Saturday, February 4, 2017

Reading: A Spiritual Discipline

Reading is a spiritual discipline. This is not limited to reading only the scriptures or theology, but can encompass all reading that causes us to think more deeply, consider other points of view and opens us to better questions. All great writing should cause us to move beyond ourselves and our own perspectives. This means that novels or poetry can expand our theology just as much as apologetics.

Typically, I read half a dozen or more books a month. I never engage in those challenges to read more and more books each year that sites like Goodreads promotes because, for me, reading isn't about quantity but quality of my reading and what I am gaining from the experience that could shift and alter my beliefs or at least cause me to ask questions and not look for simple and easy answers.

Currently, I am reading Eugene H. Peterson's Run with the Horses and have undertaken The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.

The exercises of Saint Ignatius are something I have wanted to explore in how I can integrate them into my own daily practises. It is a compilation of meditations, prayers, and contemplative practises developed by Saint Ignatius to help people to deepen in their relationship with God. The book tells that the process can take about four weeks, although I am not going to rush through the exercises but will allow God's Spirit to direct me as to when it's time to move on from one exercise to the next. Ignatius wrote them in terms of four weeks but that these are not meant to be seven days but a spiritual journey and so I will view them as such. The four "weeks" are broken down as follows:

Week One - exercises focus on God's love for us. I will reflect on how my responses to God's love has been hindered by sin. One is to face one's sin so that it frees me from them and I can respond to Christ's call on my life.

Week Two - Meditations and prayers are focused on what it means to be a disciple of Christ and to truly follow him. There is a reflection on specific scripture passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount. 

Week Three - I meditate on Christ's Last Supper, passion and death. The Eucharist and his crucifixion are seen as reflections of Christ's love for me. 

Week Four - I move from the crucifixion and death to resurrection and Christ's appearances to his disciples. By meditating on the risen Christ, I am to contemplate how I can walk with him in my own life and how I can best love and serve him in the world. 

All of this will be a time of silence, meditation and contemplation. 

Eugene H. Peterson is one of the theologians I most respect because he is not only scholar but a poet. I, like many, discovered him first though his translation of the Bible: The Message. His A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is among my favorite books and one of the ones I most often return to. In my scripture readings, I have set camp among the Prophets again. They, like the Psalmists, are my people. They are great questioners and their writing is deeply metaphorical and poetic. Having just finished Walter Bruggemann's classic work The Prophetic Imagination, I decided to follow this with Peterson's classic on the prophet Jeremiah.

Peterson writes:

The Puzzle is why so many people live so badly. Not so wickedly, but so inanely. Not so cruelly, but so stupidly. There is little to admire and less to imitate in the people who are prominent in our culture. We have celebrities but not saints. Famous entertainers amuse a nation of bored insomniacs. Infamous criminals act out the aggressions of timid conformists. Petulant and spoiled athletes play games vicariously for lazy and apathetic spectators. People, aimless and bored, amuse themselves with trivia and trash. Neither the adventure of goodness nor the pursuit of righteousness gets headlines.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle had a profound impact on me as a child and was one of the first books to truly make me think about the vastness of the universe and the God who created it, as well as how what we view as our weaknesses can often be the strengths that help someone else. This is a book I have read many times, including to my older son, and now to my younger one. Each time I return to this classic, I gain not only new insight but it continues to make me rethink the Divine Mystery at work in the world around us. Hopefully, in reading it to my sons, this book does the same for them.

One of my favorite passages from the book illustrates this. It's a conversation between the protagonist, Meg Murry, and her mother:

“Do you think things always have an explanation? 
"Yes. I believe that they do. But I think that with our human limitations we're not always able to understand the explanations. But you see, Meg, just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist.” 

I have always loved poetry ever since I read Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses and the work of Shel Silverstein. Poets have had a huge impact on my faith: from the Psalms to William Blake to Emily Dickinson to T.S. Eliot to Mary Oliver. Naomi Shihab Nye describes herself as a "wandering poet." She is of Palestinian-American heritage and this dichotomy plays a role in the ruminations her poems can take. She is acutely observant and she can find profundity in the daily work of a Palestinian broom maker to a man preparing Arabic coffee for his guest. She is able to bridge the worlds between Palestine (her father was a refugee) and America in a way that is not only necessary in this day and age, but the oppositional textures she uses provides deeper layers to her poems. She is lyrical and spiritual. I love lines like "hands are churches that worship the world" or "find holiness in anything that continues." Nye's influences include another of my favorite poets, William Stafford, and Gary Snyder. Words Under The Words is a mesmerizing collection.

Charles Dickens remains one of the greatest authors because of how masterfully he weaves his tales and brings seemingly disconnected stories and characters together in a way that amazes and delights the reader. From the time I first read Great Expectations, I was hooked and have devoured his books. My favorites being Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Bleak House. This novel will be no different as Dickens hooks me in with the opening line of, "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."  Facts over fancy. Facts over imagination or wondering. Facts over questioning. Hard Times is a blistering portrait of Victorian England amidst the Industrial Revolution told in a way that only Dickens can. Like all of his writing, he masterfully is weaving in all stratum of English society with his keen eye and his talent for creating remarkable characters with even more remarkable names. 

James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain is one of my favorite contemporary novels. An autobiographical story, it tells of  John Grimes, a teenage boy growing up in the Pentecostal Church and struggling with his faith and his sexuality. "Go back to where you started," James Baldwin wrote, "or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came."

Now I am reading his collection of essays entitled The Fire Next Time. Though written in 1963, it is extremely relevant in its focus or racial injustice to "both the individual and the body politic." Baldwin discusses the central role that race has had in American history and the role that society, government and religion has played in that.

Baldwin writes:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word "love" here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” 

Along with reading this, I hope to see the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is a meditation on race using Baldwin's work.

C. S. Lewis is attributed with saying, "We read to know that we are not alone." This is partially true. When I read, I read to not only find myself among the books I read, but to question and challenge what I know of myself and what I believe. Why do I believe what I believe? If I were born to another family in another country, would I still believe as I do?

Books shape and form me. They make me reconsider and to, as Atticus Finch suggests, to put myself in the shoes of others. Why? So that I begin to understand their point-of-view. This may challenge mine and it may either change or affirm it. Reading always provides me the opportunity to see. See the world as bigger and grander than what my narrow perspective is from when I was born, where I was born and have lived and who I am around.

All of this is why I so dearly love reading. It affords me the opportunity to go whaling the great white whale or to go on a raft down the Mississippi or tesser across space or find myself in exile in Babylon. I can see though another's eyes and think as another thinks. My world expands and allows me to embrace those who are different from myself, whether or not I agree with them.

Reading is a spiritual practice that draws me closer to God because it allows me the chance to get a wider perspective and to approach questions that, while bigger, still cannot comprehend a Creator grand enough to create the universes.

These are the books I'm reading. How about you?

What are the books that are challenging you? What are the novels or collections of poetry or works of theology that are helping you to ask better questions?


  1. Wonderful thoughts, Elliott. I could say a lot in response but I'll try to keep it short! I'm currently reading a book of poems (or proems as he calls them) by Brian Doyle, an Oregon writer/editor. His writing just exudes grace and humour and humility. He just had surgery for a brain tumor so when I read his poems I think about how he might be doing.

    Fiction books that I have found really spiritually deepening and challenging are Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, Gilead/Home/Lila by Marilynne Robinson, and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (even though it has no actual religious references).

    1. I love all of those novels and I don't think they have to contain a religious reference to truly impact our theology. Many of the novels I read are not implicitly religious but they make me rethink issues of race, gender, or class. They provide me with better questions to ask and, ultimately, expand my own beliefs. Thanks for commenting.