For Lent I give up fiction in exchange for theological books – works that make me question and wrestle with matters of faith and scripture. This may not seem like a true sacrifice compared to life-and-death sacrifices other people make, but it’s not meant to. Swapping fiction for nonfiction is next to nothing, after all. However, this is a Lenten practice that replaces satisfaction with discomfort, so in that regard, it’s a practice I’ll continue each year.
This year I’m reading two books. The first is The History of God and it’s the harder of the two, for sure. I don’t know if I’ll finish it by Easter. It requires all of my brain power to understand Karen Armstrong’s train of thought and language, particularly since she tends to jump around in ways that don’t always feel natural to me. The subject matter is fascinating, though, particularly when you start to understand how three of the world’s biggest religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – were born out of the same small region. The research is dense and expansive and stretches well beyond the scope of my personal and academic experience. When Armstrong starts talking about mysticism, I have to muster concentration.
But I press onward.
The second book, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, is a delightful read so far. It is a memoir sprinkled with bits of wisdom that spotlight Merton’s slow build to devout religious conversion. He is an insightful and fervent writer, quite humble and honest.
One of my favorite blocks of wisdom so far follows the part after teenage Merton visits his dying father in the hospital. Death is eminent and he’s grappling to understand the weight of it. At this point in his life, Merton has no working faith at all. To him, God was an abstract idea brought to life by society’s need for tradition. Much later in life, underpinned by Christian devotion, Merton looks back at how he handled his father’s illness and offers readers a snippet of sincerity:
“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out; and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against themselves.”
Gosh, such truth there. We are so often our worst enemy.