A Literary Priest Talks Books and the Heart

An Interview with Rev. Andrew Brinkman by Beth Nelson

As Well-Read Mom celebrates our Ten-Year Anniversary year, we are sharing special Well-Read Mom moments, both present and past. From our relationships as sisters to the love of family, we are celebrating ten years of Well-Read Mom! We hope you will enjoy this interview between Beth Nelson and Fr. Andrew Brinkman about the importance of reading for our hearts and our vocation as women. Originally published in the Well-Read Mom Journal (magazine) during Year of the Spouse, it is as relevant today as it was then. Enjoy!

The Rev. Andrew Brinkman is a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. His homilies are often filled with references to characters from great works of fiction. Fr. Andrew is a person who is clearly shaped and inspired by good literature. Here, we explore the relationship between literature, the heart, and culture. Beth Nelson is a wife and mother of four children and is a part of the Well-Read Mom advisory team.

Beth Nelson: Why is it important to read?

Fr. Andrew: Reading is connected to the life of the intellect more than any other activity. It’s what gets the muscle of the intellect working. An active intellect is always a good thing. This is what distinguishes us humans from the animals— our ability to reason, our ability to know things and to make decisions. Our minds are where our actions begin. Through the intellectual life humans are able to perceive the world, to understand it, and to act upon it. It is important to engage the intellect by making it work, by feeding it with beautiful images or presenting it with hard things to solve.

BN: One of the most frequent discussions within Well-Read Mom has to do with the importance of reading novels and not just spiritual books. Would you say it’s important to read a good novel, even if it is not overtly faith-based? How can a busy person who takes his or her faith seriously justify putting the time into reading a novel instead of a spiritual book?

Fr. A: This is precisely where people confuse art and practicality. Engagement with the arts is very practical. Art is a huge part of culture because it is by engaging in the arts—good music, beautiful architecture, poetry, and literature—that I become more human. 

Why don’t we read spiritual books exclusively? Because the soul is incarnate. The soul had to take flesh. There are great books such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where the author puts into a story the profound truth of the faith and the problem of evil. Why is there suffering in the world? Dostoevsky also explores the question of spiritual fatherhood: What does it mean to be a father? What does it mean to be a son? We could seek answers to those questions from a theological text.  However, it is through good literature that we are able to sink a little bit deeper into how good, evil, and the fatherhood question affect us on a more personal level. 

In literature, as in good art, the truths of the faith and of mankind come into very concrete, particular situations and engage the mind.

Fr. Andrew Brinkman

The truths of the faith are never just abstract stuff. For example, Jesus, the Word, became flesh. God became man. In literature, as in good art, the truths of the faith and of mankind come into very concrete, particular situations and engage the mind. Often we are surprised: “Oh, I didn’t think that we could look at the problem of suffering in this way. I didn’t think that we could look at grace coming into a person’s life the way that Flannery O’Connor shows it.”

BN: Another question that interests us is whether deep reading can counteract the negative effects that a fast-paced, technology-driven lifestyle can have on our minds and hearts. What do you think?

Fr. A: A lot of contact with technology is short-lived. It’s measured in sound bites. It doesn’t allow for any long-term engagements. With technology, there is very little emotional investment. But a great deal of time is devoted to reading a book since it involves an investment of the heart and mind with each of the characters in the novel. Everything we take in, through reading a novel or watching something on social media, somehow shapes us, for better or worse. Good literature helps us to grapple with truths that engage the soul and manifest the difficulties of living out the gospel.

BN: It’s clear that literature has influenced you a lot. Can you tell us how certain books have shaped your own life and vocation?

Fr. A: I didn’t start reading literature in my free time until after my first year in the college seminary. In the summer of 2005, a very good friend of mine, who was about 79 years old at the time, came to visit me. He loved books. He believed in the power of good literature and would say to me, “Every good priest needs a good library. If a priest doesn’t have a good library, he’s probably not a good priest.” He gave me books as gifts, many of which I still have on my shelf; Romano Guardini’s The Lord and a compilation of Dostoevsky’s short stories are among them. 

The first book that he gave me, though, was The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. There was something about reading the life of this unnamed country priest, who fails in his vocation in many ways. He was too severe, and the people of his parish were not really able to connect with him. He died alone and neglected, like Jesus. Bernanos saw the country priest as another Christ. Through this story, Bernanos gives insight into the truth of Christian failure and the meaning of Christ as the ultimate victim. One reads about this suffering priest and thinks, “Yea, that’s real, that could happen.” It’s painful to witness the suffering of this one man, but Bernanos deftly brings out the beauty within that pain. 

Good works of literature—like The Brothers Karamazov, Brideshead Revisited, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the writings of John Henry Newman, and those of Caryll Houselander—highlight particular truths of the faith so that we see their brilliance. 

Because we’re human, we love and need to discover things in a particular context. People don’t want to hear about charity in the abstract. What does charity look like for a middle-aged woman in the Midwest who questions that? What are the possibilities? Literature is one way to engage that. The proposal to live a life of charity, as Christ would, brings forth many obstacles during this particular time period. When the imagination is allowed to grapple with meatiest of life’s questions one’s desire to pursue holiness increases. 

BN: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the book with which Well-Read Mom read in the Year of the Spouse. What would you say to a person who is scandalized by it?

Fr. A: Anna Karenina is an important book because it deals with the corruption of one’s conscience. As Christians, we never look at evil for evil’s sake. One of the dangers of today’s culture is that evil is depicted just because it’s engaging—evil for evil’s sake. On the other hand, as Christians, we don’t shy away from what’s evil or corrupt because it helps us to understand the real gift of that salvation we’ve been given through Jesus.

Reading shouldn’t be, for us, an exercise on how much degenerate stuff one can handle. We need to be prudent, but it’s only by knowing, in a sense, Hell, my own mess, eternal separation from God, and the ugliness of sin, that I can begin to appreciate the life that Jesus gave the world and gives to me.

BN: It’s interesting because when I read Anna Karenina, I don’t find myself hating Anna and thinking that she’s a horrible person, even when I see her evil. How is that possible?

Fr. A: I know the experience you’re relating to, and it’s because this is a real-life situation that Tolstoy is dealing with. Anna is married to a man who is unaffectionate, and along comes the young and attractive Vronsky, who opens his heart to her. Yes, Anna is in a sacramental marriage, but it’s obvious that there is an important piece missing. This, of course, doesn’t justify Anna’s infidelity, but we understand the situation. Anna is weak, just like each of us is weak. This brings to my mind Charles and Julia in Brideshead Revisited. They’re both married and traveling on a boat together, from New York back to London, I think. Evelyn Waugh does a masterful job of writing this love story, and the reader finds himself thinking, “It’s beautiful, why can’t they be together?” But it’s very clear—they are both bound in marriage to other people.

Reading good fiction enriches my prayer life and allows me to better communicate the gospel.

BN: Shifting gears a bit, in the context of today’s culture, why would you say it’s important to read good literature?

Fr. A: The media culture is potent. Film is real, clear, upfront, and sensual. It affects our emotions and feeds our imaginations by showing us what is possible, what could be done, and making it all attractive. Evil is often portrayed as something attractive. And this is where we have to stop and say, “Time out.” When we watch TV and film, we are also in a more passive position. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t watch film, but we’ve got to engage it. The danger is in just letting life happen to us. Virtue is not easy. We have to push back against our bad tendencies and our desire to be tranquil and at ease. When we read, we exercise the mind and sharpen our ability to look at things, to discern, to criticize, and to judge.

BN: I understand what you mean about reading being more work. So I’m wondering since you said you are a fairly new reader, what has that journey been like for you? Reading The Betrothed  by Alessandro Manzoni (Year of the Spouse), in particular, took a lot of dedication since it’s a long book from a different time period. It took me a long time to steady my thoughts.

Fr. A: Reading is definitely a discipline. In our day and age, reading requires us to choose to forgo time spent on our electronic devices. This can be hard. Frankly, there are times when I don’t look forward to reading. But because I recognize how much better my life is when I’m reading, I pick up a book. Speaking from a priest’s perspective, the more that I read, the better my preaching is.  Reading the gospels over and over again, the New Testament and Paul’s letters, have really formed the way I look at the Christian faith, and, more importantly, this reading has given me a greater desire to live the Christian faith. Every time I read Paul, I think, “Is this guy for real?” He had this burning desire for people to know Jesus, and this intensity comes through in his writings. I read his letters, and I am blown away by the love he had for people. 

But to bring my answer back to your question, reading good fiction enriches my prayer life and allows me to better communicate the gospel. It enriches my conversations and connections with people. I try to read a theological work, some fiction, a bit of poetry, and articles from the magazine First Things on a regular basis. 

BN: You have all of those going at the same time?

Fr. A: Sometimes, it might be a little disorganized, but that’s ok. Right now, I’m reading Plato’s Dialogues and a book by Dorothy Cummings Mclean called Ceremony of Innocence, which was published by Ignatius Press in 2010, I believe.

BN: Any closing comments?

Fr. A: The fact that there are opportunities like this out there for the women who partake in Well-Read Mom is very encouraging. That there are women out there who want to be well-read is beautiful. It makes me glad that these women don’t just want to get by but really want to thrive in their vocation. Reflecting on all of this also makes me think that to be a good mother is on a par with being a well-read one.

For our Tenth Anniversary, the reading list put together by Well-Read Mom will be reflecting on the theme of family. When Well-Read Mom began, we desired to create a place for women, not to escape from family life and work, but to experience a kind of leisure through friendship and literature so that women could return to their lives with a renewed vision and vigor. By reading books together, we help sustain a tradition of reading, which is a gift not only to our families but to the world. We hope you’ll join Well-Read Mom for our Year of the Family. Find out more.

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