The Common Good
December 2004

Reading With New Eyes

by Nancy M. Malone | December 2004

A spirituality of reading.

I suspect that lots of people who love reading have a sense there is something spiritual about it.

I suspect that lots of people who love reading have a sense there is something spiritual about it. That was my hunch when I started thinking about "a spirituality of reading." The hunch was based on two simple observations. One, that the acts of reading and of contemplation share many of the same characteristics: Both are usually done alone, in silence and physical stillness, our attention focused, our whole selves - body, mind, and hearts - engaged. And two, that reading scripture and the lives of the saints played a significant part in the conversions of St. Augustine and St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. I wanted to explore the spiritual value to be found not so much in reading "holy books," however, but in good books of all kinds - novels, poetry, biography, history, short stories.

By spirituality I mean not only the prayers we say in private, how we worship, doing good deeds, or working for peace and justice. And I don’t mean only our search for a relationship with the divine, the Transcendent Other, in heaven or somewhere "out there." I mean, primarily, the quest for the "God in you as you," the startling phrase I encountered in the writings of theologian John Dunne years ago. For "the true self," as Thomas Merton termed it. For discovering who you are and who you are meant to be.

In my book Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading, I used my own spiritual journey with all its twists and turns to trace this quest. I invite you to follow the path of your life as we explore the part that reading may play in making us who we are: in our interiority, that conversation we are always having with ourselves; in significant turning points in our lives; in our desire for intimacy, with others, with God, with ourselves; in our hopes for union and communion with all.

None of this is to imply that people who don’t read are not good people, or have not done good or even great things. Nor do I mean to deny the importance of other factors in making us who we are: our genes, families, religious beliefs, the culture we live in, other people, our education, events in our lives, the choices we’ve made. But for readers, I think it’s safe to claim that our knowledge and understanding of these factors have come to us largely through reading and - particularly in their interplay and bearing on human personality - through reading good fiction.

In fiction we are involved in a conversation, a complex exchange between the author and ourselves (Can I trust you?); with the characters in the book (Oh, Anna Karenina, don’t be so foolish!); with oneself (I’ve felt that way), and with the community of readers to which we belong, with the interpretations that we inherit from others, of Hamlet, say, as the melancholy Dane. But it is not as if nothing were being asked of us; there is an asceticism involved in reading. As in life, we can be generous and attentive partners, open to a way of being in the world different from our own. Or we can be selfish, greedy, lazy, unwilling to give of ourselves or to accept the other.

For example, in Ulysses, James Joyce’s breakthrough to the literary device of stream of consciousness, we are offered the entire conversation that Dubliner Anthony Bloom has with himself - his interiority - in the course of a single day. If we are receptive and patient with this big book, we arrive at an extraordinary intimacy with Bloom. Further, upon reflection, we may become more aware of our own interiority, become more intimate with ourselves, with thoughts, desires, motives that we have not previously acknowledged. And even if we are not dramatically changed by the book, mightn’t there be a slight shift of consciousness in us, moving us to greater understanding and acceptance of the human condition - the tremor of a conversion?

THINK OF LITERARY works you have loved. Perhaps you experienced the humbling astonishment we feel in the presence of great creativity, of a great work of art, not unlike our wonder at the creation and its Creator. Or were you delighted at the language itself; in its subtlety, its rhythm and grace, the perceptiveness that it so accurately expresses? Or did a poem in its perfection bring you "the world in a grain of sand" (Blake)? One way or another, good literature mirrors to us the world and human life in all its beauty - a terrible beauty sometimes - simplicity, and complexity. We know, then, the truth of Wayne Booth’s statement in The Rhetoric of Fiction: "There is a pleasure from learning the simple truth, and there is a pleasure from learning that the truth is not simple." The latter is a strange pleasure, isn’t it? We are satisfied, somehow, because even though we might wish it otherwise, that’s most often the truth about truth, including the truth about ourselves.

In Walking a Literary Labyrinth, I briefly trace the history of the alphabet, the technologies of writing - from chisel and stone tablet to the mass-produced paperback - the spread of literacy, and the growing capacity for introspection that writing and reading have made possible. But even now, I find the act of reading itself mysterious - our eyes following little black marks across a page, and in the process discovering whole worlds, both within and without, that we might not have known. Can you imagine how limited your knowledge and understanding, how narrow your sympathies would be without the books you’ve read? I cannot. And it all has to do with the act of seeing, in its metaphorical as well as its physical sense.

What I came to see in the process of writing the book is that reading is all about love. That little word - eros, agape, caritas. The trace in us of the Transcendent Other, who loves all creation, who calls us to ever greater self-transcending love for and communion with all. Our reading can display the whole world and universes of people to us for our cherishing. So that maybe when we have put down whatever book we are reading, we will have taken one more step toward finding our true selves, "God in you as you," as Dunne said; the God who is love. Reading helps us, helps me, to love, "to be in love in an unrestricted fashion" (italics mine), which is how Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan defined religious conversion and religious love. Reading helps me to be my true self, the self that sees the world, others, myself, God, with the faith that Lonergan calls "the eye of love." As Marcel Proust said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

Even though reading may be the closest some of us get to the spirit of contemplation in the noisy, scattered lives we lead, is that all that can be said about the kinship between these two acts? I don’t think so. If, as Simone Weil said, the kind of attention given to study prepares us for prayer, might we make the same claim for reading? What if we began to dwell on and savor the words of our worship and prayer as we do when reading poetry? We might, as St. Ignatius counseled, bring not our reason, but our imagination - so important in reading - to our meditation on scripture, and thus come to believe a little more that "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived what God has prepared for those who love God" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

And if we think of prayer as a quest for intimacy with God - an exchange of selves - perhaps we will ask for and be granted deeper access to God’s interiority, to God’s thoughts, desires, and hopes for us and for the world, surely larger and more generous than our own. Finally, as we believe that God "reads" us, knows our innermost selves better than we know ourselves, our reading and prayer together may help us to hope that finally "[we] will know fully, even as [we] have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide...and the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).

Nancy M. Malone, OSU, lives and writes in City Island, New York. She is a former editor of the journal Cross Currents.

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