How to Become… a Spiritual Reader (part 1)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

Before we get to Joy, there’s this. You may be waiting for me to recommend a book or two. Reading matters in the spiritual life. Selectivity in what you read matters – especially since we read, not just books, but blogs, tweets, posters and memes, and even emails like this one! What you read, over time, becomes… you. A mistake religious people make is the fantasy that a soundbyte, or tweet, or quick devotional, or a poster-sized quote can deliver the spiritual life. But little spiritual tidbits aren’t muscular like those ants that carry heavy loads. We’re looking for something more substantial, and something to read slowly, to ponder, chew on, memorable, intriguing enough that you’d want to tell somebody, but in doing so you’d stammer and sigh.

Don’t think I’m going to recommend you only read spiritual books. Novels, non-fiction and poetry can ferry us to beautiful places, and close to the heart of God who entered into this mundane world and lived like everybody else and told dramatic stories about fictional people – and dashed off a little poetry too.

Trashy novels probably don’t bless their readers. I was haunted when I read Thomas Merton puzzling over why people read biographies of Hitler or Stalin – just as I was in the thick of Alan Bullock’s book comparing the two! I suspect a keen awareness of how evil has happened, and might again, steels us for the hard work of the spiritual life. Yet reading of noble lives and events can inspire, and remind us of what really is possible for us humans.

Novels open up a world, and bore into the human heart. At least good ones do. Some are assigned in high school, but you’re too immature, too grade-focused to soak it all in. George Eliot’s Silas Marner is short, and an unforgettable journey into beauty; Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country will make you cry tragic and hopeful tears; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird stirs courage in even the most chicken reader. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees might be better for your spirituality than E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey. As Frederick Buechner said to me when I lucked into lunch with him, when his neighbor and friend John Irving wrote A Prayer for Owen Meany, the world got a little bit better; but his later, trashy novels only added to the world’s garbage heap. It’s not about banning books, but finding books that are revelatory, that speak deeply to the human spirit, raising questions and inspiring creativity and boldness.

Nonfiction can bless, inform, or dump toxic waste into your soul. Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains reveals how world-changing one dedicated life (Paul Farmer’s) can be. Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat might thrill and inspire you more your noblest more than a biography of Hugh Hefner. Every would-be spiritual person should read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and become as amazed as she is by God’s world. And why would you think you know about traces of racism in your soul if you’ve not read Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed?

I’m an avid reader of history. Yes, there are histories of what God’s church has been up to, much of it embarrassing. When I read from the annals of the Middle Ages or Ancient Egypt or the Civil War or whatever, I remind myself that I’m learning things God knows. God was there, rooting, grieving, inspiring, shuddering.

Reading about science takes us very close to the unfathomable mind of God. God created lavishly a startlingly complex and massive universe with details, laws, mysteries, colors, creatures, and sounds just waiting for you and me to ponder them – and be awed by the marvel that is God our Creator. Even the atheists favor us with so much that elicits praise in the God they deny: Richard Dawkins is my personal favorite, hostile to faith, but serving as a docent to show me dazzling things God has done.

Even a short blog or op-ed can stagger you and embolden you to understand God’s world and people and your place in it. David Brooks and Peggy Noonan always make me think, and re-think, and ask God “What did you think about that one?” Poetry digs deep; you go slow and find in the words of others feelings you didn’t realize you had. Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and oldies like Gerard Manley Hopkins have been stalwart guides for me.

Questions to ask as you read, and when you’re done might be more than Did I enjoy reading this? Maybe Did this time with this World War II character expose something deep in my soul? Am I rethinking relationships or understanding others better? What new did I learn? Were my pet biases merely mirrored back my way? Where was beauty, or wisdom?

Soon (I promise!) I will speak of reading that is intentionally spiritual.

Try this: click reply to tell me anything you’ve ever read that lured you close to God’s heart.