"I read for pleasure. But I am a constant reader. And if I tell the truth, I am more likely to miss my night prayers on occasion than my reading. It is another experience of total immersion, of a world wider than mine a good way to end the day," writes Nancy M. Malone, who holds a theology degree from Harvard Divinity School and has been an editor at Religion and Intellectual Life and a co-editor of Cross Currents. In this fascinating work, she traces the trajectory of her love of reading from her Catholic childhood through her initiation into the Ursuline Order, to her brief stint as a teacher at the College of New Rochelle, and her work with the two aforementioned periodicals.
Malone appreciates the spiritual practice of walking the labyrinth as "a meditative tool in our search for wholeness." She regards reading as a similar meditative tool for opening the eyes of love and finding our true selves. Like a labyrinth, the path to the center is full of turns and changes. While she was writing this book, a friend told her that every time you open a book, you engage in an act of self-transcendence. Malone has much to say about books as sacred objects, reading and praying, wasting time for the sake of God, the grammar of the Spirit, poetry, the erotic in literature, fact and fiction, and "dangerous" reading.
We agree with Malone when she states: "A good book can create a little hermitage for some people anywhere, even in an airport reading room." (Of course, in some airports you will now need earplugs to block out the distracting sounds of televisions and loud cell-phone conversations.) We also were pleased that the author recognizes novels as bearers of so many spiritual gifts: "In good novels, and I count Middlemarch among the best I have read, we can find pleasure I do in the close observation and insightful portrayal of human personalities, the complexity of our relationships, the ambiguity of our motives, the immense power inherent in social structures to influence our lives, the forces that are arrayed against the human good. And I taste the rightness of Wayne Booth's statement in The Rhetoric of Fiction: 'There is pleasure from learning the simple truth, and there is a pleasure from learning that the truth is not simple.' "
Perhaps the most salutary aspect of Malone's celebration of the spirituality of reading is her high regard for imagination. She is grateful for the ways in which St. Ignatius uses it in his spiritual exercises on reading the Bible. Throughout the book, the author makes references to books that have stretched her imagination and brought her to a deeper appreciation of her desires for intimacy, union, and communion. In fact, she considers many of the authors of her favorite volumes as spiritual companions on the journey through life. Be sure to check out her list of recommended reading at the end of the book.
After closing Walking a Literary Labyrinth, we were again struck by the thought that religious congregations should give more attention to a discussion of novels and bestsellers in their educational programs. This would offer another way for believers to share resources that have been important to them on the spiritual path.