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Reading is forever. Once you know how to decipher the squiggly lines inscribed all over our world, you can never go back to thinking that they're just a bunch of meaningless squiggles. Sure, if you find yourself face to face with Arabic, Ukrainian, or Japanese, you can recapture a bit of how you experienced the world before you were literate. But in your own language, letters spell words that make sentences to express ideas -- it's all there, and you can't pretend you don't see it or understand that what you see means something. You can't help but read.
Some kids begin to read on their own without even thinking about what they're doing. But learning to read doesn't necessarily come easily. I remember when our oldest daughter was in kindergarten or first grade. She told me that she didn't want to read books because the little letters scared her. Ironically, she eventually became one of the more avid readers in our house.
The ability to read opens a long succession of doors. Once you manage to sit still long enough to plow through pages that are about something that matters to you, you realize that books can teach you almost anything. Even more, they can take you anywhere. No matter what your circumstance, the ability to read offers you a way out, a way up, a way through. As Frederick Douglass stated, "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free."
I think receiving the gift of faith is a lot like learning how to read. Once you've seen God, you see that the world is full of him. Those who have faith can decode life. They can make sense of what would otherwise seem random or meaningless. They can read what God has written both around them and within them, and know that it is in his handwriting. A personal encounter with God changes everything. Anyone who has experienced God consciously discovers how unconscious he was beforehand. She sees everything differently, not because what can be seen has changed, but because the one who is seeing has.
Apart from traumatic brain injury or severe deterioration, studies have shown that people don't forget how to read. They just do it. Automatically. Although it is theoretically possible to lose faith, I think that it's pretty much impossible to do so altogether. Sure, it may be tempting to turn your back on God, to stop listening to his message. But that doesn't mean you can no longer read it when it's written boldface or in all caps. It means you are choosing to ignore it.
When it comes to faith, our society is illiterate. The world we live in is full of people who can't read what God is saying because they don't know how. In fact, most don't even know that what they see actually means something.
An effective witness to the faith is like a good first grade teacher. Proficient in reading herself, she identifies the students who are ready to read, and helps build the skills of the ones who aren't quite there. Most will begin by memorizing a favorite story. Very few will learn to read simply by paging through a book with no pictures. Almost all kids need someone who is patient enough to teach them how to sound it out one word at a time. And it helps immensely if a child is read to at home.
Jesus Christ is the Eternal Word of God. He is written everywhere we look. As Church, we are called to show others how to read God's Word, so they can eventually understand and embrace it. Still, the Word must be illustrated by how we live. Christ must fill the pages of our days. What binds us together should be durable, but it should still feel good when held in the hands. And, if possible, we should open up easily to wherever the reader left off.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.