What a miracle that you should be reading this! The everyday miracle that we call ‘reading’, a miracle of interpretation, of leaps from shapes on paper, to unsounded sounds in the mind, leaps from sounds to meaning, and from common meaning to a communion of minds! We take it all for granted, we scarcely notice what we are doing, but sometimes we should pause and reflect what an extraordinary achievement literacy is, and how privileged we are to be able to do it.
In my first post of the year I mentioned that we had cause to celebrate the anniversary of the King James Version, and literacy itself is one the many good fruits of that perpetually fruitful book. The KJV clarified, dignified, and replenished the English language, but it was also the prime motivator for a spread of literacy. Countless local schools, philanthropic trusts, and bible societies sprung up in the wake of this translation with the prime aim of teaching literacy to ordinary people so that they could take the Bible up in their own hands, and draw from the deep well of the scriptures for themselves. The great revivals in our history since then, the evangelical revival for example and the rise of Methodism led to an explosion in demand for Bibles and for the skill of reading them. Then those people, many of them adults, who first learned to read so as to read God’s word, went on to read and write more widely and to create that culture shift whereby we now see literacy as a birthright that should be extended to all, not , as it once was, the preserve of an elite. Even in our own age the desire to share, to make the Bible available in many new languages and in many remote places is also the driving force for literacy campaigns that bring with them so many other benefits for human development and wellbeing.
But even as we pause in the act of reading this text and give thanks for the gift of literacy and those whose time and effort gave us that gift, thanks for all the truth and pleasure we have found in reading and writing, we might ask: ‘Is there another, and deeper literacy we have yet to acquire?’ As children we learned that each of the outer shapes, made of ink on paper that we call ‘letters’ was more than just a shape, but that they made sounds which in turn made words, words that carried a meaning , a meaning meant for us and sent to us by the one who wrote them. And so we learned to Spell. Perhaps the time is coming when we will learn that the world itself is full of shapes and sounds that also have a meaning, when science will move on from learning and describing the outer shapes of nature, like a child learning the letters of an alphabet, and become a more holistic and spiritual science by putting the letters together and starting to spell out slowly the deeper truths God wants to teach us, written for us in his works as well as in his word. As George Herbert put it, reflecting alike on the twin mysteries of the scriptures and the world around us:
Next time, a poem of mine reflecting on these themes; “Summon the Summoners, a Good Spell”