Magazine article The Christian Century

Giving Up Reading

Magazine article The Christian Century

Giving Up Reading

Article excerpt

THE MONDAY AFTER Easter, Hannah and Jim threw a party. We'd been instructed to bring our contraband--whatever we gave up for Lent: Beer. Chocolate. Something caffeinated. A friend of Jim's turned up with a case of retsina. Sherri brought teddies, push-up bras, silky slips and garter belts.

"You gave up lingerie for Lent?" I ask. "No," Sherri says. "I gave up sex." She leaves all the lingerie with Hannah. "Well, at least until I get married." Sherri grins. "This Lent was the beginning of my new chaste life."

The party was really just a fancy potluck. Hannah and Jim had assumed that most people had given up something edible for Lent. I bought a bag of gummy worms to bring with my book. "The bookworm," says Hannah, "is back."

I had given up reading for Lent.

Here is how it happened: When my priest asked me what Lenten discipline I had adopted, I said, with no small touch of self-righteousness, that I planned to fast every Friday. This seemed like a big deal, far more serious than giving up coffee.

"Really?" said Milind. "Good for you." His Ash Wednesday homily, in fact, had dwelt for a few minutes on fasting. He had spoken of the need to give up something that was truly important to you. To give something that was really truly yourself. He had encouraged us to remember what it was like to receive gifts from friends. So much of what made the gift meaningful, said Milind, was not the gift itself, but the spirit in which it was given. "I want to encourage you to give something to God that really matters," he had said. "Something you really love. Something that is hard to do without."

Milind sipped his coffee. "Lauren," he said, "I want you to give something else up for Lent." I raised an eyebrow. "I want you to give up reading." I glanced down at the book I had brought with me, having expected Milind to be late for our breakfast meeting.

"Reading, it seems to me, is something you really love. It may be the thing you love most. I would like you to give up reading for Lent. I think you might spend some of the time you spend with books connecting with other people."

"OK!" I said recklessly. I raised my water glass in a sort of toast. "Philippians 4:13!"

"You know," I said to Milind, "reading really is my fallback activity. If I have time on my hands, what I do is read." I wanted him to understand the depth of the sacrifice I was making.

"No, no," said Milind. "Reading is my fallback activity. Reading is your life."

I usually read on subway rides. For the first week, I people-watched instead. But that got old. I found myself preaching sermons in my head. I pictured instructing my flock on the finer points of biblical interpretation, filling in fuzzy historical details they might not know, inspiring them to lead a more committed Christian life.

In particular, I imagined the Lenten sermon I might preach 15 years from now, beginning, "Fifteen years ago, my priest asked me to do something radical at Lent. He asked me to give up reading." There would be a few titters from the parishioners. "As most of you know, I love nothing more than curling up with a good read. That first year it was hard, at times unbearable. But I have renewed that practice every year. I look forward to the space it clears out in my brain. I look forward to the quiet time in which I hear only my words and God's words, not the printed words on the pages of all those books." My real-life experience was not as grand or as satisfying as that self-congratulatory imaginary sermon. …

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