Through the years I’ve been part of several church groups in which participants were asked to share their spiritual autobiographies. While people usually told stories of their personal failures, successes, and lessons learned along the way, one evening my friend Jason turned the genre on its head in the most delightful way. He told his autobiography solely through the books he had read through the decades—the authors who had shaped his thinking, the epiphanies that had come to him through study, and the decisions he had made as a result of what he had read and pondered.
I suspect many Episcopalians could follow the lead of Jason, for we are a bookish lot. The Book of Common Prayer is our defining volume, of course, but our love of the written word is evident in many other ways as well. Our church calendars brim with book club meetings and discussion groups, and we seem to have produced far more authors than is statistically likely given the size of our denomination. I suspect the homes of many Episcopalians (myself included) harbor perilously balanced stacks of books on bedside stands and coffee tables.
In my own life, I can think of many books that have played a crucial role in my spiritual development. Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography brought me back to Christianity after decades away; Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation
inspired me to go deeper in my prayer life. I love Anne Lamott’s mix of reverence and sass and Coleman Barks’ luminous translations of Rumi. If I have the chance, in heaven I intend to personally thank C.S. Lewis, St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and Henry David Thoreau.
For us bookish types, an armchair and reading lamp can provide just as inspiring a worship experience as a Gothic cathedral. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of myths, described this particular form of devotion the best. When asked what spiritual practice he followed, he said, “I underline books.”
I also am quite certain that God shares this passion for reading, for why else would he use books so frequently to send messages? There’s the Bible, of course, but think of how often the right book seems to fall into our hands just when we need it most. Clearly God must subscribe to a wide variety of book review publications.
Then again, perhaps he simply browses the shelves at Loome Theological Booksellers in Stillwater, Minnesota. When I visited there recently, I was enthralled by the tens of thousands of books that line its shelves. Located in a former Swedish Covenant church, the store is the largest secondhand dealer of theological books in the world.
Current owner Christopher Hagen told me that the business was founded in 1981 by Thomas Loome, a theology professor who had caught the book-buying bug while in graduate school. His hobby became a full-fledged business after he started purchasing the libraries of Catholic monasteries and abbeys during an era when many of them were closing.
“He bought this church to store his growing collection of books and he and his wife raised their five children amid the stacks,” Christopher said. “As he bought more books, he just kept adding more shelves.”
Today nearly every square foot of the church’s balcony and main floor is crammed with volumes, creating such a warren of corridors and cubbyholes that patrons often must borrow the store’s flashlights to better decipher the titles. While much of the store’s business is conducted on-line, Christopher says that collectors come from all over the world to visit in person.
“This is what can happen if we let our book-buying habits get out of hand,” I said to my husband as we browsed. “Consider this place a warning.”
But I also know that neither of us is likely to curtail our literary indulgences. After all, one never knows when God is going to leave just the right volume sitting on a bookshelf at eye level, its spine slightly pulled out so we’ll notice it. It’s not as dramatic as a booming voice from the clouds, but it works.
[Alas, Loome Theological Books is now closed, but I think my larger points are still true about the role of books in many people’s spiritual lives.]
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.