Lenten thought experiment: Will you live long enough to read all the books on your shelves
When was the last time you said, “Oh my God—I’m going to die!”
I said it last week. What prompted those words? No one pulled a gun on me. The brakes on my car didn’t fail. I wasn’t a passenger on an airplane with engine failure. I wasn’t quarantined on a cruise ship. I was simply rearranging some of my books. How did that ordinary task become a “near-death experience”?
We Jesuits move around an awful lot. Years ago, when moving into a retreat house for a new assignment, one of the older Jesuits there watched me carrying some boxes into my new quarters. This priest, a veteran of decades in the foreign missions, upon watching my efforts observed: “Settin’ it up and takin’ it down; settin’ it up and takin’ it down—that’s what we do!” I thought of that old memory last week as I started scanning my library in anticipation of a forthcoming relocation.
People who move frequently know that relocating prompts one to look at each item in one’s possession and ask, “Do I really need this? Do I need it so much that’s it worth taking with me?” As a voracious reader and as an academic, it can be said that I live for, from, and with books. Consequently, for many years I didn’t ask those questions about books. I just packed them up and took them with me. The books were my tools and my friends. How could I not need each one of them?
Having moved several times in recent years, I saw that my books had evolved from a set of tools to a collection. I didn’t think that evolution was suitable to me as a vowed religious. So I gave away a very large portion of the books I had accumulated over the years. It was hard at first, but it became easier when I saw that it was the right thing to do.
10 of Pope Francis’ favorite books
This move to a new location (along with its required assessment of my library) is different. It may be because I’m older. (I like to say these days, “I’m running out of 50s!”) It’s probably because I’m doing this during Lent. And I hope it’s because of grace.
This time around, looking at my library in terms of what to hold onto and what to let go of has prompted me to think about death. I see that there are books that I have no realistic expectation of ever reading again—including books that I read so carefully as a student, when I was convinced that reading the book was a matter of life and death. I should pass them on now, while I am still able to decide who will receive them. There are books that represent interests that sprang, bloomed, and faded. I’ve decided that it’s time to let them go. And there are books that I’m going to give away because I think it is so unlikely that I will ever have the time to read them, given all my other commitments and interests.
Ok, so what has this to do with Lent? Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. I’ve more time behind me and less time ahead of me. I have to be more deliberate about how I spend my time and energy. As much as I love my books and what they do for me and where they take me, Lent reminds me that I am made for so much more than what any or all books can provide or promise. I am made for God, Who is Truth and Beauty and Goodness. And—ready or not—I will have to meet God face-to-face, and give an account of my whole life. My eternity depends upon that encounter.
I seem to recall Saint Augustine saying, “Care for your body as if you will live forever; care for your soul as if you will die today.” I do not know when I am going to die. I do know for certain that I will die. Preparing my library for yet another move reminds me that all of my plans, the realistic ones, the diminished ones, the fanciful ones, will all eventually come to an end. I will gladly (if soberly) give a good chunk of my library now to some younger Jesuits whom I trust will put the books to good use. Meanwhile, I’ll take up yet again the Jesuit dynamic of “settin’ it up and takin’ it down,” a few boxes of books lighter, with (I hope) a lighter heart, and a Lenten resolution to be a good steward of what God has given me.
When I write next, I will offer another meditation for Lent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.