Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Walking a Literary Labyrinth

Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading
Nancy M. Malone (2003, Riverhead Books)

     Walking a labyrinth is commended as a meditative discipline because it involves a period of quiet concentration, together with enough activity to guide the concentration in meaningful ways; something about covering a longish distance in a smallish space (including changes of direction and apparent setbacks) seems to resonate with spiritual work.    
     In Walking a Literary Labyrinth, Nancy Malone says that it is much the same with reading. Whether or not we are reading explicitly religious books, we travel over ground that others have laid down for us in such a way that we spend spiritual time with ourselves, and deepen our interior conversation. By way of example, Malone cites certain favorite biographies: "each answers in its unique way the questions I am always asking when I am reading: What is it all about? I mean life, its meaning and purpose. And what do other people make of it, not only in their thinking but in their doing? What do they make of themselves, in both senses of the phrase?...Whether they are referred to God or not, these questions and the answers we give them are, finally, ultimate for each of us; they frame and guide the one life each of us has to live."
     This book itself has a labyrinthine quality: Malone gently wanders and meditates, within a discernable compass. An Ursuline nun for some fifty years, she weaves a memoir of her childhood and education, her religious and spiritual life, and her life in reading. I was interested to compare Malone's path with Karen Armstrong's, whose The Spiral Staircase also traces a life path whose outlines have only emerged with the passage of time. Armstrong left the convent as a young woman, with many of her educational and personal struggles yet ahead of her. Malone went to college before becoming a nun, which perhaps made her more resilient through great changes both in herself and in the institution--though her ignorance about the life she was entering was nearly as great as Armstrong's would be, some years later.
     Malone is a wonderful companion, especially for book talk. She recommends classics of theological and spiritual writing, but also biography, poetry, and fiction. She finds certain writers of the current age too dry and minimalist: "... I believe that language, in all its dimensions, articulates the human spirit. Language is grammatically complex because we are, our thoughts and feelings and relationships are, because life is. We don't experience ourselves, or life, simply, declaratively. We need subordinate clauses, compound-complex sentences to express the reality of who we are, to show what is more important or less important, just how one thought or feeling or situation is related to another." Her passion for clear language makes her writing a pleasure to read.
     My thanks are due to Jim Olesen, whose sense that I would treasure this book proved altogether correct. I found much to reflect on, and, in many places, felt terribly well understood: "You do what you were made to do. Some of us were made to read and write. Thanks be to God."

September 2005

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