Arts and Culture

Reading and Religious Faith

First in a series

THE IMPORTANCE of reading for all of us has been on my mind this past summer right into the fall season. One reason is the commitment I have made to the weekly television show entitled “Catholic Novel” on NET-TV. We have done 24 shows and I have committed to another eight. I am not complaining. My producer has convinced me that this is an important apostolate and being a hopeless ham, I enjoy doing the shows.

Another reason the importance of reading has been on my mind is the reading habits of contemporary college students. The amount of time students at St. John’s University spend on their cell phones. The first day of each semester in each of my courses I stress that after the introductory prayer, I don’t want to see any cell phones. Every day I see most students I pass on the campus on their cell phones. So I cannot accuse students of not reading. They seem to spend a great deal of time reading on their cell phones.

Serious evaluation on what social media might be doing to us is necessary but what I am most interested in reflecting on in this column is how reading might help people religiously. I have been moved to reflect on this from reading Jesuit Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s book, “The Human Poetry of Faith: A Spiritual Guide to Life” (New York: Paulist Press, 2003, pp. 142).

In the book’s first chapter, “In Touch with Depth,” Father Gallagher writes the following:

“The way we live can keep us adrift on the surface of ourselves and unable to reach deeper levels of searching. This happens within individuals. But it is also a cultural unfreedom, a shared cultural desolation. When we suffer from malnutrition in our self-images, we become incapable of imagining God. Look at the faces in the streets of any city. Many of them appear stressed, as if fighting to survive in a perpetual battle against time. …

“So this book is about liberating our human depths so that we might be ready for the wonder of revelation, not forgetting that revelation happens within seemingly ‘non-religious’ realities. God’s Spirit is at work in all that is good. Like an artist, the Spirit shapes our entry into freedom on many levels. Therefore these pages explore the ‘pre-religious’ zone, where the Spirit works on us to lead us towards the fuller surprise of Christ.” (pp. 1, 2)

There are many ways that we can be called to a deeper level of living. Falling in love could be one of those ways. Another way would be to discover that you are seriously or even terminally ill. If someone we love dies that might lead us into a more profound appreciation of the human mystery. Reading great literature, specifically great novels, could put us in touch with the deepest dimension of ourselves. I have come to believe that Catholic novels may have a special power to reveal the depth of reality.

Several years ago, I tried to interest Catholic high school teachers of religion and English and teachers of English in Catholic colleges to create a course on the Catholic novel. No one seemed to have the slightest interest in creating such a course. My suspicion is that the teachers with whom I spoke thought that such a course would be too parochial, too narrow in its content and emphasis. Of course the opposite is the case. Good Catholic novels deal with what is most real, what are the ultimate meanings. The Catholic novel is infinitely interesting. In some Catholic novels, God is the main character. However we describe God, the word “boring” should never be used.

I heard a lecture by a Catholic theologian who confessed that she had great difficulty the first time she taught a college theology course. She could not seem to interest the students. She decided to use Catholic novels and the students’ interest increased enormously. Another theology professor told me that much of what he knew about human nature he learned from reading Catholic novels.

I am not suggesting that reading Catholic novels will provide the reader with the gift of faith but such reading might provide insights which contribute to faith’s depth.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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