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This atheist chaplain treats 'Jane Eyre' as sacred text


It's time now for another conversation about the different ways we find meaning in the world with our colleague Rachel Martin. It's part of her series called Enlighten Me.


RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I want you to think about the last time you fell in love with a novel. Maybe you read it with a pen in hand because there were all these sentences you wanted to underline because they made you think about something in a new way - something in your own life - and you scribbled bits of revelation in the margins in shorthand that only you could understand. And page after page, there are so many of these underlying bits and notes, you've got no choice but to return to that same book again and again to remind yourself what it feels like to be awake to new ideas and possibilities. Does that practice become a spiritual ritual in some way? Does the book itself become sacred?

Author Vanessa Zoltan thinks so. Vanessa is many things - a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, a podcast host, a hospital chaplain, a Jew by heritage, an atheist by choice. I talked to her about her memoir called "Praying With Jane Eyre: Reflections On Reading As A Sacred Practice" - a practice that started with an experiment.

VANESSA ZOLTAN: We started sort of a Bible study with "Jane Eyre." We got together every week and - it's different from a book club in that you're trying to learn from the book, not about the book. And you are, like, actively asking the book questions about your own life, right? Just like you would with Torah, right? Like, what does the Creation story tell us about climate change today? What does, you know, Jane's relationship with her aunt tell us about toxic relationships today in my life?


ZOLTAN: But it was amazing. It was four women who I'd never met before, and they were all so game to jump in on what Simone Weil calls experimental certainty, right? It was like we were playing. I was like, well, let's just pretend while we're together that this is a sacred book. We're just going to pretend it's sacred and that nothing in here is an accident.

MARTIN: But that's a really interesting word. Why did you have to pretend? Couldn't you just say that it was sacred?

ZOLTAN: I mean, yes, but there are, like, traditional ideas of what a sacred text is - right? - and that there's, like, a body of priests that sort of decide it and - right?

MARTIN: I guess, but isn't this the whole rub? Like, what is sacred?


MARTIN: Isn't it just because we decide to make something sacred and hold it in that way and with that reverence and that we imbue it with meaning?

ZOLTAN: Yeah. I think I only knew that later. I, like - I don't want to insult anyone. I admire religious people...


ZOLTAN: ...And, like, not in a patronizing way. Like, I genuinely admire a lot of religious people. And so I take seriously their commitments to their sacred texts...

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

ZOLTAN: ...And the historic value of that. And...

MARTIN: And it'd be weird to be like, you've got the Bible, and I've got "Jane Eyre."

ZOLTAN: "Jane Eyre" - right - and, like, there's just - you know, like, more sacrifices have been made protecting the Bible. You know, it's just...


ZOLTAN: It's different.


ZOLTAN: But on a personal level, it's not different, right? Like, I don't think I love "Jane Eyre" less than a devout person loves the Bible.


ZOLTAN: The sacred reading practices - like, these two that we do the most, lectio divina and PaRDeS - they are, like, developed practices from medieval monks and rabbis that are all about, like, getting you deeper and deeper into a text and paying closer and closer attention, even just to one word.


ZOLTAN: And these are practices that Bible study groups use. We've just adapted them for secular uses. And it's just - doing them weekly for almost 10 years now has changed my brain chemistry.


ZOLTAN: You know, lectio divina - you start by reading the text literally, and then you think allegorically. What other stories does it remind you of? And then you think about yourself and what it reminds you of in your own life. And then you think about what it makes you feel called to and do differently. And so I will read a sentence that sparkles up at me. Like, I'm currently obsessed with Emily Dickinson, and so - right? - I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody, too? And I'll - you know, and I'll immediately be like, oh, God, what else does that remind me of? What does nobody mean to people? I'm thinking - you know, thinking about everybody in this world who feels isolated. We know that there's an epidemic of isolation and loneliness in this country, especially for adolescents, right? And so I start thinking about that.

And then I also immediately start thinking about moments like that in my own life and therefore treating my life and my memories as sacred in conversation with Emily Dickinson and then, you know, wonder what that should make me feel called to. And does that mean I should text my stepdaughter, just telling her I love her for no reason, right? And, like, a poem can very quickly just go through my head into action. It has, like, really changed the way that I read.


MARTIN: You write that you are committed to resisting finding meaning in life other than the meaning that we create.


MARTIN: But with literature, you try to drown yourself in meaning. Why not treat life more like literature?

ZOLTAN: I think it's OK for me to treat my own life like that. I think it's really dangerous to make meaning of other people's lives, including our partners and parents. And, you know, Virginia Woolf often wrote about how we're unknowable to ourselves, let alone to one another. And I think that trying too hard to make meaning of other people's actions actually erases the complexity of their actions.

MARTIN: That's hard. I mean, don't we just...

ZOLTAN: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...Do that all the time?

ZOLTAN: Oh, yeah. It's - I mean, it's impossible. But - right? - like, in theory, that's a chaplain's job, right? It's to sit not in judgment - to have the person - to offer sanctuary to the person who's just committed the sin and is in the midst of self-loathing...


ZOLTAN: ...And say, I still love you, right? And so if this is, like, part of my commitment in chaplaincy - is to be able to sit with someone in their full humanity and not make a story about them...


ZOLTAN: ...But to just witness them - I have to build that capacity.

MARTIN: But then that's totally the opposite of what you do with books and with literature. I mean, you're dissecting every line, every word, trying to, like, squeeze out every bit of meaning from those words.

ZOLTAN: Yeah, 'cause nobody gets hurt. And I think that looking closely at literature and doing that in conversation with literature gives me a location to reflect on. But I think it's dangerous when we do that to each other.


MARTIN: The book is called "Praying With Jane Eyre: Reflections On Reading As A Sacred Practice" by Vanessa Zoltan. Thank you so much, Vanessa.

ZOLTAN: Thank you, Rachel.


CHANG: And you can find past conversations from Rachel Martin's Enlighten Me series on

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.