People of the Book: Establishing a Parish Book Discussion Group

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by Ann-Maria Contarino, Saint Anselm College, Manchester, N.H.

Originally published in Volume 78 No. 3 of Catholic Library World

In his prose treatise, Of Education, written in 1644, English poet John Milton argues that,

The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.

While the primary and most immediate purpose of all education need not be religious, learning, at its core, restores and revivifies us both spiritually and intellectually. It gives us an opportunity to use our gift of reason in order to increase our self-awareness, and enhances our ability to join others in engaging the world around us for the purpose of promoting the common good. Most importantly, it makes all believers more aware of the presence of the Almighty in every moment of our lives and experience. In short, the more we learn about anything, the more deeply we know about God.

This belief has always occupied a central place in my pursuit of education at secular institutions, in the mission of the Catholic institutions at which I have taught, and most recently at Saint Raphael the Archangel Parish, established and staffed by the monks of Saint Anselm Abbey and Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. At Saint Raphael I co-facilitate a reading group sparked by the firestorm that followed an unexpectedly memorable 2003 literary event, the publication of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.

Spending more than two years on the New York Times Best Seller List, selling over 40 million copies worldwide, being translated into forty-four languages, and prompting the Vatican’s appointment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to respond to the novel’s theological errors, The DaVinci Code generated tremendous controversy by tapping into readers’ primal reserves of fear, doubt, and faith.

Critics of organized religion found in the novel corroboration of their most negative perceptions, particularly about the Catholic Church, while practicing Catholics and other believers felt both the insult of the novel’s suggestions and the need for clarification and reassurance. Many of the parishioners at Saint Raphael brought their questions about the theology and history in the novel to their pastor, Fr. Jerome J. Day, O.S.B., PhD, himself a Literature and Communications professor at Saint Anselm College. In response, he organized an evening of discussion at which Dr. Kelly Spoerl, a member of the Saint Anselm Theology department, and I made formal presentations to a packed classroom of attentive and responsive parishioners. The evening was nothing short of electric, and gave evidence of two important truths:

  • Many people want to find a close relationship between their religious beliefs and the secular pursuits that order their daily work and recreation.
  • A lively and interactive parish community can and should provide a logical place for nurturing that relationship.

Out of these insights, and shortly after this evening, the Saint Raphael Parish Book Discussion Group was born. Over three years later, we are thriving and growing, attracting new members, and expanding our reading with companion events such as films, lectures, and panel discussions. We have developed both a clear sense of our identity and a successful, consistent pattern to the programs we put together. Moreover, in many instances we have become a model for those who wish to organize readings and discussions in their parishes and other communities.

Identity: What to be or not to be

When Eileen Smith, the parish’s Director of Adult Faith Formation, approached me about launching a book group, we had a serious and fruitful discussion about what we wanted the group to provide and how we wanted to situate it in the constellation of other programs at the parish. Fortunately, Saint Raphael Parish is especially rich in opportunities for personal growth; pastor’s classes, scripture study, and lectures regularly provide formal venues for learning. Thus, we did not want the group to resemble a formal, academic class, nor did we wish to start a “book club” for reading popular fiction that might limit the range of our discussions and mirror groups easily available elsewhere. Instead, we wanted a balance between socializing and learning, between spiritual and intellectual engagement, between material that posed an active challenge and material that prompted quiet reflection–in Benedictine terms, we wanted another avenue for ora et labora, work and prayer.

Ultimately we decided to try a variety of texts, and have now settled into a cycle of reading some traditional Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis and Ronald Rolheiser; some contemporary works such as Atticus and Left to Tell, that raise faith-based issues; some works by female writers such as Dorothy Day and Saint Teresa of Avila, who speak particularly to the insights of our largely-female membership; and some classic works from the literary canon, for example Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, that draw on my particular training as a literature professor. Occasionally we also schedule a companion event such as a film screening, to give members a chance to explore ideas further and to bridge the time span to the next book discussion.

Although participants can focus on whatever they wish about each text, part of successful discussion depends on having some common reading goals and some clear background from which to begin. Thus, we always provide some written discussion questions and often an introduction of each book to help participants begin their reading process and to frame some of the issues and techniques particular to the book we have chosen. Doing so also minimizes the “lecture” component of our book group meetings, so that my role remains that of a facilitator rather than a leader or teacher. Ideally, once a discussion gets off the ground, my voice is no more prevalent than that of any other member of the group.

Patterns: Expect the Unexpected

Participants in the Book Discussion Group have come to rely on two consistent things:

  • Each meeting will include the familiar structure and rhythms that help us to feel comfortable as we share our questions, responses, thoughts, and interpretations.
  • Each meeting will bring some surprises to catch us off guard, stretch our trust in each other, help us to open the doors between the readings and our own lives, and leave us with a reminder of the special experience we share.

Maintaining a balance between these two things is one of the most challenging and exciting tasks Eileen and I share as we prepare for each meeting. We try to vary the pace and intensity of the evening by including separate times for socializing, either with a light supper, wine and cheese, or coffee and pastry; discussion, in the form of general discussion of the book in question, participating in a structured activity, and sharing optional book-related projects we have completed; and prayer, both an opening and closing prayer that have a special connection to the themes of the evening. We try also to configure the space in which we meet to reinforce our impressions of the reading, surrounding ourselves with visual cues that heighten our awareness of the situations depicted in the literature and fostering the engagement of all our senses. Most important is the inclusion of a prayer space or prayer table around which we gather and on which we keep scripture, lit candles, and other objects related to our discussion. Finally, we try to have a small gift or token for each participant as an expression of thanks and as a tangible link to the ideas we explore together and the lessons they help us to learn.

The Book Thief: A Case Study

I am particularly proud of one Book Discussion Group meeting that occurred in August of 2006, based on The Book Thief, a novel by the young Australian writer Markus Zusak, the grandson of Holocaust survivors. For the first time, the Book Group chose a text written primarily for a young adult audience and invited teenage readers to undertake the project with older members of their families. We hoped to spark some productive inter-generational communication and to reinforce the parish’s approach to CCD education, Generations of Faith, a home-focused program also based on an inter-generational model.

The Book Thief chronicles the struggles of one small neighborhood in Germany during World War II, particularly of one little girl named Liesel, who is sent to live with a foster family for her own protection. Neither Liesel nor her foster parents are Jewish, but they are in danger nonetheless because they do not support the Nazi regime and for a time they harbor a Jewish fugitive. Because the novel’s length and subject matter might initially prove daunting to a younger reader, we were careful to provide an extensive packet of supplementary materials that addressed any possible concerns. The packet included separate introductory letters to our adult and young adult readers, a series of questions for consideration and discussion, a list of suggested activities to accompany the reading and to encourage family participation, and a fact sheet about the historical events of the Holocaust to provide background and to clarify the details only suggested in the novel.

After a buffet dinner in the parish rectory, we moved for our discussion to the parish chapel, where we had reconfigured the pews into a circle around a prayer space designed to resemble the crowded basement where the central family in the novel hides Max, their young Jewish fugitive. We draped one area with a splattered white drop cloth and stacked newspapers and paint cans to suggest the barrier underneath which Max shields himself from Nazi informants. As its centerpiece, the prayer space featured a table with tiny items–a button, a bedraggled bit of ribbon, a withered leaf, a feather–meant to replicate the tokens of love and faith that Liesel brings to her friend Max during his illness. Out of two of those elements, buttons and ribbon, we sewed bookmarks as mementos of the evening and as incentives to keep reading.

Because Liesel, The Book Thief’s main character, learns to read by painting new words on her blank basement wall, we covered one wall of the chapel with white posterboard and began the evening by asking participants to write whatever words best described their feelings and impressions about the novel. Doing so allowed each participant to focus and prepare for the upcoming discussion, to express him/herself without the anxiety of being the first to speak aloud, and to help in the transformation of the sacred space of the chapel into a comfortable area for secular discussion. Discussion that evening was animated and quite emotional, especially because of our young readers. In addition to their insights, they provided a strong reminder of one of the novel’s most important lessons: that nurturing the imagination, safeguarding the trust, and earning the love of a child are responsibilities worth any sacrifice. To end the evening we replaced a traditional closing prayer with a poem by a Holocaust survivor, entitled “Survivor’s Creed.” It reinforces belief in God’s mercy and instills hope in the innate goodness that will one day triumph over the darker side of human nature. Despite the somber nature of our topic of discussion, we were able to walk away from the evening on a positive note, and were able to show our youngsters the power of the written word, the strength of a parish community, the love that imbues family, and the threads that weave together mind and spirit.

One final reflection

I have been happily teaching college and university students about literature, either as a graduate student or a professional, since the fall semester of 1984, and I can honestly say that no classroom experience has given me more joy than my evenings with the Saint Raphael Book Discussion Group. We have grown into a strong community of skilled readers, willing to share insights, interpretations, and even very personal responses to the beautiful texts we read together. What a wonderful feeling it is to see some members of the book group who were initially timid about literary analysis now suggesting that we take on Shakespeare or Plato, or to have one group member ask if we could change the date of a scheduled meeting because she could not imagine missing our discussion. We now count visitors from other parishes and members’ friends and relatives among our regular attendees, and have outgrown our original meeting place in the parish conference room. As a ministry in the parish, we are succeeding beyond all expectations, largely because of the enthusiasm of our members, because of their willingness to stretch beyond the limits of traditional spiritual reading, and certainly because of great literature’s power to encase universal truths in the riveting stories of particular characters, times, and places. In truth, my own role in the success of the Book Group places a distant second to the gifts our readers bring to each new project.

I am one small person who for a short time has the honor of serving as steward of a great tradition. In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of his autobiographical work Night, Elie Wiesel writes that he believes all books have destinies. I hope that some of the books I love dearly have come into my hands to good purpose, and perhaps that they will pass into the hands of others for an even greater one.

About the author: Ann-Maria Contarino teaches in the English Department at Saint Anselm College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Manchester, N.H., founded and operated by the monks of the Order of Saint Benedict. Prior to this appointment she taught in the English Department at Providence College. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classics from Brown University and a Master’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where she is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in English Literature.

Saint Raphael Parish Book Discussion Group

A list of the readings and events we have enjoyed together so far:

2008 (scheduled)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Film screening: Entertaining Angels
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Film screening: Tess
God’s Choice, by George Weigel
George Weigel lecture and book signing
The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur by Elisabeth Leseur
Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza

The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila
The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Film screening: Life is Beautiful
Selected Writings of Dorothy Day

Atticus by Ron Hansen
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Charleston by John Jakes
Eternal Echoes by John O’Donohue

The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser
The Hound of Heaven at My Heels by Robert Waldron