Thursday, 26 February 2015

Librarians as Spiritual Directors

Philip Harvey
First published in the March 2015 issue of
 'The Melbourne Anglican'

As soon as I could, I could read. As soon as I could, I could pray. My conscious spiritual life has more or less evolved from those moments, and I regard myself as blessed.

Growing up in a vicarage there were prayers and home libraries. At seven I could hear Cranmer’s Collects after breakfast, then spend the morning reading ‘The Magic Pudding’ or Beatrix Potter. That’s my idea of bliss. Maybe it’s why I became a theological librarian.

At first, that had less to do with management than love of learning for its own sake. I read whatever I liked and it served me, spiritually, even if the word ‘spiritual’ was an adult word.

Librarians are keepers of the culture. They are dangerous people with the power to provide literature that upsets, provokes, subverts, inspires, and changes how we see things. The Bible, for example. Or Julian of Norwich or Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day. We quietly shelve returned books, ready for the next surprised reader.

The online revolution has not changed the main purpose of libraries, only how the library works. We live in a world today where digital and print exist together, each bouncing off the other. The real question remains: what is the best spiritual reading? What do I have to read next in order to have God “in my head, and in my understanding”?

No-one at library school taught me to become a spiritual director. Yet in every area of my work over many years, that has been a main ministry, growing with the job. I only found it was a vocation after I got into it. I order those books, new and old titles, that people seriously need. I am constantly providing reference services where I find out the user’s spiritual needs, as much by accident as design, and thereby act to meet those needs. And I offer guidance in spiritual reading for those who seek it.

What do we read, and why? Students have reading lists and some scrape through on the minimum. Other students are searchers. My job is to put the book they really want next to the one they are told to read. It’s called calculated serendipity. The internet cannot do this with keywords, or at least not as well. Even downloads fluke it: nice when they do. Books in the library reveal to students things they never dreamt about in their online coursework. It’s librarians who make that happen.

Reading is for a lifetime. I attend to lifetime readers, because I am an uncertified spiritual director. Not everyone plans their reading. They discover favourites, then go out alone in hope of something new, transformative. My job is to make sure they find at the end of the road less travelled goldmines rather than mine shafts. Where people do need structure, I advise them as follows.

First, identify your favourite spiritual writers. That is where your heart is. Go deeper, read more. Ask questions of these writers. Ask where they are sending you next. I think, for example, of C.S. Lewis, a remarkable communicator and model, who all the time in his works directs his readers elsewhere, to the riches of Christianity, and beyond.

Second, I invite them to recall favourite writers of their childhood and youth. These are all worth revisiting. Why did I so enjoy their words? What have I outgrown, and why? What remains that continues to puzzle, bemuse, challenge, feed my sense of self, world, and (possibly) God?

Third, I put before them, after consideration of their testimony, books they may not have known about before. A spiritual director will always want to push the envelope, as well as encourage what is nourishing in the present. Sometimes the best place to go to learn of God and neighbour is the Book of Isaiah, sometimes Saint Thomas Aquinas, sometimes it’s Michael Leunig. And the list goes on.

Some library users ask if it’s worth cataloguing their own spiritual library. My answer is, not really. Imagine the inordinate time spent cataloguing that could be spent reading. My advice is to arrange any private library, inside or outside a vicarage, according to preferred personal reading: counselling here, Scripture there, poetry on the top shelf. Everything findable.

By saying all of these things I say something of my own spiritual journey. What is the use of all this knowledge if you cannot share it with someone else? Why hide from the truth, when it is the truth that will set you free? This is not just a reality we learn the hard way by experience, or through the lovely rituals of the church, but by words of the quick and the dead found in books, whether e or other. Much of the best spirituality is still only found in ‘other’.

May you find what you seek!  

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