I recently visited the library of a divinity school that I had attended in my late twenties. It was a rainy summer afternoon, and no one was stationed in any of the study carrels on the second level or sequestered in the stacks nearby. I got to indulge a rare mood of reverie in that public space.
I stood near one of the reading tables where as a student I had been accustomed to spread out textbooks and other course materials. It had been difficult for me sometimes to stay continuously focused on a scholarly article when shelves upon shelves of theological volumes beckoned just a few feet away.
All those books! Some old copies, some recent arrivals – they lined the shelves wherever I looked on my recent visit. They reminded me of the almost visceral yearning I used to experience passing my eyes along the titles during a break from study. I would pull this volume or that, page through it, read an opening paragraph, check on the frequency with which the book had been borrowed and how long ago.
I would mull on why this particular book might have been taken out. Perhaps a professor had assigned it for supplementary reading in a course. Perhaps a random perusal of titles twenty years earlier had led someone much like me to check the tone of the author’s writing. Perhaps a student or professor had tracked down the volume after reading a remarkably perceptive passage quoted in a scholarly journal. Perhaps in a rare instance a reader had stood in the stacks for an hour with the book in his hands, mesmerized by the point of view he was encountering for the first time on the pages in front of him.
I used to be most fascinated by the prospect of someone reaching for the book who was engaged at that moment in the quest for wisdom.
I imagined that searcher aware of the university professors and distinguished clergymen represented by these volumes on the shelves, the religious women and parish curates devoting years of prayerful effort to slim treatises on liturgy and moral formation, ancient scribes and Renaissance saints entrusting to the written page the insights once entrusted to them by exemplars and religious founders.
The fundamental questions of the heart – were the answers to those questions any closer for someone reading this volume of sermons or that history of the Church?
Or perhaps those questions of the heart got their strongest articulation in a conversation with a fellow student standing near your study table. Or sitting with you in a pair of reading chairs by a window. Or opening the library door with you at the end of the academic day.
The heart that once learned to respond to the mystery of the books, however, would never lose its longing for the promise of those shelves and the beauty of the questions they strove to name and honor.
Photo of North Reading Room, UC Berkeley from Curious Expeditions