Lent is a time of year like the beginning of January – we are trying to figure out things to do (or to not do) in order to better ourselves. The hope is that in Lent we are giving up things like candy or desserts or snacks not primarily as a way to lose weight (as we would have done on January 1), but as a way to better bind ourselves to others who are in need and also to catch some of the splinters of the Cross.
This switch of emphasis is apparent not only in the giving up of food, but also in the addition of things like reading good books. Often we turn the calendar by setting goals for ourselves like reading a book each month or each week, and this is done to grow intellectually or to become a more interesting person. During Lent, the orientation of the reader should move to a greater focus on what this or that book can do to help us grow spiritually and not on anything so mundane as its effect on any other aspect of life.
I was reminded of this approach both as I listened with my classes to a podcast on what to do for Lent as well as while reading a book from my Lenten “to read” list. The podcast, “Pints with Aquinas” by Matt Fradd, spoke of ten things to do during Lent and ran the gamut from giving up the Internet to making meaningful connections with the homeless who stand by the side of the road. His number eight thing to do for Lent was “read good books.” He himself was reading Thomas Merton’s spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain, but his suggested reading list included some works – like The Lord of the Rings – that were not overtly theological.
By including such books Fradd is being very Ignatian as he calls his listeners to find God in all things. This Ignatian connection came to my mind as I began reading A Sign of Contradiction by the late Fr. John Hugo, whose relative fame came from his being the retreat master for Servant of God Dorothy Day and other members of the Catholic Worker. Fr. Hugo’s “famous retreat,” as Day called it, was based on the work of Fr. Onesimus Lacouture, S.J., a French Canadian who, in the early decades of the 20th Century, offered his Ignatian retreat to priests throughout North America.
Fr. Hugo not only carried on the work of Fr. Lacouture, but expanded it into a number of writings that take the ideas of the retreat in a variety of directions. One such direction is discussed in A Sign of Contradiction where Fr. Hugo focuses his love for literature. He points out, as he does so often in his writings, that to take our earthly loves to the proper level they need to be seen in light of our relationship with Jesus, otherwise we are merely pious and cultured pagans.
During Lent we tend to be more in tune with such thoughts, and so reading a work like The Lord of the Rings can take on a new meaning. For example, in his great set of lectures on Jesus as Priest, Prophet, and King, Bishop Robert Barron describes the three main characters – Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn – in relation to Jesus as Priest, Prophet, and King. Any good work of literature can call us to make such connections and to grow in our realization that we are called to find God in all things.
In recent years the concept of giving up things for Lent has not gotten great press. We are very often told that it is better to do something rather than to give something up. While I wholeheartedly disagree with this “either/or” approach, I do believe that spiritual growth can be fostered by taking on something new during this penitential season. Finding a book - maybe one that is well-worn and known almost by heart - and seeing it through a theological lens might be just the thing needed this Lent to jump-start a stagnating spiritual life.
Reading a good book, as well as THE Good Book, within this context has over the centuries proven quite beneficial to those who desire to connect all aspects of their lives to their faith in Jesus – including the reaching out to those in need.
In Benedictine spirituality this movement from prayer to action is encapsulated in their motto Ora et Labora, Pray and Work. For those more familiar with the Ignatian tradition in spiritual thought, the phrase "contemplatives in action" is more well-known. Either way, the point is the same: Our spiritual journeys are not solo ventures. To cultivate a relationship with Jesus through prayer is to ask Him what must be done, in His Name, with and for our sisters and brothers.
So as we continue our Lenten journey and look to find a new path to walk in our "going up to Jerusalem" with Jesus, maybe we can "give up" seeing reading as a mere diversion and take on seeing it as yet another means whereby God is calling us. Calling us to the Cross, but also calling us to help carry the crosses of our sisters and brothers on their journey, by our side, to Jersualem.