What Novels Teach Us

With our new daughter coming (or here, who knows what’s happening, that’s why we’re in reruns [yes I know that’s a run-on, give me a break, Eleanor won’t stop crying]), I’ve been thinking a lot about why novels are important and how I should introduce her to reading. Okay, so maybe our newborn isn’t ready for a letter from my favorite monk who died before she was born. But you might be:

Victorian ShelfieThere is so much to recommend novel reading. Not only are novels perhaps the most delightful invention ever made, but they can improve our capacity for empathy and understanding of the minds and emotions of others. Reading can even be useful for managers who want to improve their ability to think ambiculturally.

But even with all that, I think the most compelling defense of novels that I have ever come across was in the final letter of a monk to his community. You can read the letter in its context here and my post on his passing here.

March 12, 2015

Dear Abbot Gregory and Confreres,

It seems fairly obvious to me that my earthly days are reaching their conclusion. As this comes to be, I would like to say a profound Thank You! to God for life, faith, you my confreres, my family, vocation and friends.

I loved my childhood days in Idaho and have loved my life at Mount Angel over these 63 years. I thank all of you who have been a part of my life at Mount Angel. The monastic life is a wonderful charism in the Church and has resonated well with my life: community, silence, choir, obedience and reading—all growing out of the Liturgy. I have loved the teaching charism in the Seminary. Teaching those who will carry on the faith is a privilege for which I am very grateful.

Some of you may have heard of my plan of life for all of us: Jesus Christ, Church, Liturgy, and novels. (Novels teach us the mystery of the human family—our brothers and sisters on their own journey to the glory of God.)

And so, my brothers, I thank you for the privilege of spending my life in this Monastery with you. Please pray for me and know that I will be praying for you.

In the Lord and Saint Benedict,

Father Paschal

“Novels teach us the mystery of the human family.” Think on that for a moment. All the other reasons to read novels flow from it. We increase in empathy because the more we gaze upon this mystery, the more we see that we share in the same frailty, that we’re the same family. We become ambicultural because all cultures are part of this mystery. This is not a shroud separating us from understanding, but a bottomless well that we can continually look through and discover something new. Have you ever had those moments when you finished a novel and you just had to sit for a moment and let the remembered plot fill your mind and your senses. You weren’t thinking deeply or analytically about it, but you also weren’t ready for the next novel. You were just being with the text. That was when you entered into the mystery of the human family.

I think I’ll stop there before I start feeling like we need another Kirk hug.

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