Are You What You Read?

I recently taught a two-part series on prayer at St. Martin’s, and the second class had to do with meditation and silent prayer. Coincidentally, on the nightstand by my bed that evening was a new book by Martin Copenhaver titled The Gospel in Miniature: Meditations for When You Have a Minute (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2018). The very first “minute” when I began to read this work was titled “A Messy Desk” – a page celebrating Copenhaver’s messy desk when he had more than one office, claiming that he worked best that way and always knew exactly where to find the right thing from the pile when he needed it. He said that every once in a while he’d file everything away. Never a final solution but more like “pruning to allow for further growth.”

Interestingly, I had just read a piece by Copenhaver in a recent issue of The Christian Century titled “Time to Cull My Library.”1 It had caught my eye because my fiance and I are very overburdened by books as we combine two households into one. But actually, come to think of it, my bookshelves have always been laden with works top to bottom and in between, books stacked along the wall, books downstairs, upstairs and everywhere eyes can see. (See my lead photo.) Books that my dad gave me from his childhood, books from my undergraduate days, books that I have accumulated over the years of my writing more books … well, you get the idea. So maybe it’s time to begin sorting through the collection and once again (yes, I have done this before) collect those tomes no longer valued for one reason or another and donate them to Goodwill or The Salvation Army to put to good use.

In this Christian Century piece (see second photo below), Copenhaver notes that sorting through books in order to decide which ones to pitch, so to speak, is no easy task. He says that a psychologist once pointed out to him why such sorting is so exhausting. Unlike sorting newspaper for recycling, sorting through books or file papers is draining because every item requires a decision. And if you love books in general, then such decisions are sometimes fraught with memory and meaning.

Like Copenhaver, since I am no longer rector or senior pastor of a parish, I certainly don’t need books on church growth or stewardship or capital campaign planning. Easy to toss! But then the second layer of culling gets tougher. Seems we keep books for different reasons, and again many have meaning well beyond their actual content. My dad’s collection of childhood stories (Journeys through Bookland) – all twelve volumes – occupies a whole shelf in the living room. Like Copenhaver, some books are there taking up shelf space because they remind me of a certain treasured time in my life (e.g., Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, evoking memories of my long immersion into European existentialism during graduate school days). And then like Copenhaver, some “books are like old friends that I just like having around. I would miss them if they never again could greet me from their perch on the shelf.” He and I share some of the same old friends, including Frederick Buechner and Barbara Brown Taylor – both cited here in past blog writings.

In two of my books, Imagination and the Journey of Faith (2008) and my latest, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime (2016), I talk at length about the fact that, in part, we are what we read. (We’re also shaped of course by our culture, social history, the genes we inherit, and other inner and outer influences.) But reading does expand our personal universe, allowing us to try on, vicariously, strategies for living, problem solving, and survival.

Right now I’m about halfway through Anne Lamott’s newest book, Almost Everything (Riverhead Books, 2018; see photo 3 below) – sharing my morning breakfast reading with the one I love sitting across the table from me. And in one of her chapters about being human (“Human 101″), she talks about the need to rehabilitate and spark up the parts of ourselves that get damaged or dimmed over time: our imagination, our curiosity, our need for occasional healing during periods of stress, worry, or anger. She says that books, in fact, are the “ultimate secret weapon”:

Plopped in my chair, I get to be elsewhere, immersed in humanity, exclaiming in silence, “Yes, that’s just the way it is,” or “thank God it’s not that way for me.” I get taken out of myself, and I get to salute all the people and experiences I recognize, with surprise and pleasure. “I so get that, but I never found the words. I know her, I am her.” This reactivates the giddiness muscle, and giddiness leaves you almost no choice but to share, and sharing is what makes us happy.
Which of course is what I do across the table – sharing what I’ve gleaned in the process of reading. Going out of myself and yet recognizing my self in her own response to the words and images before her.

I began this blog by saying that I have just finished teaching a two-part series on prayer and  meditation. I can’t resist closing with a point that I made at the end of the second lecture. And that point is this: If you care about your spirit, if you care about spiritual nourishment along your life’s time on this earth’s stage, then doing some spiritual reading along the way can give your life a broader and deeper meaning than running errands, watching CNN, paying the bills, or even eating ice cream with friends.

John Coburn, former bishop of Massachusetts and a spiritual writer in his own right, wrote two books that still occupy space on my study’s shelves: Grace in All Things and Prayer and Personal Religion (see below). In these works, Coburn stresses the need for some regularized spiritual practice: some simple Rule of Life, if you will. And among his simple, doable rules is committing to reading some spiritual book once a week (along with five minutes of prayer, morning and night, meditating on some passage of the Bible for 15 minutes a week, worshiping God every Sunday in a communal service and participating in one other church ministry in the life of your church). Bookstores always have some stock of “spiritual” books on their shelves, or you yourself can subscribe to a magazine like The Christian Century that publishes monthly reviews of wonderful texts that are out there for the taking on Amazon or direct from a publisher’s website.

So my takeaway point: Your life has deep meaning if you open your mind – your imagination – to books that can play a providential role in your spiritual quest along life’s journey. So take. Read. Ponder. And try all of that in the silence that can become Presence if you turn off your iPhone and just listen. Trust me. You will be transformed in the process.

1You may note that the title of the article on The Christian Century’s website is different than what I wrote. In linking up articles for my blogs I have discovered that for whatever reason several publications, including this one and the New York Times, publish identical articles on their websites and in their print versions with different titles. If you read the entire article above, you’ll even notice an endnote stating that fact. I’m quoting the title of the print article since I subscribe to and read the print version of the Century.