Monday, March 19, 2012

Walking a Literary Labyrinth

Walking a Literary Labyrinth / Nancy M. Malone
New York: Riverhead, 2003.
208 p.

This is a lovely book, written by a nun who has found in reading a true spiritual path. In reading this, I felt that she was preaching to the choir, since I feel exactly the same way. Plus, she uses the labyrinth as a metaphor for our journey through could I not want to read it? I feel as though this book was written with me in mind, considering that I am a labyrinth facilitator and a proponent of the healing power of books and writing, with my own small business focused on those areas!

Fortunately, I found it moving and clever and very satisfying. Nancy Malone spent many years as a busy nun, not reading at all. But she has somehow, now, found a way to live as a nun but outside of a community, reading and sharing the spiritual aspects of literature. Writing as a nun, of course there is a Christian, Catholic viewpoint to the book, but one that doesn't interfere with her insights or make a non-Catholic, non-nun reader feel distanced from the author.

One of the things she stresses is the power of imagination. I'd never thought of imagination as a spiritual gift but she makes the case that imagination brings us closer to a sense of the divine, to our need for interpersonal connection and for transcendence.

Much of what she says in the book is not new to me, nor, I suspect, to any serious reader. She discusses the ability of reading to increase empathy and allow us to understand the inner life of others. She talks about the quiet act of reading and how it can be a spiritual practice in and of itself. For example, it can resemble meditation:
"the words we read fix our attention. We pause over them and the thoughts they suggest, comparing them in unbroken silence with our own experience.Sometimes, as can happen in contemplative prayer, we're taken completely out of ourselves as we read, and return to ourselves refreshed."
She compares walking the labyrinth with reading our way through life; we may be heading in to our centre, but there are others on our journey, and the centre is not the "goal" -- the entire labyrinth is our path and we are part of the whole. I love the imagery of a life's reading as a literary labyrinth; unlike a maze, a labyrinth is one path, with no dead-ends or places to get lost. Malone states that the authors she's read have helped her move along the pathway, that reading time hasn't been wasted. We are heading to our own interiority at the centre, but we are also heading back out into the world.

All of these concepts are things I've thought and written about before. But the way in which she expresses them and shares her love for both reading and the labyrinth inspired me and consolidated some of my more vague ideas. She states the power of literature to inspire, enlighten, comfort and encourage us, to give us new ways of understanding human life, new approaches to living. There are copious quotable bits sprinkled throughout, sentences or paragraphs that made me stop and reconsider and write down phrases. Some examples:

"In good novels, and I count Middlemarch among the best I have read, we can find pleasure — I do — in the close observation and insightful portrayal of human personalities, the complexity of our relationships, the ambiguity of our motives, the immense power inherent in social structures to influence our lives, the forces that are arrayed against the human good. And I taste the rightness of Wayne Booth's statement in The Rhetoric of Fiction: 'There is pleasure from learning the simple truth, and there is a pleasure from learning that the truth is not simple.' "

“For me, reading—and I don’t mean just inspirational, devotional reading—has been and is a spiritual practice. It is my partner in the conversation we are always having with ourselves (our interiority), influencing who I’ve thought I was, who I wanted to be, who I am and am called to be."

"I can hardly conceive how limited my perception would be without the books I have been privileged to read, how superficial my understanding of others, how undeveloped my sympathies. And I mean here, especially, without fiction, which puts flesh and blood on, and the soul and feeling in, other human beings....In fiction I come to know and understand people I may not have met otherwise. And thus I am persuaded to a more compassionate, generous, and loving response in my life beyond books."
I loved the quiet certainty of her writing, the way she can draw her ideas together and use her own life as an example of what she is talking about. She even includes a reading list at the end, suggesting some fiction and theological reading to explore. I'm not sure I am the most objective reader of this book, since, as I've mentioned, so many of the tenets that are forwarded are ones I already wholeheartedly agree with and am actively working toward expanding in my own life. That said, I can fully recommend this to anyone else with similar interests. It stands out among all my reading, so much so that I've ordered my own copy since I've got to return the library one I have now. I know this is a book that I'll reread and refer to often.

And, as she says in closing, we all have our vocations.

“You do what you were made to do. Some of us were made to read and write. Thanks be to God.”


  1. Have you ever read Larry's Party by Carol Shields? If I remember it correctly she uses a labyrinth as a metaphor for life, too.

  2. Ooo, this is right up my alley. I think I must read this! Thanks for posting. :)

  3. Kailana - thanks for reminding me! I still have to read that one...I have a copy sitting on a shelf...

    ClassicalBookworm - yes, this does seem like something you'd like - hope you can find a copy

  4. You do come up with some lovely selections. Thank you!


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