Reading as a Spiritual Practice

This is a sermon I did at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hendricks County in Danville, Indiana, this morning.  

Anna Quindlen, in her short book How Reading Changed My Life, says about her childhood, that “at the time I surely was, the only child I knew, or my parents knew, or my friends knew, who preferred reading to playing kick-the-can or ice-skating.” Raise your hands if you felt the same—I know that I did. She goes on, “In books, I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but, into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.”

Quindlen tells the story of Oprah Winfrey, who remembered being admonished by her mother “You’re nothing but a something-something bookworm. Get your butt outside! You think you’re better than the other kids.” Quindlen explains “I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth.”

Reading has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can’t remember ever NOT reading. I have books everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the bathroom, and in piles by my bed.

I’ve found that in some ways, what I read reflects my state of mind. For example, when I was a teenager and very boy-crazy, most of what I read were romances. (Note: I don’t read romances any more. Romance is the one genre that doesn’t seem to give me much spiritual sustenance.) But my state of mind also reflects what I have read. So many times I just happened to be intrigued by a book, and it held exactly the truth I needed to hear at that time in my life.

Why is reading a spiritual practice? I think that a spiritual practice is something that you do consciously that brings you comfort, centers you, or helps you find meaning. It could help you connect with others or make a difference in the world. When I read, I am present right now, not obsessing over the past or worrying about the future. I learn empathy—what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. I become connected to the author by reading what he or she has written. Stephen King calls this telepathy. I also become connected to anyone else who has ever read the book. I get to experience the past, present, future, at home and in faraway places, and also go to places that never existed and may never exist, hopefully. (Think The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.)

The pile of books that is too big for my bookcases.

I don’t know moderation when it comes to books. I just can’t seem to say no to more books, even when I have a stack that is more like a pile or a mound or even a heap of books—at any rate, this assemblage of books I want to read cannot be contained in a bookshelf. Every book is the possibility of another world. Or it might hold a truth that will be critical to understanding my life. How do I know until I actually read it?

I love it when books surprise me with their insights—like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. This book is not for everyone, although it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2007. How was I to know that a book set in the New Jersey barrios and in the Dominican Republic would give me a way to describe my lonely adolescence and reassure me that my experience wasn’t completely unique to me? It confirmed that I wasn’t the only person who felt like she was left out of adolescence—Diaz described Oscar being the nerdy fat kid in high school “like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.”

A few years ago, while I was taking the Build Your Own Theology class here, I realized that reading is one of my primary spiritual practices and the main way I practice the Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Every piece of literature or nonfiction makes some statement that rings true in my own life. By reading, I’m searching for the meaning in my life and trying to figure it all out.

One of the first books I read when I was beginning to admit to myself that I am a writer was Stephen King’s On Writing. It was one of the best choices I could have made. He makes the point that writing and reading is telepathy, in this passage:

“…let’s assume that you’re in your favorite receiving place just as I am in the place where I do my best transmitting. We’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem. . . . Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation For one things, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes. . . .

The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”

Reading has allowed me into others’ minds and allowed me to experience more empathy than I would have had, had I not read about people who are not within my direct experience. For example, I am caucasian and haven’t had much experience with African-American communities. But, by reading Beloved, by Toni Morrison, I was able to feel some fraction of the heartbreak, all-encompassing sorrow, and hopelessness that being a slave must have entailed. Toni Morrison didn’t live through slavery, either, but her imagination, experience as a black woman, and gifts as a writer allowed me to feel the horror. By reading the mystery author Walter Moseley, who is biracial, I learned some of what it was like to be a black male in East LA. in the 1950s. By reading The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother, a memoir by James McBride, I learned that my Jewish grandmother, who married my Christian hillbilly grandfather in the 1930s, couldn’t have had things so bad. She and my grandfather were both white. McBride’s parents were black and white in the 1940s, and McBride’s story is so compelling I read it all at once when I had intended to read a little before I went to bed.

Reading also has the power to allow others to empathize with us. I’m in a book group through the library. Most of the women in the group are much older than me. Upon my suggestion, we recently read What Came First by Carol Snow. It is the story of three women and a man connected in a way that can only occur in the past couple of decades. Laura is a lawyer, a single mom by choice to an eight year old, who she conceived by donor insemination. Wendy is a stay at home mom to twin five year olds who were conceived by in-vitro fertilization. Vanessa is a twenty-something dental receptionist whose clock is ticking but her boyfriend of five years seems to be unable to commit. I’ll leave it up to you to guess how they’re connected.

When I read this book, I felt compelled to write to the author and tell her that she wrote my life. Even if the characters never existed in real life, the mere fact that this book was written shows me that the author “gets” me. I’ve never met her, but she understands who I am, and how it feels to be me. That’s what I want when I read—to feel that commonality of experience that I am not alone. Carol Snow told the story of my life and the decision I made to become a single mother by choice more perfectly than I could have explained to my friends in the book group if we had just been talking.

Last fall, I read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. It had very mixed reviews because it is nothing like Harry Potter—there’s no magic and it is very realistic. It’s the story of the town of Pagford after councilman Barry Fairbrother’s death. Conflicts arise between members on the town council who want to keep The Fields—a low income housing development—as part of Pagford, and those that want to de-annex it and allow a larger city to care for its inhabitants. Fairbrother had been from The Fields, was someone who –quote—made something of himself, and was in favor of keeping The Fields within the town. Others had been plotting to cut it off. All of the characters are intertwined—the adults and their teenage children. It deals with adult themes—there are portrayals of death, infidelity, heroin addiction, teenage sex, cutting, bullying, mental and physical illness, child neglect, and domestic violence. But Rowling writes truth.

A social worker, Kay, mother to a teenager, Gaia “watched the sleeping face and recalled the beautiful little baby who had slept beside her, sixteen years ago….Kay remembered the fantasy she had nurtured (with hindsight as silly as four-year old Gaia’s wish for a unicorn) that she would settle down with Gavin and give Gaia, at last, a permanent stepfather, and a beautiful house in the country. How desperate she had been for a storybook ending, and a life to which Gaia would always want to return, because her daughter’s departure was hurtling toward Kay like a meteorite, and she foresaw the loss of Gaia as a calamity that would shatter her world.”

I’m a single mother, my daughter is almost ten, and I’m learning how to be satisfied with being single. When she wrote that passage, I knew that Rowling gets me.

Another resident in The Casual Vacancy, a family practice physician, is on the town board and had been close friends with the man who died, Barry Fairbrother. In the ensuing political ugliness, she tries to maintain her equanimity and she falls back on her Sikh religion as she tries not to get drawn into the fray. She remembers the story of “Bhai Kanhaiya, the Sikh hero who had administered to the needs of those wounded in combat, whether friend or foe. When asked why he gave aid indiscrimately, Bhai Kanhaiya had replied that the light of God shone from every soul, and that he had been unable to distinguish between them.”

I love it when a book I don’t expect contains such truths, things I can relate to and remember. “The light of God shone from every soul.” What more do we need to remember?

I have always been a voracious reader, but I had the problem of not remembering what books I’ve read. That changed in 2008, when I found this little journal. It’s titled “Books I’ve Read, A Reader’s Journal.” I have journaled off and on for my entire life, but I’ve had the problem of consistency. I’d start journaling every day, then something would happen and I’d fall off the wagon. When I saw the book journal, I thought, like you do with a New Years’ resolution that “things would be different.” For each book, you only had to write a page—what would be a tiny 3 x 5 card’s worth of thoughts. I thought it would be journaling that would be manageable for me.

Well, things have been different. I’m on the 6th journal in the 5 years I’ve been keeping a book journal. My book journals document 385 books that I’ve read in the 5-plus years since April 2008. Why do I keep doing it? I love to page through the journals and remember the quotes I wrote down or the way the stories made me feel. I love the feeling of accomplishment I have when I look back on what I’ve read. My books are like friends I can return to again and again. Sometimes I read the entry I made for a particular book, and I can remember what else was going on in my life when I was reading that book. Like the book I started at bedtime on a Friday night and stayed up until 3 am to finish. Whether I was on a trip when I was listening to the audiobook, and where I was going. And when I’m talking with someone and think of a book that would be good to mention in the conversation, I don’t have to rely on my memory—I can go back to my book journals to find out what book I was thinking of. Keeping the book journal has helped me to summarize in others’ words those things that provide a source of meaning for me.

Anna Quindlen, in How Reading Changed My Life, talks about “those of us who comprise the real clan of the book, who read not to judge the reading of others but to take the measure of ourselves.” “All of reading is really only finding ways to name ourselves, and, perhaps, to name the others around us so that they will no longer seem like strangers.” “I am not alone. I am surrounded by words that tell me who I am, why I feel what I feel.”

Pat Conroy, the author of such books as The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, also wrote a memoir about reading called My Reading Life. He admits that “I selected all my books for the possibility of some flare of candles along the road toward illumination or enlightenment.” and “Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf.” Me, too, Pat, me, too. What books have changed you utterly?

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