The Sacred Rituals of Reading and Writing in Community
Updated: 6 days ago
TCU’s rather remarkable journey to the national football championship for the first time since 1938—and their rather remarkable 65-7 loss—has me thinking a lot about community rituals: the power of regular, intentional gatherings in the spirit of connection. Watching my former grad school peers as well as alums and fans across the nation don their purple, chant “Riff, Ram, Bah, Zoo,” throw up their frog hand signs, and gather for watch parties—or, if they were privileged enough, make their way to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to experience the game in person—reminded me of the ways in which people seek out community to experience joy, connection, and belonging.
Although I’ve reached a point in my life where American football is not my community ritual of choice, I have a deep nostalgia for how the sport is one way we fulfill our inherent need for belonging. Much of my own young life was centered around watching it—Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturdays, Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, and my dad griping all weekend about East Coast bias, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, or the inevitably dim-witted calls by refs and coaches alike. There was a lovely rhythm to it all: the voices of sportscasters Brent Musburger or Al Michaels providing the steady soundtrack for the weekend, the smell of a pancake and bacon breakfast still lingering in the living room (at least for those early games), and my father, clad in his gray sweatshirt with Nebraska in giant red lettering, occupying the left hand side of the blue-plaid loveseat. These three hours in front of the TV provided comfort, camaraderie, and a way for my reserved Midwestern family to connect. And, in later years, as school intensified and the extracurriculars piled up, these hours became sacred places to join together in joy, no homework in sight.
Sports, of course, aren’t the only location where we come together in community to nourish ourselves: book clubs, wine clubs, knitting circles, exercise groups like CrossFit or SoulCycle, religious fellowship groups, and even regular family mealtimes can be sources of intentional connection and reflection.
Potential rituals exist all around us. One of the best non-fiction texts I’ve read in a while, Casper ter Kuile’s The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, outlines how so much of what we do every day—eating, exercising, watching a movie, walking, cleaning, reading—can be transformed into a ritual. As ter Kuile writes, “By composting old rituals to meet our real-world needs, we can regrow deeper relationships and speak to our hunger for meaning and depth.” In his book, ter Kuile distinguishes rituals from habits. Habits are repeated actions done without much thought. Rituals, on the other hand, require intention, attention, and repetition. Ter Kuile explains that intention is what we consciously invite into the moment or activity, attention is about being fully present and aware in that moment, and repetition is about coming back to the activity or practice again and again.
So, for example: Walking my dog twice a day while scrolling through my phone to check emails is a daily habit, not a ritual, especially when I immediately end the walk after my dog has finished his business. The purpose is practical, methodical, without thought. Walking my dog, however, without my phone with the purpose to recenter and reconnect with myself, my pup, and the natural world is a ritual. On these days, the walk ends when the spirit moves us. Scientific research supports my anecdotal experience that rituals can have a significant impact on our well-being. In an episode from The Happiness Project, "Boldly Go Like Yuri Gagarin," Dr. Laurie Santos couples stories from NASA astronauts and others with a series of scientific studies on the well-being benefits of ritual to demonstrate just how important they can be.
As an English teacher, the rituals that most interest me are reading and writing. Outside the classroom, these practices are often rich sources of connecting to ourselves: curling up with a favorite novel on a long weekend or daily journaling to process our experiences. Inside the classroom, however, these practices can feel like repetitive, required activities—almost like forced habits, something we have to do to achieve a practical end, like a grade. But what if we focused on treating these practices as rituals that joined us in community?
So, as we begin the new year, how might the ritual of writing and reading in community be another well-being path for students and for ourselves?
So, as we begin the new year, how might the ritual of writing and reading in community be another well-being path for students and for ourselves? How, in other words, can I bring more intention, attention, and repetition to the writing and reading we do in the classroom? To make the classroom a more obvious place of joy, connection, and belonging? “Rituals,” ter Kuile writes, “make the invisible connections that make life meaningful, visible.” So, even beyond the classroom, how might we incorporate practices that make visible the very real ways writing and reading connects us to ourselves and to others?
“It brought to light and life my whole nature”: The Power of Community
This past May, my three favorite rituals—reading, writing, and walking—beautifully intersected in a Jane Eyre pilgrimage—a week in the Yorkshire moors. As I outlined in my August post, “Jane Eyre Pilgrimage, Part I: How Kate Bush is Preparing Me for the School Year,” this pilgrimage is one of many offered by author, scholar, and podcaster Vanessa Zoltan and her team at Not Sorry Productions. These trips, they explain, “are much more than travel. They are an attempt to, through the ancient practice of pilgrimage, have meaningful experiences that we take back with us long after the trip is over and live our lives as changed people.” Past pilgrimages have focused on Harry Potter, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Future ones include Daphne DuMaurier and even some stateside ones: Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson.
It is this pilgrimage that first introduced me to the idea of rituals, immediately immersing me in the various ways reading, writing, and walking can build community. My fellow pilgrims came largely from the States, namely the East or West Coast, although a handful lived abroad: England, Italy, and Germany. Surprisingly to me, I was the only pilgrim who was currently a teacher; the rest came from a variety of professions and included booksellers, creative directors, grad students, retired attorneys, research librarians, architects, hospital administrators, chaplains, healthcare workers, and stay at home mothers. Some were lifelong fans of Jane Eyre, some were new recruits, and a couple had never even read the book before—they were just fans of pilgrimages and the idea of reading in community. Many had already encountered the sacred reading practices that I will discuss later through Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile’s cult podcast hit Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and were eager to apply these practices live and in person with other like-minded individuals.
On the pilgrimage, we spent most mornings in conversation about Jane Eyre, guided by a different word each day: resistance, faith, hope, and family. It is that term “resistance”—and actually that moment where resistance meets faith, hope, and family---where we might get closer to a healthier understanding of resilience, one of those essential well-being competencies that has become a buzzword. Jane is resilient because she never stops resisting, she is resilient because she builds a faith in herself so strong that when her indefatigable, unrelenting hope repeatedly screws her over, she can get unstuck, care for herself, and move forward.
Jane is resilient, though, most certainly because she encounters women—Helen, Ms. Temple, Diana, and Mary—who believe in her and who love and cherish her for who she is. It is through this community of women that Jane flourishes. So, even though my students (and my younger self!) often focus on the novel’s romance, playfully swooning over how Rochester “brought to light and life [Jane’s] whole nature,” it is in reality, I firmly believe, these women who strengthen her sense of self, who feed her intellect, and who nurture Jane to a place where she feels more worthy of love, including love from Rochester. On her cousins Diana and Mary, Jane writes, “Our natures dovetailed: mutual affection—of the strongest kind—was the result. . . . We coincided, in short, perfectly.” That’s love.
The women on this pilgrimage became for me a real-life version of Jane’s own sacred community, and the reading and writing we did on this trip fed this connection. In the evenings, for example, we often engaged in sacred reading and writing practices. What makes these practices sacred? While at Harvard Divinity School, Vanessa Zoltan, leader of my pilgrimage and author of Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice, asked her advisor if she might apply traditional sacred reading practices—ones typically reserved for religious texts—to a secular one, like Jane Eyre. To treat a (secular) text as sacred, she explains, is to trust the text (books are sources of entertainment but they are also imperfect sources of wisdom and contemplation), to read with rigor and ritual (we must move slowly and with repeated concentrated attention), and to read in community, recognizing that texts can be a source of deep connection with others. In short, sacred reading (and by extension, writing) practices involve slowing down, investing ourselves in the text, and gleaning wisdom from even the most mundane sentences. Quoting her professor Charles Hallisey, Vanessa writes, “You have to learn from the text, not about it.” She adds that we need to “have faith that the text had something essential to reveal” and that we just “need to keep reading and working in order for it to work on [us].”
One of our most consistent sacred practices was Lectio Divina, or divine reading. Vanessa describes this practice as “like popping a piece of text in your mouth, extracting the juices, and then letting it nourish you.” The practice begins with selecting a quote from the text, either one that strikes you or one that you have selected at random. Then, you embark on a series of free writes, pausing to discuss after each question. First, ask yourself, “What is literally going on in the sentence? What is the context, who is speaking, what comes before and after?” Then, consider, “What other stories this sentence reminds you of: a scene in Shakespeare? A Greek myth? A favorite pop song? A recent movie? A book you have read?” For these first two questions, we shared as a whole group. The next two questions, however, were more private and often only exchanged with the person next to us: “What does this quote remind you of in your own life?” and “What action do you feel called to because of the sentence and the practice that you have just done.” Vanessa emphasized that for this final question, it is best to consider something that is truly specific and actionable.
Perhaps our favorite sacred practice, though, was collecting florilegium, a phrase that literally translates to “a gathering of flowers” but in practice is collecting those quotes, from the novel or elsewhere, that spark joy or sudden awareness: a beautiful line from the novel, a particularly poignant moment, a witty aside from a friend, a profound insight from a peer. On my pilgrimage, we called these sparklets and closed every day by sharing them with each other—no explanation, just reading. On the final day, we re-shared a favorite sparklet from the week, and Vanessa compiled them in a document titled “Sparklet of Sparklets.” Given the sacred nature of this document, I won’t share it in its entirety, but I think the opening and closing lines offer enough to capture the spirit of this incredible group of pilgrims: It begins, “When you say a thing to a second person and a third person wouldn’t understand—that’s community” and closes with: “Walking in silence on the moor I decided to envision the best moments possible instead of the worst, to stop resisting my own hope.”
The culmination of these sacred practices was a ritual dinner held in the Brontë Old School Room. I about died sitting there that evening in the space where Charlotte and her sisters taught. The meal, catered by a local female-run company, rolled slowly out, giving us time not only to savor the food but also the conversations. Over the course of the meal, we reflected on three separate Jane Eyre quotes, using a modified process of Lectio Divina that allowed us to, in a conversational way, connect these quotes to ourselves, each other, and our world. My memory fails me here, but I believe the meal took at least two to three hours, even if it felt much shorter. As a professed introvert, I was exhausted by the end, but that meal, the conversations, and what I learned about myself still sits with me in really meaningful ways.
Beyond these reading and writing practices, though, my fellow pilgrims and I mainly walked. Miles upon miles upon miles through the Yorkshire moors. One afternoon I looked down at my smart watch and thought, “Oh f*%$@! When did I walk nine miles?!” During the early days of Covid, walking was the ritual du jour, and for good reason. Many of us were reminded of the power of a pair of comfy shoes, a path, and the steady beat of one foot in front of the other while soaking in some sun and fresh air. Catherine Fairweather’s 2020 Guardian article, “In Troubled Times, A Ritual Walk Can Soothe the Soul” highlights the physical and mental benefits of walking, drawing upon a 2015 study by the American National Academy of Science that shows how “a 90-minute walk in nature calms the psyche, eases depression and feeds creative juices.” And Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking offers some of the more philosophical benefits. As she writes, “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.” She adds that “walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Our walks in these Yorkshire moors gave us time to just this: to be present but not busy, to think but not overthink. We could process our morning discussions in a new environment, connecting with each other and with the landscape, or we could wander in quiet, focusing on the smell of spring grass, the sight of baby lambs, the touch of the wooden stile, the sound of boots in a mucky bog, even the taste of the mist.
Last January, I wrote in “A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Jane Eyre and Hope as a Sacred Practice” about how Covid had delayed this pilgrimage, indicating that, given the uncertainty of the trip and the uncertainty of the pandemic, I would focus that semester on reading Jane Eyre with my students through the lens of hope. Since this post, fellow Her Voice at the Table writer Kate Schenck gave me a book by Mark Manson: Everything is F*cked: A Book about Hope. Despite the title, the book is actually quite hopeful about hope, and Manson outlines the three components necessary to cultivating it: “a sense of control, a belief in the value of something, and a community.” It is that final piece, community, that was most vivid in my mind as I boarded my flight back to Dallas, and the essential role community plays in our well-being, in maintaining our hope. Casper ter Kuile captures this spirit when he writes, “While our culture often lifts up the importance of self-care, we’re desperately in need of community care.”
“No Possibility of Taking a Walk that Day”: Bringing Community Rituals into Our Lives and Classrooms
Jane Eyre famously opens with a paradigmatic line about blocked journeys: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Like Jane in that opening line, I imagine many of us feel like our own access to these rituals or to a professional development experience like mine are impossible because of obstacles like time or affordability, to name only a few.
A chunk of this trip is not easily replicable; in a Covid world, we all know the value of time spent together, in-person, face to face. But, as ter Kuile writes, “Pilgrimage can happen anywhere: a hike in the desert or a walk around the block, solo camping in the Rockies or a family trip to the dog park. What matters is setting an intention before we head out, paying attention to the natural world along the way—using all five senses if possible—and returning home again with a new perspective.”
In that spirit, below are a few humble suggestions on how all of us might bring these practices into our lives…
(1) Carve out time during the week to walk. It really does sometimes feel like a lost art. Even if it is just once a week, make it your ritual walk, setting an intention, leaving the phone and earbuds at home, and going out to wander around your block—maybe farther. Pay attention. Employ all five senses. Select a tree or a bush or a certain house to say hello to each time. Look up. Sure, you might think this is ridiculous, but in a world where we are sometimes far too serious, I’ll take a ridiculous daily nod to the brown brick house with the teenage pecan tree out front any day!
(2) Daily Journaling/Gratitude Journal. While teaching at Roe Head School for Girls in 1836, Charlotte Brontë wrote in her journal, “I am just going to write because I cannot help it.” For many high school students (and maybe adults!), I think sometimes the opposite might feel true: I am just going to avoid writing if I can help it. For the Brontës, writing was a ritualized, joyous, and often communal experience. The opening scenes of the PBS Masterpiece series To Walk Invisible, the two hour drama highlighting the lives of the four Brontë children—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—opens with them running around the house with fires above their heads, a clear nod to their rich imaginations that had to find in outlet through writing. Channel your inner Brontë and the stories fly. Grab your journal and record a daily sparklet. Rant. Write a letter to yourself. Revise those sparklets into a letter for a friend. Or regularly exchange sparklets with a friend—a quick text is all it takes. Or go old school with a letter or postcard.
(3) Read in Community. Find a body or a group of bodies (friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc.) to read regularly with. For those who aren’t English teachers (and of course for those who are), I can’t recommend a book club highly enough. While book clubs aren’t always treated as sacred reading circles, forming a book club around shared interests and using that time to unwind is a great step in that direction. If the book club is feeling like they want another layer of connection, though, then treating the text as sacred—again, slowing down, reading with rigor and ritual, and holding up individual lines to reflect on ourselves and our world—would be a really lovely substitute.
(4) Read with Intention. For those who may not have time even for an occasional book club, then re-reading a treasured favorite novel on your own using these practices is an option: Lectio Divina or collecting florilegium. Again, Praying with Jane Eyre provides a whole list of additional options, but the goal is to let the text speak. What is it telling you today? Take a moment to connect with yourself.
And a few more ideas about what they might look like in the classroom:
(1) Treat Texts as Treasures. Jane Eyre can be a pretty scary book for my fifteen-year-old students; as a 400-page Victorian novel, it may not be the longest novel they have read, but it may come close. Part of the fun of teaching this novel is making it less scary. This year, for example, Kate Schenck and I began the novel with our students by reading in community, turning off the lights, and lighting a Victorian candle to set the appropriate mood. Students also carry with them a separate Jane Journal, a writing space dedicated to unpacking this novel. A cardboard cutout of the Brontë sisters sits in the corner. Music from Lowood echoes through the room. Engage the students’ senses, bring in nods to the text’s contemporary context. Play a little! Texts are a gift, not a task.
(2) Treat Reading and Writing as Sacred. Last year, I began rolling in some of the sacred writing practices alongside our reading of Jane Eyre, and this year is no different. My hope, though, is to up the ante, so to speak. To find more regular, intentional time for students to connect to the text: to see themselves, to question their world, to listen carefully to what the text might have to say. Students have done at least one Lectio Divina and have begun collecting florilegium, and last week, we tried out Sacred Imagination: a slow process of imagining ourselves into Jane’s shoes in the Red Room, that spooky, gothic room that transforms her life. As we share these writings, in pairs or as a whole class, the hope is that these students find points of connection not just with themselves but also with their peers.
Recall that to treat a text as sacred is to trust the text as an imperfect source of wisdom and contemplation, to read with rigor and ritual (which means slowly and with repeated concentrated attention), and to read in community, knowing that texts can be a source of deep connection with others.
(3) Community Care. Our world needs more community care. I still keep thinking about the Ritual Dinner in the Brontë Old School Room and how I might transform that experience into the classroom. My sophomore colleagues hold an annual tea party at the end of reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which seems like a fabulous start. But beyond a ritual dinner, there are of course plenty of small ways to place students’ connections with each other at the forefront of the classroom. A few of my colleagues, for example, have begun gratitude jars–a process where students write notes of gratitude to each other, place them in a jar, and then the teacher occasionally reads them out loud. But, as I have experienced, the mere process of reading and writing together goes a pretty long way.
Last month, in fact, I received a postcard we were all required to send ourselves at the end of the pilgrimage last May. My quick note? “When thinking about your communities, remember this phrase: ‘It brought to light and life my whole nature.’”
Megan Griffin is currently out of the office and walking her puppy, Kingsley.