I grew up in a frugal household. My parents, both children of the late Depression, are fiscally conservative by nature. Throughout my childhood, our small family ate meals of simple food, wore simple clothing, sat on simple furniture and feverishly saved every additional penny we could squeeze out of the budget in order to put money away for the (ever-threatening) rainy day. While I always thought we had “enough”, I was certain there wasn’t a whole lot of “extra”.
There were two exceptions to the perpetual frugality rule.
Christmas! As the son of a paper mill laborer and the daughter of a sharecropper, my parents had never received much more in their Christmas stockings than a piece of fruit and maybe a pair of socks or a little (often handmade) toy. Thus, they were determined to go “all out” on Christmas for their two children. And they did! I cannot remember ever asking for something and not receiving it for Christmas. Only now do I recognize what sacrifices my mom and dad made to make those magical Christmases come to life for my sister and me.
Books! My parents had been taught by their parents that even if a formal education was impossible, one could always educate one’s self through the discipline of reading. (My maternal grandfather embodied this principle with his multiple-volume library of law books which he had read cover to cover dozens of times by the time I was born in the late 1950’s. Suffice it to say, one could never win an argument with Grandpa!) At any rate, this reverence for books passed down to me through my parents. I had a library card at age six. We had a set of World Book Encyclopedias that I read like story books in our house. My parents never, ever quibbled about me using a part of my allowance to purchase the latest Hardy Boys detective novel at the department store or a new historical biography from the Scholastic Book Fair at school. I received positive reinforcement from every side for my reading obsession, and so I read, and read and read.
This early passion for books has continued throughout my adulthood. I still read and read and read. But along the way, something happened. I forgot the joy of savoring a text from start to finish (regardless of genre). Reading became more about consuming. Chewing up words. Gleaning paragraphs incessantly for the salient line, the perfect turn of phrase, the helpful tidbit of advice, the slam-dunk argument or a flawless piece of rhetoric. I became a consumer of knowledge, but I lost the ability to marinade in wisdom. Books were proliferating around me — literally taking over every conceivable inch of space (and more!) that could be devoted to holding them. I was reading faster than ever, on some sort of insane mission to do my best to defy the motto, “So many books, so little time.”
And then, last year during my sabbatical, I spent some time at a Jesuit Retreat House. On my first day there, the spiritual director assigned me the following task: “For your first two days, give your eyes and your head a break. Don’t read anything. Take a walk. Take a nap. Pray. If you absolutely have to read something, read the Bible. My guess is, you’ve forgotten how to read it for the wisdom God has dropped in it for the benefit of your soul, because you’ve been too busy trying to figure out how to write a sermon for the souls in your parish.” (Gotta love those Jesuits who can cut to the chase! God Bless St. Ignatius!)
So, I followed Bernie’s counsel.The first 24 hours, were torturous. There I was, at a retreat center (with a monster bookstore!) and I was not supposed to read! What did I do? Well, I walked. I prayed. I sat and looked at the mountains. I felt the breeze on my face. I enjoyed the warmth of the sun. I slept too. And at the end of the 48 hour reading fast, I read a book. This time slowly, thoughtfully and luxuriously. It was the best book I could remember reading in YEARS! The experience was like getting that first piece of chocolate after a Lenten fast from the stuff!
Upon my return to the “real world” of pastoral ministry, though, I began to notice how things were speeding up again. I was back to consuming words for the purpose of reformulating them to spew them back out — either in parish newsletters, blog posts or sermons. I was quickly back to the business of knowledge acquisition and steadily drifting away from the percolation of thought necessary to uncover any sort of wisdom.
Finally, about three weeks ago, I put myself on a “book fast” — no new additions to my collection for a period of ninety days, and the fast applied to all books, including the electronic variety. After a day or so on the “fast”, I decided to use this time to purge shelves of the books I now know I will either never read or never read again. I’ve been working away at this project and I can see space begin to open up around me. I feel like I can breathe again. I feel lighter. I feel free to sit and stare out the window without the constant feeling that I “should be reading”. I don’t know how much “wiser” I will be when this exercise is completed, but I am very sure the “getting of wisdom” can’t be reduced to the number of books collected or pages turned anyway.