Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Read into It: Books Have a Special Way of Opening Our Imaginations to Moments of Grace in Life

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Read into It: Books Have a Special Way of Opening Our Imaginations to Moments of Grace in Life

Article excerpt

Catholic are a sacramental people. We see signs of the presence of God around us in every moment of our lives. We know, of course, that God is greater than we can imagine and beyond all that we can touch, but we are also convinced that creation, from the most ordinary--water, oil, bread--to the most unlikely--the stranger, the enemy, the cross--can reveal divine love.

This is the ideal--to see God all around us--yet in our daily lives it is all too easy to sleepwalk our way past revelatory moments. We are so busy, so frantic, so distracted, that we miss much of what is going on around us.

If we really want to live as a sacramental people, we need to deliberately cultivate the habit of waking up to the presence of God, and to do that we need to cultivate our imaginations. We need to develop the insight and judgment to understand what is happening around us. One way to do this is to look to the stories we tell one another.

Storytelling has always been a central way human beings have taught each other about how the world works. Indeed, Jesus told stories--parables--that troubled and confused people. He turned their assumptions upside down, inviting them to look at the world from a new perspective, to imagine reality in a new way.

Today's writers and storytellers, too, invite us to look at the world from a new perspective, to see things in a way we had not previously imagined. Literature can be one of our teachers as we develop and educate our imaginations.

I teach theology at a Catholic university, but most of my students are majoring in subjects such as nursing, education, and social work. Many assume that theology is far from practical. One way I pull them into it is by including a novel among our theology texts. Discussing suffering or the will of God or forgiveness works much better when we have the anchor of a common story. We then move from literature to our own lives, and we find our imaginations stretched and reshaped as the experiences of others open our eyes to new ways of seeing and understanding the world around us.

One of my favorite novels for introducing students to the idea of finding the presence of God all around us is Marilynne Robinson's lyrical and lovely Gilead (Picador, 2004). The novel is structured as a letter from John Ames, an elderly pastor in 1950s Iowa, to his small son as an attempt to tell him all the stories and musings and memories that he will not get a chance to pass on, as Ames knows he is dying. One memory that Ames comes back to again and again is his father sharing a piece of biscuit with him after a long day of helping to pull down a church that had been struck by lightning. Ames was a small boy at the time, and the memory of the burned church, the rain, the solemn burial of ruined Bibles, and the simple sharing of a soot-covered biscuit was central to forming his imagination of community, church, and Eucharist.

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In class we discuss this scene and its echoes throughout the story, and connect it to our own experiences of food, family, and church. We begin to see, as Ames did, that sometimes our experience of communion is shaped by our experience of other meals, and sometimes our experience of a "normal" meal is shaped by our experience of communion.

But a novel does not have to explicitly model such reflection for it to feed our sacramental imaginations. In my introductory class in theology, we spend an all-too-brief time learning a few basics about the world's great religions. I encourage my students to do more than read from their assigned textbook; I bring in a stack of novels.

If they'd like to think more deeply about Islam, then Mojha Kahf's The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (Public Affairs, 2006) might interest them. I describe a few of Chaim Potok's novels for those who might want to pursue an interest in Judaism, and for those who want to tackle the complexities of daily life and religion in India, I suggest Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance (Vintage, 2001). …

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