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Reading Good Books

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There is in Macau a chain of restaurants that provide, with just a minor order, free coffee for the elderly. One may see many of these elderly reading avidly the daily newspapers. Men and women reading remind me of my father who was also an avid reader since his youthful days. My father was a farmer in love with his land and his huerta, and his town mates. He loved to read the journals or newspapers he was able to put his eyes on, at that time not many really. I could see how much he learned from reading. I began to appreciate reading from him. It was later on that I really treasured reading the classics and other good publications. 

We all know that to have a healthy body, we need some daily physical exercise. Similarly, to have a sound mind, we need intellectual exercise, in particular reading books. Someone says: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” (Sir Richard Steele). Certainly, we need to cultivate the habit of reading good books. Even from not so good books, we may learn something fruitful. As writer Gunter Grass put it: “Even the bad books are books, and therefore sacred.”

Our high school teachers introduced us to classical literature, theater, and music. Through our philosophical and theological studies, my classmates and I came to love Sophocles and Homer, Virgil, Cicero and Dante Alighieri, Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Calderon de la Barca, Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller, Moliere and Victor Hugo. We were then introduced to Spanish contemporary authors: Miguel de Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado, etc. As a student, I remember with love José Luis Martin Descalzo and José María Cabodevilla, Albert Camus, Georges Bernanos and Charles Peguy, Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton, Leo Tolstoy, Nikos Kazantzakis, etc.

Beside the ever present Bible, which is the best book ever for Christians, some authors continue teaching me – a lot. I will not mention those essential books that I had to read through my ecclesiastical studies, particularly from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Vatican II Documents, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, papal encyclicals. These texts are in my personal library – and consult them often. I will mention the classics I love. These are, as Helen Keller would call them, “book-friends.” In chapter 21 of her continuing best seller, The Story of My Life, Helen Keller (blind and deaf) tells us “how much I have depended on books not only for pleasure and for the wisdom they bring to all who read, but also for that knowledge which comes to others through their eyes and their ears.”  Indeed, how true: “He who cherishes a good book is assured of a life-long friend” (Proverb). 

I love the classics of Christian spirituality, that is, those works “that stood the test of time by transcending cultural peculiarities and overly specific interests.” These texts are “enduring and endearing” (Peter John Cameron). Pope Francis writes: “Religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart.” The great scientist Albert Einstein was asked near the end of his life, if he had any regrets. His reported answer: “I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life.”  

This writer’s list of travelling companions through life are, among others, The Confessionsby St. Augustine (354-430); The Little Flowersof St. Francis of Assisi(13thCentury), The Dialogue by St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Commentaries on John’s Gospel byMeister Eckhart (1260 – 1327), Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (1379-1471), The Spiritual Exercisesby St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spiritual Canticle by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), Introduction to the Devout Lifeby St. Francis of Sales (1567-1622), True Devotion to the Virgin Maryby St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), The Way of the Pilgrimby an anonymous Russian Pilgrim (19thCentury), The Story of a Soulof St. Therese of the Child Jesus (1873-1897). St. Teresa of Avila loved to read good books: “I always have the desire to have time to read; I love reading.” 

Among the Christian authors that continue having a significant impact on me, I cite the following: Thomas Merton (1915-1968)), author of New Seeds of Contemplation; St. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) in Come Be My LightThe Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta’; Anthony de Mello (1921-1987), Sadhana: A Way to God; Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), The Return of the Prodigal Son; Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), Prayer; C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), The Signature Classics; Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), The Cost of Discipleship;St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, OCD, or Edith Stein (1891-1942),  Essential Writings;Pierre Theilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), The Phenomenon  of Man;  Dorothy Day (1897-1980), The Long Loneliness, Martin Descalzo (1931-1991), Razones para la esperanza; Gustavo Gutiérrez (b. 1928),We Drink from Our Own Wells. The Spiritual Journey of a People, andRick Warren (b. in 1954), The Purpose Driven Life

One remembers gratefully the little and meaty book Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural by sociologist Peter Berger (1929-2017). In a world often permeated by books, novels that are filled with violence, lust and despotic power, it is refreshing to read inspirational and spiritual books that highlight interiority, harmony, silence, and peace. Some of the works by non-Christian authors are like rumor of angels: soft voices of the transcendent, the supernatural in our generally secular, indifferent and consumeristic societies.

This writer has found those “soft voices” in the authors of the following books, most of them bestsellers: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Gitanjali (Songs of Offering) by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Man’s Search for Meaningby Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), The Little Princeby Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), The Art of Happinessby the (14th)Dalai Lama (b. 1935), Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (b. 1936), The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (b. 1947),Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (b. 1958). Likewise, The Parables of Peanutsby Robert L. Short (1932-2009) that helped him understand the good humor and the theology of Charles Schulz’s lovelyPeanuts Familyof Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy and other wonderful kids (adults)… I remember the following story: Once, Lucy and her brother Linus are watching the rain fall behind a window at home. Lucy comments: “Boy, look at it rain… What if it floods the whole world?” Linus, the kid with the blanket, answers: “It will never do that. In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow.” Lucy: “You have taken a great load off my mind.” Linus: “Sound theology has a way of doing that.” Love it!

From time to time, I read novels during my long plane trips, and also classical and modern poems, which inspire and help one dream – and hope. The two latest books I read on long plane trips to and from Madrid: Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Cicero’sDe Senectute (On Old Age).After reading these two books, a pace-setting novel, and a deep and powerful essay on aging well respectively, I can understand Harper Lee’s words: “The book to read is not the one that thinks for you but the one which makes you think,” and Cicero’s: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” 

I need the company of a book on my table, in my travelling bag! Currently, my companion is Henri Nouwen’s Our Second Birth. I hope and pray that the words of St Ambrose come true for me – and for you, dear readers: “One who reads much and understands is filled up, and then can water others.”

In closing, let me bring up a very significant point made by Unamuno: Christ did not write any book, but He gave us what is the best book: palabras vivas – living words. For St. Teresa of Avila, Jesus, His Majesty, is “the true book where I have seen the truths.” (Fausto Gómez OP. Published byO Clarim, 2019)