College commencement season is upon us. Graduates now face the prospect that they may never again be required to read a book. Many may freely, even happily, forget the books they read over the last four – or more – years. For any who do so, we should feel a mixture of dismay and pity.
Because it is good to read and good to remember: these are basic truths of human existence. If anyone rejects those truths, we are all worse off; his memory loss can become our memory loss. And this is especially true in the Church.
To paraphrase some wise words of Fr. James V. Schall: When graduates forget what man is, the Church becomes their memory. In St. John Paul II’s words, Christ reveals man fully to himself; the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. The Church reminds us of who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Thus, as Benedict XVI put it, she serves as “a guarantee” of culture, mediating the “encounter between divine revelation and human existence” from which culture originates.
But is this culture-creating, memory-saving activity necessarily welcome? Or is it a mistake to make the development of civilization an actual goal of faith? Should the Church regard maintaining culture – including among recent college graduates – a part of her earthly mission? Does such activity pertain to the goal of faith?
The goal of faith is eternal life. The goal of the Church is to facilitate the reception of faith and the realization of faith’s goal. Does this involve restoration or maintenance of the natural order? Certainly. God commanded Adam “to till and keep” the garden of Eden, the first culture. That admonition still applies however difficult and different our labor is now.
Yet to appeal to the Church as a “restorer of culture” is no guarantee of success. The Church has heroes and villains. Can we trust that the good guys will prevail? Can we even trust ourselves?
A primary instrument of the Church’s memory-restoring power is the tradition; the primary wielder of that instrument is the People of God. To say the Church remembers is meaningful only because we ourselves remember.
The bankruptcy of typical diocesan and parish initiatives to offer a more faithful Christian witness to the culture is not simply indicative of the failure of ecclesial administration. It also points to the way that the many individuals who fail to read and remember – to take the great tradition seriously – results in collective failure.
Thus our tenuous grasp on tradition. As T.S. Eliot stressed, the two strands of the tradition – both a historical sense as well as a sense of the presence of the past – have grown weak. Without them, our grasp on the tradition loosens; we lose our “sense of the timeless.”
This state of disconnection has brought about obvious malaise: our thought, our play, our worship, are lifeless. In a healthy culture, those activities are central and robust. And for that to be the case, we need the tradition, especially literature. Literature holds the record of how culture has been made and un-made and also the rules for how culture can and ought to be made.
How do we strengthen our hold on tradition? By taking to heart the words that St. Augustine heard on the threshold of his conversion: “Take and read.” Books, “old” books especially, enable our participation in the tradition. Tradition, because it requires agency, as Josef Pieper wrote, is something alive. By active engagement in our reading, by meeting the past head-on and actually working to integrate it into the present, we keep the tradition alive.
Equally as important as what we should “take and read” is how we should read it. When we read, we should not read as the pagans do – who think they are well-read because of the many words they consume and regurgitate. Rather, when we (when you) read, do so with two rules in mind.
First, read as if you will say nothing to anyone about what you have read. Contend with the book as an individual. Our digitally oriented, hyper-communicative society presents a nearly irresistible temptation to talk instead of think. Talking about a book without first thinking it through is an intellectually barren exercise. Think about the book as if you are the last person who will read it and as if the only sure way to guarantee its survival is to become the book.
Better yet, to borrow Ray Bradbury’s brilliant description of the last readers in Fahrenheit 451, become like a “dust jacket” for the book. You are dust – and yet you can carry literary treasure.
Second, read with no care for the relevance of what you read. A prominent symptom of social-media syndrome is a fixation on what is topical. Whether you read The Inferno, The Abolition of Man, or Crime and Punishment, ignore the demand for attention to a particular theme, passage, or reference because of its applicability to some Current Thing.
Witness the tragedy of Paolo and Francesca and absorb the lesson that unbridled passion tends toward destruction; reflect upon C.S. Lewis’s diagnosis of “men without chests” to commit more fervently to the cultivation of “virtue and enterprise” in yourself and your family; grapple with the tragedy of Dostoyevsky’s Sonya to appreciate the sheer and overwhelming complexity of the human heart. Indeed there will be time for the relevance of those texts and their lessons – but make that time some other time.
Reading in this way might seem detached from the life of faith and a far cry from engagement with the tradition. Yet it has the power to cultivate the basic affection for reading, for memory – an affection essential for the more complex and robust growth of our loves.
The “sincere love of books” is a “power of faith,” said G.K. Chesterton. And only those who “see with the eyes of faith,” in Pieper’s words, will “ponder the root of all things and the ultimate meaning of existence.”
Let those who believe be the first to take and read.
*Image: Sonya reads Bible to Raskolnikov by Fritz Eichenberg, 1938 [Heritage Press]. A scene from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, first serialized in The Russian Messenger in 1866.
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On the Impartial Reading of Books
Robert Royal’s Our Darkling Plain