The way you feel about books is the way I often feel about the internet: just so many words. And of course they are more than that, if one finds the right words, and reads them attentively (preferably printed up on paper, which is how I read this essay). There is only so far that knowledge can take us, especially spiritual knowledge—compared to, say, information on how to build a chicken coop, or do a math equation, or fix a washing machine.

But there are probably ways, subtle ways, that spiritual knowledge settles into our mind, even when we seem to have forgotten it, and subtle ways that it shapes our perceptions and experiences. And hopefully those ways are good ways.

At least the act of reading demands a certain type of focused attention, and also exercises vocabulary, logic, imagination, memory, and other aspects of mind, which keep us rooted in ourselves. Even when carefully reading a book we don’t like, we are having an experience like somebody working out in a gym, and not wanting to work out, but still building muscles as a result.

In a world where AI is threatening to do a lot of the heavy mental lifting for us, reading actual books, with our actual minds, may help protect and nourish our essential humanness.

Bottom line: keep the books. And hey, if you don’t want them, I will give you my shipping address.

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Apr 26, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

I used to have a similar relationship to books and was loathe to part with them. Eventually, however, my need for orderliness would assert itself and trump my need to hang on to books. Over the last few years, it has been getting a lot easier to shed my property, books included. One thing that really helps is that I have only one bookshelf, and it has only three shelves. I really dislike seeing books piled up everywhere; again, the orderliness thing. The other thing that has helped is that over the years, for all the hundreds of books I've given away, I have only bought back one or two of those books. And, despite my intentions, I have re-read few of the books I do keep. My tastes have also changed. Now, I buy fewer books for the purpose of "informing" myself on a particular subject. Instead, I have bought a lot of poetry books, which are meant to be experienced rather than strictly understood, and actually benefit from multiple readings. None of this change was willed by me; it simply evolved (or devolved, depending on your viewpoint.) Perhaps it came from a recognition, conscious or not, that for all books I have read, I am still at the beginning, spiritually wise. I get so much more just staring at some nearby hills or sitting quietly in the cathedral which I attend. Of course, I still have in my head a list of books that I "should" read. But now I know that I probably won't read them, and I am at peace with that.

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Many blessings on your travels - and thank you for sharing the fruits of your monastic sojourn in this forum. We've been blessed by your prayer, and your gift at articulating your journey.

It's an important topic, the limited value of knowledge in general, and books in particular. I'm reminded of how St. Francis of Assisi was particularly suspicious of books. I try to keep to the discipline of only reading that which I believe will help support my life of prayer and my life of work on the land (gardening/ecology/forestry texts). Even so, it's easy to read far beyond my ability to integrate. For me, the discipline is to limit my mental work to that which is in service to the rest of life and vocation. My biggest temptation is to over-read in trying to understand the pathologies of our world - and alas, substack is my most common way of doing this....

OK, enough writing. My next task today is to go cut a new door in an old mobile chicken pen, to get it ready for it's newest inhabitants that will move from the barn to the field this week. :-)

I wish you well as you transition onto the pilgrim's road.

Pax Christi,


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When I first became a wanderer, I sold everything I had and gave all my books to the Samaritans - I reckon they weighed in at about two tons. Now I try and make it a rule to give away a book once I have read it. I keep a very few - The Cloud of Unknowing, Shunryu Suzuki, the gospels (on my phone).

I like the zen story of the professor who went to visit the zen master. The master offered the professor tea. When he poured the tea, the master kept on pouring until it overflowed. The professor was shocked at his carelessness. The master said, “when the cup is full, how can it receive any more?”

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"Though we are all pilgrims we still need to choose this path of losing and losing until there is nothing left to lose." What a line. It hit me hard.

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Apr 26, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

I like your description of the Western Faustian Bargain--one which, sadly, I am extremely tempted by. Lately I have been convicted of the fact that, for the most part, I already know enough. Not that there won't be new things to learn, but that at this point in my life, I do not need to seek out more knowledge, but rather put into practice the things I already know, to be faithful to the responsibilities that God has already entrusted to me. To that end, I have dramatically cut back on the amount of reading or other information consumption that I engage in (across all forms of media), and trying to be much more intentional about what I do feed to my mind.

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May 2, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

I have to agree with what you say here Jack, even though I have been spending my time recently writing a book, and after reading your thoughts I do wonder who does it benefit, at the end of the day it not like a book on theology going to put my name in lights.

I remember when I was doing my theology degree, I came away from it thinking that was three years wasted, simply because it was three years of scanning the surface of so many topics, that you came away feeling you were no clearer on anything, and because of the work load you didn't get the time to process and think on things deeper, the only think it gave me was a passion for the subject, and if anyone ask me if I would recommend a theology degree, I would probably say no, because I have learned more reading theology for myself.

I think Nicholas of Casu thoughts are true because we never get any further than learned ignorance, and this is seen through when we look at any bibliography, is that i might write a book or essay but the sources I consult are purely finite, in the sense I have only so much time to read these sources, i can only read sources in a particular language, and I'm sure there would be many other limitations, so how many books have I not consulted, how many other books have I not consulted because they have been written indifferent languages, so reading we are never going to be an authority on anything, as the author of Ecclesiastes said it's all vanity, and maybe that the main reason why I want to write a book, just to say that I have.

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Dear Jack,

Thank you for this honest reflection—it hits home. I have been living in Turkey for the past few years and will also be leaving soon (returning to the US) and I too will be burdened with books when I do. I recently read a little book by Robert Johnson (ironically because I hadn't read it and didn't want to pack it again without having done so...) in which he examined the transformation of the psyche in comparison with three fundamental stories of Western literature: Don Quixote, Hamlet, and of course—Faust.

It struck me from reading this that what you are describing feels like the beginning of a kind of threshold process, which many of those reading your essays here are very sympathetic to, the transition from Hamlet's exasperation with "Words words words", to Faust's attempt to integrate the shadow cast by a life lived in letters, by confronting the limitations of a relentless pursuit of more understanding.

I very much appreciate your description of this intuition; that at certain point, after half a life immersed in books one has a kind of choice to make—to shift one's gaze from the page, to somewhere beyond it, to that which the words themselves are pointing like fingers to the moon. In my limited understanding this is something of what is intended in lectio divina: reading in a sacred manner.

Johnson includes the following zen proverb in his introduction, it felt appropriate in this conversation:

“When I was young and free, the mountains were the mountains, the river was the river, the sky was the sky. Then I lost my way, and the mountains were no longer the mountains, the river was no longer the river, the sky was no longer the sky. Then I attained satori, and the mountains were again the mountains, the river was again the river, and the sky was again the sky.”

Anyway, there's more I could say on the topic but I think for now, I'll just say: 'Thank You' and Vaya con Dios.

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Apr 27, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

Hi Jack,

To me this is the best, most insightful piece you have written here. Maybe you are wiser than you realise! I have just read the Cloud of Unknowing for the first time so you certainly struck a chord with me.

Every blessing on your travels - do keep your friends here up to date on it all. I, for one, look forward to hearing how it all goes and to reading more of your reflections.

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According to Zhuangzi, Lao Dan said 'The Six Classics are just the stale footprints of the former kings - how could they be that which leaves the footprints? ...Footprints are produced by the gait, but they are not the gait itself.'

I've given away more books than I own, but still have shelves upon shelves of these dusty old footprints. That said, I'm not planning on leaving this hilltop until I'm in a box, and the books are another layer of insulation on the walls.

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Apr 26, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

Jack, this is such an enneagram 5 problem! I think a high proportion of your readers might be 5ish folk, too.

For the last week or so I have been thinking of some advice I saw for type 5 that said, "You are most effective when you stop refining concepts and actually get into action."

I have plenty of action these days but I often feel the addict's hankering for a fascinating idea to delve into arise. It can be counter-productive for sure. I'm learning to laugh at it a bit.

Another bit about type 5 from Riso and Hudson: "Actually, Fives are among the least materialistic of the types and are happy with very few creature comforts. They are avaricious, however, about their time, energy, and resources. They are greedy for knowledge and for the means of improving their skills and expertise..... Because they feel incapable and helpless, they believe that they must gather and hold onto all those things that will make them capable and secure. They may collect back issues of magazines, or compile extensive notes and books on the few areas that interest them, or collect records and CDs until their house is overflowing." Or if the book was more recent it might say collect substacks. Then this further exposure -- "Fives often get locked into what we call preparation mode. They gather more and more information, or endlessly practice, never feeling that they are prepared enough to move into action."

You are moving into action now, and I wish you bon voyage! As for me, a book just arrived in the mail today called Keeping a Family Cow. I had read a library copy but felt I must buy it to be prepared for my future. Ahhh, how sillly I can be. Anything other than focus on the mundane question before me of what dinner can be made out of the contents of my fridge.


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Like you, I tend to collect books, some are easy to let go of, others aren't. Like you, I find that I, though far from wise, I carry most of what I need around already. I don't need another book on zen - I know how to sit (whether I can follow through is another matter). So by rights, books should be far easier to let go of, no? :-)

Best wishes to you on your journey towards letting go of what you don't need at this point! :-)

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Apr 26, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

I've heard it said that the collecting of books and the reading of books is actually two different hobbies, and I've definitely found that to be true in my own experience. I have a growing concern that the ever expanding pile of "to be read" books on my nightstand is going to collapse one night and smoother me in my sleep. I recently re-read "The Way of the Pilgrim", though this time with the second book (or perhaps it's just the full version) that I didn't realize existed the first time I read it. So much I missed not having that the first time around!

I really resonate with your reflection on the limitations of learning by reading (not to say it isn't still an important tool!). Truth is ultimately a Person and as such, true knowing is participatory. Books, podcasts, blogposts and the like can all be helpful aids that point toward that participation, but I eventually have to take that final step off the page an into living reality. This is something I'm continuing to learn as I love reading and can still often confuse it with the goal (i.e. reading about prayer vs actually praying).

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Apr 26, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

Wisdom is a weird idea, right`? As you suggest It has no natural relationship to ‘intelligence’, neither to ‘learning’. That was St Paul’s take on the matter. One thing Paul knew, and I would love you take on the road with you is this: wisdom is no big deal. Wisdom is not some holy contraband freighted across earthly borders by mystics, prophets, gurus, beatniks, nor even holy fools. It is not some God almighty alchemic magic neither. It is that which common-sense smells like when you wash all the horseshit out of it. Have a grand trip, Jack. Vaya con Dios, baby.

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Hi Jack, just wanting to let you know that I'm keeping you in my prayers, rudimentary and faulty as they doubtlessly are. Hope you're well.



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May 6, 2023Liked by Jack Leahy

Thank you, Jack, for pointing me to stillness before God, a place of rest and peace. Jesus assures us we maybhave a flowing spring of life within us as pure gift, and his yoke is easy and his burden light. I need just be. It is all gift!

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