The Meditative Beauty of Reading
Distributed by Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Richard Hazzlewood
‘Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen’
- John Keats
‘Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the one thing necessary may be in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest.’
- Thomas Merton
‘The greatest boon is perhaps never to have been born’ – so writes Sophocles. At times I am inclined to agree, were it not for reading. For reading fulfils every need and desire. It catapults us into our own ideal world. The world outside could be crumbling away, but reading ensures we have a viable world of our own. Indeed, I see the outside world as gravely unpleasant. I am an introvert with social anxiety, and I have never enjoyed the prospect of travel or large social engagements. For me, the ideal life is reading, perhaps in a paradisiacal garden with a gin and tonic. But I have always valued my own time, and indeed no activity is more satisfying in its peaceful and solitary nature than reading.
Reading brings us close to the gods, a state of well being and splendour. Nothing can affect us, no dire event can befall us other than the rhythm of the pages we are following. Fiction and nonfiction both have so much to offer. It is as if, in the state of reading, we are perfectly at rest in our imaginary world, and we need pay no heed to what is going on outside us. The creative imagination is so beautiful: it is an immense gift. Film and TV do not even come close – nothing can rival the solitary beauty of reading. If I had to choose, I would rather seclude myself away and spend my days reading, with scarce any other activity. Now I know it is important to live a balanced life, but I am an introvert. To one such as me, the written page offers everything I could possibly want. Audiobooks too are pleasant.
Plato railed against the written word at the end of the ‘Phaedrus’, but I believe he was being partly ironic. After all, his dialogues are the most wonderful philosophical literature, so much more alive than Aristotle’s dry lecture notes. Aristotle can be a joy too, but for other reasons. Plato’s literary style is beautiful. And we cannot forget the mystical splendour of Plotinus’ ‘Enneads’ either, although the style is much inferior to Plato (however, the content is wonderful and inspired St Augustine).
In any case, I thrive from reading. Money doesn’t really interest me, honour certainly not. I am not looking to leave some spellbinding legacy. For me, merely to have read will be enough. Leaving written works behind is also important to me, but to a lesser extent. I could impart some wisdom, yet I doubt I have much to give. I think carefully about what will be my legacy. Yet ultimately, I must survive in this cruel world. And to survive means to read.
What more illustrative example could there be than in the summer term of my first year at university? Miserable, cast adrift, with nothing else to do and nothing to see, in a baking hot room, I read. The book in question: Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’. I could have been utterly bereft of family and friends, but Cervantes kept me sane. That book was splendid, and made the otherwise forlorn time memorable and exciting. I always look back to that example. Or after a long illness in 2012, where I turned to ‘El Cid’. It is such a good book, and helped me to recover in what was a depressing time.
Of course, the Bible is the ultimate book and I would never be without it. The Bible can console like no other. Sacred texts in general are the most pleasing literature, whether Buddhist, or Hindu, or Taoist. I would not be without these pinnacles of life. Being Christian, the Bible is obviously the most important to me – how much consolation one can gather from the Psalms! Yet I like to read widely. It is important not to forget all the various books that have shaped me down the years, although quite rightly, I view my true awakening as being early sixth form, when I read poetry properly for the first time.
Poetry is so sweet – much finer than prose – and I could honestly do nothing but read poetry all day long. Poetry answers a deep need in my soul. Without the poetic, what would we have? A sombre nothingness. For the poetic answers all our highest and deepest concerns: it sweeps us away in a beautiful siren-sounding Arcadia. Could I even live without poetry? I doubt it – it is in my lifeblood. I view it as grave whenever I can derive no pleasure from the poetic word – these moments signify a serious malaise of the soul.
Prose can be sweet too, and let us not forget drama, that effective mingling of poetry and prose. Yet the lyric poem contains so much beauty. I would not be without it for anything. Spenser’s ‘Fowre Hymnes’ are very beautiful, I wrote a dissertation on them. Or who cannot forget Yeats and T S Eliot? Perhaps Milton; or earlier, some of Chaucer’s poetry? They are all wondrous. I have been there, and experienced a very pleasing effect from these works. The lyric poem is beautiful because it is concise – it is a little glimpse of Heaven. And there is too little of the Heavenly in this barren world. I might miss a Mass or two, careless fool that I am, yet to read a world class poem is to entertain as spiritual a calling.
At times, the poetic mode is the only one that makes sense to me. For the most part, life is dull prose. And suddenly, with the magical impartation of the poetic sense, we see life in a heightened form. I mean more generally than written poetry itself – yet it is no accident that special moments of life we impart with the name ‘poetic’. It is all too rare, and yet crystallised upon the page, so we can venture there whenever our hearts are low or burdened. I often think, what a fool am I to even entertain a day without reading! Yet it sometimes happens, through sloth or ignorance. A life of reading cannot be deemed a wasted life: one experienced so much; more than the traveller. To travel has never excited me, for to experience a different culture most authentically, one should read their literature. And so the reading room of an introvert can furnish a greater broadening of the mind than any intrepid Marco Polo.
Life, you see, is full of difficulty: at times, grave difficulty; at times, merely a sapping of energies until we are left forlorn and listless. I wish that I had the power to change the world for the better – but sometimes I wonder whether I gave up on such idealism long ago. ‘Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish. / Approach the universe with Tao, / And evil will have no power.’ Yes, far more important to have a spiritual perspective, because otherwise one’s clumsy hand can leave things worse than they were before. Only with the authentic spiritual perspective can we know what is best, in thought, word and deed. But I digress – the greatest wisdom can be imparted simply from reading great minds. And there are plenty of them, down the centuries.
For time moves along swiftly, and yet the great works of literature and philosophy coalesce into a great canon, something of which it is one’s duty to discover. Especially in someone of my temperament. I wonder, could life be any sweeter, than simply having the leisure to read? It is not quite so simple, as we need the mental disposition also, and life can treat us cruelly at times. I have been so listless and mentally numb that I cannot read. We are not always best able to absorb the fine nutrients of a literary work. Spiritual nutrients that do wonders for our soul. In some states of mind, we are robbed of our capacity for intellectual or creative thought. But may those moments be seldom, with God’s blessing.
So then, the written word is a kind of maze wherein we learn all manner of new creative expressions of the spirit. At least, this is the effect of the greatest works of world literature. And one cannot confine oneself to the Western canon: we live in an age of global literature. Translations have reached a magisterial level of competence in some quarters. I am no foreign language expert – I leave that to those who can. English, and a little French (and less Latin) is all I know. Yet this should prove sufficient. My aim is to do as well as I can, by reading all who I can, and especially the greatest. I hope I can fulfil this mandate.
Reading, or literature broadly defined (encompassing creative writing, philosophy and other nonfiction) is certainly a splendid thing, a great gift from God. Yet where does it fit in with the other art forms? Music is, of course, incredibly sweet, and shares most perhaps with the lyric poem. The very concision of music is a delight, for a concerto is only a few minutes in length, and yet conveys an entire philosophy of life. Yet I put reading above music. Why? The answer is simple – although music reaches the very creative heights with its stirring and emotive melodies, it contains less of intellectual stimulation. Indeed, it cannot quite create an intellectually satisfying world in the same way as the written word. Now, this may be contentious – certainly music is extremely powerful, and we would be unwise to assign it limits. Yet at the same time, music is for the moment, or the hour; reading is for a lifetime. I think this best sums up the crucial difference.
We may marvel at Beethoven’s fifth, yet is it merely a creative statement at best? No, we can go further: it is era defining, shocking, revolutionary. Yet it does not equal the very best creative literature. For I cannot live within the hallowed walls of Beethoven’s fifth; I cannot immerse myself in its world such that I am a participant. It passes over me – it is an immense and deep creative experience – yet I do not inhabit the soundscape. And its intellectual content is too abstract compared to the concrete expressiveness of literary figure. Some would argue music speaks to the very core of our being, that its language is supralinguistic; indeed even that it represents the very essence of being (thus Schopenhauer). Yet I would say, that although it is an incredible experience, the written and poetic word leaves a more lasting legacy on the heart and mind.
Then there is visual art: what are we to make of this? Painting always affected me the least – but that is no fault of the medium. More, it is how I am subjectively constituted. I deeply admire the visual arts, but to a lesser degree than poetry or music. I cannot claim it is objectively inferior, because I cannot step outside my own preferences and sentiments. But it seems somehow less directly engaging, less immersive an experience. Of course, it is the most concise of the three, but perhaps a little too concise – one requires great depth with the human eye. I must say, I deeply value visual art, and would not be without it – yet my large ‘Giotto’ and ‘Rome’ books of paintings lie unopened – it is reserved for a later, undefined time, when I may really appreciate these treasures. For now, I have little motivation.
So then, reading has shown itself to be, at least in a subjective sense, superior to music and painting. Literature is obviously the most complex, in that one can create a world with the most depth – or perhaps just the most verbosity. Indeed, one cannot accuse Dante, or indeed the Psalms, of empty verbosity – their lines are inherent with the most beautiful imagery and meaning. The power of the word is universal – of course, so much so, that Christianity deems its God-man to be simply ‘the Word’. And the Logos is an important idea in Greek philosophy too.
One may rightly declare: life is to be lived; broadly meaning we should make the most of our humble incarnation and put a premium on experience. But what greater experience is there than being lost in the imagination? Now I freely admit, I favour contemplation over action, so perhaps this does not sit as well with the practical, pragmatic individual. But hear me out. Reading is really prime experience, and if functions in a way that fully engages our cerebral apparatus. Merely being in the world, walking down the street, or visiting the coffee shop are of course mundane activities. And on the face of it, scanning the text of a paperback, when placed in the world such as one’s conservatory or the aforementioned coffee house, can seem similarly mundane. However, this would be a grave mistake. For what does that text represent? The string of characters on the page sends signals to the brain that can create the most diverse worlds of the imagination – and like William Blake, I have always held the imagination to be more powerful than nature. The inner world is, in my view, more powerful than the outer: this bears true in spiritual tradition, but also among creative and artistic types.
For the inner world is a gateway to so much – it soars marvellously above all limitations of circumstance. One might be in poverty, or wheelchair bound, or even merely in middling circumstances, yet the inner world is freedom from all limitation. Shakespeare writes: ‘For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’ The kingly state is indeed a great symbol, and used frequently in literature. Now, to be a king is deemed to be at the top of Fortuna’s wheel, or at the pinnacle of outward possibility and fruition. Yet truly, to have a good imagination, by itself, I would scorn kingship. For nothing is more important than the power of the inner world – it is always with us, as long as we breathe. No amount of outward felicity or good fortune could compensate for a reduction in the richness of the inner world. Truly then, I do not value wealth, as wealth cannot add one iota to the power of the imagination. Indeed, an expensive surround sound cinema system cannot compete with a humble cheap paperback – no amount of wealth can buy the imagination. No, reading is prime experience: and here I mean it is in some ways more valuable to read a Psalm than to have the pleasure of walking down a sunny tree-lined street in the early afternoon heat. This is of course subjective – what are our values? Yet I have made clear that to myself at least, the word on the page has an immense power. The humble word can accomplish so much – is it surprising people are jaded by politics, where the word is wielded with so much inauthenticity? Good intent matters; one need only read the ‘Federalist Papers’ or Lincoln’s speeches for an antidote to today’s crude soundbites. Words are so powerful – they literally define our reality. So what can be more important than a heartfelt and sincere collection of words that fire the human imagination with so much creative splendour and wonder, and which touch a deep sensibility and innate knowledge within the reader?
So hopefully my idea of reading as prime experience now starts to make more sense. We can compare sitting down to read Shakespeare’s ‘Phoenix and the Turtle’, or Chaucer’s ‘Parlement of Foules’ with visiting Paris or Rome (two of my favourite cities). Now clearly one would be immediately tempted to say, out of culturally ingrained bias, that being a tourist in a foreign city is a more vibrant example of prime experience than reading a work of poetry in one’s conservatory. Yet in truth this is a subjective question and there is no definite answer. We may automatically think of the act of reading as being indirect experience, and the immediacy of being a tourist as direct; almost as if words are a barrier to be surmounted, or a foreign medium which must be negotiated. I cannot agree with this assessment. For me, reading a brilliant work of literature is as satisfying and real as visiting Paris. One cannot go wrong with a good book.
With words, there is admittedly a translation that takes place in the mind – from the abstractness of the string of symbolic characters, various images and concepts are extracted. Yet similarly, in our everyday empirical lives, sight and sound must be processed by the brain. The only difference is, empirically we are bound by our mostly mundane circumstances – but there are no bounds to the imagination. The imagination is truly free, and creativity is limitless. The mind can live in its own set of mansions, while the body subsumes in a humble apartment. When you think about it, our material circumstances are fairly unimportant beyond the basics – for we have the power of the mind to tap into. The mind is the ultimate virtual reality; I can only think that the marketing and usage of virtual reality headsets will weaken the power of people’s imagination, the vibrancy of their creativity, the wealth of cerebral potential. For of course the ultimate virtual reality is the words on a page, and in adding, you subtract. This is obvious enough with television; the audiovisual medium simply lacks the power of literature.
It is important that we have a strong and vibrant imagination – a king or emperor, if he lacks a creative mind, has less. The power of reading is such a boon to human happiness, and the potential for fulfilment. Perhaps a garden in which to read, on a warm summer’s day, is best, but really one can pick up a book in the meanest of circumstances, and it would make little difference. No matter how our outward lives are faring, the page is non-judgemental. And it is this power to be completely absorbed, and even transformed, by the creativity latent in these symbolic markings, that represents a true triumph of the human mind; yes, long before aeroplanes and television and, dare I say it, VR headsets.
To read is to enter into a primal world. For the world of the senses, to an introvert, is altogether secondary to other forms of experience. Here we may give, as example, prayer, meditation, contemplation, reflection and indeed, reading. In prayer I lift my heart to God, and it is a wonderful experience. It can entail a stilling of the mind, dialogue with God, experiencing God’s love, and so many other things, all facets of healthy spiritual experience. Now reading is similarly primal. In reading sacred scripture, it is also an act of worship, so has a special reverence. And the Bible is so imaginative, and beautiful in its imagery. The Gospels are so high above all other literature, Revelation is so deep and profound, Ecclesiastes is filled with the wisdom of the Spirit. I could do nothing but read sacred scripture – it would be enough. But thankfully there is a wealth of literature abounding. There are many classics I am yet to read, and I look forward to the opportunity. A treatise of Petrarch or a classical Chinese poem: all great literature has special graces.
But more about the effect on mind and soul, and hence the quality of prime experience: when I am going about my everyday waking life, for me as an introvert, it is somewhat dull and unable to provide much stimulation. I never seek out adventure – that is not my personality. I seldom go abroad; indeed I dislike travel. For me the travel of the mind is much more profound. As Lao Tzu says: ‘without looking out of my window, I can know the ways of Heaven’. And that is so true: one needn’t look to be surfeited by external experience, for there are many paths, and one of them is reading.
In the act of reading, I enter another time and place. Every text is a form of narration, and we enter the narrator’s world. This is true of all books. The soul is gripped by the new reality before us – for the time that we read, our mind and soul is altogether elsewhere. A man that is frequently found in his own home does not necessarily lead a dull life, if he has a well-stocked library. Even a handful of choice titles will do. Such a man (or woman) has the gateway to other realms, other realities: flights of the imagination, creative inspiration, lifting him outside his own petty ego and concerns, and into a broader vista. For, ultimately, what does the personal ego, and its realm, really matter? It is altogether vanity. I may be feeling up or down due to a thousand trivial details. Yet one can escape all of that. And books are cheap, a man of limited means can avail himself easily of a quality tome. Reading is now truly universal, and it is an experience not to be missed.
It is prime experience, because every detail can be lived and felt. There is no limit to the mind, as there is to external objects, people and the mundane circumstances of everyday life. In reading, we are led by the power of the mind, heart and soul of the author – and there have been some incredibly profound people to have lived and written throughout human history. One can experience the best of culture, simply from taking up the words, and experiencing another’s wisdom and imagination. For we are a collective species, and profit from each other’s wisdom and understanding. From epic to lyric, novel to treatise, it all has the potential to profoundly affect us. And who really has that privilege in ordinary life? Very few. The word is such a powerful thing – it outlasts kingdoms. We have to understand that words figure forth alternate realities, and very vibrant and beautiful realities too. Words can be life-changing, and often are. The key is to allow one to be inspired.
Reading, of any type, is a stimulating journey of ideas. In the best works, be they fiction or nonfiction, one questions the very ground of one’s being. Yes, all the best books entail a philosophical journey. Now I am well-versed in philosophical treatises, be it Hume or Aquinas, but really all forms of writing partake of the ‘sonorous battle’ of ideas (to employ an oxymoron). Philosophy is one of the key ways we interpret the world, and really, everything is philosophical. For everything contains a ‘why’. Now of course Angelus Silesius in his famous phrase says the rose lives without a why, and that is the key to its felicity. It is true, in a mystical sense, that when we have stopped questioning the ground of our existence and merely live in the moment, we have more fully reached the spiritual ideal. But the ‘why’ must lead us there in the first place.
All of philosophy begins with a ‘why’. Natural science may have divorced itself from formal and final causes, but philosophy proper has always asked why a state of affairs may happen to be. Religion is of course a philosophy of sorts, one that combines reason and revelation, and can be found admirably in Aquinas, but perhaps most fruitfully in sacred scripture. Ecclesiastes is after all so philosophical, and so imbued with wisdom above any secular philosopher. It is indeed my contention that the very best philosophy has an element of mysticism to it. For the ultimate realisation of ourselves is indeed a mystical journey, and the tragedy is that it may never take place: this means more than all the prosperity and worldly fortune one can imagine.
Is it a mistake that spirituality recommends a state of poverty? I cannot think so. Merton contrasts the tranquillity of the rich man’s country manor with the poverty of the man of God, and finds that the latter is more truly at peace. This is attested to in all the world’s literatures, for in worldly cares man meets his nemesis. The greatest felicity is to be favoured by God, whether one wishes to interpret that literally or symbolically, but of course we mustn’t forget that God allowed His own son to be tortured with a cruel form of execution. That turns our idea of felicity on its head. If only we knew of what felicity really consisted. But reading can provide us an appropriate answer.
Philosophy and spiritual writings are therefore key, and I think the demarcation between them should not be so sharp; they are two sides of the same coin. We speak of Cartesian error, in taking scepticism as the foundation of truth, and so many other misjudgements, but for all that Descartes is a great pleasure to read. If only Kant had been more literary in his writing style. If only Plotinus had not been partially sighted and thus unable to correct his diction and render his prose more elegantly. For style matters – substance is the soul of the work, but the style renders the experience more enlightening. Look at the sublime style of the Bible, or the majesty of Plato. Then consider the nightmare of trying to negotiate someone such as Derrida, for whom the introduction merely states: ‘try to float above the words’. Clearly opaque style is a failure of communication.
But philosophy is so important, and informs both fiction and nonfiction. We cannot be without some form of instruction, of which more in the next chapter. Thinking more broadly, we all undertake our own personal philosophical journey. We can go astray from this path, or remain faithful to it. We can betray our own best interests, often for the illusion of short term gain. But authors always provide a faithful advisory service, to use a weak expression; to put it more forcefully, authors can be our principal guides through life.
Everything we read is philosophical in some way, for every author has a worldview. And in understanding and partaking of that worldview, and entering it in depth, we are undertaking our own philosophical journey. Take T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’: that is certainly an interesting journey, rich with spiritual meaning.
Reading may furnish us with ample instruction for life. Nowhere is this more true than in writers such as Thomas Merton, whose vocation in writing it seems is to assist others on their spiritual journey. Indeed, when adverse fortune strikes, the security of a book can be a great relief. We need fear nothing if we have a good teacher, who instructs us in the ways and means of life. And where is this more true than in our hallowed authors? We may take advice from a family member or a friend, or even from our parish priest or some other spiritual instructor. But ultimately, the book is my key instructor. From the book I learn so much, and I know I can rely on it for all life’s wisdom.
The book is both my pleasure and my instruction. This is true, for instance, in sacred scripture. Here I am gently soothed with words of wisdom, which improve and guide my life journey. Sometimes I am deeply moved by an expression of great sublimity, or a moment of tragic import – such as the tears of St Peter at his denial of Christ. This is so movingly expressed in Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’. But the Bible itself outdoes any music. The Psalms are one of my favourite sections of the Bible, and they furnish so much soothing inspiration. The language is so beautiful. And who can forget the ‘Prologue’ of St John, perhaps the triumph of world literature? ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ – phrases of such startling profundity and beauty. And of course my favourite Psalm, ‘De Profundis’: ‘Out of the depths I have cried, O Lord…’
Instruction is key, because we typically make so many mistakes in life, and even worse, some of our assumptions and mental schemas are woefully inadequate from a spiritual point of view. And I view the spiritual aspect of man’s life as his highest aim: his totality, and potentially, his infinity. It is of course Catholic theology that man may become God – ‘Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus’, according to Athanasius. And in the exercise of reading, man may find ample instruction. Whether it is a dialogue of Plato, or indeed a Christian classic, or perhaps the glorious pages of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, that brief but brilliant gem. One may find so much wisdom in the ‘Tao Te Ching’, both worldly and spiritual.
But this takes me away from my main purpose in this chapter: to explain specifically how reading may instruct. And by this I mean any reading, fiction included. Poetry especially I find to be so ripe with instructive epithets. Drama, too, provides examples from its characters and situations. And one may learn much from the novel, as well as being marvellously entertained. Yes, all forms of reading provide instruction, and indeed pleasure and instruction should go hand in hand. Where pleasure is absent, the lesson is harder to absorb. That is just a fact of human nature.
And we are in such need of instruction. I for one cannot rely on a spiritual director, as I do not have one. My spiritual direction is obtained via my reading. I am told how to act, how to contemplate, in accordance with the best practices. And thus I may find fulfilment, and a true vocation in life. For how can happiness be obtained, if we are ignorant of the best methods of living; excellence in word, thought and deed? Such must be our practice, and indeed it can lead to a great fulfilment and felicity.
I think through my life so far, of thirty two years; still so brief! But I have learned enough to know not to worry overly about certain things. The things that do not matter, such as a financial loss, or a temporary low mood. At times life can be so difficult to navigate, but only when we abandon wisdom and the way of right living. This has happened in my own case: many times have I gone astray from best practices, and I only heap misery on misery. If we knew, if we only realised, what happiness could be ours if we really set our lives in accordance with wisdom. I find that my greatest errors occur when I lose my focus on this chief aim, and I fall away from good practice and into the mire of desolation. Reading helps us immeasurably, by offering support and advice, providing a protective environment, and setting us on the right path once more.
The quality of what one reads is of course of the first order of importance. One must read quality works. Pulp fiction will not do; although even here there may be some meritorious instruction to be found. But why settle for chaff, when the wheat is as readily available? The finest wheat of literature and philosophy may be ours, and we would be mad to lay it aside. I often become bored with television; not so with a book: because television tries too hard to entertain, and at the same time lacks instruction. The greatest entertainment is paradoxically only to be found when we are simultaneously instructed. It is a joy to receive instruction – although this is different from a moral lesson. Television is full of moral lessons; some quite shallow, others more profound. But a moral lesson is like a passive mirror – it lacks the active hand of instruction.
May all my days be filled with instruction! As a Christian, I should read the Bible every day. For here in truth is to be found the greatest instruction. I love listening to the Bible in audio, patiently absorbing its message. I do not think I could conceive of a more wise and profound book. It is my dearest companion and teacher. I speak almost like a Protestant! The Bible is important too in Catholic tradition, although precisely set in the context of that tradition, which makes the most sense. I feel like I am being taught the most important lessons – indeed the letters of the New Testament are filled with important practical instructions. I have always loved learning. And where I have gone astray, that was due to my own folly, but where I have done right, it is the result of my instruction. For man is an altogether corrupt being in the natural state, who must be sanctified by the virtues, principally love and humility. If he is thus sanctified, which can require a lifetime of effort, he can expect happiness and felicity to be his. In this life; and what are we to say of the hereafter? I myself believe in it, although at times it scarcely seems possible, perhaps due to my cultural conditioning. But if the hereafter truly exists, as many of my dreams testify, then it is truly one’s duty to shape the soul in holiness and virtue. This is my aim, and how often have I gone astray!
Reading, as a simple and honest pleasure, tells us where we are going wrong, and what we can do to remedy it. I am talking of the choicest books – of course immoral books exist too, and they will provide no help. Although even Nietzsche can be instructive, in his own enigmatic way. Nietzsche, that enemy of the Christian life, can still provide insights, and hence I am glad he was mentioned in the encyclical ‘Lumen Fidei’ – it only demonstrates his cultural pedigree. Yes, dear reader, one can even read Nietzsche with spiritual profit – and what does that say about the compassionate grace of God? In the world, fine goods are generally much more expensive than basic goods – but in publishing, the greatest works are inexpensive. But why even talk of expense? Money is such a humbug issue. We hear in the Bible: ‘love of money is the root of all evil’. Now happily I am not particularly attached to money, and have had my fair share of financial disasters, with which to cultivate an attitude of indifference, purely for the purposes of psychological survival. I have food, drink and a roof over my head: what do I lack? Truly the chasing of riches is a great vanity.
This is one of the key lessons of spiritual literature – of course, one has a great power over shaping the direction of one’s life. One’s attitudes and values count for so much; they determine who we become. Books can embellish basic values and give them an added strength and impetus. We are all determined by our personalities and character – both what we are genetically predisposed to, and how our environment continually shapes us, but especially in the formative years, as every psychologist knows. Now although we are all thus constrained by our particular temperament, on the contrary all characters may be reformed, improved upon and embellished by virtue. It is within the grasp of every man to find redemption, to become a virtuous model for himself and others. Every man of spiritual inclination must feel this very keenly. Even if one does not, it is still an important goal to aspire to.
When I first read the Bible, as an agnostic, in 2002, it did not leave much of an impression on me. I found my reading of Plato in 2003 to be much more satisfying and instructive. However in recent years I have really rediscovered the Bible such that I view it now as the most profound book, in terms of philosophy, literature, spiritual instruction, and countless other things. True, Leviticus is not the most interesting read, but the majority of the Bible is easily accessible, especially in a good translation. I am more ambivalent about Shakespeare. Of course his works are an enduring and profound achievement, yet I find in them less instruction than in overtly spiritual works. ‘Hamlet’ is hardly the greatest example of the spiritual life; Hamlet’s failure to transcend his own flaws and limitations is indeed at the root of the tragedy. Tragedy can of course provide important moral lessons, as in the case of the Ancient Greeks, where it was a hallowed and even sacred art form. But I prefer sacred texts for my instruction. Everyone will have different preferences and inclinations. Maybe someone can glean moral improvement from Oscar Wilde, although I find him to be altogether too worldly a fellow.
In an ideal age, we perhaps had wise masters for our teachers, and through the master-disciple relationship we could learn so much more than was offered through the printed page. However, that is very difficult in twenty-first century urban society. The priest is always a point of contact, although mainly through the sacrament of confession. In an age like ours, books must needs take on a life of their own. And so it is that I have relied on books almost solely for my knowledge. They instruct so well – a book that chimes with our deep interest and understanding is so joyful. Other media are certainly useful – although I never see a creative medium as primarily about entertainment. For example, I have always viewed literature as a spiritual exercise of the mind, and through the imagination opening new vistas and possibilities. I would look for these things too in a television drama, although it is much more rare.
One talks about the consolation of philosophy, as in that great classic of the late Ancient world by Boethius. It proved one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages; next to the Bible, I have heard. But there is so much consolation to be found in reading! Indeed, life is often full of misery and suffering – as the Buddhists attest to in their Noble Truths. And the best way of combating adversity is through reading. Fiction works very well in this regard – not necessarily because it is escapism, which is a derogatory idea – but more broadly because it allows us to inhabit the circumstances and values of another world. It is more alternate reality than escapism. Indeed, is travel escapism? We would not tend to call it that, and neither will I allow that fiction is so. With the best fiction, all our cares are forgotten: it is a great palliative. And there is such a range and variety to choose from, both culturally across the globe, and in terms of literary form and genre. I am a graduate in English literature, so I know well the beauty that the worlds of poetry and prose can create. I only wish I could respond to it more deeply, because sometimes I am rather distracted and my focus is impaired.
Yes, if we could respond perfectly to fiction, if we were always predisposed to it in whatever mood and condition, then we would have no cares in the world. And what a beautiful state that would be! For to be without worldly cares is truly a great foundation of a felicitous life. Reading is our gateway to such a potential outcome. Worldly bliss is perhaps impossible, because we are always beset by one problem or another – but this world was not designed to be a place of bliss. It is more a proving ground where trials beset us. In the act of reading, however, we minimise the impact of those trials. And hence it is of the greatest comfort to be a good reader.
Maybe television works in a similar way for others, although as I say I somewhat disapprove of the medium, and it has a bad reputation. Why is literature so reputable and television spoken of so negatively in the popular parlance? This must at least hint at a broad difference in quality and effect on the mind. For me, an audiobook, or semi-dramatisation in the act of the spoken word, is a happy medium sometimes. For I often find television to be dull, where the word alone provides great scope for the imagination.
We are often in need of some consolation, because life can be so rough. We live in a world of constant change, involving suffering, illness and death. The human spirit needs some uplifting, and culture provides that. I have discussed the different cultural forms in chapter two, and concluded that for me at least (and perhaps generically, who knows?) reading is supreme. Music is a good short term remedy for a low mood, but reading puts deep roots in the mind, for lasting positive change. Reading is truly a port in stormy seas, as the world and all its problems can slip by – we are impervious to it. We are engaged in another world, in another time and place, even in nonfiction. The consoling nature of the written word is such that it can remedy so many psychological ills. We only need to attune ourselves more closely to it.
Many a time, when I have been psychologically wounded in some way, a book has healed me and restored me to a state of happiness. Books seem to have a unique healing property. We know that sources of grief or woe are all too common in this life, but the act of reading, I must say alongside prayer, heals all ills. Every prisoner is given a Bible, and this is his consolation. Hotel rooms frequently have Bibles. The Bible is the ultimate consoler, because the story of Israel is one of suffering and redemption, and this is true of many a life story. Mood, or outer circumstance – if one is stable it seems the other is unstable. If both are unstable, what a whirlwind we are thrown into! And yet, there is always hope. Be consoled, if not by the Bible then by an excellent work of fiction, or even a Platonic dialogue. The possibilities are endless. But no-one need suffer in their misery – the book is a perfect balm. And if you are a Christian, of course pray to God.
The secular world has touted mindfulness as a kind of appropriation from Eastern meditation practices, but that has come under attack in some quarters. It seems that mindfulness is perceived to sometimes have harmful effects, in those with past trauma for example. This is a danger of secularising something to the point of warping its intent or diminishing its power for good. For a Christian, prayer is such a boon, and so very consoling. Yet the act of reading is universal, and in reading good quality material, perhaps slowly and meditatively, perhaps immersing oneself in the world of the imagination, has a very positive effect on the mind. Writing can also console, as we see from the prison literature of Boethius and St Thomas More – indeed reading and writing often go together. But above all, open yourself to consolation.
I am too much the Dominican – for me, the best life is one of continual learning. Reading can be a path to our highest good. How so? We have spoken previously of pleasure and instruction, and indeed consolation too. But reading can give us access to our highest vocation. Even if we are to lead a life of action, the background knowledge will stand us in good stead, and act as a foundation for everything else. But for the introverts and contemplatives, reading offers so much more. It allows us to live our lives vividly with colour and meaning. If one is not an avid reader, perhaps this will make little sense. But I can’t help feeling that the greatest moments of my life were on the printed page. The realisations, the tribulations, the sorrows and glories – all have been played out before my eyes. And nothing in my waking existence can compare to the effect of simple typescript. What is it about language which conceals so much power? In the humble collection of symbolic characters we have everything at our disposal with which to completely enter another world. It is magisterially beautiful.
Reading should be a profound experience. Where it is not, perhaps we should alter our material. Just now I read 2 Thessalonians, followed by Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets 11-12’. Both readings were highly informed by sublimities. Paul’s mention of the Antichrist is suitably dramatic and enigmatic; Shakespeare’s enunciation of the universal effects of time and decay are also stirring, in a different manner. I like to make my way through texts thus, becoming familiar with the great classics. The very greatest sections and turns of phrase, we should be able to recite. They form our reality; they are our reality. They should inform everything we do, because they are the touchstone from which all our thoughts spring – the anvil where our thoughts are beaten into shape. Great literature is similar to a life-changing event – it can have that level of power and import. We just need to be open to it.
Thus, our highest good is strongly connected to reading. For where am I expected to get my greatest lessons of profundity? I have no spiritual master; that relationship now is very rare. I must rely on the recorded words of great minds since gone by. When we are taught, we learn from books – books form the centrepiece of our instruction, all the way through our years of formal education. And of course, informal education never ends. It is a constant struggle, but also a delight, to be continually learning. I could not wish for anything better. For it provides all my peace and contentment, as well as the deepest fulfilment. Really, people of distant times did not have it so bad, without electronics, because at least they had the written word. True, literacy was not universal, but for those who had the gift, it was theirs in ages past. I think past centuries were not so bad – they had their advantages. We are too keen to trumpet this modern age; it is far from perfect. But I cannot complain, I am happy in my circumstances, and even more so with an ample library to read.
If we consider the question in a detached and philosophical way, then what is our highest good? For the spiritual man, such as I aspire to be, it is God. A secularist must have a lower objective, such as some form of Confucian harmony perhaps. But let us consider God for a moment. We mean the highest possible reality – and of course we know that the five senses and the human mind are incredibly limited. If we restricted reality to what could be empirically validated by our humble biological machinery, that would be a poor world. And we would also lack some of the most dynamic and imaginative literature. If anything, great literature shows that we can transcend the bounds of empiricism. Now let us consider sacred texts. Almost all of them, the world over, attest that there is a reality beyond the senses. And this necessarily comes from the wisest and most inspired minds. Even modern physics, from a different perspective, attests that the world of the five senses is very different from the quantum level, or indeed that the underlying reality of the universe is inaccessible to our organs of perception. Kant differentiated between noumenon and phenomenon, stating that the former was indeed inaccessible for all practical purposes. But how is this different to the Hindu’s Maya and Atma, or the Buddhist’s Samsara and Nirvana? Or indeed, the Christian’s Earth and Heaven, taken symbolically? We have known this for countless ages, and modern philosophers dress up old truths. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ says the Preacher, and of course on a profound level this is incredibly accurate.
For we have the progressive march of technology, and new products, which tend to mask this spiritual verity that things remain the same. But really humankind remains quite constant in all the key existential areas. And reading helps us to become aware of this facet of existence, especially in historical literature. I would not be without reading, for knowledge and insight, as well as comfort and psychological aid. It is truly a steady barque upon the torrid waters of life. I could not imagine a greater counsellor, than a good book. In Plato’s age perhaps, literature was seen as a novelty, and poets were liars. But Plato was speaking before the Roman Empire, in the distant mists of time. Really he was near the beginning of history. In that ancient culture perhaps word of mouth and oral teaching was more highly valued. In the atomised society of today, however, we cling to books as the greatest authorities on many matters. Perhaps the old notion of ‘spiritual master’ has died out. There is the Pope, but precious few others.
The spiritual goal is to reach a state of complete peace. This of course seems so elusive in the hectic nature of our deeply interconnected modern world. Surely one would have to become a monastic to entertain such a goal? The answer is that we have it in our power to enter a state of profound spiritual peace, even in the midst of the world’s tumult. Our great urban centres can be havens of peace, within the atomised enclosure of one’s own four walls. If it were not for this, I would become a monk. But I see a way forward. Allow me to explain.
The home is one’s sanctuary, and in the home one should endeavour to build up a small library. This is the seat of one’s knowledge. Here one may consult a multitude of works, and through the exercise of one’s reason and imagination, find a lasting peace. Of course, we all have exterior lives to live, and will many times have to venture outside those four walls. But the time we have to ourselves is sweet indeed; even more so if our disposition is positive and we are receptive to learning. For mood is a strange thing, and cannot be exactly controlled, seemingly – but here is another target for peace. When we find true peace, mood doesn’t really matter. Neither does wealth, or social standing: all empty ephemera. What really counts is a good book, whatever that may be for you. There is something to suit every conceivable personality. Genuine peace can be found in reading.
For a spiritual man, the sacred text of his religion must hold the greatest priority. For me then, the Bible. And let me explain a bit about this connection. For the Bible is my ultimate security. I love the David Suchet audio narration. I also own a Latin Vulgate. But the Bible instructs me in every detail. Just now I have been told not to worry about money, or become embroiled in schemes for financial gain. And how truly we should bear witness to this wisdom, in our age of capitalism! It is a good letter, 1 Timothy, and suggests a spiritual reading of Leviticus, that most heavy going of Biblical books. For me, the Bible is so profoundly important that the more I read it, the more I become firmly versed in its attitudes and values. I love wisdom – I have done from an early age. I have often wished to be wise; truly wise. It seems quite obvious to me that any sensible person should value wisdom over wealth. For only in wisdom do we have true lasting happiness, a genuine human flourishing. Aristotle was perhaps too much the extrovert – we do not need extensive social connections to flourish. All we need is God; God and our own conscience. The Bible truly helps me in my daily life.
I wish to reiterate and further explain how reading in all its forms can allow one to successfully reach a deep state of peace and well-being. The fact is that there is so much vicissitude and uncertainty in the world, that if one relied on the daily news for one’s comfort and security, one would be pulled back and forth like a yo-yo. So many things go wrong in the world: nation states value security above all things. And the individual, too, should deeply value security. But the way they go about it is very different. The nation state relies on a powerful army, a vast intelligence network, and stabilising and mutually supportive alliances. The individual has his alliances too, in friends and family, but he does not rely on might or secret information. Now the individual’s security is much more than merely his physical well-being and stable finances, as we might imagine. He needs above all psychological certitude – for in this age he can apply for social housing or visit a food bank. Let us say he has food, drink and shelter: then he needs psychological security. And that can be so difficult to achieve. The way to do so is to surrender to a sense of peace – a peace that can only be found in quiet and contemplation.
Now I am not saying that every man should become spiritual, in a world where secularism is so firmly ingrained. But at least a man must be open to a sense of profound peace. We see ‘mindfulness’ appear as a secular ideal, a bastardisation of Buddhist meditation practices and Hindu Hatha Yoga, it seems. ‘Mindfulness’ can be divorced of all spiritual content, if it must for the secular champion. But in any case, we should all strive for a deep sense of peace, as this leads to a more harmonious world. And it is precisely my contention that such deep peace can be cultivated with the help of reading.
Reading must of course be tailored to individual taste. The Bible is not to everyone’s liking, although it is the original self-help book. But there are many other examples one could use. Every person’s plotted path will be different, in keeping with their unique character and the innumerable variables of genes and environment. But reading in itself is a path to profound peace. This is for many reasons. Firstly, the act of slowly scanning the printed page is an exercise in detachment. One automatically relaxes the nervous system; at the same time the mind is open to the full flight of reason and imagination. With the translation of word and phrase into mental images, one begins to construct one’s own private world – a fitting environment in which to relax and be at peace. Already, in the first few sentences, one has settled into a receptive and peaceful state – and the quality of the writing will determine how much one is swept away into a beautiful realm – of fiction or nonfiction. One can be captivated by an economics textbook. It has a schema, a beautiful internal logic, a harmonious whole that is greater than the sum of its parts; quality is generally independent of subject. But the point is that the world one creates, through the power of the mind, is ably activated by the right book. And in judicious selection of reading material, the individual may discover a peace that he fails to replicate in other areas of his life.
Of course, from a spiritual standpoint, one would argue that prayer (or meditation) offers greater access to peace than the act of reading. But as I said, I am more Dominican than Carthusian, and study can itself be an act of worship. For the spiritually inclined, prayer is vital, but reading is for everyman. And it can have similar effects in men of very varied temperament – we have already seen how reading is universal in education. It lies at the foundation of our minds’ intellectual development. And reading is of itself such a peaceful activity. The mind is turned inward, cares are forgotten, and the theme of our book is all that matters. Escapism is such an impolite term for what is in essence a move into a greater reality. For what matters more: the petty concerns and quibbles of daily life, or grander themes such as reflections on ultimate ontological meaning? The book is a gateway to the peace that passeth understanding, because it allows the mental space for the most positive emotions to flourish.
One has a choice between many mental operations: reflection, meditation, contemplation, reading, ratiocination, etc. And the act of reading can itself be deeply meditative, as in Lectio Divina. Of course, one can imagine a life of perfect prayer and contemplation, tucked away in some obscure monastery, but even then one would have devotional writing. The fact is that reading is so much more peaceful than outer action. There is nothing wrong with the active life, yet it is generally understood that peace is more readily found on a contemplative basis. Many of the saints were well versed in scripture and philosophy, and it was an integral part of their everyday existence.
Just what is the peace that passeth understanding? It is a high mystical state, where the ego is suspended. Perhaps a true master has only need of spiritual practice, but for the rest of us, there is the addition of reading. Some of us may find it difficult to sit still with eyes closed for fifteen minutes – yet very few lack the concentration to read. Reading can be seen as ideal for a beginner’s spiritual path; and we are all really beginners, as Merton said. The pleasures of reading are intimately connected to higher spiritual truths and states, but the presence of mind it affords can be similar to meditation. In any case, the act of reading, if high quality material is studied, can be very spiritually healthy. An exception would be William Blake who I consider to be a spiritually unhealthy writer, as his heterodoxy and non-traditionalism warps and confounds genuine spiritual messages. He is similar to Nietzsche – in fact I read Nietzsche with great profit, and enjoyment. He does not offend me, but this is a subjective thing. He is certainly anti-humanistic, and an amoral writer, but when read in a certain way he only serves to reflect the greater truth of authentic spirituality. Nietzsche of course, had no peace – he eventually suffered a mental breakdown and never recovered. In my opinion, to be nihilistic or even bleakly existentialist can be very mentally unhealthy. On the other hand, theism or at the very least, a positive humanist tradition, are necessary to establish order and meaning.
Books, or the very best books, are both an intellectual and a spiritual exercise. Intellectually they provide new ideas to challenge and stimulate us; spiritually they raise the soul to new pastures and give a glimpse of the beauty and goodness of God. If the book you read doesn’t fulfil this mandate, perhaps you should try something else? We all have our own objectives in reading, of course, but for me life is too short not to have read the very best in literature and philosophy. I strongly believe that we should challenge ourselves, and indeed some of the texts are challenging. But it will help us in the long run. After I reread Revelation last week I felt a great peace in the description of the New Jerusalem. I dearly believe in the reality of Heaven and I am looking forward to the prospect of reaching it. I cannot presume salvation but I will do everything possible to establish my friendship with God. We must try our best in the most important matters. But the mere act of reading through Revelation gave me this sense of peace.
As a final thought, allow a thought experiment: is there reading in Heaven? There is a worthwhile question. Perhaps there is no need for it. Of course, eye has not seen, nor ear heard: we cannot adequately formulate what Heaven shall be like. But certainly drastically different from our bodily, ego-led existence. There is no ego in Heaven, and hence most of the superficial personality is gone. For what remains is the deep soul – this is the authentic character. Upon death, the personality is sloughed off like an outer garment; how important then to come into contact with our deeper self during this life, through spiritual exercise! For this is the truly authentic part of our being. And so, although there may not be reading in Heaven, I imagine there will be a suffusion of spirituality in every moment of being. Yes, reading is meant for the proving ground of our time on earth, to guide our soul and provide instruction and solace. Reading provides spiritual peace for those who look for it, as it answers some of life’s key questions. We all have favourite authors, but to what extent should we be focused on an objective fixed list of classics? I think there should be some leeway, but the material needs to be sound, and spiritually fruitful. Thus we shall enter great pastures.