Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005
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****Walking a Literary Labyrinth

A Spirituality of Reading

by Nancy M. Malone

Reviewed May 12, 2005.
Riverhead Books, New York, 2003, 208 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2005 (#8, Biography)

In Christian circles, I sometimes get the impression that reading is regarded as a self-indulgent, rather suspect act.  I’ve had people tell me how they’ve sworn off novels or any secular books.  This is one reason I liked Walking a Literary Labyrinth, because Nancy Malone discusses reading as a spiritual act.  She talks about how her spiritual life has followed the course of her reading.

She opens the book, “Has it ever occurred to you that the acts of reading and meditation resemble each other in many ways?  Both are usually done alone, in silence and physical stillness, our attention focused, our whole selves—body, mind, and heart—engaged.  Both can draw us deeply into ourselves, all the while taking us out of ourselves.  Our consciousness shifts.  We are not our everyday selves with various roles to play in our families, our jobs, society, with our concerns, major and minor, about the people we love, the things we have to do, our needs and wants, the state of the world.  We become centered, our energy concentrated, with no purpose served by what we are doing other than the act itself.  We are, at the moment, only the reader, or the contemplative.”

When I think about my spiritual life, I can see dramatic changes in my outlook directly produced by books like Discovering the Character of God, by George MacDonald.  Or I think about how my thoughts about love and about my calling were influenced by Emily’s Quest.   Or how The Blue Castle helps me put life in perspective.  So I agree with Nancy Malone when she says, “You may credit significant turns that you have taken in life to a certain book, or certain books.  Less noticed by us, however, are the many more subtle ways that our reading has influenced the works-in-progress that we are, or how our reading has led us, one way or another, on the journey we’ve made to become who we are now.  And we can be sure that, as long as we live and read, other books will accompany us, like wise and honest friends on the quest to become who we are meant to be.”

“For me, reading—and I don’t mean just inspirational, devotional reading—has been and is a spiritual practice.  It is my partner in the conversation we are always having with ourselves (our interiority), influencing who I’ve thought I was, who I wanted to be, who I am and am called to be.”

I knew that Nancy Malone is a kindred spirit when I read, “And if I tell the truth, I am more likely to miss my night prayers on occasion than my reading.  It is another experience of total immersion, of a world wider than mine—a good way to end the day.”

“Sometimes, as can happen in contemplative prayer, we’re taken completely out of ourselves as we read, and return to ourselves refreshed.”

I love her defense of fiction:  “I read it not because I expect to find ready-made answers to my questions, but because I want to understand human life, both as it is and as it might be.  And in good fiction I can observe the characters asking—or failing to ask, or wrongly answering—the questions that make us authentic human beings, true selves, the questions that are the very stuff of our lives, and the very stuff of literature, both tragic and comic.”

Nancy Malone talks about discovering books as a child and how books continued to influence and steer her life as she went through high school and college and eventually decided to become a nun.  For the first fifteen years of following her vocation, she was confined to reading only “spiritual” books.  So I find it especially interesting how well she defends reading even secular books.  She says, “The same sacramental principle that finds God in all things has impelled me to explore a spirituality of reading in different kinds of books, not just explicitly spiritual ones.  Because in them, and especially in good novels, I find the astonishing richness of God’s world—human, animate, inanimate—celebrated in all its haeccitas, its “thisness” (just the opposite of mass-produced), as Duns Scotus named it.”

“To put it in religious language, and to speak for myself, the books that I value have edified me, in the root meaning of the word; they have built me up and enlarged me.  I am a wiser, more tolerant woman for having read them, less hard on others and even on myself.”

I like what she says about later dramatic changes that happened in her life, which reading helped to bring about:  “You spend your whole life becoming who you are only to find out that you have to change, radically.  I imagined that I myself and not God’s grace could effect the change.”

“I never could, by dint of my own efforts, have changed myself the way life changed me, the way God’s love wanted me to change.”

She talks about how our thinking (influenced by our reading) changes us:  “What we think about the world, ourselves, and God plays as important a part in our spiritual lives as our feelings do.  (Do we think, for instance, that we are the only “chosen people,” whether as Jews, Catholics, Muslims—or Americans?  Does such thinking enlarge our spirits?  What are the consequences of it for others?  And what kind of God does it manifest?)”

She took a job where she had to work with Jews and did some reading about Jewishness.  She says, “I had to revise my thinking about Jesus, to realize the fullness of his Jewishness, the Jewishness of his own spirituality, and that his mission was not to convert Jews to another religion but to call them to fidelity to their own covenant with God.  I understood that Christians, far from supplanting the Jews as God’s chosen people, are privileged to share in their everlasting covenant.  Because if that covenant is not everlasting, if God is not faithful to the Jews, then we’re all in big trouble, Jews and Christians alike.”

I’ll include a few more selections of her wonderful words about reading:

“I can hardly conceive how limited my perception would be without the books I have been privileged to read, how superficial my understanding of others, how undeveloped my sympathies.  And I mean here, especially, without fiction, which puts flesh and blood on, and soul and feeling in, other human beings.  Precisely because of its appeal to my imagination, which Webster’s dictionary defines as ‘the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality,’ in fiction I come to know and understand people I may not have met otherwise.  And thus I am persuaded to a more compassionate, generous, and loving response in my life beyond books.”

“And we neglect, I fear, the part that the imagination—something of a stepdaughter in the house of the intellect—may play in our faith, not only in our moral lives, as above, but in our prayer, worship, and beliefs.”

“But reading can also, in a deeper and more inchoate fashion, give us hope.  Hope that there is a God whose extravagant fecundity is the source of the mysterious creative impulse of the artists among us.  That the care and attention writers lavish on their characters are bestowed on us by our Creator.  And that there is in life the kind of wholeness achieved in a great work of literature—a master narrative in which, though we cannot always see how, your story and mine have their part.”

“Reading helps me to be my true self, the self that sees the world, others, myself, God, with the faith that [Bernard Lonergan] calls ‘the eye of love.’”

I especially like the way she ends the book:

“Some of us were made to read and write.  Thanks be to God.”

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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