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Can reading books save your soul?

GIRL READING A BOOK
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A joyful refusal to surrender the True, Good, and Beautiful.

Do you want a shortcut to salvation? There isn’t one. There is, however, a reliable path. Better said: There are reliable companions to take with you on the holy pilgrimage between this life and the next. The constant companions of every faithful Catholic should include good books. (Particularly, these companions should include good old books, as we’ll see.)

Surrounded by electronics (as I type this my mobile phone is being rung by an automated service that won’t let me rest until I buy insurance) and the attendant noise and flash, it may seem quaint, perhaps even contrarian, to talk about books, especially in relation to the good of the soul. Am I guilty of the (apparently “unforgivable” but surely impossible) sin of trying to “turn back the clock”? Many serious Catholics don’t think so. A case in point: Joseph Pearce. (Be sure to visit his website at JPearce.co)

Pearce is an author and all-around Catholic man-of-letters. He’s the kind of man who would have been at home with the likes of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, as a Briton, a fellow Catholic, and a lover of the true, the good and the beautiful—especially as these are brought to us by books and the culture of reading. I had the good fortune of interviewing him last week. (The audio of the broadcast, and a resources list: HERE.) We addressed the question, “Can books save your soul?”

We might summarize our answer as follows: “Only Jesus saves, but books can help—a lot.” Pearce and I have had long experience in the college classroom. We’ve both lamented a slipping away from reverence for the printed word towards a culture that promotes mass addiction to pixels swirling on electronic screens. He sees this change as an inversion of progress. He noted that, ordinarily, we start teaching children with pictures, with an eye towards moving them to words. Now the momentum is backwards, yet the culture still insists that this disintegration is actually progress.

What to do? Let’s take a deep breath, and remember who we are and who we’re made for. We’re made in the image of God as rational, free, and therefore moral, and therefore with a need for beauty. We’re saved by the Eternal Word of the Father. Our souls are better fed by the perennial beauties and truths that nourished the saints for generations. It’s a matter of life-and-death for the Catholic soul to learn how to read wisely and well, and to learn how to pass on the love of beautiful words to the next generation.

When I taught rhetoric, we’d begin class by standing at the front of the room to recite poetry. The students marched to the front like condemned prisoners. No one had ever asked this of them; no one had taught them how enjoyable and beneficial this could become. I told them: “You must learn to enjoy how words taste. And you must be able to enter into the story yourself before you can lead others into a story.” Much to their surprise, they came to love the tasks of selecting, savoring and reciting poetry. Many of them even began to write their own.

How can we get our children on the path of a lifelong habit of soul-nourishing reading? Pick up a fresh copy of John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture (found HERE). An appendix there lists 1,000 (!) books to read with your children between the ages of five and 18.

For the rest of us, Jesuit Father James Schall’s little masterpiece, Another Sort of Learning (found HERE), can introduce a thoughtful Catholic adult to a lifetime of companionship with great books. And there’s another step—one often overlooked.

We should not be satisfied with reading alone. Solitary reading is essential. Every monastic order I know of requires daily, solitary spiritual reading. But the joys of beautiful and Godly words are meant to be shared. People who are true friends, friends who pray with and for each other, and for one another’s salvation, must share their favorite books. They must meet to read beautiful and true words to each other (preferably over a meal, and continuing on long after the meal is over). Such friends in the Lord, lovers of the true, the good and the beautiful, glad to cultivate other souls while tending to one’s own, are also more likely than most to begin to pen beautiful words themselves. We have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings because he first read it to faithful friends, with whom he first shared books, faith and laughter. Why not walk in the footsteps of such soulful giants?

When I write next, I will speak of a Jesuit hero who deserves to be better known. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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