Monday, 31 December 2012

Is literature spiritual in the way that community is?

Caravaggio's painting of St Jerome (1605?).
At this time of year there are many people who celebrate along with families and friends, but there are others who are alone and it's because of all these Eleanor Rigbys that I started to think about ways to describe the meaning of spirituality. When Christians go to church they attend holy communion, and they also enter into a type of fellowship with each other, a type of community. Church could be a saviour for Eleanor if there's noone from her family around during the festive season. But it's not just Christians who find solace from the difficulties and frustrations of everyday life by communing with a Creator. Ceremonies in all religions and sects enable people to get close to the Divine, and even in, say, Japanese Shinto it's the communing with trees, rocks, and streams that rewards the participant by helping him or her to slough off the desperate loneliness of material existence, and gives them an opportunity to establish a more satisfying relationship with the world and everything in it.

I chose a painting of Saint Jerome for this post because Jerome, the man who, in about the 4th century AD, translated the Christian Bible into Latin, obviously had to work mostly alone. And I want to think about this image alongside the logo for the publishing company Elsevier, which was founded in 1880 but which took its name from an older publishing company, Elzevir, which dated from 1580. The part of the logo that is most relevant for me is the motto, Non solus: "Not alone". Because it was the loneliness of the individual scholar, often working in a hostile environment against significant material obstacles, that also typifies St Jerome in his study back in Rome before the Goths invaded, not long afterward.

There's Jerome, in Caravaggio's lovely painting, sitting quietly trying to work out the best way to translate from the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin the words of the precious book that lies, immobile and daunting, before him on the desk. His hand is stretched out, and it holds upright a pen. Near the hand is a symbol of mortality, a human skull. It's a bleak image, and one that well illustrates the problem of scholars that Elsevier, the publishing company, acknowledges in its corporate logo. In fact it's problematic, because clearly Jerome is completely alone in Caravaggio's painting, although it must be - mustn't it? - that God is looking down benevolently on his labours from that high perch way up above in the blue Roman sky.

Those who sought community and communion in church certainly would have been unaware of Jerome's work, although at one point or another they would have benefited from it as it allowed them to enter into that precious state of existence under the tutelage of words spoken in their native language. Jerome's job was in media, in fact. He created a text to mediate between God, on one side, and the congregation, on the other. But he doesn't look as though he is participating, personally, in that ritual.

Religious observance is full of rituals. They are the means by which we enter into communion with the Divine, and the place where we enjoy community in good fellowship with out neighbours. And rituals are common to all types of religion. They are designed to facilitate - or to create, you might opine - that spiritual connection that we occasionally seek to establish with the world. They provide for a type of relationship with the world that does not depend on constant, unremitting struggle, which is how daily life usually plays out for us. Rituals are observances that let us enjoy, for a short while, the good things in life along with the people who are most important to us. They take us away from contention and disagreement, and let us enter into that state of communion and community that we all so much enjoy.

Compare the image of a man sitting, reading a book, with one where a thousand young people are standing, listening intently to a rock band and dancing together to the beat of the music. But reading is this unique undertaking that can bring us into contact with another consciousness, another mind. Of course, there is a type of ritual happening here, too. Not everyone can write a book, after all. It takes a writer's discipline and skill to achieve the right balance of novelty and the recognisable; the text cannot go too fast or else the writer will leave the reader behind, nor too slow in case the reader loses interest. But reading is a unique and singular activity that can stand in for the feeling of community that we associate with the spiritual because it allows us to contemplate the world in tandem with another person. So can reading be classed as spiritual? I don't know. I do know, however, that when I see Jerome bent starkly over his massive Bible I think of the rewards that this type of mental activity can bring to the scholar.

It's a conundrum, though. We seek spiritual nourishment by finding community with our fellows in good fellowship, especially at this time of year. For those people who are unable to engage with the world in this way, however, it might just be that reading can provide the kind of spiritual nourishment that others achieve in community with their family and friends.

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