Merely Beloved: Reading Books

This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Bromleigh and I have never met but connected through The Young Clergy Women Project. She is a prolific writer and clearly thoughtful and genuine – I’m hoping to meet her someday and get the full effect of her wonderful presence! For more information about this series, click here.

I’m a pastor, and a preacher’s kid, and for much of my life, my faith has been about, has been centered around, church. The practices of faith that are regular in my life are the ones that I engage in with my community: worship, bible study, communing, baptizing, preaching. I rarely describe myself as a “spiritual” person; I’m religious. I go to church. God and I seem closest, more often than not, when I’m in a room full of other people, preferably people singing together.

I am an extrovert, after all.

So I will confess that though I have made only half-hearted attempts to pick up various spiritual disciplines (and confess that this is much to my chagrin: I am the least methodical of the Methodists), many of them have failed to stick. I enjoy centering prayer on retreats; I am trying to run in order to shed my lingering baby weight (now that my baby is ready to be toilet trained), but God has not been my running partner.

As a pastor, though, I want my faith to be evident not just in what I do when I am actually, physically spending time with church people, nor simply manifest in the ways that I think about and see the world. I want to live my faith. I want to be church, do church, all week, even when I’m not on the clock. Even when I’m not being professionally Christian.

Being and Doing are complicated matters in a household with two working parents and two small children, though. A recent move that eradicated my husband’s ridiculous commute has rendered our schedule much more open as a family, but we have filled it with the aforementioned attempt to get in shape and to cook wholesome meals on a budget. We are together more as a family on a daily basis, as I have magically scored a ministry job with few evening meetings. I’ve been trying to approach all of this extra time together as holy time, to do the work of being a family “sabbathly,” to borrow MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s great phrase.

Still, it seems to me that one of the greatest insights MaryAnn’s book on Sabbath offers is the permission to find things that are necessary in one’s life – food, rest, care of children – and live into them as devotional work. That may be a cheat (or a hack, as MaryAnn might say), but it’s what I’ve got.

I see this approach forming me and shaping me in a lot of ways: in the way I think about time – and how I speak to my children when we’re running late because they’re dragging their feet; in the way I take new pleasure in making the bed (Kathleen Norris tells of her mother’s wisdom in insisting the adolescent Norris do so as a basic gesture of self-respect); in the way my husband and I turn in at the same time at night, even if one of us isn’t really tired yet, so that we can spend time talking and catching up, reconnecting. It’s there in the way my extended family gathers at my parents’ table just about every Sunday night, to pass around the newest niece or nephew, to talk church by the grill as Dad cooks, to watch my daughters putter around the yard with me mom, feeding the birds, watering the plants. These are disciplines that shape my relationships through days and weeks and years, that shape our life as a family.

If I am honest, however, these were not practices that I was ever in any danger of abandoning. It is neither a show of great strength of will nor spiritual fortitude that I show up at my parents’ house to be fed and loved, that I prefer the cool sheets of a made bed.If I am honest, these days the act that has most richly blessed me year in and year out, that I have yet been managing to avoid, is reading.

The Christian Century ran an article just this week on why reading – especially novels – is such wonderful spiritual food. And for me, that’s always been the case. Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate Deborah Smith Douglas shares how books have always been her life raft, how they opened worlds of experience and issued calls to empathy. How they addressed her childhood fears and gave her courage. I don’t know if that’s what reading did for me as a kid. My life was pretty sheltered; my days were remarkably void of suffering.

But I loved to read. Read as an addict, read myself into ever-stronger prescriptions for glasses, read late into the night and instead of completing course work from elementary school onward. None of that is particularly worthy of praise – though the list demonstrates I hope where my passion lay. What I did then, though, and have continued to do is read whatever strikes my fancy. I will take suggestions: my mother and my grandmother both routinely send clipped book reviews from the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Trib; I have most loved teachers and professors and friends over the years who introduced me to good books, and important texts.

I read based on covers that look good in bookstores, I read based on publishers I like and trust, I read authors who I’ve liked before, I read prize winners and terrible, terrible books left behind at the oceanfront home we rent once a year in North Carolina. (That’s where I read Left Behind). I read trashy adolescent romances – and I tore through all four of the Twilight books (though I have not yet felt any desire to further sully my reputation by reading the 50 Shades of Gray books). I read children’s books, especially pretty picture books that promise to make me cry (ie, anything by Tomie De Paola). I seek out Nick Hornby’s book essays in The Believer and the obituaries in The Economist and the humor and movie essays in The New Yorker. I named my second kid after a Jeffrey Eugenides character (she fared a bit better than her older sister, culture-wise, since she was named after a character in a Lerner and Loewe musical). I read politics and Savage Love on the internet and cannot say no to a new hardcover by a humor writer that I love. (This is a sin, probably, as these books are so pricey, and yet devoured so quickly). I read classics and best sellers and the thing I miss most about school is the syllabi of highly-recommended, expertly vetted, books. Of course, when I was in school I couldn’t wait to get out so that I’d have time to read books of my own choosing again…The grass is always greener…

What makes this wide range of reading material into a spiritual practice and not a sign of attention deficit? Somehow, no matter what I read, the subject or the craft or the voice speaks to a question I’ve had, or a biblical text, or a concern of a parishioner. I didn’t really understand The Nature and Destiny of Man until I read the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s time-quartet; I hated grad school until I read The Courage to Be. I needed Coffin’s “Elegy for Alex” in order to glimpse the meaning of the book of Job. The lessons of my pastoral care classes came alive during the shows my husband and I saw during the seasons we had tickets to the Goodman Theater.

I am well aware that Mihee’s a Presbyterian, so I hope she’ll forgive me when I say that I always thought I was just lucky – the way books seemed to reveal themselves to me; the way I always managed to find the stories and histories I needed, for myself, for my ministry. But if I am being theological, I think both the Calvinists and the Wesleyans can agree that this might be called the work of the Holy Spirit.

The earliest Christians were bibliophiles, my New Testament professor used to say. They popularized the codex because they were always trying to flip back and forth between Scriptures – to cross reference and ask questions and the codex facilitated this sort of reading in a way that scrolls simply couldn’t.

I need to read more. I need to make time to do so, to read not just the technical texts of my professional life or the one Barbie book my kid picks out, but to read a lot, to read widely.  The spiritual discipline lies in opening oneself, in making time, to seek and receive unexpected wisdom, from diverse voices.  In a world where most of us increasing spend our time around those who are like us, who share our worldviews, who read to confirm our biases, I need to hear stories of those whose lives are vastly different from my own, and who yet share in asking the great questions of our strange, transcendent, creaturely existence.  This is a discipline that has fed and shaped me – as a pastor and a preacher to be sure – but also as a Christian and a human being.

Bromleigh McCleneghan is an ordained Elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC, currently serving at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago as the Associate for Congregational Life. She has a husband, Josh, two daughters, and a terrible dog. Her first book, co-authored with her friend and colleague the Rev. Lee Hull Moses, is called “Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People.” It’s being published by the Alban Institute and can be purchased at the end of this month.

One thought on “Merely Beloved: Reading Books

  • October 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm
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    I’m not a big novel reader, but I am a huge nonfiction reader. My friend would love this post, though. She always has a book in her purse. Always.

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