Reading isn’t just about gaining new knowledge or relaxing. It can be a spiritual practice in its own right.
I didn’t grow up reading.
I grew up so poor that buying books would have been a luxury. Except for the two beds that my sister and I slept on, everything in our tiny apartment was donated, secondhand, or retrieved from the dumpster. That is how we lived. There were no books when I was growing up.
One day, my dad found a picture book at his work and brought it home. That was the only book I had as a child and I read it repeatedly. As the child of immigrants from Korea, I couldn’t even read English at that time. I made up the story from the pictures and pretended that I was reading the words. I can still clearly visualize the story and the pictures, as I read it thousands of times.
Growing up with no books around me, becoming an author of more than 20 books and the host of a podcast with extraordinary authors is something that I never envisioned for my life when I was a young child.
I immigrated to Canada when I was five years old. I didn’t speak a word of English. I started kindergarten and I slowly began to learn the English language. I only read books that were required reading in my classes during elementary school. Since my parents didn’t understand the logistics of borrowing books from a public library, we never went to one.
Later in my teenage years, I began to read more books. I borrowed books from the school library. Books were still a luxury item and something that our family could not afford, since we were struggling to put food on the table.
However, as I entered college, I discovered the value of books. My approach to books changed. They became tools to enter different worlds—imaginary and real, to follow the lives of others, or to be entertained by mysteries or love stories. As I began to read more and more, I began to see reading as a spiritual exercise.
We know that if we want to stay healthy, we need to engage in physical exercise. We need to create a program that combines stretching, cardio, and strength training. We cannot live sedentary lives as it will lead to poor health. Spiritual exercises are just as important. A spiritual exercise is any spiritual practice that focuses on developing and increasing one’s spiritual capacity. Spiritual exercises provide meaning, enhance self-worth, offer direction, foster renewal, and inspire divine wonder.
Traditional spiritual exercises include prayers, meditations, reflections, and attending retreats. But I think reading functions as an important spiritual exercise. Reading provides depth and meaning to our lives, motivates us to do better, and encourages wonder in our spiritual lives.
Reading books of any genre is life-giving, as books provide a window to escape our own lives and enter a new imaginary or lived life of the book’s author. Reading, whether off a physical page or from a device, offers a change from work, raising children, taking care of elders, and hectic schedules. During the moments we read, we become immersed in a place and situation other than our daily life and routine.
As a theologian, I have come to love reading works by people who share a bit of their personal life stories and weave in spirituality to help me understand my own life. Many authors share painful stories, awkward life moments, and hilarious experiences. In doing so, they welcome us into their life in order to bring some moment of release and assistance into our own lives.
Reading provides spiritual growth and renewal, which is needed daily. Therefore, reading becomes pure joy.
Here are some tips for reading as a spiritual exercise:
You don’t need to set aside a certain time of the day to read. Just carry your book and read whenever you want to take a break. Reading can happen anytime. If you give too much structure to reading, it will become a burden, which is the opposite of what you want to achieve.
Enter the books and reflect on your own life in light of what you read. This is a helpful exercise to help understand your own life story, which then often helps you move forward with your life. This can become therapeutic, or it can simply add joy to your daily life.
Lastly, relax and enjoy the special moments of the day when you can enjoy reading. This is a gift that life offers to us if we just accept it into our own lives.