A toxic environment can pollute the body and soul. In an effort to cleanse my mind and spirit of the American politics of division and deceit, I embarked on a program of spiritual reading at the beginning of this year. I was exhausted, depressed, and oppressed by the lack of humility, commitment to public service, truth, and intellectual honesty. I was appalled at the outright instances of evil that the media daily reported. I craved role models that contributed to the improvement of society and not to their self-aggrandizement.
The older I get, the more the tapes of my mother’s truisms play in my head. Surround yourself with smarter, brighter, and better people than you are. You will be judged by the company you keep. Birds of a feather flock together. When you lie down with pigs, all you get is dirty. During the last six months, I have found good friends in books to help me rise from the mud.
A lot of dirt had seeped into my psyche through my diet of politics-watching. To replace the toxic material, I determined to cleanse my mind with spiritual reading. I began with Dorothy Day’s memoir The long Loneliness, which tells how she found a better alternative to political activism through her work feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, moving from communism to Catholicism.
Next, I sought the biography of Thomas More. Enmeshed in the political machinations of the day, he strove to live a virtuous and contemplative life amidst the intrigues of King Henry VIII’s court. He formulated a vision of a better political milieu in his book Utopia, which I read along with Peter Ackroyd’s Life of Thomas More.
I looked for twentieth-century figures able to navigate the rise of Nazism and discovered Simone Weil. Her essays suggest no political solutions to problems of social injustice, war, suffering, and oppression but afford a mystic’s vision that love is the only cure for affliction. She writes: But the only way into truth is through one’s own annihilation through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation; in other words, subjection of the ego. She saw the true madness of mankind as the push to power and contended that the emphasis on rights rather than on obligations — man’s duty to respect and love his fellow man — was responsible for the crimes of humanity. She was a philosopher who left the halls of academia to work in a French auto factory.
From Weil, I went on to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who in 1933 spoke against Hitler in a radio broadcast, landed in prison, and was executed just as the war was ending in April 1945. He put into practice Christ’s message and paid for his discipleship with his life.
Mother Teresa is the contemporary exemplar of what it means to serve one’s fellow man no matter how unlovable or disease-infested. Her life’s work was to minister to the poorest of the poor, opening homes for the destitute and dying in India and around the world. Her book Come Be My Light collects extracts from her diary chronicling her own sufferings.
I wished to learn about other women mystics through history, so I read Julian Norwich’s Revelation of Divine Love. Carol L. Flinders’ book Enduring Grace gave portraits of seven women mystics, including St. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila. From reading about these mystics, I delved into Thomas Merton’s poetry. I couldn’t ignore the great Catholic apologist and master of paradox G.K. Chesterton and read his Orthodoxy, Heretics, and The Everlasting Man, amusing myself with a few of his Father Brown detective stories too.
Other books on spirituality wait my rereading, such as Mere Christianity and A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. But just picking up a biography that recounts the life of some man or woman who contributed to the improvement of society or the alleviation of the suffering and downtrodden would serve the purpose of healthy spiritual reading.
I’ll end with Simone Weil again because her ideas resonate today. In The Need for Roots, she writes:
A democracy where public life is made up of strife between political parties is incapable of preventing the formation of a party whose avowed aim is the overthrow of democracy.
She argued for the abolition of all political parties because they are essentially totalitarian. Parties replace critical thinking with groupthink; they exert collective passion on their members; and their goal is to increase their own growth and power to the exclusion of other parties.
As a result, I cannot put complete faith in politics as a force to save the world because politics is only as good as the men and women who serve as our nation’s leaders. Unfortunately, we have had a dearth of principled officials and a plethora of unscrupulous ones — and I dare say, evil men in positions of power. I still retain faith, along with Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, that politics can be a noble profession. That requires the election of candidates of strong moral character. Meanwhile, I have accomplished a cleansing of my beleaguered brain through reading that uplifts, inspires, offers hope, and contributes to my psychic peace.
I’ve written this sonnet that voices my resolve to cease denunciation of those who are evil and begin to praise those who are good.
In Praise of Good Women and Men
Sing of those who deserve to be sung of.
For too long the venal have strode the stage,
The shrill spewers of hate, spurners of love.
A psalmbook of praise opens in this age
For hewers of wood and shapers of clay,
The wordsmiths and dabblers in paint,
Thinkers who dared the beliefs of their day
And in thought and deed strove to be more saint
Than sinner ascending above the base,
The grosser instincts that govern the flesh,
At once the seekers and granters of grace.
In them purpose and will perfectly mesh.
Heroes and heroines I conjure near,
Command scoundrels and fools to disappear.