In every story, our life

A pandemic changed things. It changed the way we worship, work, move about in our cities and sometimes even within our homes. It took our calendars and “to do” lists and wrung them out until only those things deemed most important were left. At the eye of the pandemic, in those early hollow days, reading emerged as one of my essentials. I found myself in good company alongside our Icelandic kindred who, according to the webpage All Good Tales, hold that reading is “a spiritual experience … a way of living, a necessity without which everyday life would be inconceivable.”

Storytelling is where common memory is held and the sum of human experience finds refuge. By reading, we come to know something of the stranger, outcast, enemy, friend and even ourselves. A book invites us into relationship in a particular time and place, and by reading those first words, we become part of the story. We complete the narrative in our internalization and interpretation of the story as it intersects our own psyche and peculiar history.

Recalling his relationship with the book “Stoner” by John Williams, Steve Almond wrote: “Each time I’ve read ‘Stoner’ it has illuminated some new aspect of my own inner life. … Our favorite novels don’t just help us understand our lives. They are the path by which we travel in difficult truth toward an elusive mercy.” In short, books can be vehicles of revelation.

They also allow us entry into a community without restrictions on who can be there or a time limit on how long we can stay. During the weeks of self-isolation, my book group read “Hannah Coulter” by Wendell Berry, a story deeply dependent on place and “membership.” Although we couldn’t experience community face to face, still we found it. Over a video call, each of us, in turn, men and women, younger and not so young, admitted to crying while reading this book. Part of our emotional reaction was the grief at losing community the way we had known it together in our church, of missing something so fundamental to our faith. However, through that confession of shared tears, the book connected us again. We found community within the world of the book itself and a bridge to community beyond the story.

So it is not surprising that our most important book invites us into an incredible story. As Christian Wiman wisely observes, “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.” Reading opens all our closed doors, engages all our senses, taps into our shared community and can bring us full circle to ourselves and our God. Story invites and immerses us into a world that holds up mirrors or causes our hearts to ache or shudder. Story is a way of reminding us of the vast, creative, surprising, broken and ultimately hopeful life we share. I think that qualifies it as an essential, at least in my book.

NADINE ELLSWORTH-MORAN is associate pastor at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia.