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Reading Literature as a Spiritual Discipline

Monday, 2 December 2013  | Carolyn Francis

In his classic work on the spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster contends that "superficiality is the curse of our age". His antidote is the cultivating of depth and substance through practices which encourage transformation, and enable the person of faith to become part of the "answer to a hollow world". Foster's reflections, published more than 30 years ago, still ring true. Superficiality continues to plague our culture, nourished by 30 second sound bites, celebrity headlines and our apparent addiction to multi-tasking.

If I were to suggest a second, and equally pervasive, disease of our time, it would be striking lack of empathy that appears to have diminished our individual and collective souls, allowing public policy devoid of compassion and an often brazen apathy to the suffering of others, both near and far. Both the superficiality and absence of empathy which mark our culture are of grave concern, but to simply name them offers little potential for transformation. In recent times, Christian voices have proven more adept at diagnosing societal dysfunction than articulating the life-giving practices and beliefs which might enable some light to invade to interrupt the hovering darkness.  

I share Richard Foster's conviction that the cultivation of deliberate, challenging and joyful spiritual disciplines offers a path through and beyond harshness and superficiality and into compassion, understanding and depth. In my own life, the classical disciplines of prayer, scripture reading, community and hospitality are crucial, however I have experienced the greatest challenge to my temptations to superficiality, self-concern and lack of empathy through another discipline: that of reading literature as a deliberate spiritual practice. 

Novels are one of my great loves, and have been from before the time I marked the inside cover of The Folk of the Faraway Tree after each delighted reading, wondering if I might fill the entire page with lines before tiring of the adventures of Jo and Bessie with Silky, Moonface and The Saucepan Man. My naive, childlike love of fantasy and adventure has been replaced with an almost insatiable desire to know and understand people and places and the inward yearnings of the human soul, but my love for books remains. 

Several recent studies have quantified what authors and readers have long known: that reading literature develops one's capacity for empathy. Triumphant headlines in The New Yorker and The Guardian celebrated the confirmation that a diet of Charles Dickens, Don DeLillo and Alice Munro will nourish one in emotional intelligence and compassion. While psychologists and social scientists will continue to argue over the methods and measures used to prove these discoveries, my own reflections proceed simply from personal experience. When I read a work of classic literature, or contemporary fiction, I consciously open myself up to the world of others, discovering what they long for, what they fear most, their worst mistakes and greatest triumphs, and the consequences of each. Freed from the real-life impulse to intervene, to fix, to cure or to change (all of which reflect good intentions but, nonetheless, proceed from moments of judgment which often say more about me than the needs of someone else), I am able to truly inhabit the life and world of another. If I manage to do this fully, I begin to develop what the brilliant, award-winning author Colum McCann describes as "radical empathy". This approach fills McCann's own writing, but also describes the stated goal of his ground-breaking 'Narrative4' project, in which high school students engage in storytelling and listening and then the retelling of stories from another's perspective. This has contributed to healing following massive traumas (for example, at Newtown High School, next to the site of the devastating Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre) and increased empathy and cooperation between adolescents in areas with racially charged conflicts. 

As I approach reading literature as a spiritual discipline, I choose novels differently and deliberately. This does not mean selecting only morally astute or spiritually faithful characters or safe contexts, for it is often the most challenging characters, and those most unlike myself, that discipline me best in depth and empathy: the beautifully flawed priest Corrigan in McCann's Let the Great World Spin; the bitter, angry woman, seething with resentment after years of dutifully meeting the needs of others in Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs; the woman convicted of murder, awaiting her death in rural Iceland in Hannah Kent's Burial Rites; the love and envy which both ties and divides a group of friends from adolescence into adulthood in Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings. Inhabiting their lives and stories, listening in on their inner dialogue and private moments, I am schooled in empathy, poignantly reminded of the depth and pain of human longing, shown again the crucial need for belonging, purpose and salvation. 

In his book Subversive Spirituality, the famed Pastor-to-Pastors Eugene Peterson describes the role that reading novels, specifically those by the much loved Anne Tyler, play in developing his own ability to care, to recognise others and pastor them.

As I let Anne Tyler show me how character is formed, I learn to treat my parishioners with respect, with reverence even, and just as they are, not insofar as they fit into what is convenient for me and useful to the organization... her unforgettable characterizations of Morgan's Passing, of Macon in The Accidental Tourist, of Maggie in Breathing Lessons, have been major sources of energy and identifying, without condescension and without ridicule, characters that keep showing up in my congregation. She gets me to know them by name and not by label. She gets me to say their names in such a way that they realize they are precious, just as they are, in God's sight, and have a place in salvation that no one else will ever occupy... Whenever I find myself getting irritated and impatient with some sinner who doesn't fit in, I reach for another novel by Anne Tyler and sign up for retraining in character recognition and personal naming.


I have come to recognise my own need for this ongoing "retraining", for there is little that is automatic about truly recognising the imago dei in another, especially Others markedly unlike oneself, challenged with mental illness, destructive habits, or simply grating idiosyncrasies. Of course, some will want to protest that the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock n' roll (or perhaps simply the coarse language) which pervade much contemporary fiction pose more danger than potential to the spiritual formation of the hungry soul. Yet it is precisely the practice of seeing beyond the symptoms, and beneath the surface of habits and vocabulary which disciplines me in compassion, empathy and depth. Doing this "with the mind of Christ" becomes a deliberate exercise in incarnational living and seeing, inspired by the One who did not find the grubby realities of human living something to be avoided but, rather, lived fully within them even "unto death"; and a violent, tawdry death at that.  

My almost daily engagement with the fictional world of others has become a gift to both me and those I encounter. The smallness of my own existence, the tiny sphere of experience that advertisers, and my own ego, tempt me to understand as "all that matters" is revealed, again and again. I wonder anew at the countless variations of human experience and temperament, and the extraordinary capacity to love, to hate, to forgive, to hurt and be hurt, and to begin again. I marvel at the depths of the human imagination, and see the marks of Divine creativity in page after page of stories as likely to be real as invented, and my own humanity is expanded with each of them. I am grateful.



Allan Demond
December 3, 2013, 10:19AM
Thank you Carolyn for a thoughtful article and the reminder to slow down and nurture emotional healthy and compassion. Surely God who gives us the astonishing library of scripture must delight in our love of story.
Andrew Piper
December 6, 2013, 2:07AM
Only when we see others as truly the same as ourselves with the same essential humanity, despite our different cultures and experiences, can empathy occur at more than a superficial level. Reading helps this process immensely.
Carolyn Francis
December 12, 2013, 8:19PM
Thanks for reading, Allan and Andrew!
Tom Slater
January 24, 2014, 8:17PM
Thanks for a really good read Carolyn. As one who has mostly read to pass exams or for professional reasons or churchy and theological stuff 'for work', and now retired, I have been discovering other literature and fiction. A recent dabble in 'Everyday Apocalypse' by David Dark had some brilliant stuff by way of commentary on The Simpsons, amongst other contemporary cultural, and was a brilliant example of the sort of learning I think you are talking about. Andrew's comment above is spot on I reckon. So thanks for the stimulus and encouragement, and for the names of some authors to try out!

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