I recently saw and heard what I thought was a man talking to a cup of coffee. As I approached him he was pulling the spigot on one of those large institutional coffee machines one usually finds in a cafeteria. Even though I too wanted some coffee, I was not sure that I wanted to get too close to him. Overcoming my reticence, I went around him and saw at once that he was talking into the microphone of an earpiece. Although I know it is possible, and I have done it myself, I still am still not accustomed to hearing others do it.
In the late 4th century St. Augustine of Hippo registered a somewhat similar surprise when he encountered a well-known bishop reading silently to himself. Augustine had traveled from North Africa to Milan to meet Ambrose, a popular bishop and renowned preacher and teacher of his day. Although Augustine wanted desperately to approach Ambrose with questions about the Christian faith, he was afraid to approach him because Ambrose occupied himself for hours reading in his cell alone in silence.
When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and his guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.
Augustine was amazed at such a sight of a person reading silently to himself. “We wondered,” he wrote,
if he read silently perhaps to protect himself in case he had a hearer interested and intent on the matter, to whom he might have to expound the text being read if it contained difficulties, or who might wish to debate some difficult questions. If his time were used up in that way, he would get through fewer books than he wished. Besides, 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 this habit, this man had a good reason for what he did.
In The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, a classic book on monastic culture in the Middle Ages, Dom Jean Leclerq reports that
in the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, they read usually, not as today, principally with the eyes, but with the lips, pronouncing what they saw, and with the ears, listening to the words pronounced, hearing what is called the “voices of the pages.
Nowadays when we read most of us read silently, but it was not (as can be seen from the story Augustine tells about Ambrose) always that way. In antiquity the normal way to read if one wanted to read by him or herself, was to read out loud. This necessitated a different kind of architecture for libraries than we find today. In ancient Greece and in later in the Roman empire libraries were constructed with covered porches or stoa, sometimes surrounded by gardens, where readers could spread out at a distance from one another and read aloud. St. Benedict recommends “during the time the monks ‘are resting on their beds in silence,’ that if one wants to read he should “do so in such a way that he does not disturb others.”
Where today we are expected to as quiet as possible in libraries, so as not to disturb others, reading in antiquity was integrally involved with hearing.
In the early 1980s, when I was newly ordained, I attended two preaching workshops led by Phil Swander, a professor who taught at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He insisted that we read the scripture passages on which we were planning to preach out loud over and over again so that we could hear the text as if it were speaking to us. I have found that when I read scripture out loud to myself, even if like Ambrose I am alone in my “cell,” that I hear things that I would not or could not hear had I read the text in silence.
There is much to learn from this ancient practice of sacred reading. Initially it may seem a bit strange to you to hear your voice reading the words on the page, or because it takes a bit longer to read that way than it does to read silently, it may seem as if you are wasting time. As you grow more comfortable with this practice, however, you will begin to hear the words you read, and not just see them, and in so doing you will begin to hear the text come alive as it speaks to you. I encourage you read from the Holy Scriptures aloud, even if you are as the psalmist says “alone on your bed.” Listen to the voice of the words on the page and to the voice of the Lord speaking to your heart.