Last Fall, I read Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain for the second time and found that it had really improved since I was in my early 30s. It was like when I studied Anatomy and Physiology in my late 50s and found that somebody had put a whole lot more stuff inside cells since I was in high school when there were only 4 or 5 cell parts to memorize. I think it might be one of my favorite non-fiction books now--pretty close to Caryll Houselander.
Now I am reading Merton's Thoughts in Solitude with my breakfast. I read a chapter--they're very short--or two a day, and sometimes I read the same one more than once. The current one is titled Reading.
Reading ought to be an act of homage to the God of all truth. We open our hearts to words that reflect the reality He has created or the greater Reality which He is. It is also an act of humility and reverence towards other men who are the instruments by which God communicated His truth to us.So is he saying that all reading must be spiritual reading? Well, no.
Books can speak to us like God, like men or like the noise of the city we live in. They speak to us like God when they bring us light and peace and fill us with silence. They speak to us like God when we desire never to leave them. They speak to us like men when we desire to hear them again. They speak to us like the noise of the city when they hold us captive by a weariness that tells us nothing, give us no peace, and no support, nothing to remember, and yet will not let us escape.If this is true and it seems true to me, there is no sort of book that we ought to avoid except the one that speaks to us like the noise of the city.
One of my favorite kinds of books is one that is not ostensibly spiritual, but in which one finds grace in unexpected places--perhaps a grace that the author did not even intend. Sometimes the books aren't pretty. They may be filled with darkness, but the darkness is the perfect setting for that gleam of grace. The best example I can think of at the moment, and it's an example where I'm pretty certain the author wrote exactly what he intended, is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
There are more kinds of reading than books. When I think of the noise of the city, I immediately think of Facebook, and presumably other social media with which I am not personally familiar. In fact, the whole last sentence of that quote pretty much describes social media.
I love the idea that the words that we read should reflect reality. We've probably all had the experience of reading a book that was beautifully written, but skewed in some way. I'm not talking about fantasy, which can be an excellent medium for reflecting truth, but books that are like a delicious fruit with poison at the center. I suspect from all I've heard, although I have not read them, that Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books are of this sort. I hate to say this, and I know that some of you will disagree with me, but sometimes I think that Silence is one of those books.
Further on, Merton says, "Ideas and words are not the food of the intelligence, but truth." I've had to ask myself what he meat by this. I wondered if he was saying, "Ideas and words are not the food of the intelligence, but [the food of truth]" but that didn't quite seem to make sense. I think what he's saying is that ideas and words are truth--not just something utilitarian by which we can become more knowledgeable. And he goes on to say that they are not just, "an abstract truth that feeds the mind alone."
The Truth that a spiritual man seeks is the whole Truth, reality, existence and essence together, something that can be embraced and loved, something can sustain the homage and service of our actions: more than a thing: persons, or a Person. Him above all Whose essence is to exist. God.Obviously, he is talking about the first two kinds of books here.
Thinking about all this reminded me of an oft-quoted passage from The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk may one day be a creature which if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.And the things we read are likewise leading us one way or the other, as do the things we chose to watch. I find it's very easy to get sucked into a series that is full of the noise of the city because I want to find out what's going to happen. It's much harder to pull back from one of these than it is to put down a book. Offering us nothing, as Merton says about the "noise of the city" books, they are truly difficult to escape.
Well, I have managed during the course of this post to include almost the entirety of this two-page meditation. The book, Thoughts in Solitude is full of short reflections. I had to pull myself up short just there because I started to say that they were helpful, and there's that utilitarian thing. They are more than helpful, they are a door into a solitude that is hard to find in a secular life, and they lead us bit closer to that Person, Who is Truth.