Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reading as Spiritual

As I read this week the novelist Muriel Spark's memoir, Curriculum Vitae, I couldn't help noticing that it was big on facts (recounting her literary career) and minimalist on her inner life. I have seen few autobiographies so lacking in personal insights. How is it possible to have an impersonal story of one's life?

Well, Spark provides the answer. But here and there, she does pause long enough to reflect on something deeper, the something I am always looking for in my reading (even if I began reading this book because the author was Scottish and since we are going to Edinburgh, I was curious to see what she had to say about it).

Lacking any religion, she writes about herself in the 1930s, but having "a strong religious feeling," she had the sensation of something indefinable beyond herself, especially when she was writing. "I was convinced I had access to knowledge that I couldn't possibly have gained through normal channels..." She says little else about this; twenty years later, in the 1950s, Spark became a Catholic but can't quite explain why. If religion is not all about feelings, it is about mystery.

The idea of reading as well as writing as spiritual and even prayerful is a topic I addressed last year in an article for the "Merton Seasonal." There I tried to show that the complex process of silent reading (in contrast to the ancient practice of reading aloud) can reveal the mysteries of the inner self.

I quote my favorite Jesuit professor from St. Louis University, the prolific Walter J. Ong, whose influence on my life and work have been immeasurable: as private readers we give more attention to what we read than to what we hear since we bring more of ourselves to the reading act. The silent reading of many texts, such as novels and poems, allows us go deeper, becoming more fully aware of the true self.

To be immersed in a world of fiction is to let get of the ego for a while, "lose ourselves," and have ordinary time suspended. There, in solitude and silence, we encounter ourselves as inseparable from God (whether consciously or not).

Prayer, like reading and writing, is all about paying attention. Silent reading, I think, can become like meditation (if we allow it to be) in which our ordinary concerns, memories and desires are suspended in the timeless present while we read. There God can be found.

There, to put it more simply, my consciousness as a reader encounters the consciousness of the writer: in silent reading, Nancy Malone writes, we can meet the "deepest silences in another being."

My greatest debt in all this, of course, is to Thomas Merton, who found through writing and reading openings into contemplative prayer. For him, his sense of prayer, and his vocation as both writer and monk, were inconceivable without the written word. He found God in himself by wrting about his need to find God. And his writing was prompted in part by his wide reading, which I also see as a spiritual act.

How many other writers, consciously or not, have felt the presence of God in their reading or writing? Many would undoutedly deny any such spiritual presence, but they turn to the written word because they are drawn to something indefinable in themselves there, something we have to be grateful for.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

Thomas Merton wrote this about writing:

"If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy.

"If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while.

"If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish you were dead."

New Seeds of Contemplation