Donald P. Richmond:
In a recent well-known film, one of the characters asserts that people read so that they will know that they are not alone. This is true, but there are other reasons why we should read and study. There is a dynamic correspondence between reading well, self-awareness, and living well.
With these things in mind, it must also be said that we must not be indiscriminate in our reading. Readinganything can be, and often is, worse than reading nothing. The Rule of Saint Benedict, one of the books that helped save and shape Western civilization, urges us to attend to holy reading. This discipline includes the why, how, and what of reading.
Why should we read? Reading good literature can help us become far-more self-aware. We come from and live within the context of history. In order to appreciate where we are in life, and where we are going, we must understand where we have been. As just one example, how can we survive the subtleties of the post-modern denigration of mega-narrative if we have no appreciation of post-modern theory, thought, and history? Do we even understand the implications of this philosophic system? If we do not read, if we have little understanding about self and society, we will not be able to defend ourselves from some of the destructive orientations of this (and other) modern philosophies. And be quite sure that how we think will determine how we live. Our feelings and how we function in life are determined, at least in part, by the philosophies we embrace.
How should we read? Thomas Merton, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, warns us about being “greedy for words.” His warning was prophetic. Very little effort is required for us to see, hear, and experience the unwholesome avalanche of “words” proliferated by both the media and (at times) each one of us. Billboards, television, radio, as well as a wide array of other public and private forms of media, bombard us with information, misinformation, and disinformation. A great deal is being “said,” but very little is actually being communicated. We are often “greedy for words” because there is frequently a pronounced lack of substance in what is being said.
But there is another reason for our informational “greed.” It is far easier to hide ourselves behind an avalanche of information than it is to face ourselves and deal with others. It is very difficult to face our dis-order, dis-ease, and dis-connection. In contrast to this, disciples of Saint Benedict encourage holy and reflective reading — sacred study. Benedict, as communicated through the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, urges us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” those “texts” which are most important in life and living. Reading and reflection are not intended to distract, but to help us discern what is most important. Learning is for effective living.
What should we read? To a certain degree the answer to this question will depend upon each individual. Every good book, or other vehicle of literature and learning, must suit each person in each of his or her unique life-circumstance. So, once again, what should we read? Although it is tempting to appeal to the “classics,” those books that have endured the test of time, we must not exclusively appeal to them. Some “classics” can be classically dull or damning. Instead, while not disparaging classic literature, we should read and reflect upon texts that demonstrate a clear appreciation for words and language. That is, more pointedly, we should read and reflect upon those texts that tell the truth — even if truth is told from “slant,” including myth, poetry, film, and fiction. Holy reading seeks truth. Holy speaking attends to truth. Attending to reading, wise reading, helps us attend to self and to society. Wise reading can lead to wise living.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.