Most of my school day from third through eighth grade was spent reading in a treehouse in my backyard, but I wasn’t a truant; my parents just homeschooled my brother and me for a few years. When I returned to traditional school, not even a string of particularly uninspiring English teachers could kill my love of books, but I went from reading for pleasure to reading for my class assignments. When I became a first-time mom just after graduating from college, I had to re-learn how to read for personal enrichment, not just for grades.
Recently, I had a conversation with my friend (and Word on Fire Institute Fellow) Rachel Bulman about parenting. It became clear as we talked that Rachel’s study of philosophy had a huge impact on how she parented and addressed big issues with her children. “Rachel, where were you trained in philosophy?” I asked. She explained that it wasn’t until after college that she developed a passion for the subject and started diving in and reading philosophy. We often forget that we are not limited to learning in a classroom. We can be lifelong learners, no matter our situation in life.
We understandably connect education with success in a professional setting. And employment that supports us and our families is a worthwhile goal! But it’s easy to forget that cultivating a habit of learning is something valuable even many years after we stop getting report cards. And in a culture hyperfocused on credentials and professional goals, we may even feel guilty for spending time reading when the siren song of utilitarian efficiency and productivity is calling. But I’d like to make a case for embracing (or starting to develop) our childhood bookwormish leanings as Catholics and as evangelizers.
Christians are called to love God with all our hearts, minds, and wills. Nourishing our hearts, minds, and wills by becoming lifelong learners can be an act of worship, a prayer. It helps us to tap into the experience of wonder that lifts our hearts to God. My husband is always teaching our children details about the flora and fauna of our region in Central Texas. When we go for walks, my children don’t point out “flowers,” they point out “evening primrose! bluebonnets! fire wheels! rain lilies!” They love stopping at the red-tailed hawk’s nest and telling me what distinguishes these birds of prey from others that live nearby. Learning about these plants and creatures increases their joy in them. Intuitively, we know this to be true about all kinds of things. If we’re visiting a historical site, we will enjoy the experience so much more if we have spent some time learning about its significance. For example, without knowing its history, a trip to the Alamo is just a visit to an old building. Becoming learners means becoming wonderers. We are led to awe and to worship of the Creator of these wonders.
But let’s narrow down this discussion of our role as learners back to bookishness. How does reading enrich our lives as Christians? When we engage in the habit of reading good books, it is not an empty intellectual exercise. We are also feeding our souls! St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, drew spiritual nourishment not just from the Scriptures but from spiritual classics like Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. Although she is a Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse did not think of herself as an intellectual or highly educated women (nor did she find all reading helpful) and yet through her practice of reading spiritual classics, spiritual truths were imprinted on her soul. What treasures are awaiting us in The Imitation of Christ or in St. Thérèse’s own spiritual classic, A Story of a Soul?
But we certainly should not reduce our book choices to a single genre of explicitly spiritual writing. Cultivating our moral imagination is perhaps best done through great fiction. Christian novelist Madeleine L’Engle, author of the classic A Wrinkle in Time, reminds us in Walking on Water, her excellent reflections on faith and art, “Stories, no matter how simple, can be vehicles of truth; can be, in fact, icons. It’s no coincidence that Jesus taught almost entirely by telling stories.” There is nothing childish about being drawn to stories. Human beings are designed to understand the world through them, which is why Jesus himself taught through parables. I recently shared my own experience of a novel’s influence on my conversion to Catholicism! Diving into a good story can literally change your life.
As Catholics on fire for the faith, though, we should also consider the development of our reading habits not just for spiritual or personal growth but for the sake of evangelization. We cannot connect with a culture if we do not understand its art. But if we wrestle with pivotal stories and ideas that are influencing the culture, we can find common ground through which to communicate the Gospel. And often the most powerful stories that secular culture is wrestling with have flashes of grace and Christian truth. Whether it’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, or Morrison’s Song of Solomon, these enduring novels explore the big questions that matter to us all: sin and grace and the desires of the human heart. If we refuse to ever read about sin, then we will be sheltering ourselves from the power of good stories that can point us and others to the Gospel. Twentieth-century Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor noted that “Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.”
What is the best way to become equipped to engage with literature in the way Flannery O’Connor urges us to? How do we learn to draw out the Christian spirit in great books? I think one piece of the answer is community. We need to be Catholic readers who together explore the literature of the past and the present, and we need the encouragement and insights of others in order to wrestle with these texts.
This is why the Word on Fire Institute has established a book club to provide resources, build community, facilitate discussion, and encourage lifelong learning. And we have a wonderful lineup for the rest of 2021! By joining, you will nurture your spiritual life with spiritual classics like The Rule of St. Benedict, Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, and Jesus of Nazareth:The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI. We’ll also be diving into good novels to cultivate our moral imagination, reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces.
By becoming a member of the Institute, you’ll have access to the Word on Fire Institute book club (called “Club 451” by its founding members) and the discussion threads, Zoom meetings, and webinars to accompany you on your reading journey. If you’re already a member, just join the Club 451 group after logging into your WOFI account. We’ll be diving into our next read, The Rule of St. Benedict (included in the Word on Fire Classics St. Benedict Collection), next week. So order a copy of the book and prepare to make reading a habit that turns the soul to God and equips you to share the Gospel!