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Monday, June 17, 2024
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Many eyes – but just one book

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It’s not complicated: bringing others together to begin spiritual reading is quite straightforward. All you need is interested people. PHOTO: 123RF

There’s lots of benefits to starting a spiritual reading group – and it can become a fascinating journey

For the last three months, I have hosted a weekly spiritual reading group in my home. After submitting my doctorate in August, I found myself with spare time and although I was mentally exhausted, I had a deep desire to read in order to know more about God.

So every Tuesday night, an interesting group of between 12 and 15 people have come together at my place to study the writings of St Augustine; specifically, to read and appreciate his classic De Trinitate.

I would never have attempted to read this book on my own and as I have discovered, some of my friends who have studied theology and philosophy have likewise never attempted this feat.

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Thankfully, a good friend of mine at Notre Dame who teaches theology and is an avid Augustine devotee was willing to make the commitment of being the group’s guide. The harder task for me was to work out who might like to attend as a participant.

In pondering this, I knew one thing for certain; I did not want this undertaking to be a purely social gathering where the text is of no significance because the primary question on people’s minds is ‘Who else is coming?’ As it turned out, the Holy Spirit drew together an eclectic mix of people who were genuinely excited to read and have explained to them the text each week, and to meet like-minded people curious to know more about Augustine’s musings on the Trinity.

Whilst some participants attended my parish, many did not, and one was not even Catholic. A few were strangers to me, some I knew only slightly, some were highly educated in theology, and others were like me and fearful of not being able to keep up. Importantly, there was no particular age range and I think this contributed greatly to the wonderful atmosphere. The quality of the discussions about the text was excellent, – but so too was the friendly social banter that preceded our study.

I am sure our guide wished more of us had read the text before we came, but as I explained to him, many people are not used to reading material like this. We really needed to be taken through it gently as a group. He was helped, of course, by participants who had knowledge in the area and were able to generate higher level discussion, but I found, thankfully, that no one felt that they did not deserve to be there.

Whilst some participants attended my parish, many did not, and one was not even Catholic. A few were strangers to me, some I knew only slightly, some were highly educated in theology, and others were like me and fearful of not being able to keep up.

On the whole it has been a marvellous experience and I commend to others the idea of starting a spiritual reading group in order to know more about God and in that process, exercise charity and hospitality.

There are many advantages to meeting up in someone’s home, the chief among them is that it is intimate, relaxed and friendly. If there is no one to make a commitment to hosting on a weekly basis, the group could rotate to others’ homes in order to share the load.
Whilst I was lucky to have an academic friend willing to assist, you could ask your parish priest to recommend someone or else choose a text that is more accessible to lay people.

Another alternative is to make use of a quality podcast or book by priests, theologians or knowledgeable lay people that can provide assistance. Discretion is advised and if you are uncertain, I suggest running the content past your parish priest.

I doubt I am alone in observing the general decline in social manners. Making the effort to be friendly to people you don’t know that well, or whom you cannot discern an immediate social or business advantage to being seen with, is part of being a Catholic.

Hiving off into cliques and only being comfortable when mixing with the same old people, is not. Being part of a spiritual reading group that extends past your usual circle of friends may turn out to be a great personal blessing to you.

So, the most important take away point is that apart from a dedicated guide and a host, you don’t need established relationships with people to undertake a project like this. The desire to know more about God so that we can love him more is part of the human condition.

There is no need to be stressed about whether people will come. If you make yourself docile to the Holy Spirit, things have a way of taking care of themselves and the right people will answer the call.

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