The Books That Save Our Lives
Book lovers develop their own shorthand for the books that stand out from all the other books they have ever read. This compliment of compliments is unique to each bibliophile. For some it is “books I’ve read more than once.” For avid ebook readers (I have yet to actually meet one but I hear they exist) it may be “books worth owning in hardcopy.” Closely related is “Books I would pack and move across the country even if I was moving into a third floor walk-up.” They may be “books I will read to my children” or “books that saved my life.” These aren’t just books you like. These are the books that do something. They are the books that read like they were written to and for you. They are the books that become part of who you are, the same way your dearest friends and family are part of who you are.
The highest compliment I can pay a book is “That book made me feel closer to Jesus.” This is my ultimate high-bar, because I am of a temperament that tends to reject emotivist expressions of faith. We can be saved by grace even if we don’t feel saved. We don’t have to feel forgiven for our sins can be wiped away. Jesus shows up in the Holy Sacraments, even if we don’t feel connected to the liturgy or fed by the sermon.
God doesn’t need us to feel a certain way in order to work His will in the world and in our lives. And this is good news, because there are days, weeks, and months where I don’t feel God’s presence in my life. I know He is there, of course, because He promised He would be. And it isn’t that I am beset with doubts or stop believing. My intellectual faith is robust as ever. I just don’t feel close to God. This is fine for a while, but it can get tiring. After a while, I need a shot of spiritual adrenaline. Sometimes it isn’t enough for me to know in my mind that I am held in God’s love. When I need to feel God’s love in my heart, these are the books to which I turn:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. My first selection is almost cheating and almost a cliche, but it is worth it. The first time I read Narnia as an adult I walked away shaken because I knew that somehow, in Aslan, I had met Jesus. I read these books about once a year, or anytime I start to forget how astounding the work and person of Jesus Christ is. Lewis was right: Sometimes fairy stories say best what needs to be said. Aslan himself says it perfectly in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Lucy and Edmund weep, knowing they won’t return to Narnia:
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
- The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. Also almost cheating, because Bishop Giertz is sometimes called the “Swedish C.S. Lewis.” But this isn’t a fair comparison, and not just because Lewis is so quintessentially Anglican that the idea of a Swedish Lewis is nonsensical. This collection of Swedish novellas tells the story of three Lutheran pastors in the same remote parish over thee centuries. I read this book anytime I start to worry that the work of ministry is pointless, or that maybe church doesn’t actually have anything to do with God. The Swedish title of the book is Stengrunden which is literally translated “The stone ground” and it is an apt title, because this book makes me feel like I have a solid place to stand and reminds me of what an immense privilege it is to serve Christ and His Church. As one of Giertz’s wayward young pastors puts it when he has a similar experience:
He had completely forgotten who had commissioned him. But far beyond the night sky sat One enthroned who in limitless mercy had prayed for his unworthy servant, prayed that this wretched, bloodless faith might not die completely in the chill night air…He saw it all in panorama: the forest road where Henrik Samuel Savonius, God’s unworthy servant, was carried toward the abyss of humiliation, supported by the Savior’s intercession, forgetful of all that was holy, but remembered by the Holy One he had forgotten.
- Collected Poems: 1945-1990, by R.S. Thomas. There are different books for different ailments. Lewis is the medicine I need when I feel alone, and Giertz is for when I am discouraged. R.S. Thomas, by contrast, is for when I find that my spiritual life has become a little too comfortable and worldly. Thomas was a priest and pastor to a poor, rural, Welsh congregation trying to recon with all the worst parts of modernity. If I start to lean too much on my own understanding, to think too highly of my accomplishments, or to become a little callous about the suffering of others, the poetry of R.S. Thomas brings me back to the foot of the Cross. And the foot of the Cross is, of course, the best place to meet Christ. Here is Thomas’ “Pieta”:
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall Cross
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.