January 23, 2008
I believe that a hallmark of good spiritual writing is that it causes the reader to read slowly. Fine writing has that effect on a reader most of the time. Because the ideas are rich. Because there's a lovely turn of phrase to savor. But there's something more--it's the very tone of the book that slows the pace. It's similar to Christian meditation. We sit and get quiet and let our blood pressure drop.
This is very different from the recent experience many of us had of racing through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at breakneck speed. That was a great reading experience as well, but it didn't stir up a desire to slow down and savor life. (I was also driven by the need to read fast before another family member grabbed it away from me.)
It is also different from reading, say, Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.* There we read slowly because of the depth and complexity of the ideas. Our brains need time to process the meanings. It's excellent to have our intellect challenged in this way. The writings of many of the church fathers and saints require this kind of slow careful reading just to get the meaning. But with contemporary spiritual writing it is a different quality I am after.
When I read Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk or Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary, I read slowly. I'm not trying to race to the end because I'm enjoying the journey so much. I'm rereading sentences not to gain clarity but because I want them to sink deep into my own soul.
Good spiritual writing helps the reader start doing the spiritual work.
*About Church Dogmatics: I am obliged to note that that one of my colleagues does read this as devotional material. Nevertheless, I would say that Barth's work is fairly characterized primarily in the genre of theology.