The Awakening Power of Books

by the Rev. Paul McLain


In the midst of enjoying the return of Waffle Shop favorites like fish pudding and Boston Cream pie and listening to the amazing line-up of preachers for the 100th anniversary of Calvary’s Lenten Preaching Series, Lent is also a good time to read a new book or revisit an old one. The best books have the power to change the way we think and live. While it is not overtly religious, the novel Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann does that for me. On its surface, Buddenbrooks is a history depicting four generations of a wealthy family tied to a successful business in northern Germany. But much is happening beneath the surface.  As the family business declines, the Buddenbrooks maintain the appearance of respectability. An inner transformation is also taking place. Each generation discovers a deeper artistic sensitivity and a passion for life that is crying to break out of the mold in which they feel trapped.


The Buddenbrooks first see religion as a means to an end. The early generations see faith as a way for their business to be blessed, even if their actions do not always integrate with what they profess. The pivotal character in the novel is Thomas Buddenbrook, the leader of the third generation. As Thomas approaches death, Mann describes his mystical experience: “Suddenly the darkness seemed to split open before his eyes, as if the velvet wall of night parted to reveal immeasurable deeps, an endless vista of light. ‘I’m going to live!’ Thomas Buddenbrook said half aloud and felt his chest jolted by sobs somewhere deep inside. ‘That’s it – I’m going to live. It is going to live . . . and thinking that it and I are separated instead of one and the same – that is the illusion that death will set right.’”


Lent is a season in which Christ pierces the veil for us and helps us get in touch with our mortality to prepare our hearts for the hope of his and our resurrection. Thomas’s brush with death and his “resurrection” are an awakening for him to see life as a unity with the life force that is both beyond us and within us. This is how reading and re-reading Buddenbrooks invites and jolts me into the way Christ unites our life to his such that the true “end” of life is also it’s new beginning.


What book or books are you reading or revisiting during Lent?


4 thoughts on “The Awakening Power of Books”

  1. I’ve definitely been attempting “to get in touch with my mortality.” So logically returned to Russian writers. Prolific but sometimes grim. Nothing more uplifting than reading short stories about starving peasants in Siberia, right?
    I’ve been reading essays by Tolstoy about his religious journey. He talks a lot about the balance (and struggle) between reason and faith. Reconciling the role of the church, etc. In the end, he returned to Christianity, focusing on the teachings of Christianity without the miracles, things he could never accept as a man of reason. The most important aspect for Tolstoy became life practice. Carrying out acts of love, compassion and generosity. It strongly resonates with me.

    1. Beau, thanks for sharing this thoughtful reflection about how Tolstoy and the great Russian writers are speaking to you. I love the emphasis on life practice – a resonant message for Lent and beyond. I would love to visit with you more about your journey with the Russian writers over coffee at Cafe Eclectic, if I’m able to spot the right Beau!
      Love and Blessings,

  2. This sounds like a really important read fro me and I will add it to my list for later in the year. Right now I am spending a lot of time watching and re-watching our Lenten preachers on You Tube. Amazing. May it Continue.

    1. Nancy, so glad the Lenten preachers from this amazing line-up are speaking to your soul. And I’m so glad you’re feeling better! Hope you have a wonderful time in the UK!
      Love and Blessings,

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