Postcards From Purgatory: A Theology of Reading (by Bethany)

Jill is my most longstanding book friend. By that I mean that of all the people I tend to talk about books with and share recommendations and titles, she is the one with whom this kind of friendship dates back the longest. We have both been avid readers since childhood and have been friends since our sophomore year of high school, but in high school it seemed as if one didn’t talk about such things as reading. Our group of friends was academically oriented, and we did talk about schoolwork, including the books we were reading – but even as unembarrassed nerds we didn’t talk much about the copious amounts of reading we were both doing for pleasure.

Somewhere around our high school graduation, that changed. I remember a long Fourth of July weekend when my parents were out of town and the San Francisco weather was uncharacteristically hot: we stayed at my house, pulled all the shades, and nursed mild colds while working our way through all the novels (read: all five) that John Grisham had written up to that point.

That wasn’t the way you expected this parents-out-of-town story to go, was it? If it makes you feel better, at some point during that same week I watered the garden while drinking champagne straight out of the bottle. But Jill wasn’t there. And I wasn’t reading. But I probably would have been reading if I had had a third hand with which to hold the book.

Jill and I are also book-acquiring friends. We rarely visit each other without visiting at least one bookstore, ideally Green Apple in San Francisco. Jill makes reference to the “book room” in her house, and I have never quite found an apartment to contain my collection. To be specific, my book collection is currently housed in three rooms of my dad’s house in San Francisco, all four rooms plus the attic of my apartment in Massachusetts, and my classroom and my office at school. When we talk about books, Jill and I ask each other, “Have you read Book X?” fully expecting the answer to be “No, but I have it.”

At some point after high school, while we were in college on opposite coasts, our theology of reading grew out of our acquisitive habits. I believe that this was around the time that Jill was determined to read all of her books in alphabetical order and was constantly bogged down in the lesser Brontës. Neither of us remembers how this started, but during one rambling book talk one of us said something like this: “I’m not going to worry too much about reading all the books I buy. I think that’s what Purgatory’s for: it’s a place to read all the books we bought in life and never got around to reading.” I remember picturing a place very much like the English department library at my college, which was full of velvet wing chairs and ancient footstools carved with the initials of long-dead collegians and served afternoon tea every day at four o’clock.

Both of us were relatively well-versed in Catholic theology even as college students, but Purgatory doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the American pulpit these days – especially in the Jesuit high school that we attended, where most theology lessons took the form of forays into matters of social justice. We knew that Purgatory was a place to slowly atone for one’s sins before being admitted to heaven, and I think we both imagined it as some kind of gigantic waiting room like the kind you might encounter at the dentist or the DMV. And we both knew better than to arrive at one of those places without a broad selection of reading material.

The Purgatory idea took root and stuck. Before long, we found ourselves in bookstores or among our own collections, dividing books into two stacks: one to read now and one “for Purgatory.” On a couple of occasions I’ve even approached strangers in bookstores who were lamenting the fact that they were purchasing more books when they still had unread books at home and explained that it was okay – they could save their unread books for Purgatory – even though I am not usually inclined to talk to strangers, and I can’t say that my theological guidance was especially well received by the clientele of Barnes and Noble. As we’ve started putting together this blog, though, I’ve been thinking about the connection between reading and what many religions would call “virtue.” I always find it strange when I approach a bookstore or library checkout counter with an armful of classics and receive a comment from the checkout clerk along the lines of  “Well! Isn’t someone being good?”

Being good? Really? Just because I’m reading Hemingway (or, more likely, adding him to my collection for Purgatory)? When I think of virtue, I think of people feeding the poor and supporting local businesses and inviting the new kid in school to their birthday party and making shoes out of recycled tires. The last thing I think of when I think of virtue is myself sprawled out on my bed on a Sunday afternoon engrossed in a book. To me, that is the image of ultimate indulgence, a mark of my protected status as a member of an affluent, educated, first-world society.

But I forget that to so much of the world, reading is not an indulgence but the intellectual equivalent of situps. To so many of my contemporaries, the idea of several thousand years of reading in a waiting area outside of heaven (even in a velvet wing chair) sounds like a terrible burden, even if they do adhere to the idea that reading is “good for them.” And in the years since Jill and I first devised this theology, I’ve become aware of – and intrigued by – Dante’s model of Purgatory not as a place for passive waiting but as a mountain to climb. Dante’s mountain contains seven tiers, and each sinner bound for heaven must purge his soul of each of the seven deadly sins before reaching the place where he will be admitted to heaven (and there is a dominatrix there! Really!)

Jill and I are both in our mid-thirties – “in the middle of our threescore and ten,” as Dante was during his fictional journey through hell, Purgatory, and heaven. We’ve both climbed our share of figurative mountains and slogged through our share of spiritual waiting rooms. At the moment, I am in a state of limbo as I end a ten-year teaching career and begin the process of deciding what to do next. While I loved teaching, I couldn’t maintain my routine of prepping classes, grading papers, and participating in all the outside activities that are part of life at independent high schools. My life right now is in a bit of a purgatorial state, as I try to regain the health and strength I had before the fibromyalgia pain, chronic migraines, and depression set in.

Is it possible to climb a mountain while sitting in a waiting room, to sit in a waiting room while climbing a mountain? Of course. I’m doing it right now. Maybe in some way everyone in her mid-thirties is.

And both the wait and the climb are easier with books.

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One Response to Postcards From Purgatory: A Theology of Reading (by Bethany)

  1. Pingback: Beyond This Point There Be Starbucks: A Visit to my College Town, Part II (by Bethany) | Postcards From Purgatory

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