I become light-headed remembering those exchanges, those conversations that make the rest of life seem like meaningless rubbish in comparison. I am recalling the ecstatic drunkenness of the slow and succulent embibing of another, those dialogues when heart speaks to heart that have been the most profound religious prayer I have shared. Our dear spiritual father Ignatius often encouraged the practice of spiritual conversation as ministry, acknowledging the intensity of faith that such an experience can inspire. I have always been more than happy to take on Ignatius's suggestions. But these intense meetings are not common, so what can we do to help us between them? My advice, read. If the brilliant American novelist Jonathan Franzen is right, some of the best and deepest conversations we can share are those we have with the narrators and characters of novels.
In my conversations with friends, I have often mentioned how the novel I was reading at those particular times drastically altered the angle from which I look at life. Especially in the novel's heroes, I am able to project myself into moral thought experiments that help me in living out my daily dilemmas; they place me in situations that test our faculties of ethical thinking. After one such speech describing my debt to these novels, one of my friends asked me if I could suggest to her some books that might help her, especially religious or spiritual fiction. When I mentioned her request to other friends, they all agreed that a list of novels with spiritual themes would be useful. They, like myself, have found that many of today's "best" novels tend to have a certain shallowness of theme and character. Many novellists seem unable to or flat out refuse to look at spiritual issues, creating soulless characters that are only half human. The problem often with the post-modern novel is that it fails to show proper respect to the human being, more often sneering at its characters than attempting any sort of sympathy. Thank heavens this is not a universal truth, so I will now do my bit to help readers who enjoy a good soul-searching read by giving a list of my own. Some are contemporary; many are classics.
The list is not meant to be exhaustive. It will only have ten books, and not the ten best, but the ten that have meant the most to me. The list will be arranged according to the order that I had read the books, and I will describe my relationships with each of these books as the days go on. In them are some of the most inspiring people you will ever meet whose lives are prayers that are best shared.
Please share your own novels that have in some way magnified your own spirit. I am aware that my list needs improvement; I've not read any of the great Catholic novels of Graham Green, for example, and the list is largely limited to Western writers. So please help me to fill it out with your own entries. Bring the best of what you've got to others. Let's converse.
And now this is the list:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Lazarus by Morris West
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Roger's Version by John Updike
Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton