“Take and read.” Those simple words were the key, pivotal moment in the long process of conversion for St. Augustine almost 1600 years ago. He tells the story with rigorous honesty in his book, the Confessions, the first autobiography we have in Western literature. After a long struggle to embrace faith in Christ – not just the doctrines and concepts, which convinced him, but changes in his personal lifestyle, which challenged him – he heard a child’s voice from a neighboring house speak those words: Tolle, lege –
“Take and read.”
Interpreting this as a sign from God, he picked up the Bible nearby and opened the pages at random. His eye was drawn to Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh.” That was the turning point. At last, the dam burst and his faith and trust could flow. He accepted Baptism after many years as a catechumen; he eventually became a bishop and arguably one of the greatest two or three theologians in Christian history. It started with taking and reading.
“Take and read.” We are overwhelmed with words and images on TV, the Internet, social media, newspapers, magazines, advertising. We are conditioned by Twitter and the news crawl on television to take in information in small bites and often in ways that barely register. We are awash in random facts and clashing opinions. This fills our minds, but it is not the same as wisdom and truth.
After all these centuries, this is not so different from Augustine’s own turmoil there in his garden, sitting under a tree. Therefore, his experience invites us to do as he did – to shut out all the human noise and listen for God, an invitation that most often comes through a human voice. That divine Word can reach us every time we pick up Scripture and allow the Lord to speak to our hearts.
“Take and read.” Of course no one can read all of the good things out there, but we can be selective about what we take in. Not all of those words and images we consume lead us to God. While it is important to be informed, it is equally important to keep balance and the vision of faith. When watching the news or commentary on events agitates and inflames you, it is time to find something else, something better than “doomscrolling” and letting the negativity dominate our thinking.
Our culture is expert at moving us from crisis to crisis, telling bad news in graphic and painful detail, and repeating it so often that it overwhelms the spirit. You will not find peace and perspective that keeps mind and soul healthy by simply taking in random voices or listening only to those who agree with your views on the world’s problems.
Be vigilant and guard your spirit. Knowing more bad news and scandal is not some sort of contest where those with the most negative stories somehow “win.”
There is also a great deal of misinformation, rumor, and outlandish gossip floating about, and all too often a stunning lack of basic courtesy, honesty, and civility. Be smart about what you allow to shape your mind and soul.
“Take and read.” As Lent approaches, consider a resolution to spend more time with Scripture, spiritual reading, classic books, history, science, constructive hobbies … things that genuinely nourish the spirit and bring you closer to God in faith, hope, and charity. Read the Sunday readings, perhaps before a family meal. Read to a child. Read about great achievements of the past. Read to enrich your soul.
I recognize that reading can be challenging for some, and finding time to engage more than a few paragraphs can be difficult. But as Lent helps us simplify our routines, see if you can carve out that space at least a few times a week, or choose an audiobook format to accompany your commute or routine chores. “Take and read.” For St. Augustine, those words changed his life. In ways we may not expect, whether suddenly or gradually, the same can happen for us.