Reading to Our Souls
by Celia Straus
At this time of year we often look for just the right book to give someone we love. If we are aware of how books connect us to our own spirituality as well as that of other members of our friends and family, especially our children, we can strengthen these connections. In other words, we can purposefully choose books that speak to our souls. In the Catholic faith there is a special kind of spiritual reading called Lectio Divina. In Lectio Divina you read with an open heart. You allow yourself to become so intimate and involved in the words, that the story becomes a sacred text. Spiritual reading is more than simply finding spiritual meaning in what we read. We allow ourselves to read beyond our intellectual faculties so that the words take on a power of their own; they connect with our soul in ways that nourish, enlighten and strengthen us. We can also be guided by spiritual reading when choosing books for our children. No matter the age of your children, there are books that can become sacred texts for them in the same way. By helping your children understand how to connect emotionally with a book, you will teach them to read, not only for knowledge and entertainment, but also as a spiritual practice. Your children will take ownership of the words and personalize them. And, if a book speaks to the soul of your child, it can sustain them for the rest of their lives.
In a chapter entitled "The Power Of Story-Telling" in their book, Sacred Circles, Robin Carnes and Sally Craig quote Ursula Le Guin about the spiritual appeal of stories, "The story - from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace, is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories." Reading stories and telling stories are, of course, very different, yet, unfortunately in both cases we often forget about the spiritual power of story over time. Once our children declare that they are too old for bedtime stories because they can now read by themselves, or once they cut us off at the very top of one of our own stories, mid- first sentence, with an abrupt: "You've told me that story before, mother" we stop. We stop with that particular story, and we often stop telling stories altogether, or reading them out loud.
At the end of my bedtime story phase with daughter number two, I was reading a chapter each night of Gary Paulsen's novel, Hatchet, a wonderful tale of survival in the wilderness and a boy's coming-of-age. Emily, who was graciously indulging me, was perfectly capable of reading Hatchet to herself and in fact, was reading it to herself after I'd left the room. However, I was lingering over every word, acting out every sentence, knowing that this connection we had of reading stories aloud, a connection that started with Goodnight, Moon, Pat the Bunny and The Puppy Who Had No Home, a particularly poignant story, as you may have guessed from the title, which we would read night after night, chanting together "Go away little stray, go away I say" was about to come to an end. Indeed, the last night, as I sat down on her bed, "over the top" with enthusiasm "to find out what happens next," Emily simply said, "Mom, I finished it. He gets rescued." And that was that.
However, once we lessen or stop reading aloud to our children, we can still point them towards stories that are spiritual. These are not stories about specific faiths, nor new age adult fiction or non-fiction self-help books. These are stories about essential values like honest, self-respect, responsibility, courage and faith; values that our children must learn, must feel to their very core to retain their sense of self and their relationship to God. These are stories which, if given a "spiritual reading", will help them successfully navigate life's journey. In Madeleine L'Engle's anthology, Trailing Clouds of Glory, Finding Spiritual Values In Children's Literature, the stories all share this theme: "Only as we keep in touch with the child within our very grown-up body can we keep open enough to recognize God who is Love itself, as that Love is revealed in story." Her choice of books like Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte's Web, The Little Prince, Little Women, Emily of New Moon, To Kill a Mockingbird and Julie of the Wolves is based on how they meet our urgent and compelling need for understanding of the Divine. In other words, stories about spiritual values connect us spiritually, no matter what our age, to ourselves, our children and to God.
A publisher of children's and young adult books says the problem is that preteens and teens don't know what stories to read, so they skip all the stories that might help them in their attempts to make meaning out of life and move on to adult titles. One way to maintain spiritual connections through reading with our children as they grow older is to find young adult books that are about the same spiritual values we held dear as children. We can read them, not literally out loud together, but at the same time, so that we can talk about them later. From this concept came Shireen Dodson's brilliant guidebook on how mothers and daughters could connect through story, The Mother Daughter Book Club. Without making a big deal about it, we can together experience these young adult stories, not only for learning and entertainment, but also as a spiritual practice.
By choosing young adult books having to do with values we believe in, we communicate to our children that they can read for learning and entertainment, but they also can read as a form of spiritual practice. Books that can be a sure fire way to connect with these values include Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, Slave Day by Rob Thomas, Tomorrow, When The War Began by John Marsden, Driver's Ed by Caroline B. Cooney, Smack by Melvin Burgess. I'll offer a passage from Whirligig as an example: A teenage girl, Alexandra, has discovered the whirligig left in Main as part of Brent's restitution and describes its magic to her skeptical friend, Steph. "You can't see the wind, but look what it can do. It's invisible but powerful. Like thoughts. One brings a bunch of junk to life. The other brings desires to life. And it's better if you broadcast your thoughts outside.it symbolizes all unseen forces. It's like electricity - an invisible power that people didn't know existed for centuries. If you learn to use thoughts, you can do all kinds of things."
Young people may seem cynical and uncaring but in reality they are searching to know God as they did when they were little children. Reading stories about adolescent spirituality provides support and solace... for any preteen or teen having trouble, these stories can be a salvation. They communicate messages of compassion and courage that invite personalization and ownership, and taking ownership of these stories moves God from some abstract concept on the outskirts of a young person's life into their very core. The process of reading spiritual literature also opens up for children new ways of thinking about themselves and their relationships with others. The process often breaks down their self-imposed isolation and relaxes the often rigid standards by which teenagers judge themselves and their peers.
In a March 12th 2001 article in Publishers Weekly entitled "Nurturing Today's Teen Spirit," publishers and authors talk about how preteens and teens want to apply their faith in daily life. They want to take action and see consequences in their own spiritual live and in the world around them. One book the article mentions is The Thundering Years: Rituals and Sacred Wisdom for Teens by Julie Tallard, a guidebook that offers step by step coming of age rituals that young people can do themselves. Teens are also especially interested in connecting religion to racial reconciliation and the environment. For example, Faith On Edge: Daring to Follow Jesus emphasizes discipleship, stewardship and how to connect with issues. Another extremely spiritual book is The Legacy of Luna, the story of Julia Butterfly Hill's two year vigil living in a redwood tree fighting against loggers who would cut it down. Having two teen daughters, I can tell you that preteens and teens like books that are authentic and grapple with real issues, avoiding pretense. Some of their favorites were also ours when we were teens such as A Separate Peace, Catcher In the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Anne Frank, and Summer of My German Soldier. Teens also like spiritual books by other teens such as Called to Be: Devotions by Teens For Teens, and Teen Ink: Our Voices, Our Visions.
Ideally, the pages of reading matter that speak to the soul are experienced, not just read. In other words, grant your child permission to use those margins and spaces for writing, If your child can write his or her own thoughts, reflections and questions, then he or she can have a dialogue with the author. With the pen as a prayer tool, a child can write creatively his or her own commentary to the text. Now the book becomes an extension of the child because he or she has personalized it. A well annotated book is a book that has been taken to heart.and, therefore has become sacred to the reader. Here are some ways of talking to our children about the books they read that will make them more aware of spiritual content.
Talk to your child about the in terms of power. Ask, what story have you read where you identified with a character who was powerless? Why? What story have you read where you identify with a character who was powerful? Why? How might you make up a story that makes you feel powerful? What clothes do you wear when you want to feel the most powerful?
CREATE A SPIRITUAL ROLE MODEL
Talk to your child about spiritual role models. Read together a story about a spiritual master or saint. Then ask, what makes the person spiritual? What qualities of that person would you like to have?
FAVORITE BEDTIME STORY
Ask your child which story from when they were very little that you read to them do they cherished the most. Talk about how that story still lives in them.
PICK A BOOK INTUITIVELY
Take them to a book store or library and have them pick a book that falls off the shelf as they approach or one that grabs their attention, and then read it. Talk about on what connected with them emotionally. How did this book speak to their inner spirit? Simply ask what in the book they could identify with personally and what conclusions could they make about their faith in God.
Stories can be stated, shouted, or sung,
Drummed and doodled or danced until done,
Whispered, whimpered, waved like a flag,
Pleaded, promised, put in a bag,
Chanted, chosen, chewed on like gum,
Looked at, laughed at, told on the run.
Stories can be written, wrapped up and sent,
Crayoned, chalked, or collected like rent,
Folded, faxed, found hidden in halls,
Painted, plastered, pinned up on walls,
Sculpted, scripted, scrambled when told
There's never a way a true story can get old.
Prayers On My Pillow
Copyright 2001-2004, Celia Straus