When I had a book sale/signing event at a parish picnic this past summer, I only had a handful of people who approached me to purchase, let alone inquire about, my book. The parish priest—one of the few who approached my tent—asked how my book sale was doing. I told him traffic was slow. In response, he made a comment that really stuck with me. He said, “people don’t read books anymore.” And I think there’s a grain of truth in that. According to a research done by the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of adults who have done any literary reading is down from 57% in 1982 to 43% in 2015.
Reading Makes Saints
Saint Josemaría Escrivá once said, “Reading has made many saints.” And indeed, many of the saints we admire now started their own spiritual journeys by reading. But if less people are reading today, then the odds of the next saint emerging because they read Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas or Saint Therese have gone down as well.
Many of us know about Saint Augustine’s conversion journey in the fourth century. A voice called out to him saying “tolle lege,” which means “take up and read.” Saint Augustine did just that, picked up the Epistle to the Romans, read it, reflected on it, and so began his spiritual journey.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola started his spiritual journey after reading about Saints Francis and Dominic. It was the 16th century, he was serving as a military leader during the war when a cannonball struck his leg. Injured, unable to walk, and confined to his bed, he resorted to reading to keep him preoccupied and distracted as he recovered from his disability. Being the consummate soldier that he was, he looked for books on chivalry and military valor but the only books available to him at that time were books on the lives of Saints Francis and Dominic. He read them and soon after, he paused and reasoned to himself, “Saint Dominic did this; therefore I must do it. Saint Francis did this; therefore I must do it.” He got so inspired that he decided to imitate them, and the rest, as we know, was Jesuit history.
Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross also had her conversion after reading a book. One fateful night, she was alone waiting at a friend’s house and she happened to pick up a book on Saint Teresa of Avila. She ended up reading the entire book, and when she finished, she closed it and said, “This is the truth.” She later converted and got baptized into the Catholic Church. A few years later, she entered the Carmelite monastery to become a nun and then eventually a martyr and a canonized saint—again a spiritual journey that can be traced back to her deep reading of a book.
Is Anyone Still (Deep) Reading?
Can you imagine a world if Saint Augustine, Saint Ignatius, and Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross never picked up those books? Their contributions to society, their deeds, their saintliness, their inspirations and motivations, can all be traced to some deep reading they made where they got to discern the call of God in their lives. But what if they had smartphones and they all got sucked into reading their social media newsfeeds instead of those books? And what about the generation now growing up in the digital age, shaped by smartphones and social media—the generation that Jean Twenge called “iGen?”
Some argue that deep reading is going away and that some of that precious time now gets allocated to screen time, checking and consuming copious information via our smartphones and social media. According to a research study, young people, on average, spend 165 minutes (that’s almost 3 hours!) per day on social networking sites. I’m not sure what my average is on social networking sites but the averages for the older age groups are not that far behind. Did we really just spend 3 hours on trying to keep up with what an old buddy from high school did over the weekend or where our coworker checked in for dinner?
Deep Reading Doesn’t Just Disappear—It is Replaced
As screen time vies for more of our time, deep reading time is usually the first reading we let go. And that may have consequences. Deep reading is a process that taps the part of our brain that is otherwise not easy to get to unless we make the effort to go deep and really immerse ourselves in the story. Deep reading allows us to analyze and reflect on the wisdom of the saints, the emotional and moral complexities of their lives, and how we can apply their examples in our own lives. As French poet, Marcel Proust, put it: “that which is the end of the book’s wisdom is the beginning of our own.”
But then, today’s digital technology might be rewiring our brains and possibly short-circuiting our ability to do deep reading. If that’s the case, how will the future saints discover their sense of vocation? Is it possible to discern God’s will in our lives by scrolling through a sequence of 280-character texts?
When Saint Ignatius was at the hospital recovering, he took the opportunity to really get immersed in the stories of Saints Francis and Dominic. I have to admit that I’ve waited in the hospital before and I find checking my social media newsfeed to be an easier and more amusing distraction. Those of us who have social media on our smartphones know how easy it is to get sucked in and that the struggle is real to put the phone away. I imagine that it okay to miss out on what our friends are making for dinner, but not so much on the opportunities to dive deep into what caused Saint Augustine to change his life.
We really need to actively pursue those moments in our daily lives to absorb, process, and examine stuff in a deeper way. We need to reconfigure our schedules so that we increase our allocation of our hours towards moments of silence, deep reading, reflection, discernment, and just listening to God’s voice. Social connectivity can be good and useful but the deep connections we make with the saints, who are there to help us connect with God, are priceless and life-changing.