Read, Write, Worship Susana Fernandez / Flickr

Jun 4 2013

In a series called By Heart, The Atlantic features authors’ reflections on their favorite passages of literature. Iranian-born Dina Nayeri, who wrote the recently released A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea, choose from Marilyn Robinson’s quiet but strong book, Housekeeping:

There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness not having meant to keep us waiting long.

Her selection was haunting in its layman’s theological truth: we can spend our lives trying to incarnate our own beautiful gods out of longing for reconciliation with those we’ve loved and lost.

Robinson’s words and Nayeri’s response struck me and reminded me once again of the power of reading. Reading can create an intangible sanctuary where all are invited, regardless of faith, to receive benedictions that send us back into our respective broken worlds with more courage, strength, and hope. Reading can be an invitation to turn, face God, and live. For Nayeri, she was blessed with a new perspective on her grief; an alternate way of honoring what is unique to her own suffering but common to the human condition.

Reading and writing as a way of engaging the holy is not a new idea, and yet, we don’t consider it enough anymore as a viable way to make small pockets of sanity and sense within the various wards of our crazy human existence. Perhaps this is in part due to the growing and saddening decline of reading in general. In a 2007 report, the National Endowment for the Arts shared some frightening figures in the decline of reading among Americans over the years, starting with teens and extending through adulthood. Almost half of American young adults between 18 and 24 never read for pleasure. And reading, according to the report, correlates with social and civic engagement. The more we read the more involved we tend to be in our communities. Bookworms do actually inch their way outside and into the world, more so than non-readers it seems.

“If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks,” the NEA wrote.

I worry that if Christians do not encourage one another to read more literature and to read widely that there might also be spiritual setbacks. In the Judeo-Christian imagery of Moses before the burning bush, a sacred and holy space can be likened to where we feel invited, rather compelled, to take off our shoes and encounter God. Literature can and has been such a space for centuries. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 and has never been out of print. For centuries this piece of Christian literature has encouraged readers to consider their own spiritual journeys with hope and perseverance. Yet despite such classics, it is essential that we read literature without Christian affiliation. Reading in this way invites us into multiple rooms in the mansion of the human condition. It reminds us that regardless of race or religion, social and economic circumstances we share a common humanity stemming from one creator.

Reading also reminds us that we have unique stories to tell one another. It reminds us that different and equally significant realities exist beyond our own experiences and small worldviews. Each of these has something to tell us about what it means to experience being with God or seemingly without God. I believe that our lives are always moving in one direction or the other, towards God or away from God. That movement is replete with endless variety of form.

When I was 16, I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front. I can never forget the night I finished it. Remarque had awed me into a silence of unspeakable grief and confusion at the shared compassions and evils of man, and the fine line between the borders of friend and foe. Being a sensitive kid, I had no idea how to process my emotions. I wanted to have a personal conversation with God. So, I did the only natural thing to me, I wrote a poem. That is the effect good literature has always had on me. It has always drawn me to both philosophical and spiritual reflection, things that make me wonder about the ways of God and humans in the world, things that make me wonder about the variety of ways in which we can respond to what life throws our way or offers us.

Monk, writer and philosopher, Thomas Merton understood the power that reading could play in tiptoeing us into the presence of God. In Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, editor Robert Inchausti quotes Merton as saying, “The real joy of reading is not in the reading itself but in the thinking which it stimulates and which may go beyond what is said in the book.”

Engaging reading does require some effort on our part. It might mean learning to read as though we were pilgrims open to holy encounters in the most mundane of places and passages. Such reading might mean trying our best to leave our everyday prejudices and expectations behind when we approach a piece of literature. It might mean daring to pick up a novel outside of one’s preferred genre or from an author of a distinctly different culture and ethnicity than oneself. As the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “Christ plays in 10,000 places.” There are endless lines of prose in which to stumble upon God and perhaps to draw closer to one another.

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