This winter, I gave myself the New Year’s resolution of reading one book a week. I used to read a book a week in grad school, when required, and I wanted to get back into that practice again. My house is piled with books that I have bought and left untouched, and the guilt is consuming.
I say is because that resolution, like so many resolutions, has already failed. I read one book (Scott Cairns’ “Short Trip to the Edge”) in the week before the new year, but I have not kept up with my self-assigned reading. I’ve lost the practice.
And like many of us, I’m looking at Lent as a way of re-approaching what I can now define as a spiritual problem: I can’t read because I need to repent.
The tradition of Lent lies in direct contrast to our culture’s belief in resolutions, our quick proclamations of will and self that are meant more for our personal gain than a real change of heart. And I need, as St. Augustine put it, a “new pure heart”; I believe that my reading habits reflect my own heart’s current needs, ones that resolutions bent on my own success cannot touch.
I suppose that the “success” I was looking for had many threads: I wanted to not feel guilty about my piles of books, or about the money I spent on those books; I wanted to appear more professional with my writing friends, whose daily habits of writing are so much more disciplined than my own; and I wanted to show my stuff to my teaching colleagues, the silent biceps-flexing of academia: “See? My bookshelf is bigger than your bookshelf!”
This is all the sin of pride, the root of every haphazard turn I take away from God. And I do not want to be prideful -- I want to be hospitable, caring, perceptive, available to others.
My old habits of reading were so individual, such an escape, that I have found myself using my vice as an excuse not to read -- “If you decide to read,” I’ll think on a Sunday afternoon, “you’re choosing to ignore the people around you, and how is that a good thing to do?”
Reading also means committing myself to a text, an author, a stretch of time. Reading means that I give up a certain kind of freedom, and I don’t want to give that up. I want to be able to skim as I choose, to pop in and out of conversations whenever I feel like it, to hang above my life and responsibilities without fully investing myself one way or the other, to sit on Facebook and pretend that I am spending quality time with the people I love.
The way I read is a mirror of how I unconsciously live, and even connects to my holy reading, the way I meet and read the Scriptures. Though my Protestant tradition has laid the path of sola scriptura, I feel lost reading the Scriptures, and have picked and chosen from various liturgical traditions as ways of centering myself. I try following the Revised Common Lectionary and flip through the pages of my Catholic Daily Office missal, but even in the richness of that communal act of prayer, I feel disconnected, loose, abstracted from the tether that reading gives to prayer.
How should I take up reading this Lenten season in order to put to death these imperfections of my heart, not only for myself, but also for others? How can reading help me live a better, more faithful life?
I need to be intentional about what I read for nourishment as we come out of winter, its cold and dark. As we approach Easter, how can I sharpen my ears to listen to these stories -- our stories -- better? How can I walk in ever-deepening wonder at the stories that we live between, the words that anchor and challenge our faith? The words of the psalmist, the prophet, of Jesus himself? How can stories move me to hear the Christian story with more nuance, with a more discerning ear? And how can I pick back up the stories that speak the most to me, to rekindle a love of words? How can I befriend words in order to welcome others?
Lent is a season that cradles us in confession and grace. If reading is a mirror of my life, then I know that I cannot go this Lent alone. I need someone to follow and to challenge me and reveal in me what needs mending.
In my book pile I have “Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.” It was a gift, and when I opened it, I immediately knew the sins of my reading heart. Here was a book that demanded my commitment, my slow reading, my journeying along with the mothers and fathers of the church who went into the desert, not to escape, but to watch God refine in them the “primary desire … [of] love of God and neighbor.”
It is essential for us to read better, with deeper love and devotion, in order to see our life practices line up with this primary desire of loving God and neighbor. And this Lent, I’ve been reading this book because I want reading to sharpen my obedience, to give me better words and awareness of my loved ones, to bring me closer to God.
What has surprised me in this practice is that the reading has been slower, and more purposeful, than any reading I have done in a long time. It has given me solitude with these thoughts of the heart, but it has not isolated me in the ways that reading used to isolate me. I do not know how else to mark it, as I keep reading, but I know my vices and vanities are being put to death.
And I know that I do not read alone. I read now with you, and with the desert mothers and fathers, who are waiting on these pages, wise and patient. I’m going into the desert. I hope that it gives me a new, pure heart.