The New Liturgist on the Gift of a Literary Education

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“We all stand waiting,” Emerson writes, “empty . . . surrounded by mighty symbols which are not symbols to us, but prose and trivial toys.” We live at times dulled to the richness of our own past and present, he is saying. And he seems to draw on personal experience when describing the effects a piece of literature can have on one’s psychology, its transfiguring power:

Then cometh the god and converts the statues into fiery men, and by a flash of his eye burns up the veil which shrouded all things . . . The facts which loomed so large in the fogs of yesterday . . . have strangely changed their proportions. All that we reckoned settled shakes and rattles . . . 6

Whether such a revelation actually arrives with each volume pulled from the shelf is beyond Emerson’s concern. What concerns him is that it’s possible.

And at The Blue Moose, I want to grab my friend’s arm and say, “Trust me: Read this, then this, then this:”

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, or Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. CE Morgan’s All the Living. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth. Maybe Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and as a companion volume Lynch’s essay collection, The Undertaking, since both possess the special wisdom that comes from staring grief in the face. Read the poems of Franz Wright or Amy Clampitt, The Hours, by Michael Cunningham—so good!—Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. Read David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind, I want to say. Sullivan’s Pulphead. David Foster Wallace. Nam Le. Or read the classics: Joyce and Dickens and O’Connor and Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene.

But how can I tell if a writer who speaks to me will speak to anyone else? The Spirit blows wherever it wants, Christ said, and I can’t pretend to know what book my friend needs to reach for next.

I only know that experience of reaching an outer boundary. And the drive to push beyond.

Take up and read, was the phrase St. Augustine heard as he sat in a garden in Milan on the cusp of his conversion. And maybe it’s the best we can say to each other, my friend and I, any of us who believe truth, goodness and beauty can be glimpsed in the oddest moments, by the oddest means, and who want to seek such things where they may be found. Take up and read—the Scriptures, the theologians, the books that speak most directly and most expertly to the work you’re doing and the historical moment you’re called to inhabit.

But don’t stop there. “Our life,” writes Emerson later in that same essay, “is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn.”


1. Maud Casey, “A Stubborn Desire,” A Public Space, no.15 (2012): 6-21.
2. Ron Hansen, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction (New
York: HarperCollins, 2001), 39.
3. Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Viking, 2005), 4-5.
4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Emerson’s Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 220.
5. Adam Levin, The Instructions (San Francisco: McSweeney’s Rectangulars,
2010), 1011-1013.
6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” Emerson’s Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 220.

Isaac Anderson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in literary journals such as Image, Portland, Fourth River, and The Writers Chronicle. He has also contributed writing to Economy of Love (with Shane Claiborne) and The Voice: A Scripture Project to Rediscover the Story of the Bible (Thomas Nelson). He is currently a teaching pastor and writer in residence at Jacob’s Well Church in Kansas City, Missouri


photo credit: Aurelien Breeden.


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