GUEST COLUMN
Why Don't People Read the Spiritual Classics?

September 1987Mitch Finley

Mitch Finley is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor in the Religious Studies Department of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. His latest book is Catholic Spiritual Classics, forthcoming from Sheed & Ward.

Show me a classic and I'll show you a book few people read unless they're forced to. When a book is tagged "a true classic," countless people who see it on the bookstore or library shelf mentally genuflect and...won't touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Witness the vast amount of "honor" showered on Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. Consider the fate of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, even F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. All these have become of interest mainly to the literati. Often in undergraduate courses and adult education classes I've asked how many have read these authors. Hands do not wave in the air by the dozens.

The same is true of the spiritual classics. Many have heard of The Imitation of Christ, The Cloud of Unknowing, Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, and The Way of a Pilgrim. More people than might be expected have heard about Julian of Norwich, and some even recognize the title of her Showings. Dark Night of the Soul, from St. John of the Cross, is a title familiar to many, as are St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle and autobiography. But those who have actually read such classics of the spiritual life are largely academics, students required to do so, and an occasional odd athlete of the spiritual life.

Part of the problem, of course, is the impact of the video culture. Many people confine their reading to newspapers, TV Guide, billboards, bumper stickers, and the instruction booklet for the new compact disc player. But it's more than that.

Among those who do read, part of the problem is what might be called the "hot-off-the-presses syndrome." Bestsellers are, as they say, "where it's at." Gotta have more Stephen King. Who wants to read stuff written decades or centuries ago?

Another problem is that a spiritual classic in the popular mind is not only old, it's, good grief, a classic! Which means it's laden with, you know, all these Truths that are as dry as dust-bunnies. More people buy copies of the spiritual classics than actually read them.

Another problem - a key problem - is that spiritual classics can be hard to understand in their fullness. Why, for example, when the average Catholic opens The Imitation of Christ does he grow perplexed and give it up as another pious "classic" that has no light to shed on living the Christian life in the contemporary world?


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