Monasteries of the Heart

Becoming a Book

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The day after Ray Bradbury died (June 5, 2012) we were sitting around the lunch table discussing his impact on our lives. I remembered being scared to death over episodes of Twilight Zone—one remains with me to this day and makes it impossible for me to drive on a highway alone at night. I’m always expecting a person I know to be dead to appear in my headlights hitchhiking a ride.

But our talk centered around his most famous book, Fahrenheit 451, the novel in which Bradbury predicts the time when television and electronic devices and sound bites become the diet of the population turning humans into a mindless, easily manipulated beings. In this society firemen burn all books and all houses that contain books. Towards the end of the novel we meet a group of people who resist this destruction of history and beauty and civilization itself by memorizing an entire book, by becoming the book itself.

Naturally, one of the sisters at the table asked, “If you found yourself in the Fahrenheit 451 world, what book would you become?

Sue Doubet jumped right in, “I might choose Thirst by Mary Oliver. I love the poems and prose in that book."

I said, “Off the top of my head, I might choose Journals of a Solitude by May Sarton, but I’d like to think about it a while." People nodded their heads, “Yes, they’d like to thing about it awhile.”

So I have been thinking about it. The next book that came to mind was All Quite on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. That World War 1 novel turned me into a pacifist and I would want to offer the same opportunity to every human being.

Next I thought about Catcher in the Rye. At a certain age, every person would benefit by meeting the pure of heart Holden Caufield. Then I thought about Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and remembered the Buddha’s impact on my life’s journey. How about the poems of Ryokan? A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez? The Essential Writings of Gandhi? Gosh, I’d have to become a library.

As you know, for over 35 years I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read. I intended to page through the list but when I opened the notebook there was an introductory page titled, “Books that Have Influenced Me.” I’d forgotten about it, but years ago I listed 15 books that shaped me. Sure enough, all those I’ve mentioned so far were listed but the one that popped into my heart wasn’t a book at all, it was a short story, Where Love Is, There God Is Also by Leo Tolstoy. (Whew, I wasn’t sure I could memorize a book, but a short story is possible)

I remember when I first read the story. I was in eighth grade and we had these Prose & Poetry books that we used for English class, reading most of the contents aloud. In this story, Tolstoy’s protagonist is a poor cobbler who has lost his entire family. He is despondent and without hope. Someone suggest that he read the New Testament and when he does he is taken with the words of Jesus. One night, while asleep, he hears the voice of Jesus saying, “I am going to visit you tomorrow.” Martin wakes up a new man and sits by the window awaiting the visit. He only meets three people that day: an old soldier shovels his sidewalk and Martin invites him in for tea and conversation; a destitute mother and child are freezing because they have no coat or shawl and Martin finds a coat for the boy and gives the mother a coin so she can repossess her shawl from the Pawn Shop; a young boy is caught trying to steal and apple from a peddler and Martin patches up the conflict and offers to pay for the boy’s apple. When evening comes, Martin is disappointed that Jesus did not appear but opens the Scripture again. Suddenly he hears, “Martin, Martin did you not recognize me?” And the old soldier, the mother and child, and the young boy and peddler appear briefly in the room. When he looks down at the Scripture it is open to Matthew 26, “I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, a stranger and you took me in…What you have done to the least of my brethren you have done to me.”

Until that short story, God, for me, was locked up in the blue sky called heaven or in a gold box in the church called a tabernacle. God is in people? Especially in poor people? That story was a revolution. It planted a seed in me and set my life’s compass.

How about you? If the governments started burning all books and emptying all Nooks, iPads and Kindles, what book (or short story or poem) would you become? And why?