HAVING JUST finished writing the column that appeared in last week’s issue, I am looking at the three large bookshelves I have in my room. Even though I gave away more than a hundred books a few years ago, there are still hundreds of books in this room. Memories of being profoundly influenced by some of these books when I first read them are coming back to me as I type.
My friend, theologian Father Michael Himes, once told me that the experience of reading a book was like having a conversation with the book’s author. Father Himes was correct, and at this moment, I am very aware of some marvelous conversations I have had with authors.
As I reflect on my days as a student in college and in the seminary, and on my more than 55 years as a priest, names of many authors come to mind. When I started college, novelists such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac and Sigrid Undset were favorites of mine. While studying philosophy in the seminary, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson were my heroes. In fact, I have a vivid memory of buying my first book by Maritain. A classmate of mine and I discovered that by ordering books from a publisher in England we could save some money. We made a list of books we thought we would find interesting and ordered them. When they arrived, we agreed on how we would divide them. One of the books I took was Maritain’s “True Humanism.” I can still recall looking at Maritain’s book as I took it out of the box that the publisher had sent.
Other authors whose books influenced the way I thought, and probably still think, were Josef Pieper, Dom Abbot Marmion, Romano Guardini, Gerald Vann, Dom Aelred Graham, Charles Davis, Robert Johann and Louis Evely. As a young priest, books by Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx formed my thinking. In recent years, I have come to love the novels of Alice McDermott and the theology of Karl Rahner, John Haught and Father Michael Gallagher, S.J.
What is the point of going down memory lane besides my own enjoyment at recalling books I have loved and which have played an important role in my life? The point is that I am trying to encourage readers of this column to choose books carefully. I am hoping to impress upon readers how much books can shape and form us. If reading a book is having a conversation with the author, then we should choose our conversation partners carefully.
Msgr. George Higgins, who I think was the best-informed priest in the U.S. and who was a voracious reader, claimed that if a person read three hours every day that person would have the equivalent of a first-rate university education.
Tomorrow at the Eucharist that I will offer at St. John’s University I plan to remember the authors that I have mentioned here because I feel I owe them a debt of gratitude. Most are deceased now, but their influence in my life has never ceased. In some mysterious way, perhaps in my memory or my subconscious, I carry them with me, much in the same way we carry friends with us even when they are not physically present to us. I am hoping that those who read this column have had experiences similar to mine and can recall some book that touched them deeply.
I certainly am not encouraging people to become bookworms, but I am encouraging those who read this column to become as educated and reflective as possible. Contemporary life is quite complicated. We live at a hectic pace. We are bombarded regularly by messages, some of which seem directly opposed to what we believe as followers of Christ. Reading good books is one way to help ourselves become intelligently critical of what might be wrong with society.
One of the most important goals I have as a university professor is to encourage students to read good books. I try to introduce them to good literature, help them read reflectively and even to love reading. I have almost no idea how successful I have been, but I believe I have to keep trying. How much contemporary technology discourages students from serious reading, I don’t know, but I am always interested in hearing about studies evaluating the technological revolution and its positive and negative influence on us.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).