Thursday, March 5, 2009

4. Read good books, a little at a time.

From Mary Beth in Alaska:

Read good books . . .

What an appropriate maxim for this season of my life! I have always enjoyed reading and, as a teacher, have always propounded on its virtues to tired parents both at school and in my own family. Lists of “good books” were my favorite handouts as I tried to get students and parents to consider eating the meat of literature as opposed to the milk – or dessert. Then along came a child…

At the last meeting that I attended of our women’s reading group here in Wasilla, I had to admit that I had not really been reading anything that was morally uplifting or taught me more about our Lord or Orthodoxy or even people in general. I had been reading things that let me escape, that allowed my brain to rest. I did not want to think or ponder or have to read a paragraph over again. Having to admit this was an embarrassment. But, after all, it isn’t what you read, it is how you read – isn’t it?

According to Fr. Thomas Hopko, that is not necessarily true. Just as our physical diet needs a balance of nutrition, so our minds and spirits need nutrition as well. What we read, whether it be Scripture, lives of the saints, poetry or fiction, feeds us with one thing or another. It is either nourishing or not.

It is so easy to become a junk-food junkie in the reading realm when one is tired or over-burdened. Reading can become a wonderful escape. Many books are like chocolate or chips, so easy to fall into eating too much, too quickly. We fill up on the junk and leave little room in our schedule or our minds and spirits for the meat and vegetables that we need. We NEED the “good books” to keep us growing and strong for the spiritual battles we face each day.

. . . a little at a time.

Although what we read is important, how we read is as well. How easy it is to skim through a section thinking that we have heard it all before, to look for the tidbits that we find delight in, but may not be the most nourishing for our souls.

My husband and I recently read Surprised by Christ, by Father James Bernstein. Bob said that he found himself reading certain sections three or four times, because he wanted to totally understand what was being taught. Why was this understanding so important? Because he wanted to be able to share it with others, to discuss it, to allow its nourishment to extend beyond himself.

Sometimes, we may fall into the habit of seeing the goal of reading a book as getting to the end. But just like with reading the Scriptures, a Good book is one in which the details need time to germinate. It has to be pondered little by little. I struggle at this time of my life to do this. It means putting all the other things invading my thoughts aside in order to really understand what an author is saying. Perhaps, the time in our lives when reading in this manner is the most difficult is also the time when we need it the most.

“Which is the real possessor of a book – the man who has its original and every following edition, and shows, to many an admiring and envying visitor, now this, now that, in binding characteristic, with possessor pride . . . or the man who cherishes one little, hollowed back, coverless, untitled bethumbed copy, which he takes with him in his solitary walks and broods over in his silent chamber, always finding in it some beauty or excellence or aid he had not found before – which is to him in truth as a live companion?”
George MacDonald


Mimi said...

This is the one that I struggle with the most (read a little at a time?) but I greatly appreciate your words and need to take them to heart.

Michele Mulder said...

My husband just finished "Surprised by Christ" and I was on chapter 5 when my spiritual father asked me to read "Ladder of Divine Ascent" with my husband and since I am a one book at a time kinda gal I stopped and will pick it up after I finish Ladder. I highly recommend this book. My husband says it is one he would recommend to any seeker of Orthodoxy. It would be his first choice of recommendation. I enjoyed your post.

Anonymous said...

I was inspired to do more reading of good books after reading your post, and inspired by yesterday's reminder to read Scripture, as well. Could someone suggest other "good books" they have found particularly enjoyable and exceptional? Thanks!

Michele Mulder said...

Have you read Father Arseny? There are 2 of them. The first is about his life and the 2nd is more of his spiritual children writing about him. Here are a few more that are in my pile to finish or to read:
"The Truth of our Faith" by Elder Cleopa of Romania, "The Holy Angels" by Mother Alexandra, "On the Prayer of Jesus" by Isnatius Brianchaninov,
"We Shall See Him as He Is" by Archimandrite Sophrony, "Saint Nektarios The Saint of our Century" by Sotos Chondropoulos, "Athonite Flowers" by Monk Moses of Mount Athos, "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Emily said...

Spiritual wisdom is wonderful, of course, but I love good fiction, too. A few classics are anything by Tolstoy (short stories are a good place to start, but don't stop before Anna Karenina!) or C.S. Lewis. I also love "A Severe Mercy" by Sheldon Vanauken -- a beautiful love story.

As the Akathist of Thanksgiving says, "the Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists." It's good to remember that something can be salvific even when it doesn't have an overtly Christ-centered message; all that God created is good, so Wordsworth and Rodin can be as spiritually uplifting as the Philokalia in the proper context!

Aelwyn said...

A Severe Mercy is one of the most poignant books I have ever read. Thanks for reminding me of it, Emily.

The Forty Maxims

  • 1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  • 2. Pray, fast and do acts of mercy.
  • 3. Read the Scriptures regularly.
  • 4. Read good books, a little at a time.
  • 5. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  • 6. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  • 7. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  • 8. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  • 9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.
  • 10. Be faithful in little things.
  • 11. Do your work, then forget it.
  • 12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  • 13. Face reality.
  • 14. Be grateful.
  • 15. Be cheerful.
  • 16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  • 17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.
  • 18. Listen when people talk to you.
  • 19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  • 20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  • 21. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  • 22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.
  • 23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.
  • 24. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  • 25. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  • 26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  • 27. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  • 28. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  • 29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  • 30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  • 31. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  • 32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  • 33. Be strict with yourself.
  • 34. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  • 35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.
  • 36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  • 37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  • 38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  • 39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  • 40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.