I wrote Twelve great spiritual writers to encourage more Christians to read and to see reading as a spiritual discipline that can expand our vision of God’s world and help us to grow. Books have the capacity to nurture and stretch us by enabling us to enter the minds of others and see the world differently. Though we may never meet them in person, a favourite writer may become a friend, one whom we want to introduce to others. The writers in this book are my friends and they come at Christian faith and spirituality in diverse ways. Each one is described and some of their writings are explored in order to draw out key themes and questions for us today. Spirituality is a slippery word but for Christians it will include content and practices that focus on the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the authors write very explicitly about Christian beliefs and practices such as who is Jesus and what is prayer, while others approach things from a more implicit perspective, leaving us to make our own connections. Alison Morgan is an example of the first kind of writer, while Annie Dillard writes to bear witness to wonder in the world. Prayer, the Bible, worship, creation, solitude and silence are all present in the chosen writers. Some are poets like Mary Oliver, one, Marilynne Robinson, is a well-known novelist. Others, like Anne Lamott, tell their own stories and Ann Lewin and Barbara Brown-Taylor are crafters of sermons and liturgies. All are contemporary, though sadly two have died since the book was conceived. Many of them draw on writers from previous generations with one, Benedicta Ward, a historian, describing her friends from centuries long gone.
One of the things I invite readers to do is to reflection their reactions to what they read. We do not always have to agree with an author to benefit from engaging with their writings, but good writers always evoke reflection on their work. At the end of each chapter there are questions to think about and action points to follow up. If reading is to play its part in forming us spiritually, it needs to be embedded in our lives in concrete ways. Reading for spiritual nourishment demands a different approach from much of the reading we do on a daily basis where the intention is to gather information. What does it mean to read well in our fast-paced visual culture where we are exposed to information overload and encouraged to consume but not digest as much as we can take in? Reading slowly and meditatively, indeed reading aloud was the way precious texts were prayed through in the history of the Christian faith and the recovery of this approach is urgently needed today. If this sounds like hard work, one of the best reasons to read is the pleasure it gives. Through reading we enter other worlds that illuminate our own. As the poet Malcolm Guite wrote, ‘It may be that hidden in the poets and writers we love best is a vital clue about the heaven we are aiming for.’ Sarah Clarkson’s Book girl, explored in the book, is a brilliant example of how books have nourished and inspired her.
Books and reading have always challenged the world of ideas and contained within them the power to effect change. While the book is not intended to be a feminist tract, it was impossible not to have in mind those women whose voices have not been heard in history as I wrote. Women have a powerful instrument to hand in writing books and many of the writers who have formed my Christian faith and that of many others have been women. It was a privilege to meet some of the authors represented in the book and to learn something of their lives. It has always been interesting to me to know something about the writers behind great books as so often it helps to illuminate their writings.
It is good to know that books are more popular than ever today and the much vaunted opinion that they had had their day has not come to pass. Twelve great spiritual writers is, in part, a way of encouraging more people to take up a book and read.
Sister Margaret Magdalen
Sister Benedicta Ward
Twelve great writers, ch 9, Marilynne Robinson. Pp122ff
Marilynne Robinson once said that she sees fiction more like painting than reportage, which gives readers the freedom to imagine and make their own connections.
Gilead has been described as a book that talks about religion to non-religious people in ways that resonate and indeed empower, because we feel as though we are being invited to play God – for example, in the choice of whether or not to forgive as Ames wrestles with his attitude towards his godson Jack.
C. S. Lewis, who was an expert in medieval English literature as well as a Christian apologist and novelist himself, wrote:
In reading great literature I become a thousand men [sic] and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.
As someone who has often found more theology in novels than in many theology textbooks, I have had many conversations about what exactly novels have to teach us about spirituality. There is research, for example, that claims that people who read have more empathy. Literary fiction trains the emotions, requiring the reader to infer, predict, interpret and evaluate. Like our muscles, our emotions need exercise to mature.
Good writing shows us that human beings are complex creatures, and this comes across in Marilynne Robinson’s novels with great force. A professing Christian and an academic with a powerful intellect, she teaches literature and creative writing along with theology, but her widest audience is the readers of her novels. As well as being a storyteller, she is an essayist, and her non-fiction writing explores the world of ideas, including the Calvinism that influences her thinking. In a review of The givenness of things, she spoke about the process of writing a novel and how it comes to birth:
I feel a novel begin to cohere in my mind before I know much more about it than that it has the heft of a long narrative. This heft is a physical sensation. A forming novel is a dense atmosphere more than it is a concept or an idea. I find my way into it by finding a voice that can tell it and then it unfolds within the constraints of its own nature, which seems arbitrary to me but is inviolable by me.
Marilynne Robinson’s titles are deeply evocative: Gilead, Home, When I was a child I read books, to name three of them. Gilead is a biblical place name, and in both Hebrew and Aramaic it means ‘heap [of stones] of testimony’ (Genesis 31.47–48). The area, which is east of the River Jordan, was abundant in aromatic spices and gums, giving rise to the lament in Jeremiah the prophet, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ (Jeremiah 8.22)
To purchase a copy of Twelve Great Spiritual Writers, please visit the publisher's website here.
Rev Dr Liz Hoare is Wycliffe Hall's Tutor in Spiritual Formation and Dean of Women.