Spirit & Sound, Part 6: The Man Who Read with His Mouth Closed (And the Spirit Who Didn’t)

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[Editor’s note: click here to read Part 5: The Preposition of Love.]

“We believe in the Holy Spirit. . . Who has spoken through the prophets.”

—The Nicene Creed

I am sitting in the upstairs office space of the Barn, by North Wind Manor. (The reconstruction of North Wind Manor that has been going on over the past several months is almost finished, and the place looks amazing!) Three staff members are in the room with me: Shigé, Pete, and Chris; each seated at a desk, each reading. What are they reading? I don’t know. I could find out, but I would have to ask. And this is one way in which reading in the contemporary world is different than it was (at least most of the time) in the ancient world. A famous story from St. Augustine’s (354-430) Confessions illustrates this point.

A key figure in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity was the great preacher and theologian, Ambrose of Milan (340-397). Even before he became a Christian, Augustine admired Ambrose and looked for opportunities to speak with him privately. That wasn’t easy, because most of the time Ambrose was surrounded by people, and busy with the demands of his work as a bishop. Augustine recalls that when he had time to himself, Ambrose “restored. . . his mind with reading,” and then, in a fascinating passage, he describes the way in which Ambrose read:  “When he was reading, his eyes ran over the page and his heart perceived the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.” Augustine wonders “if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested.” If someone happened to overhear Ambrose reading, Augustine reasons, they might ask him to explain some difficult passage, or they might even want to debate some point in the text. Or maybe, Augustine suggests, “the need to preserve his voice, which used easily to become hoarse, could have been a very fair reason for silent reading. Whatever motive he had for his habit,” he concludes, “the man had a good reason for what he did.” (Confessions, Book VI, Chapter 3)

What is remarkable about this passage is what it finds remarkable. Ambrose’s habit of silent reading was unusual enough that Augustine pauses to take note of it. More than that, Augustine suggests a few possible explanations of why, even though this man clearly was engaged in reading words, nevertheless (surprisingly!) “his voice and tongue were silent.” The story reminds us that for much of history, even the reading of texts was an oral and aural happening.

In fact, ancient texts not only sounded; very often they sounded tunefully. Certainly this was the case for much of scripture. Imagine you are present in the synagogue at Nazareth on the sabbath morning described in chapter 4 of Luke. Jesus stands up to read the passage given to him from the book of Isaiah. What do you hear? In all likelihood you hear Jesus singing (or technically “cantillating”) the words of Isaiah. (You can hear a modern recording of Hebrew scripture being cantillated here.) The Hebrew scriptures still are chanted in this fashion today. “Come to a synagogue on a Sabbath,” writes the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, “and you will hear the Torah not read but sung loud and clear, in ancient chant, melody matching natural sounds of the very words God says.” Many rabbis believe that this practice of singing the scriptures extends all the way back to the reading of the law described in Nehemiah 8. Some even suggest it was instituted by Moses himself. In a passage that should warm the hearts of musicians everywhere, we meet Moses just before his death—in his final appearance before the Israelites—not in the role of Warrior, or Miracle-Worker, but Singer-Songwriter. God tells Moses: “Write down this song and teach it to the Israelites and have them sing it.” So Moses wrote “the words of this law from beginning to end. . . and recited the words of this song from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31:19, 24, 30)

Singing wasn’t just a way of “dressing up” scriptural texts for public worship services, either. This also was how Jews of Jesus’ day studied scripture. Rabbi Akiva (who lived from 50 to 130 AD; just a generation or so after Jesus) urges students of the Torah to study diligently, telling them: “Sing every day, sing every day. . . [R]eview your studies like a song that one sings over and over.” (Sanhedrin 99b) Another ancient Jewish text advises: “One who studies Torah through song demonstrates that he is fond of his learning,” but: “concerning anyone who reads from the Torah without a melody, or studies the Mishna without a song, the verse states: ‘So too I gave them statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live.’ (Ezekiel 20:25)” (Megillah 32a)

Breath carries voice, not text.

Steve Guthrie

This tuneful method of presenting the scriptures then passes very naturally from the synagogue and the yeshiva into the life of the Christian church. The first Christian monks organized their days around the regular chanting and singing of the psalms, a practice that eventually would be adopted by the entire monastic tradition. The Rule of St. Benedict, one of the earliest and most influential guides to the monastic life, sets out a daily pattern of services—seven each day, and one each night—that would allow monks to sing through all one-hundred and fifty psalms in the course of a week. This regular, methodical singing of the psalms was the chief business the monks were to pursue, a work so important it was sometimes called the Opus Dei—“the work of God.” Outside of these eight daily services, Benedict urged the monks to learn silence: “So important is silence,” he said, “that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk.” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 6). You could say then, that in a way, the life of a monk had a kind of sonic organization: periods of silence, surrounded by the regular singing of the psalms. The spiritual life meant learning to steward sound well; cultivating attentiveness on the one hand, and training one’s voice on the other. 

All of this sounding and singing of scripture casts a fresh light on (or perhaps we should say, adds greater resonance to!) the words of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the Holy Spirit. . . who has spoken through the prophets.” The Holy Spirit (as we’ve repeated each week throughout this series) is the Breath of God. And at least in the most straightforward and immediate sense, breath carries voice, not text. The creed does not identify the Spirit as the one who “produces the message communicated by the prophets,” or who “shares the information written down by the prophets,” but the one who “spoke by the prophets.” What our short survey indicates is that for much of the church’s history, the prophetic word inspired by the Spirit has been spoken indeed.  

This isn’t to deny the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiring written scriptures, or to suggest the Spirit is unable to work through text on a page. As Augustine’s anecdote indicates, people read silently in the ancient world too; and even in biblical times people engaged with scripture as readers as well as speakers, singers, or listeners. But immersed as we are in the world of silent text (you’re reading text now; are your lips moving?), we might need to be reminded of something that would have been obvious to earlier generations: when the Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets, the phrase “has spoken” is not only a metaphor. The Holy Spirit brought about the sounding of human voices; real sounds that encounter us in the world of sense. What is more, for most of history, a vital dimension of Christian discipleship has been ordering and engaging with sound—listening, speaking, and singing. Ambrose may have read with his mouth closed, but he was an exception, and in the centuries since he has remained so.

What difference does this make? Why emphasize all of this “out-loudness”?

The materiality of song, the concrete sounding of scriptures, reminds us that the fruits of the Spirit are not just pleasant feelings, but are virtues and practices worked out in the routines of our lives, and manifested in ways that can be seen and heard.

Steve Guthrie

Let’s return to the monastery. It’s easy (at least it’s easy for me) to associate “spirituality” with a sort of vague, inward attitude; a general outlook that recognizes something beyond day-to-day realities, or an openness to mystery. What I don’t think of when I hear the word “spirituality” is getting out of bed at midnight, 3:00am, 6:00am, 9:00am, and noon to chant the psalms, and then dragging myself back to the chapel three more times over the remaining twelve hours to do the same thing again. Whatever associations the word may have for me, for the great Christian spiritual tradition of monasticism, “spirituality” had everything to do with day-to-day realities. In fact, it was what the monks set their watches by. (Or would have been, if medieval monks had worn watches.) The life of the Spirit was not only an inward attitude, but an outward set of practices. It was something you could see and hear. It included mystery, yes. But it also had the specific shape of this particular melody, sung by these voices, gathered in this space. The materiality of song, the concrete sounding of scriptures, reminds us that the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, and so on) are not just pleasant feelings, but are virtues and practices worked out in the routines of our lives, and manifested in ways that can be seen and (again) heard.

A Jewish text we quoted earlier highlights another reason for emphasizing the sounding dimension of the prophetic word. The one who studies Torah through song, it says, shows “that he is fond of his learning.” The word the Spirit speaks has a delightful character to it, that appeals to our senses in all their bodiliness. In Ezekiel 3, the Lord tells the prophet to eat the scroll he is giving him. “So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.” (Ezekiel 3:3; see also Revelation 10:9-10 and Psalm 119:103) When we recall its “out-loudness,” we are reminded that the word the Spirit delivers through the prophets is not a sterile inventory of abstractions. It is beautiful; and those who repeat it in word and melody beautify it. The 4th-century theologian Athanasius wrote a letter explaining why we should not just speak but sing the psalms. “The Lord,” he says, “wishing the melody of the words to be a symbol of the spiritual harmony in a soul, has ordered that the odes be chanted tunefully, and the Psalms recited with song. The desire of the soul is this—to be beautifully disposed.” Life in the Spirit embraces the true, and the good, and also the beautiful. Life in the Spirit has an aesthetic dimension.

The sounding word inhabits—more than that, creates—a shared space.

Steve Guthrie

That’s one reason I enjoy imagining Jesus singing in the synagogue—forming not just concepts, but sounds. (Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 also mention Jesus singing.) We may speak (legitimately) of the “still, small voice” of the Spirit, and the mysterious leading we sometimes experience through an inner sense. All of this is just fine, but it might cause us to think of the Spirit’s voice as something that arises within us only, rather than something that also meets us from outside. Jesus the Messiah (that is, the one anointed with the Spirit) meets us as a material reality in the world of mass and extension and acoustical vibrations. His voice comes to us incarnated in the sound of a historical language, with its own regional accent; in a tune that employs the musical conventions of a given time and place. The eternal Word of God takes to himself a body which then engages our bodies. The Word clothes himself not only in human flesh but in human culture, working in and through both flesh and culture, that both might be healed and made whole. 

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in the upstairs office space of the Barn, by North Wind Manor. Three staff members were in the room with me: Shigé, Pete, and Chris; each seated at a desk, each reading. What were they reading? I don’t know about Shigé or Pete. But Chris was reading an article about a controversial issue that has been widely discussed over the last few weeks. I know this because as the other three of us sat, each absorbed in our own texts, a voice sounded. Chris said: “Oh my goodness. Listen to this!” And we did. I tried at first to shut it out, to stay focused on the page in front of me. But every voice is a call, and I couldn’t resist. Three conversation-filled hours later I finally pushed back my chair and said: “I need to go home.” 

“How was your day?” My wife Julie asked a little later. 

“It was good. I didn’t get much of my work done. But we had a great conversation.”

The phrases continued resonating in my head as Julie went about other business. What does make for “a good day”? Do I want to do “my work”? Or be part of a conversation? Here is one more reason why all this soundingness matters. The sounding word inhabits—more than that, creates—a shared space. The work space in the Barn is not that large, and yet here were four people, each “in their own world.”

Yes, of course, there are times when we need to retreat into a private space. At this very moment my earbuds are firmly embedded, the white noise generator on my phone piping a wash of sound directly to my brain, precisely so I won’t be distracted by the music playing in the room and the things my colleagues are talking about. But the negative example is instructive. I employ one sound to suppress another. Their sound creates a shared world, one I really can’t afford to visit right now. (I promised I’d have the essay finished today!) So I create a separate aural space as a way of remaining outside a shared world and a shared conversation.  
One of the primary works of the Holy Spirit is to create community. “We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body,” Paul writes, “whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13). And this is yet another reason for emphasizing the soundingness of the Spirit. The Spirit’s work of creating community is not unrelated to the Spirit’s work of speaking through the prophets. A spoken voice creates a resonant field, one large enough for others to enter. And when I hear this voice—particularly if it is winsome and tuneful—I may be drawn out from “my work” into a shared work. Perhaps, even into the opus dei—the work of God.

Dr. Steve Guthrie is Professor of Theology at Belmont University, a Rabbit Room board member and Hutchmoot speaker, and also was for many years a member of a Beatles cover band (which we don't hold against him).


2 Comments

  1. Shigé Clark

    @s-clark

    “The spiritual life meant learning to steward sound well; cultivating attentiveness on the one hand, and training one’s voice on the other.” This is such an intriguing concept that I hadn’t considered before…makes me re-think how I engage in both sound and silence. Thank you, Steve. As always, this post is thought provoking and helpful, and so well designed.

  2. Steve Guthrie

    @steve-guthrie

    Thanks Shigé! It is really interesting to think about the tradition of the Yeshiva on the one hand, and a room full of Hebrew scholars chanting melodies, as a contrasting image to the dead silent space of a university library on the other hand. And yes, I’ve also been thinking about how I use my voice and my silence, and what I contribute or choose to preserve in the various sounding spaces I inhabit. Thanks for being part of the conversations and distractions that inspired the essay!

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