I’m reading two books simultaneously at the present, which is not unusual for me or many. What is a bit different is their remarkably different genres which must be read, encountered differently.
The first is the Pillar of Prayer, the classic Jewish devotional book that goes deep into contemplative prayer, the Kabbalah and teaching of the Baal Shem Tov and his school. I’ve been at this one for some time and it’s not just because it’s a long read, which it is, but because of the kind of literature it is. Deeply spiritual books that contain highly esoteric and abstract spiritual thought require much pondering. Yesterday I spent an hour reading two pages. Every paragraph, and often every sentence or phrase within a sentence brought me pause; I stopped and reflected, meditated, often departing to other places from there. For example, one passage dealt with a favorite theme, the appearance of distractions in prayer. Who among us does not struggle with that? And the Baal Shem wrote that when a distracting thought appears one has to discern whether or not it is a path of grace. Some distractions take us away from our goal of union with the infinite, and so we quietly let them pass through. Others come bearing the seeds of the holy in disguise. Each thought, impulse and image has within it the seed of God’s presence. So how do we take an ordinary distraction, one that seems like it stands over and against the spiritual purpose, and “repair and raise them?” You read that sentence, contemplate that thought, sink into the truth of it, and you have your daily bread. Some books are meant to be read very, very slowly, in a devotional manner, or else not at all. It is not the time for skimming or speed reading.
The other book I’m just now wading into is Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (FSG, 2012). It’s quite striking, his identification of the ethical challenges of living in not only a market-driven economy, but what has become a market-driven society. “What,” he asks the reader, “shouldn’t be for sale?” This is the kind of book that can be read quickly, especially if you have a bit of background in social ethics. The ideas are lodged on the conscious level, not highly symbolic. Moral concepts such as liberty and fairness are contrasted in particular social situations. Assumptions are identified and arguments considered. I started this morning and I’m a quarter of the way through it. And that is appropriate for this kind of book. I may want to stop and ponder applications or contrasts with, say, Biblical ethics, or with another book on social politics, but travel may be by high speed rail.
I know that our brains have to digest different kinds of discourse and ideas differently. We hear the voices of different authors differently. And some material is new and some is familiar, so we are able to sort through it more or less easily, depending. But what is most important, I think, is that truth, reality and our consciousness of it operates at different levels. For instance, you engage with the intricacies of building a new house in one way and receiving and responding to a work of art in another. They both ask something of you and that something is unique to the reality doing the asking. If you are contending with cancer then you want to know the scientific identification of exact detail that can be matched with exact therapies. But the spiritual resources that inform your whole being ask something more of you. There is one and then there is the other.
I think people operate in the house of religion differently, too. Some skate on the surface of facts and information, compiling a body of things to believe in. That’s one level. You memorize lists. But beneath that, in the much less conscious realm, the one beyond our control, mysteries and wonder unfold that defy logic and rationality. They appear unannounced, asking something of us. And sometimes the going slows to a crawl. Until we have to stop.