Why fiction is necessary in the spiritual journey

About seven years ago, I was invited by a small group of friends to form a book club under what was at the time a brand new organization: the Well-Read Mom. The Well-Read Mom was founded by Marcie Stockman, a Catholic mother of seven, to encourage Catholic women to form fellowship and friendship with one another through the shared reading of good literature.

Each year is based around a particular theme, from “The Year of the Spouse” to the “The Year of the Artist,” with lists of carefully curated books surrounding the theme. And these books are no picnic. The works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky aren’t exactly what I would call “casual reading.”

During my time with these wonderful women who have become some of my dearest friends, I’ve learned several important things for my own spiritual journey. First, I’ve often discovered that it is the challenging books that are the most rich and rewarding. I may have gone kicking and screaming into reading Flannery O’Connor for the first time, but I’m so thankful I did. Through O’Connor’s eyes, I discovered Catholicism in a whole new way, one in which grace seemed to permeate every dark mystery which moves in the world.

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But perhaps the most important lesson of my years in this club is a rather simple one: Reading fiction is essential in the spiritual journey. Not optional; not even simply recreational, but essential. As I have moved more into an adult faith, one that is enriched by both the intellect and the heart, fiction has become a necessary tool in helping me recognize the movements of grace in my life and in the world around me.

How can this be? How is it that reading a made-up story can be so enriching for the spiritual experience? Perhaps it might be helpful to understand this idea better by first understanding what fiction does to our hearts and our intellects.

Fiction, unlike spiritual essays, great theological treatises or even modern spiritual classics, takes big, abstract concepts and brings them into the realm of the everyday experience. Have you ever wondered, for example, why Our Lord was so keen on teaching everyday Jews about God’s love and mercy through parables? Jesus, being the greatest storyteller in human history, recognized that big, hard-to-understand ideas must be made manifest in ways that encounter everyday experience.

Take, for example, the story of the lost sheep. It would have been very easy for Jesus to articulate that God would do anything for his people, or that God seeks out everyone who has strayed from him. Those words would likely have had a powerful impact on the people of Israel.

But couple that beautiful teaching with a very familiar image: shepherds, guiding and seeking out their sheep, no matter the cost or dangers. Now the idea isn’t simply an abstract one; it is a real image that can penetrate hearts and minds to understand the depth of God’s love for his people.

In his 2020 address on World Communications Day, just weeks before the world began shutting down due to the pandemic, Pope Francis spoke of the necessity of reviving storytelling in our faith communities. And Pope Francis makes a particular effort to emphasize why Our Lord chose to use stories in the proclamation of the Gospel. Pope Francis said: “Jesus spoke of God not with abstract concepts, but with parables, brief stories taken from everyday life. At this point life becomes story and then, for the listener, story becomes life: the story becomes part of the life of those who listen to it, and it changes them.”

And if Our Lord chose this particular method to teach about his love and mercy, why would we be any different in our spiritual needs? Why would our Jewish brothers and sisters need the power of storytelling in their faith journey, but we would not?

In my own life, I’ve seen the effects of this immensely. In my marriage, I’ve seen the growth that comes from reading about good (and not so good) marriages. I can learn a lot about reading theological essays on marriage, but perhaps I could learn even more by reading of the devastating marriage in “Kristin Lavransdatter,” or the growth in the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy, or the complicated examples of marriage in “Anna Karenina” (a book I don’t even like, by the way).

Each fictional retelling of these big, abstract ideas helps me to better understand how to bring the abstract into my journey and my experience. But I am not simply reading to gain advice; I read to see a way of life, or what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of being.”

These gifts haven’t just been reserved for my own spiritual journey. I’ve seen the benefits in my kids’ lives, as well. It is one thing, for example, to create lesson plans on the virtue of courage, but it is a far more effective (and enjoyable) process to read of the courage of a small hobbit on his journey to Mordor, or a small mouse named Despereaux, or the quirky spirit of a space girl named Zita.

I could write a thousand lesson plans on the virtues, and none would compare to the gift of these stories in teaching the most important lessons of our everyday existence. We need these stories to help us make sense of our own stories, and it is this idea that the pope reminds us of in his address. He writes: “The stories of different ages all have a common ‘loom’: the thread of their narrative involves ‘heroes,’ including everyday heroes, who in following a dream confront the difficult situations and combat evil, driven by a force that makes them courageous, the force of love. By immersing ourselves in the stories, we can find reasons to heroically face the challenges of life.”

But these stories, as Pope Francis points out, are only effective because at their heart is the greatest story ever told: the story of our salvation. Each and every good and beautiful story can, in some way, point to the truth that we are now living in a great story. Our lives are constantly intertwined and immersed in salvation history.

And in reading fiction, in connecting the dots of all stories to the greatest story ever told, I have perhaps received the most important spiritual insight of my adult life: If it is true that we belong to a great story, then perhaps it is also true we have a part to play in it.

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