Meditations for Layfolks - Reading

It is perfectly obvious that we cannot hope to retain our faith unless we practise habitually spiritual reading. The whole trend of everything we read (and nowadays we read everything) is not, perhaps, opposed to the existence of the supernatural world, but certainly ignores it. Literature, therefore, on the whole, while it appeals to the nobler needs of man as a natural fact in the universe, neglects all those finer emotions of the soul which depend for their origin and their encouragement on actual doctrines requiring authoritative interpretation. These obviously are entirely at the mercy of the writer, who, with a fine disregard for all infallibility save his own, lays down as the conclusions of modern science whatever first principles his temperament inclines him to accept. Of course, modern science "concludes" nothing at all that in any way encroaches on morality or religion, for in these two regions it remains in the hesitating attitude of expectancy. But the result of these self-elected pontiffs is to impress those whose intelligences are even less active than their own with the finality of all modern teaching. The definitions of these popes gain credence by sheer repetition; and since the whole literary world is alive with them, there is a grave danger of our drifting heedlessly into the ranks of their adherents. For though spiritual reading is really essential to us, it cannot form the only reading in which we indulge; nor, indeed, would it be healthy for most of us to ignore contemporary literature however tainted, nor contemporary journalism however noisily material.

First, however, it is essential that we should settle with ourselves the method of our reading. This is probably very much at haphazard, based on no system, without any critical acumen, and, therefore, reaping hardly any of the immense benefit that might easily be gathered from the literary harvest. In a letter to a young man who had sought his advice, Lacordaire writes: "By reading as you do at random, without aim or order, you are losing valuable time, and, what is more, you are getting yourself out of the way of real work, which is a great misfortune for the mind." It is this rebuke that we have perpetually, in the interests of our soul and of the more spiritual faculties of our mind, to be putting to ourselves as necessary to perfection. We browse on all the fields; but we browse so care lessly that we have nothing left us with which to "chew the cud." We ought, on the other hand, when we approach any classic, for example, to have some notion of the author's antecedents, to be able to appre ciate life's problems from the particular angle from which he saw them, and to notice how his hopes or his perplexities developed or grew less; in other lesser books, with flippant novels and "light" articles, there is also a great deal to be found if we have the patience to look for it; but it will not disclose itself without some difficulty, at any rate at the commencement. Only with the sweat of our brow will the bread of mind and body be earned and deserved: in the kingdom of the pen there are no "idle rich."

There is, secondly, the actual material of our reading, the matter as well as the method. Here, of course, advice is cheap and probably impertinent, certainly useless. Some have bidden us feed on nothing but "the food of giants"; but this is wholly impossible, for who are the giants? Is my neighbour their judge? Then he must have measured the others and found them to be wanting; and if it is given to him to decide, why not to me? His experience has been greater? then at least give me a chance to extend my own. Perhaps the only advice that is worth giving (for it will assuredly be acted on whether given or not) is to read just what we honestly feel inclined to read. Of course, books that our conscience revolts from should certainly be laid aside; but apart from this moral censorship, it would appear that hardly any lists can be drawn up by others that will be so serviceable as the lists we draw up for ourselves. Let me put down only those books which, from my interest in author or subject, or from what reviews or quotations I have read, do really make an appeal to me. Probably the amount of my reading and its variety will never harm me, so long as I have some sort of method. If I can be deliberate in my method, the matter may well be left to look after itself. Such a wide selection is now open to me, that I should be able to benefit myself by the richer experience of others, and the glimpses they afford of beauties that I must train my eyes to find. Thus can I harvest the full fields of past and present; otherwise I shall live beyond my intellectual means, venturing upon work that requires more than my capital allows. My thoughts and counsel will grow more glib but less efficacious, for I shall have used up my store of experience, and we do not further need to be reminded of our duty in submitting to the ruling of legitimate authority banning certain books or classes of books.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.