Stephen D’Evelyn on Community and Texts

In the opening of St Augustine’s Confessions, he ponders some of the paradoxes of language, getting to know people and God, and prayer. He resolves to plunge into spiritual practice to escape but also to enter deeper into the seeming conundrum of learning as a human being about what is humanly unknowable –the spiral he has discovered in questions of how we come to ‘know’ God:

‘I shall look for you, Lord, by praying to you and as I pray I shall believe in you, because we have had preachers to tell us about you.’

–Augustine Confessions (Penguin Classics p. 21).

Here I think preachers seem not so much didactic as visionary. The kind of belief Augustine describes entering into in prayer is the imagination sparked to life. And so we come to practices of visionary language.

The –poetic?– practice of assiduously or daily noticing and entering into the detail and aura of a particular place — maybe the number 4 bus route wending down green Stoke Hill and bottoming out by the fields–may become a habit of looking for God. The undulating landscape in its different textures and colours through the seasons can seem to speak to us. It may be a sort of text. Yet texts do not speak for themselves. And as Augustine shows, certain sorts of texts–those fragments we find ourselves in the middle of as we look for someone, those expressions of desire, those explanations and exhortations we hear and remember–all lead to each other.

No text speaks of itself; no text exists in isolation. Texts are always referring to other texts, echoing them, being interrupted by them, being surpassed by them and embraced by them.

And as we are drawn into the circles of prayerful text, language beyond language, we come back to and go beyond those visionary texts that tell us about God.

On Friday I was listening to the daily ‘Pray as You Go’ podcast on the bus and felt the presence of the Gospel account of the calling of the disciples–in which the Gospel writer names them specifically– as it reframed my pondering about marginalization and disability as social dynamics.

This sort of practice can make us more aware of others, less self-centred–a danger we may easily slip into in ‘spirituality’, especially spirituality practised in the inner space between headphones. As we take the headphones off, we may emerge into new perspectives on our own and others’ finitude and changeableness as somehow more than themselves, as different states of mindful body moving together down Stoke Hill.


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