July 2012

Reading and the spiritual journey

Our new self, born of reflection from reading, may seek greater intimacy with God and others, writes Good Samaritan Sister Joan Sexton.

BY Joan Sexton SGS

If only I knew how to read him
Or how to travel to his dwelling (Job 23:3)

Our pilgrim journey into spirituality takes many paths. We have God’s revelation, spiritual writers, retreats, with their specific spiritual emphasis. However, there are many other facets of life that can lead us into deeper knowledge and feed our spirit. Some of these influences arise from many sources such as art, music, literature and the beauty of creation.

The Sun Herald in New South Wales has a section written by a current author entitled “The books that have influenced me”. Many writings give pause for reflection in our own lives –values, spirituality and deep ponderings that over the years have become part of our lives – what Australian poet, Judith Wright, has expressed as “being hived in us”.

I would like to consider at this time of life, three recent novels which seem to speak of many spiritual qualities.

The first is Geraldine Brooks’ account of the first Indian American to study at Harvard University, entitled Caleb’s Crossing. The ‘crossing’ of the title encompasses Caleb’s movement from his tribal life to a Christian experience and his relationships within the ambit of the white American colonisers.

The novel portrays the heartbreaking transition enforced on the Native Americans living on what is now Martha’s Vineyard under the spell of a witch doctor. The two main characters, Beth and Caleb, first meet at the close of childhood – a time when they are exploring the beauty of nature surrounding their growth.

Beth, the Calvinist daughter of the island preacher, and Caleb caught in the spiritual religion and sorcery of his culture, project the social tension that exists between the settlers and the natives. The depth of this spirit is evidenced when Beth, tempted by the rites of the pagan Indian natives, feels that God has punished her participation by the death of her mother.

Beth and Caleb constantly move between these two religious worlds in a spirit of wonderment, revealing a quest for knowledge not only of wisdom and intellect but especially of the intricacies of the human heart.

Kim Scott’s 2011 Miles Franklin Award winning novel, That Deadman Dance, describes a similar theme. Scott’s novel is set in the south western corner of Western Australia. He presents a focus on the relationship between the early colonisers and the Noongar tribe. The early pattern of friendly relationships set between Dr Cross, a retired army surgeon, and Wunyeran is found in the language of Cross: “We are men of such different backgrounds… and attempting to fuse them, we are preparing for the birth of a new world”.

Into this background, Scott introduces the character of the young Noongar boy, Bobby Wabalanginy. Throughout the novel, Bobby manages to bring up many prophetic and visionary aspects transporting himself through language, mime and dance into the sea, a bird, the whales, the rolling motion of the sea. He is the exponent of the Deadman Dance, an imaginative working on some of the manoeuvres of the military force camped in the area. Robyn Sheahan-Bright has written that “Bobby is the ‘everyman’ figure at the heart of the novel for he is pivotal in almost every encounter”.

The various sequences in the novel – the whaling episodes, the epic coastal journeys, the interplay of flawed characters – cause the reader to wonder at the diversity of human experience, injustice, misunderstanding and loss.

Scott expresses the prophetic aspect of this story in his comment, “You can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface and are surprised at yourself, your new and so very sensitive skin. As if you’re someone else altogether, come new self trying on the words”. Our new self, born of reflection from reading, may seek greater intimacy with God and others.

My third work of fiction is Anna Funder’s 2012 Miles Franklin winner, All That I Am. Here the very title gives rise to the spiritual account given in this fictional history of the period preceding the Second World War, the intrigues and action of the characters contributing to the sum of who Ruth is as a result of her life and experiences, the love and betrayals that form part of her memories of almost 90 years. The story is told by Ruth, now living in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and recounting the events that transpired throughout the 1930s in Germany and London.

Dora, her cousin, in some respects is the heroine of the novel as she is the organiser of the underground movement, first in Berlin and then in London. Hans, Ruth’s husband, is uneasy in playing second fiddle to Dora who senses this but not sufficiently to prevent his betrayal of the group. His need to have the limelight tortures his mind to the extent that he becomes the Judas figure in the group.

Ruth is devastated by Hans’ action but she lives to recall the events. Hans also survives despite the attempt of the Nazis to eradicate him. For Ruth this is sheer treachery – evil for the sake of personal gain. Ruth sees all these experiences as contributing to the person she is while at the same time acknowledging the greatness of those who died for their convictions, especially Dora of whom she exclaims, “We moved in her orbit and the force of her kept us going”.

So for us, reading has the capacity to draw one into solitude, to tease the mind with reflection or be suddenly confronted with a challenge, as Judith Wright has so evocatively expressed it, “Strange, primitive piece of flesh, the heart laid quiet”.

Joan Sexton

Good Samaritan Sister Joan Sexton (OAM) served for many years as an educator in secondary schools in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. She also held leadership and administration roles at secondary and tertiary levels. Now in her 80s, Joan lives in Sydney and offers pastoral care to some of her sisters in nearby aged care facilities. Joan has always had a great love of literature and is an active member of a local book reading group.

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