Shortly after the end of the school year in May, a fellow seminarian at Catholic University posted a picture on his Facebook of a large pile of books, evidently his reading list for the summer. Piled more than ten high, the ambitious stack had some great books about the liturgy, history of the Church, and popular expressions of Catholicism in today’s world. Objectively speaking, it was a great collection and I’m sure he benefited greatly from it.
And yet, I couldn’t help but shiver when I saw it.
Despite the wide variety of topics and perspectives, his stack was all the same: academic, theological, non-fiction. They could have just as easily been his textbooks for the following year of seminary, all packed with information for study, meant to fill the mind with thoughts and facts and ideas.
At face value, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. As Catholics, we know that God gave us the ability to reason and understand Godself and the world, and so are not afraid of intellectualism or study in faith. Thoughts and facts and ideas are incredibly important to our faith, and I plan on attending two more years of seminary to engage them more deeply.
But there is a reason that I shivered when I saw this picture (and, no, it’s not just because my brain is fried after three years of full-time graduate study.) While God certainly gave us a mind to reason and understand, God also gave us a heart to feel and a spirit to imagine. After three years of seminary training in which I’ve read dense books on philosophy, theology, Church history, and pastoral care, I’ve realized that there is something desperately missing from my life and formation: fiction. Where are the novels? Where are the short stories, plays, poems?
For some, such things are often seen as more leisurely, “softer” activities one does in one’s free time or when one needs a break from “real” studying. For others, fiction is simply a waste of time altogether when one could be learning about “something that actually happened.” I couldn’t disagree more. Just because works of fiction do not contain many—if any—details that are factually accurate does not mean that they are devoid of truth. In many ways, I would argue quite the opposite: novels use lies to tell the truth (paraphrase of Alan Moore, V for Vendetta). Using characters, places, and situations that do not exist in our world, writers use their imaginations to speak profoundly about the human existence in a way that biographies and treatises simply cannot.
It is with the use of this imagination—the ability to dream and believe and create—that writers help so many see beyond the mundane happenings of life and into the transcendent experience of God. Even when works of fiction do not convey an immediate or underlying Christian message, the reader is offered a glimpse into the transcendent simply because s/he is experiencing beauty. The eloquently chosen words on the page, the palpable emotion flowing from the actors, the disturbing/inspirational/unbelievable/mesmerizing images that the writer evokes are all gateways into God if the reader allows it.
What fiction lacks in historical accuracies is often more than made up for in what it reveals about the human experience. I think of the incredible precision with which F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, telling such an emotive and visually packed story with so few words; I think of how terribly defeated I was after reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, as if it had been me who had had all of my hopes and dreams crushed and cast aside; I think of how taken away I was by the imagery and storytelling of Yann Martel in Life of Pi, as if I were sitting at the feet of a wise old master telling about his life (which does not make me a Hindu relativist, fyi…) These stories moved me. They touched me. They evoked something in me that, despite being about people and events that never took place, helped me to relate to and understand the world in a new way.
That is what I want to recapture this year as I take a break from formal studies. While Karl Rahner, official papal documents, and classical treatises are certainly useful and have been fruitful in many aspects of my life, and I will most certainly not abandon them completely as I will be teaching many classes this year, having to read hundreds of pages of them each week has left a major imbalance in my life that needs fixing.
And fixed it will be.
Starting just after the road trip in May, I began to reread my favorite series of all-time, Harry Potter (it took me only 25 days to read all seven books… That is an emotional roller coaster I do not recommend!) Over the summer in Mexico I read The Little Prince in Spanish. And upon arriving here in Durham I signed up for a library card and checked out my first two books within twelve hours of arriving: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor and Jazz Age Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, two collections of short stories.
Like my friend from seminary, my stack of books is quickly piling up as I try to fit as much in as I can, making up for the lost time during school. And even though our stacks look completely different and it would be easy to say that our goals are quite different, I don’t think they are. Both of us, in our own ways, are seeking to know God and God’s people better so that we can be better ministers today and in the future. The difference is a matter of perspective: while he has chosen to read books about God and God’s people, I have chosen to read books that help me experience God and God’s people firsthand. Now that’s a novel idea.