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We live in a culture of constant noise, endless distraction, and pressing deadlines. The relentless pace of life creates increasing drag on our souls, weighing us down. We may do more and get more done, but at what cost? Often the cost is the nourishment of our inner lives. One of the things that often gets cast aside is reading in solitude. It seems like a luxury few of us can afford with any regularity. But quieting ourselves to read will change us in ways that can never happen in the mayhem of daily life. Here are five important ways:
1) Reading in solitude can refresh us with a proper escape from the world. This is especially true of myths and fairy tales. Tolkien thought that such escape was not the escape of a deserter but the escape of a prisoner. Myths put form to ancient longings, ones that have been largely stifled or disordered by our fall from God. To enter the world of myth is to find relief to those longings. I certainly found this to be the case when I read George MacDonald’s Lilith. The hero of the story enters an alternate reality through a magic mirror in an attic. That reality became a place where I felt the longing surface to take a great quest and to trust a guide along the way.
2) Reading in solitude can offer astonishing insights. One of the downsides of today’s news and social media is that it is miles wide and one inch deep. To probe into the complexity of reality requires time and attention that reading can offer. We may not go as wide, but we go a lot deeper. I will never forget the experience of reading the Penseés, Pascal’s own pungent defense of Christianity. I was sitting out on a picnic table after teaching high school one day. It was late in the afternoon, with the warmth of the sun still caressing my face. I came to a page where Pascal describes how we experience reality as fallen creatures. He described exactly what I had felt for years, but had not been able to articulate. In that moment, I understood as I had never before.
3) Reading in solitude can entertain in a way other mediums cannot. The subtle play on words, the exercise of the imagination, and the twists in plot can delight and thrill us. I still enjoy going to the movies, but sometimes I leave exhausted because my senses have been overloaded. But reading is much gentler to our sensibilities. Recently I picked up the Father Brown detective stories by Chesterton. I was completely dazzled by the diminutive priest who seems like a bumbling fool but whose agile logic solves the most puzzling of crimes. The dry humor sprinkled throughout only added to the pleasure of the read.
4) Reading in solitude can give us much needed gifts. Sometimes a gift is offered in our reading that shows the way forward in a difficult situation or gives us confidence to make a hard decision. I believe these gifts, like all good gifts, come from the Lord Himself. He is able to use anything to answer our prayers, even our unspoken ones. This has happened to me many times, but one of the most poignant came during a time when I had a decision about whether to take on a difficult task. I felt much fear and self-doubt. I was then reading Boys in the Boat, the epic tale of the 1936 American rowing team. The story centers around one of the rowers who was abandoned by his father and left to fend for himself as a teenager. His redemption came when he had to trust his fellow rowers with his very life in the race that won them Olympic gold. It was just the gift I needed. Soon after I read it, I decided to trust some close brothers who affirmed me and encouraged me to say yes to the task at hand. I have never regretted the decision to do so.
5) Reading in solitude becomes an echo of walking with God. The first thing all art asks of us, including all books, is surrender. We enter what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” We put aside the eye of the critic or the air of the distant observer and enter the story. We let it take us wherever it may go. In that act of surrender, we learn to receive what the story can offer. But we are also patterning our souls for something higher, for what God asks of us. It is to put aside our resistance and our stiff arm and let God take us wherever He desires, trusting that what He offers us is in our best interests.
This afternoon, I will be exercising on a stationary bike with a book in hand. Who knows what surprise awaits me? Who knows what insight will change me? I can’t wait to find out.