Obviously books have played a very central role in my life, and I look upon them like friends. As with humans, they come with a front and back, are held upright by a spine, and have character(s). They come to life at my will, and stay in my mind long after I’ve put them down. I am equally protective over my e-books, hundreds of them piled comfortably on the virtual shelves of my physical Kindle—formless, metaphysical creatures waiting to be illumined by the push of a button. Stories, nevertheless, waiting to be read.
I have never doubted the unique ability of books to take us across space and time, bridging worlds and transcending immediate realities. As readers, we are quickly thrust into the thoughts and lives of a book’s characters which, though seemingly disparate from our own, also give insights into the universal human condition. The deepest desires of our hearts aren’t all that different no matter the century, culture or context, but still we turn the pages, savouring the delicious descriptions each journey brings.
But all things given, have I ever considered books to be more than a distraction from the surfeit of sameness to my days? Better yet, have I once believed a single book had the power to dramatically change someone’s life?
SJ certainly did, and he wrote one that changed mine.
This thought comes to me as I sit in a sparsely furnished room, adjusting to the unusual quiet of my surroundings. At first the silence unsettles me, making me terribly self-conscious. But soon enough—I can’t tell how long—I grow more at ease. After a time, I begin to enjoy listening to the indistinct whirl of the air-conditioning. My eyes are fixed on the dancing flames of a tealight, set upon an oak-colored side table, and flanked by a box of matches and a bronze snuffer. That which gives light, and the other which extinguishes, I think.
There is a small window overlooking a little garden which I have to walk through each time I enter the building housing this very room—but it is much more than just any ordinary window. Gazing out of it, I often wish to be in the sunshine and greenery; but when in the garden, all I can think of is how I’m outside, looking in. Either way, I just know I couldn’t bear it if one existed without the other. Gradually, I’ve come to see the window as my little bridge, that somewhere betwixt that straddles my desire for movement, for change.
Almost every week now, I find myself seated on an old wicker chair, in the confines of this spartan little room with its window overlooking the garden. I wish to remain here forever if I could, for it is only here in this unremarkable physical space that I’ve been able to get outside of my head, and be mindfully present in my immediate surroundings. In here, I’m unburdened of my responsibilities of a wife, mother, daughter, sister or employee, and it doesn’t matter how much or little I’ve eaten, what I weigh, or what I did or have yet to do. Here I am allowed to be just me.
For a time it was terrifying to let go of the great cloak of identity markers I’d sewn myself into, but week by week, day by day, the threads loosen. The cloak melts away without my knowing and soon I feel a real difference that comes with not needing to be someone or something—the freedom of just being. It’s light, almost weightless, like you’re floating.
This is where SJ and I meet weekly for our little book club, though not face to face.
Since our mysterious first encounter, it didn’t take long for me to track him down. Google made things extremely convenient, but it took some time before I entered the appropriate keywords that would significantly narrow my search parameters. Certain terms had come to mind after that day at the bookstore, the odd way you’d sometimes look at a rainbow and think kismet, or glance at a coffee spoon and remember the taste of sugar. Alliteration must be an effective literary device, for the only terms I associate with that day begin with a D.
disenchantment, disorientation, disaffectation, detachment
So I google them all. Nothing much pops up but a bunch of dictionary and Wikipedia sites, followed by a few scientific journal abstracts.
I decide to leave it for the day, and sleep on it.
The next afternoon, during my lunch break at work, for the heck of it, I throw in eating disorder alongside the other terms. And something unexpected shows up.
Somewhere amid a long convoluted list of search results, something catches my eye. It’s a reference to a 16th-century manuscript, and Google goes the extra mile of highlighting in bright yellow the two words that jump out at me.
It’s hard to explain my exact feelings at that defining moment, but even before reading further for a proper definition, I know for certain it has summed up the very nature of my eating disorder accurately and succinctly. If ever in my life I’d experienced a Eureka moment, this comes closest to it.
Disordered attachments appear in the context of the following passage:
For just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so spiritual exercises is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul.
The quotation itself comes from a book entitled The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the English translation of the Latin original, Exercitia spiritualia, composed around 1522–1524, by a 16th-century Spanish priest, theologian, and founder of the Society of Jesus, whose members are better known as Jesuits. Their abbreviation? SJ.
I google for a picture of Ignatius of Loyola, and almost do a double take.
I then add “Singapore” to the keywords Ignatius of Loyola, disordered attachments and spiritual exercises, and find the website to the retreat center of the local Jesuit community.
Not knowing exactly why, only that I should, I send an email to say hi and make a few general inquiries. That evening, I receive a call from a lay spiritual director who goes by Veronica.
“I’m interested to find out more about the Spiritual Exercises,” I say.
“How did you come to know of it?” she asks.
“A mutual friend,” I say. “He speaks of ‘disordered attachments’.”
She laughs. “When can you come in?”
[to be continued]