Over the next several posts, I’ll explore how certain passages of Scripture that are essential to the life of a Christian frame the reading and study of literature.
The first of these passages is when an expert in the law comes to ask Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
How do we follow these two commandments when we read literature? Let’s look at the first one today.
Before people begin to pray or read Scripture contemplatively, Saint Alphonsus Liguori recommends that we prepare ourselves in the following three ways: express faith in the presence of God, perform a short act of contrition or humility, and pray to be enlightened. He advises that these steps be brief but done attentively. I think Saint Alphonsus’s recommendations are also instructive for how we can uphold the first and greatest commandment—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”—when we read literature.
Express faith in the presence of God
When we read Scripture, we trust that the Father is speaking to us through it—to give us wisdom, solace, correction, direction. The Holy Spirit, when we alight upon a salient passage, resonates within us. Jesus is present with us, interceding for us, helping us draw nearer to the Lord through the fearful, trembling process of sanctification. We are not alone when we read Scripture, and our reading of Scripture grows richer and deeper the more we can quiet ourselves to acknowledge the divine Tutor with us.
Of course, a fictional narrative, poem, or drama is not Scripture; nevertheless God is still present when we read these other texts. The Father still speaks, the Holy Spirit stays alert within, and Jesus continues the project of reconciliation. The reader, on the other hand, often judges there to be a difference, drawing a line between sacred and profane reading experiences. How would the experience of reading literature change, though, if we acknowledged and welcomed the Lord’s presence as we picked up the book? What insights would He give us? What connections would we be able to make? By acknowledging God’s presence as we read literature, we allow ourselves to be guided by His wisdom in our understanding and appreciation of the text.
Perform a short act of contrition or humility
We know that a broken and contrite heart will not be despised by the Lord (Psalm 51:7), but why should we approach a literary work with such humility? Texts composed by fallen, fallible human beings rightly demand that readers approach them with discernment, but the critical eye can easily degenerate into the judgmental eye. Too often we read a text with a variation of the Pharisee’s prayer in our minds: “God, I thank you that I am not like the author of this book” (cf. Luke 18:11).
Our right judgment of a text comes when we are in right relationship with God, and our right relationship with God puts us into a position of humility. Jesus came to reconcile us while we were still enemies of God (Romans 5:10); we can hold no position of superiority over the fallen men and women whose literary works we read. Mind you, I am not saying that we should not read a work critically or find fault with a distorted view of the universe; rather, I am saying that such critical reading should be in submission to the command in Micah 6:8: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Pray to be enlightened
The Roman poet Horace’s twin criteria for poetry that it delight and instruct are worthy petitions to bring before the Lord as we prepare to read a literary work. The Lord desires to teach us, and He can give us insight and inspiration even in texts written by people who have repudiated God. (More on this in a later post.) The lesson we draw may not be a positive one (e.g. “This is how we love our neighbor.”); frequently the Lord will instruct us on something to avoid or show us how the world, the flesh, and the devil inflict pain on His creation. At the same time, however, He can teach us how to respond to such darkness with light and love. God can use literature to point us to the places in the world where restoration most desperately needs to occur.
Can such enlightenment be delightful? It can, if we look past light-hearted entertainment or non-threatening happy endings for a more durable, stout-hearted joy. The gospel teaches us that there is joy even in the midst of sorrow; there is hope even when circumstances are bleak. We can pray that God shine His light within the darkness of a text, to help us locate his divine beam, even when an author thinks it has been completely snuffed out. The discovery that God is truly present in such a text is the deepest joy to be had within literature.