In class, recently, I said, "I've always been a reader; I honestly cannot remember when I didn't read." Of course, there was a time before I could read, but I have always been surrounded by books. We had books in the house I grew up in and, most importantly, within walking distance was the Julia C. Lathrop Branch Library, located in a wing of the Julia C. Lathrop Junior High School, where I would spend two horrible and one pretty amazing years.
Why am I writing about this today? Well, one of the books I'm reading right now is Tony Kriz's Neighbors and Wise Men—more about that when I've finished it. However, the chapter on spiritual formation got me to thinking about the neighborhood I grew up in, a neighborhood that contained, within walking distance, the Lathrop Branch Library and the wonderful women who worked there who were my guides into the world of books. I still remember Miss Calkins, Leona; she was the boss. A formidable woman who loved books and loved introducing people to books. I could describe this place to you in vivid detail. I spent so many hours there; it was also the location of my first job—imagine that?! I worked in a place I loved. (Actually, pretty much, I can say that about all the places I've worked.)
One powerful memory: the library had four rooms: the main reading and reference room, the adult reading room, the children's room, and the young reader's room. Dark wooden shelves from floor to ceiling; half way up was a shelf. I am following Miss Calkins along that wall as she pulls book after book, sets them on the shelf, saying, "Read this!" Thank you, Miss Calkins! I read them all--most of them, unabridged.
Who knows how many books I've read? I keep a record now, but that might cover only the last ten years or so. What does this have to do with spiritual formation? Well, for me, everything. I love people and have clearly been blessed to be in relationship with wonderful folks who have thought long about what it means to be Jesus follower--and who have tried to live what they thought. Sometime, perhaps, I'll write about those folks. But books have been the voice of God for me. All kinds of books. Not talking only about religious or Christian books--the truth is that there would probably be fewer of them than others. I love novels and I read more novels than anything else. I love theology, too, and novels provide a kind of commentary on theology--much the way that biblical stories are the heart of Scripture.
Last night I finished Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows. It's a literary mystery developed around one of the great mysteries of English literature--why don't we know more about and have more evidence that Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that bear his name? A contemporary coded set of letters in found bound into the covers of an old book; the set of letters talk about a Mr. W. S. and a seditious play that he has been tricked into writing--all set in the religious struggles of pre-reformation England. Is it possible that W.S. is William Shakespeare and is it possible that there exists a new play, extant, that can clearly and finally be linked to Shakespeare--and, thereby, resolve hundreds of years of scholarship? Well, I won't tell you how it ends (no spoiler alert); but it involves transcontinental travel, the "mob" in various forms and moralities, kidnapping, thugs, international copyright laws, scholarly reputations and, possibly, wealth.
It is a lovely read, but what does it have to do with spiritual formation? A long, loving, honest look into the human condition and the state of the soul. The possibility of redemption. A thoughtful consideration of the relationship between violence and redemption--and the American psyche. Human genius and human duplicity. Sometimes I think it would be better for all of us if we treated the Bible like a novel. Sometimes sacred texts are so sacred that we miss out on the humanity. Sometimes we think that the suffering of Jesus wasn't real suffering--a form of gnosticism. Novels help me to understand that humans are capable of many wonderful things and, yes, redeemable (thank God!); but that we are also capable of really horrible things and are more than able (and sometimes more than willing) to inflict those really horrible things on others--and, yes, even the most loving one who ever walked the face of the earth.
So, thank you, Miss Calkins and Betty Wimpress, for being two of the most important of my spiritual guides along my pilgrim way. And, thank you, Mom and Dad, for encouraging me to read and never really keeping me from reading anything I put my hands on.