Reading, I think, is a fundamentally spiritual experience. The phenomenologist Georges Poulet once remarked that, when we read, another person’s “I” enters into our own souls. Think about it: when we read the word “I” on a printed page, that silent monosyllable resonates within our own being. That is, this is the only way (outside of purely grammatical and linguistic considerations) the word “I” sounds within our souls while not simultaneously meaning ourselves. This is a kind of intimacy we habitually overlook, but one which can carry with it profound implications.
In a letter to the Dominican priest Jean-Marie Perrin, the 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil describes a way in which one example of the religious writing of early modern England initiated for her a kind of religious experience:
There was a young English Catholic…from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance—for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence—made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called ‘Love.’ I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.
Weil’s deep attention to George Herbert’s poem “Love (III)”—even in translation—brought her to an encounter that surely would have pleased the seventeenth-century Anglican pastor: an immediate experience of Christ. Such events are central to religious experience.
This phenomenon should make us a little more judicious about our reading material. If we are inviting someone or something into our souls, in a movement of such intimacy, we need to be mindful of the effects—positive or negative—it could have on us. Jacques Maritain once observed that writers who make sin beautiful do readers a great harm. “In making of your sin beauty,” he wrote, “you send it like an angel among your brothers. It kills them without a sound.” On the other hand, reading literature like that of Herbert (or Henry Vaughan, or John of the Cross, or Novalis, or Rilke, or scores of others) while it may not always result in an experience like Weil’s, surely imparts more wholesome and healing tinctures for the soul.
But reading is not enough. We read reports. We read loads of news, trivia, and other garbage on the internet and elsewhere—far more than is good for us. What we need to add to our reading is attentiveness. Weil’s attention to Herbert’s words was what opened her to the moment of grace she received. I think we could all benefit from this kind of intimacy, this attention to writing touched by grace, so that grace may touch us.
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