What do books have to do with faith?
(Part I of II)
Dear Father John, I notice there is a book club on this site. We don’t need stuff like that to have a relationship with God. What do books, or literature–other than the Bible, the Good Book–have to do with faith anyway? Please help. I am trying to understand.
INFORMING AND FORMING our intellectual power is essential for learning to love God with our whole mind. Yet none of our human faculties exists in a vacuum—we can’t really Christianize our mind without that having an indirect positive effect on our emotions and our will, as well as our heart. This is especially the case with regards to one specific intellectual pursuit, which, at first glance, doesn’t even seem to be particularly relevant for our relationship with God: appreciating the fine arts, especially literature.
Not everyone loves literature, and certainly not every saint has been steeped in literary masterpieces. In fact, plenty of saints have reached the heights of holiness without even knowing how to read. And so, no one needs to feel obliged to utilize great literature as a means for spiritual growth. Yet it is a tested tool—a resource tried and proven, again and again, to enrich the human spirit. Understanding how the intelligent enjoyment of literature does that can give us another instrument to help us learn to love God with all our minds. Something similar can be said for all the fine arts, but since literature is the most accessible and all-embracing, we will focus our discussion here.
What Is Literature?
The literary arts include poetry, fiction, and drama, though some would add history to the list. Literature has come to be understood as a written art form, although the first great epics all originated as oral traditions, and the great dramas only really come to life when they are performed. From the earliest times, recited poetry and performed dramas also included musical elements. The literary arts, then, overlap with the other performing arts.
Because of this overlap, defining the different forms of literature can be problematic. But for the sake of discussing the role of literature in the spiritual life, we can identify certain defining characteristics.
All forms of literature give intelligible shape to what we experience in our human journey. They help us process our experience; they help us understand ourselves and our world; they help us move beyond what is superficial and live at the level of significance. They also give us joy. The beauty of good literature brings the disparate elements of our busy and demanding lives into a pleasing and inspiring harmony, reminding us of our true identity, our true potential, and our true destiny as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. This beauty also nourishes our heart by feeding good, true desires for the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth—God himself. Each form of literature achieves these noble goals in its own way.
The Magnifying Power of Poetry
Poetry, whether oral or written, tends to be more concise than prose. A poem will focus our attention on a detail of our human experience and delve into its meaning. Imagery and careful choice of words and rhythms give poetry its power to uncover the beauty and significance of every nuance of the human condition. Poetry encourages calm reflection on and appreciation of each precious piece of the mosaic of human experience.
The application of poetry to the spiritual life, then, is obvious. Mental prayer, whether meditative or contemplative, involves deep reflection on God and his goodness. It creates space in the soul for the truth and beauty of God to shine on our minds and hearts. Poetry complements meditation. By revealing the deeper meaning hidden within the details of human experience, it sensitizes us to God’s ubiquitous presence. It teaches us to read the first book of God’s revelation—the created world.
- In part two, we will examine the dynamism of drama and the interior landscape of fiction.
- This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.
Art for this post on what books have to do with faith: Old book bindings at the Merton College Library, Oxford, England, Tom Murphy VII, 25 August 2005, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; The Fountain of Youth, Alex Proimos, 22 August 2011, CCA; both Wikimedia Commons.