A Literary Priest Talks Books and the Heart

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim


This interview was originally published in its entirety in the ‘Year of the Spouse’ Journal.

The Rev. Andrew Brinkman is a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. His homilies are often filled with references to characters from great works of fiction. Fr. Andrew is a person who is clearly shaped and inspired by good literature. Here, we explore the relationship between literature, the heart, and culture. 

Beth Nelson: Why is it important to read?

Fr. Andrew: Reading is connected to the life of the intellect more than any other activity. It’s what gets the muscle of the intellect working. An active intellect is always a good thing. This is what distinguishes us humans from the animals, our ability to know things and make decisions. Our minds are where our actions begin. Through the intellectual life, humans are able to perceive the world, to understand it, and act upon it. It is important to engage the intellect by making it work, by feeding it with beautiful images or presenting it with hard things to solve.

BN: One of the most frequent discussions within Well-Read Mom has to do with the importance of reading novels and not just spiritual books. Would you say it’s important to read a good novel, even if it is not overtly faith-based? How can a busy person who takes his or her faith seriously justify putting the time into reading a novel instead of a spiritual book?

Fr. A: This is precisely where people confuse art and practicality. Engagement with the arts is very practical. Art is a huge part of culture because it’s by engaging the arts, good music, beautiful architecture, poetry, and literature, that I become more human. Why don’t we read spiritual books exclusively? Because the soul is incarnate. The soul had to take flesh. There are great books such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, where the author puts into a story the profound truth of the faith and the problem of evil. Why is there suffering in the world? Dostoevsky also explores the question of spiritual fatherhood: What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a son?

We could seek answers to those questions from a theological text, however, it is through good literature that we are able to sink a little bit deeper into how good, evil, and the fatherhood questions affect us on a more personal level. The truths of the faith are never just abstract stuff. For example, Jesus, the Word, became flesh. God became man. In literature, as in good art, the truths of the faith and of mankind come into very concrete, particular situations, and engage the mind. Often we are surprised: “Oh, I didn’t think that we could look at the problem of suffering in this way. I didn’t think that we could look at grace coming into a person’s life the way that Flannery O’Connor shows it.”

BN: Another question that interest us is whether deep reading can counteract the negative effects that a fast-paced, technology-driven lifestyle can have on our minds and hearts. What do you think?

Fr. A: A lot of contact with technology is short-lived. It’s measured in sound bites. It doesn’t allow for any long-term engagements. With technology there is very little emotional investment. But a great deal of time is devoted towards reading a book since it involves an investment of the heart and mind with each of the characters in the novel. Everything we take in, through reading a novel or watching something on social media somehow shapes us, for better or worse. Good literature helps us to grapple with truths that engage the soul and manifest the difficulties of living out the gospel.

BN: It’s clear that literature has influenced you a lot. Can you tell us how certain books have shaped your own life and vocation?

Fr. A: I didn’t start reading literature in my free time until after my first year in the college seminary. In the summer of 2005 a very good friend of mine, who was about 79 years old at the time, came to visit me. He loved books. He believed in the power of good literature and would say to me, “Every good priest needs a good library. If a priest doesn’t have a good library, he probably isn’t a good priest.”

He gave me books as gifts, many of which I still have on my shelf; Romano Guardini’s The Lord and a compilation of Dostoevsky’s short stories are among them. The first book that he gave me, though, was The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. There was something about reading the life of this unnamed country priest, who fails in his vocation in many ways. He was too severe and the people of his parish were not really able to connect with him. He died alone, and neglected, like Jesus. Bernanos saw the country priest as another Christ. Through this story Bernanos gives insight into the truth of Christian failure and the meaning of Christ as the ultimate victim. One reads about this suffering priest and thinks, “Yea, that’s real, that could happen.” It’s painful to witness the suffering of this one man, but Bernanos deftly brings out the beauty within that pain.

Good works like The Brothers Karamazov, Brideshead Revisited, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the writings of John Henry Newman, and those of Caryll Houselander, highlight particular truths of the faith so that we can see their brilliance.

Because we’re human, we love and need to discover things in a particular context. People don’t want to hear about charity in the abstract. What does charity look like for a middle-aged woman living in St. Paul in 2015? That’s engaging. Why? Because there are many middle-aged women in the Midwest who would like to know what that might look like. Literature is one way to engage that. The proposal to live a life of charity, as Christ would, brings forth many obstacles during this particular time period. When the imagination is allowed to grapple with the meatiest of life’s questions, one’s desire to pursue holiness increases.

BN: In the context of today’s culture, why would you say it’s important to read good literature?

Fr. A: The media culture is potent. Film is real, clear, up front, and sensual. It affects our emotions and feeds our imaginations by showing us what is possible, what could be done, and making it all attractive. And this is where we have to stop and say, “Time out.” When we watch TV and film we are also in a more passive position. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t watch film, but we’ve got to engage it. The danger is in just letting life happen to us. Virtue is not easy. We have to push back against our bad tendencies and one’s desire to be tranquil and at ease. When we read, we exercise the mind and sharpen our ability to look at things, to discern, to criticize, and to judge.

Reading good fiction enriches my prayer life and allows me to better communicate the gospel. It enriches my conversations and connections with people. I try to read a theological work, some fiction, a bit of poetry, and articles from the magazine First Things on a regular basis.

The fact that there’s a Journal like this out there for the women who partake in Well-Read Mom is very encouraging. That there are women out there who want to be well-read is beautiful. It makes me glad that these women don’t just want to get by, but really want to thrive in their vocations. Reflecting on all of this also makes me think that to be a good mother is on par with being a well-read one.