Monday, March 31, 2014

Studying the Writings

I love studying the Writings. Have I ever mentioned that? There is always so much more in them than I ever dreamed I would find. It truly is like diving into an ocean. Just when you think you have seen it all, something new, something that was there all along, but hidden from your eyes, comes along and blows you... well... out of the water.

But what, I have often wondered, is the most effective way to study them? Obviously there is no single answer to that question, but I'm sure we can find ever more effective ways.

Now if you are anything like me, it means that you have studied the Writings in group settings for a long time. You have taken every opportunity you can to study them with as many people as possible, for the views and insights of others continually shed more and more light upon them. Or to be more accurate they uncover more and more layers of meaning, for these writings shed a light on their own.

And, if your experience has been anything like mine, then you have probably sat in countless groups in which you read a paragraph out loud and are then were asked fairly facile questions, the answers to which are found directly in the Writings. These are what have been lovingly referred to as "level 1 Ruhi questions". You know, the kind of question like "How can the betterment of the world be achieved?" "The betterment of the world can be achieved through pure and goodly deeds..." Nothing wrong with that style of question, but as they say in Book 1, they don't use that style of questioning for long.

Aside: I remember one time in which a small group of us were supposed to be studying a recent message from the World Centre before we went on to some other business we had. The guy who was supposed to be conducting this study had someone read the first paragraph, and then another person read the next one, and so forth around the circle. When we finished reading it aloud a few minutes later, for it wasn't a long message, he said, "Okay, now that we've studied this message..." And being a bit of a newbie at the time, I didn't say anything, but I thought to myself, "No, we didn't study it. We only read it."

Even now, though, nearly thirty years later, with the Ruhi books as a great example, we still, as a community, from what I have seen, tend to have some trouble with figuring out how to effectively study the Writings. What I mean by effective, just in case it's unclear, is how to apply them in our daily life.

And you know what? I'm tired of it. I want to do better. I want to see us do better.

As usual, though, I have no idea how to go about it.

So what do I do whenever I am faced with something I know virtually nothing about? I ask others.

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to ask a number of friends how they prefer to study the Writings, and the response has amazed me. And again, based on what I have heard, it feels like we just haven't asked this question enough, Instead, we have just gone on autopilot, doing what we have always done: Read the writings aloud, ask a few questions whose answers are direct quotes from the text, and go on. But it seems that most of us don't really get a lot out of that style of study. Some do, of course, but not a lot. And here I thought it was just me.

Of course, this is nothing official, and only based on what I have heard from others, combined with my own admitted bias.

So what have I heard? Simple, really. Just a few points.

  • Have the friends read the text ahead of time. Unless you are focusing on a particular passage, don't read the whole text aloud.
  • If you are focusing on a passage in the middle of a letter, have a simple summary of the main ideas up to that point, along with time for people's questions on those sections. Presume that the friends are responsible enough to read ahead of time, but don't presume that it is all well-understood.
  • Read the passages of focus aloud.
  • Have some questions distributed ahead of time, so that the friends have a chance to think about them.
  • Have sessions around 1.5 hours to 2 hours in length. While many people can go longer, some have trouble keeping their attention, or committing the time all at once. Better to have more sessions that are shorter.
  • If appropriate, have direct lines of action based on the text that you can carry out between sessions, so that you can reflect on what you experienced.
  • Try to keep the questions around lines of action, and how we can apply what is in the piece we are studying.
  • Oh, and while some like large groups, there are many who prefer small break-out groups of, say, 3 or 4.

That's about it.

Any thoughts? Anything you would add to this list?

Personally, I'm very excited to try this out with our next community study, which will be on Insights from the Frontiers of Learning. We'll be trying these ideas out, and focusing our study on the third part, as that seems to be what is most relevant to our community. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. Marvelous, as usual!
    I am thinking to translate your list into Russian and share it with friends at Ridván. Maybe some of them will want to use your ideas for studying the Ridván message.

  2. Thanks, Archivarius.

    I had another comment about studying: It was suggested that some people like to choose who they study with in a small group, because their styles complement each other. So rather than having the moderator randomly pick the small groups, you can also see if there are people who wish to be together in a group.

  3. I've been thinking about this topic too, Mead! Have a look at my reflection on "Learning How to Study a Prayer" - I'd be interested in your thoughts!