A few years back I made an odd new year’s commitment; a year with no books. It was an experiment actually. My logic ran like this- if you are so obsessed with ancient Christianity why not give up your books? Why not live one year without reading, like a first century Christian housewife? I have always had a love/hate relationship with academic style spirituality. The notion that one can become a theologian by learning and discerning without some sort of asceticism has always bothered me, but then again I am sometimes a scholastic wannabe, imagining myself gaining spiritual knowledge through the things I read, progressing somewhere between a novice and a priest. At other times I denounce the Gutenberg Press as the catalyst for the modern spiritual demise.
Years of research and deep reflection on the nature of learning has left me with some pretty outrageous opinions regarding compulsory education. I am not even sure that it is beneficial that we make children learn to read. I understand the pragmatic necessity of a literate populace, commonality being a strong motivation. However, there are many benefits to being illiterate- at least in theory. This theory was strengthened when I got to know a boy named Peter, born with Down Syndrome, and a saint indeed. His spiritual integrity had nothing to do with acquiring more and more spiritual knowledge, but rather his mystical and other-worldly love of the Church, the saints, and Christ.
If you believe that I am carried away by some romantic notion of Christianity, let me assure you that my understanding of Christianity and its mission is much more nuanced than that. I regard Christian education to be one of the highest callings, especially the education of children. And yet, I am more and more convinced that Christian education is a contradiction of terms. Something about John 1 makes me wonder- the Word as Man, the God-Man, the Logos. And then there is Acts- the upper room, speaking in tongues, the Revelation and the resulting mass conversions and birth of the Church. Those gathered experienced Pentacost, and they spoke the language of God. These theophanies did not come as man crouched over a book -revelation came as they waited upon the Lord, as a mighty rushing wind, setting their heads on fire! Sometimes I wish my head would spontaneously combust and burn away my ideas, my knowledge, my gods.
I do believe we can read without making words our god. However, I do not believe reading is essential for Christian theosis. We can become like God without reading, and sometimes I think we would have it better if we didn’t read so much. And hear I sit writing something for you to read- I’m bad, I know.
Sometimes I feel like my spiritual state corresponds with my purchasing power. When I am down, backslid, and otherwise apathetic I buy a book and read about lofty things. It gives me the satisfaction that I am progressing. The more things I can buy the better Christian I become…nonsense. Christ gave us the disciplines of Christian piety, and they have nothing to do with consumerism.
My year without books was an experiment to see if I could live without the written word. Could I pray, could I listen, could I be silent? Could I fast and deny myself intellectual gratification? Could I give of my time by being truly present? Could I give up my consumerism by simulating a situation in which many who are less fortunate than I experience as normal? Could I listen in Church? Could I live like an ancient Christian housewife? No books, no words, just prayer and work and presence?
It was a strange year, but I did it.
After the year was up I did not return to my old reading self. For one, I gave up reading theological books almost completely. I read the stories of the saints, and I love a good tale. My year without books reminded me of the women I met in southern Mexico who lived on dirt floors and shared a community outdoor bathroom. They owned Bibles and that was all, and yet I wept at their piety. It humbled me. I learned how little I pray in that year, and how hard it is to come out of my mind and into the moment. I also began to understand my own heart. I also sought God differently, like I did as a young woman, as one crying out, or rather pouring out my heart. A new year always reminds me of the year I gave up books. It was good. I missed my books, but it was good.
I attached the account of St Romanos below, one of my favorites and a witness to the Gospel as the Word.
St Romanos the Melodist of Constantinople (556)
He was born in Emessa in Syria, probably of Jewish parents. He served as a deacon in Beirut, then in Constantinople at the time of Patriarch Euphemius (490-496). He was illiterate, had no musical training, and was a poor singer; thus he was despised by many of the more cultivated clergy. One night, after Romanos had prayed to the Mother of God, she appeared to him in a dream, held out a piece of paper and told him to swallow it. On the following day, the Nativity of Christ, Romanos went to the ambon and, with an angelic voice, sang ‘Today the Virgin…’, which is still sung as the Kontakion of the Feast. All present were amazed at the completely unexpected beauty of the hymn and of Romanos’ singing. St Romanos went on to compose more than a thousand Kontakia (which were once long hymns, not the short verses used in church today). He is almost certainly the author of the sublime Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which has served as the model for all other Akathists. He reposed in peace, while still a deacon of the Great Church in Constantinople. Many of his hymns were inspired by the hymns of St Ephraim of Syria.