaposition raises within me.
When I began this practice, I found the juxtaposition of the news and the psalms rather jarring. However, the juxtaposition quickly began to seem natural to me, particularly when I began to chant both the news and the psalm. Much of the news I was reading in the first videos had to do with whether or not the president of Syria had used chemical weapons. This is exactly the kind of concern that the psalms address. Thousands of years ago the psalmist was complaining about injustice, evil, and aggression on the part of Middle Eastern leaders and asking, where is God while all this is happening? Will God do anything when I cry out? What is the connection of this suffering in the greater world to my own individual suffering? Why am I crushed by misfortune while nations and their leaders are getting away with murder?
When I place a portion of a psalm with a news item, it can be interpreted as a commentary on the news. I am attempting to place the two together in ways that will take us deeper into questions of what prayer is and how it can help us deal with what is happening around us. When I began, I wanted to avoid using the psalms as a pointed political commentary. However, as I proceeded I felt increasingly that the psalms are political commentary. They are an outraged response to what is happening in the world. Modern people often think of politics and religion as being rather separate from each other, but the psalms call us over and over to protect the poor and correct injustice. They refuse the modern separation of the spiritual from the world. I hoped initially to keep my exploration of the psalms as prayer somewhat politically neutral, but when I place the cry of the psalmist next to the news, it highlights that some people are trying to listen this call to protect the poor and afflicted and some simply are not. Sadly, the language of Christianity has often been co-opted by those most heedless of this call. I hope that by placing the psalms with the news I can demonstrate to progressive people that Christianity deeply and historically supports their aims. As the Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Richard Rohr puts it, "the Bible is biased; it takes the side of the rejected ones, the abandoned ones, the barren women, and the ones who have been excluded, tortured, and kept outside." In these videos, this bias of the Bible towards the abandoned ones often comes to the fore. At other times, the language of the psalms seems to justify and encourage a nationalistic triumphalism from which I feel quite separate. As I chant I often notice how politicians of all stripes have adapted biblical rhetoric for their own purposes. While it seems to me that many people are not heeding the psalms’ call that we remember the poor, at the same time the psalms seem to call me to listen more and more deeply to the world’s pain, and I wonder whether taking sides is necessary or whether it interferes with this listening.
People commonly object that the psalms are overly angry or vengeful or focused on enemies. That’s easy to feel when one is sitting quietly in a middle class church, with no gun shots ringing outside. When the psalms are paired with what is happening in the wider world around us, their dramatic responses make more sense. Many modern people respond to the psalms’ constant emphasis on enemies by claiming that they have no enemies. Jesus asks his followers to love their enemies; he doesn’t tell them not to have any enemies. When we read about innocent people who have been brutally murdered or grave injustices committed by tyrants, we begin to realize that as citizens of the world and neighbors of the afflicted we do have enemies.
The psalms are prayers that are considered scripture in both the Jewish and Christian tradition. They provide us with a model of how to pray. To the modern reader their language may sometimes seem repetitive and irrelevantly historical as well as angry and vengeful. However, the psalms express the full range of human emotion and almost anything that we might want to bring into our prayer can be found there. The psalms challenge us to pray honestly, bringing all of ourselves into our prayer, not just our joy and gratitude but our hatred, despair, and doubts. The daily project of juxtaposing them with the news helps me to experience in a fresh way their usefulness and relevance as prayer.
I am at the very beginning of these project and feel that there is so much here to be explored. Most of the psalms I am using at the moment are lament psalms, which express sorrow at the ways of the world, but there are many joyful psalms of gratitude and I would like find ways to bring those into relationship with the news as well. Some of the Psalms move back and forth between the plural “we” and the individual “I,” exploring the connection of the pain that we feel as a community with the pain that we deal with as individuals.
I love to chant the psalms at retreats, prayer groups, or anywhere I am invited. A simple chant seems to allow the poetic, emotional power of the psalms to enter deeply into people and call them to prayer. The psalms that I use in these videos are adapted from the Saint Helena Psalter, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and Stephen Mitchell’s A Book of Psalms.
I am excited about the addition of the masks, which a few weeks into the project came out of discussions with my friend Sarah Nazimova-Baum. I juxtapose the news passage and psalm quite quickly and am never quite sure how it will feel to be chanting them. Will the psalm provide a satisfying and prayerful response to the news, or will I feel alienated from what the psalm has to offer? I often feel a mixture of many emotions. From teaching a course on the psalms at Union Theological Seminary in which we rewrote psalms and looked at many translations I know that sometimes we can learn as much about prayer and our relationship with God from what we hate about the psalms as from what we love about them. The juxtapositions always seem to me to have something to offer, but they don't always express my own point of view, and I am relieved to chant them from the persona of the mask, which adds a mysterious, less personal aspect to the project.
In my work as a spiritual director I meet many people who are drawn to monasticism and would like to experience it but are not ready to make lifelong vows. Some are not even sure in which faith tradition they would be like a monastic. Yet they know that the monastic tradition has something to teach them and they want to learn how to be a monk in the world. There is a growing movement of people around the world who are exploring new ways of being monastics, loosely labelled “The New Monasticism,” Like many who are attracted to this movement, my colleagues and I are discussing online methods that would enable contemplatives from all over the world to be in virtual community with each other. Perhaps the News Lectio can act as a strange call to prayer to some of those who would like to feel part of a contemplative community through the daily chanting of the psalms.