It might have been said of me, “She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain.” This quip attributed to Louisa May Alcott certainly captures my best pleasure or best vice, depending on one’s point of view. I am and have been an avid reader since I was four years old. So when Joyce Rupp suggests that in this fourth week of Lent we attend to a love of learning and wisdom by reading spiritual books, I dive in eagerly.
Her suggestion makes me ask some questions not only about what I am reading, but how I read them. Because I am a rapid reader, I can often read without being very careful about every words and nuance. Yet, for this kind of reading I need to slow down, maybe even with the rhythm I use in lectio divina, reading slowly enough to let a word shimmer for me, then meditate with it, pray with it, let it sink into the marrow of my soul. I am prone, I confess, to spiritual “obesity,” reading or gathering as much as I can without letting the full nourishing value reach into the places in me that long for transformation. So in the books that are coming to me of late, I have been invited to read more slowly, pay closer attention, and to let there be space in between intakes, even doing some written reflection on what I am reading and learning, seeking what the invitation there might be for me.
I find myself profoundly grateful to live in a time when so many sources of wisdom are so freely accessible to all. Between the old resources like libraries and newspapers and the newer ones on electronic media, I am never without wisdom at hand, at least on one hand or the other. So in this season I have been touched by memoirs of the dying and those growing older, of those in seminary, of those on the front line caring for others. I have been challenged by theologians, from my own tradition and other traditions; on my stack of books awaiting me is the papal encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. I am accompanied by spiritual writers, again from many traditions, from many places in the world, from many location in our own country; I have seen that spiritual practice often has a different face in snowbound or rural settings, far away from my Southern California urban life. Novels continue to touch me, particularly those whose central character seem to be on a quest for touching, feeling, loving the Mystery. And, the dessert course to almost every meal is the poetry, whether it is Malcolm Guite, Jan Richardson, Denise Levertov or Lucille Clifton. The wisdom that lies in the language of the poet touches deeply, lasts long.
I have also had a shocking encounter with an old realization about reading this week in this practice. I am an avid collector of lists of “bests” in reading from magazines and blogs, copy them down, often ordering them on the basis of recommendation only, rather than discerning whether or not they might be a fit for me, for my journey thus far, for my particular sensibilities and ways of knowing. Over my journey I have come to know a great deal about myself, especially what builds me up, what nurtures me and challenges me, and also what diverts or oppresses me. Some events that are reminiscent of past wounds and scars, some language that is punitive and exclusionary, some tones that are arrogant and condemnatory, even if the writer’s intention is pure, are writings that do more harm than good to my spirit. My own wisdom can be a discerning voice, were I to listen to it. This week I didn’t! I picked up a book from a list and forced myself to read it all the way through, even though a few pages in, I knew it was not good for me. My reading resulted in nightmares, a very infrequent occurrence at this point in my life. Had I listened to Lady Wisdom, I could have prevented that fear and anxiety. That very good book wasn’t wisdom to me.
I love the quest for wisdom. I take to heart again the words from the book of James:
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (James 3: 17-18)
As I seek wisdom this week, I will also seek the things that make for peace.