By Marcie Stokman
“Do you ever miss your prayer when you’re traveling or have company? Does it ever feel like you just don’t have enough time in the day to pray?” I posed these questions to the priest sitting next to me at a luncheon a few months ago. He seemed perplexed by my question, so I stumbled to clarify. “I’m sure it’s rare but don’t you ever – every now and then – miss saying your prayers?” After an awkward pause he slowly responded, “For me it’s just the opposite. I miss other things but I don’t miss prayer.”
I was surprised. His faithfulness to prayer seemed to spring from a deep well of self-knowledge and an acute awareness of his dependence on God. Through this brief exchange, I understood something new that might help us in our effort to read more and read well. When it comes to forming the habit of reading great and worthy books, many women lament, “I just don’t have time to read!” But is lack of time really the problem? Perhaps, if we delve deeper, we will discover that the problem is neither a lack of time nor a lack of willpower, but rather a deficient awareness of who we are – of the value of our own person. I propose that the main reason we resist tending to our hearts by reading good literature is because we are not radical enough in our perception of who we are.
As persons made in the image and likeness of God, we are not just body we are body and soul. Our souls possess intelligence and will. At the core of our being is the heart and this heart must be cared for. The forces that drive today’s common mentality attempt to crust the truth of our person. When we flit from distraction to distraction, squandering the days, we succumb to this mentality. We forget who we are. We forget whose we are.
“Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the outflowings of life.” (Pr. 4:23) Well-Read Mom encourages women to accompany one another in friendship to read more and read well. Why? Of course there are many wonderful benefits that reading brings to our lives. But more importantly and at the deepest level the reason that we consider reading to be a worthy work is because the great works of literature help to restore our understanding of human nature, of our relationships with others and with God. In a way, we can say that good books nurture our very selves.
“What would it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Ps. 8) What would it profit a woman to get her children involved in a lot of activites, get them to Sunday school, and even help to educate them? What if this woman is able to keep a nice house and keep up with the laundry and even get Christmas cards sent out before Christmas? What if this woman efficiently get it all done but, in the frenzy, her very self gets lost so that she no longer knows who she is? What if this woman gets all these things done and more all the while forgetting that she is made to be in relationship with God? It’s obvious that this would be tragic. What can penetrate all of the busyness – good busyness – that fills her days in order to help her recover the true meaning of her life?
While we read, we witness a drama being played out between the characters and their circumstances. This drama provokes questions in us – serious questions about the human experience – and we then realize that our life, too, is a drama. Great writers stir up questions that can be painful for us to face. Franz Kafka wrote:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves…But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
If Kafka’s words seem extreme, consider again the tragedy of the busy mom who loses her very self in the midst of her work. “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” When we take a book in our hands we also take up a means for rediscovering our true hunger and thirst for the infinite. We wake up to the fact that we can’t save ourselves; that we really do need a Savior. Thus we can say that the work of reading can help us grow in our Christian life.
It is my hope that as we accompany one another in the reading of great books we may witness ourselves living with a greater – a more radical – awareness of who we are.
This piece was originally found in the ‘Year of the Worker’ Journal.