Reading for Spiritual Formation

A few months ago, my wife and I visited Mainz, Germany. One of the most famous residents of this town on the Rhine was Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of movable type in 1447. We spent a few hours touring the museum dedicated to the history of printing located there. (They have a very nice english audio guide available.)

The book Gutenberg is best known for printing on his revolutionary press is, of course, the Bible. This led the way toward Bible reading being a possibility for ordinary Christians. Up until Gutenberg, books were either hand-copied or printed from woodcuts or metal engraving. All of these methods were very expensive. With Gutenberg, the price of printing began to decline and mass-production became more feasible.

Original Gutenberg Bibles on display in Mainz

All of this had incredible historical impact and changed the world. The impacts of this new ability to produce the written word led to the enlightenment, the reformation, and the explosion of knowledge, scientific progress, and technological progress that has me writing this on a screen, and you reading it.

But I don’t want to consider the post-Gutenberg era. I want to think for a few minutes about the pre-Gutenberg era, specifically the roughly 1500 years the church existed without the printing press. How did ordinary Christians “do” spiritual formation in an age where personal Bible study was beyond the reach of most people?

I think the three pillars of devotion and formation really remain unchanged, though how they were carried out may have been slightly different. These are the daily offices of the church, eucharistic services each week, and personal devotion. None of these require literacy or wealth on the part of the ordinary person.

The daily offices, in whatever specific form the church practiced them at a particular point in history, were accessible, combining the reading of scripture and the recitation of prayers. One way for the average person in the pre-Gutenberg church to receive scripture is by hearing it.

The eucharistic service also included prayer and scripture as well as the sacrament of communion, which is also a dramatic representation of some key scriptural teachings; incarnation, sacrifice, and atonement, to name a few.

Both of these services took place in a church. Many churches through the ages included significant religious art in the form of statues, icons, stained glass, and other ways of representing the life of Christ and the saints. The stations of the cross found in Catholic churches even today offer a pictorial guide to the last hours of Christ’s life on earth. All of these could serve as instructional and devotional aids.

This only leaves personal devotion to be completed without being able to afford or read a Bible. Prayer is still an option. Fasting, giving, recitation of memorized scriptures, and contemplation were all still options. Catechumens traditionally had to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Other scripture would be memorized, if not verbatim, close to it, largely in the form of the stories of scripture. (Because it is easier to remember a story than a genealogy.)

What does that mean for us today? Ironically, it means that those same protestants who advocate for personally reading the scriptures are following what, for most of church history, is a monastic model. Only the religious (as opposed to the secular) normally had the opportunity to learn to read and had something to read. Monks were the printing press of the early church.

Not all monks were literate. The Rule of Benedict, which shaped and influenced most of western monasticism makes allowances for those who were illiterate. Instead of reading, they were instructed to listen. (We forget that reading silently is a somewhat recent habit!)

Gutenberg enabled us all to live like monks. We can read the scriptures (and other devotional and spiritual writing) on our own. May we not squander the opportunity he gave us.


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