The Pilgrimage of Reading

Most of us never think about how we read, and rightly so.  After all, the point of reading is to read, not to think about how we’re reading.  In the same way, the point of going to the Louvre is to look at the art, not try to look at our own eyeballs.

However, the way we approach a book determines what we will get out of it.  And the history of reading is long enough to offer us some clues to get the most out of our reading.

St. Catherine Reading

St. Catherine Reading

Two Ways of Reading

Most of us see books as tools.  They are simply a device to communicate information from the author’s brain to ours.  They are our servants because they perform a required task for us on our command.  The book, then, becomes an extension of the self, an object that we conform to our desires.  This way of reading is rather selfish and quite modern, both in terms of its history and view of the world.

An older (medieval) way of reading was to approach books as a student approaches a teacher.  Instead of merely transferring information like a file upload (a dehumanizing metaphor), books give their reader wisdom that would open blind eyes, deepen faith, and restore goodness.  This mode of reading treated the book as an object of respect to which the self had to submit.

The modern method of reading actually betrays a deep arrogance in the reader.  The medieval way of reading reveals a profound humility.  The modern method reads for data transfer; the medieval way reads for wisdom.  Data transfer treats the reader as a computer, a morally neutral being capable of neither evil nor virtue.  The need for wisdom, however, implies that the reader is not what he should be.  It is the recognition that he is not complete or sufficient in himself.

Reading Is a Pilgrimage

The medievals believed that a book functioned like a candle, an instrument of illumination.  As a man read, he himself began to glow.  Ignited by the book’s wisdom, the reader would become radiant.  This illumination first of all revealed the darkness of the reader’s soul, then pointed the way to the One who could remove that darkness.  Thus, the very act of approaching a book with humility was “an activity by which the reader’s own ‘self’ will be kindled and brought to sparkle” (Ivan Illich, 17).  Reading was a kind of pilgrimage, a journey of repentance taken in the hope of new life, new love, new knowledge.

But this search for wisdom says more.  In the medieval mind, wisdom was a Someone, not a something.  Wisdom was the second person of the Trinity, who sang with the Father when the world was made (Prov. 8:22-31).  Reading, then, was not merely a hobby or a way to kill time.  Rather, it was one of the remedies of man’s fallen state.  When done rightly, the act of reading reunited fallen man with the divine wisdom that could remake him.  Reading, then, was the search for wholeness in the truest sense.

Reading Medievally

It goes (almost) without saying, that the medieval way of reading is far superior to the modern way.  So how do we cultivate this type of reading?  The best way to begin is to consider what virtues the older form of reading requires.  To approach a book as a teacher instead of a servant requires three things:

  1. Humility–We cannot have contempt for any form of writing, and must not be ashamed to learn from anyone.  This doesn’t mean that we can never disagree with what we read.  It does mean, however, that we can’t understand completely what we read until we submit with humility.
  2. Quiet–In order to hear what the book has to say, we must quiet the inner voices of personal opinions.  The book won’t raise its voice or shout over our inner monologues.  This means we will have to mute our judgments, critical responses, and prior ideas long enough to let the book speak its piece.
  3. Longing–When we come to a good book, we look forward to how it will change us.  We expect to “go a journey.”  And so, we hold our prior ideas and commitments lightly in the face of the truth the book brings.

There is much more to be said about this medieval form of reading, and in future posts I hope to say it.  But let me conclude this post with a consideration of how a simple metaphor reveals so much about our own character:

  • If a book is merely a tool or servant, then it is inferior to us.  Our whims and desires control the book’s message and effect.  Ultimately, it is superfluous.  We can live without it and not suffer any loss.
  • But if a book is a master bearing life-giving wisdom, we cannot possible live without it.  Its wisdom is vital to our happiness.  Its existence revels our corruption, but also gives us hope that we can be other than we are.

Personally, the second metaphor rings truer.  I’m enough of an egomaniac to know that the first metaphor doesn’t offer any happiness.  And I’m enough of a pilgrim to know that only by acknowledging my darkness can I hope to reach the light of wisdom and happiness.

Question:  Which type of reader are you?