The summer that I did my chaplaincy internship was a wildly full twelve weeks. I was thirty-two years old and living in the haze of the end of an engagement as I walked the hospital corridors carrying around my Bible and visiting patients. “Hi, I’m Vanessa. I’m from the spiritual care department. How are you today?”
It was a surreal summer full of new experiences hitting like a tsunami: you saw them coming but that didn’t mean you could outrun them. But the thing that never felt weird was that the Bible I carried around with me as I went to visit patient after patient, that I turned to in the guest room at David and Suzanne’s or on my parents’ couch to sustain me, was a nineteenth-century gothic Romance novel. The Bible I carried around that busy summer was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
I love the idea of sacredness. I want to be called to bigger things, outside of myself. I don’t want my life to be a matter of distractions from death and then death. I want to surprise myself and to honor the ways in which the world surprises me. I want to connect deeply to others, to the earth, and to myself. I want to help heal that which is broken in us. Which is why I went to divinity school at thirty years old.
But God, God-language, the Bible, the church—none of it is for me. And halfway through divinity school, I realized that my resistance to traditional religion was never going to change. I wanted to learn how to pray, how to reflect and be vulnerable. And I didn’t think that the fact that I didn’t believe in God or the Bible should hold me back.
I, like many of us, have such complicated feelings about the Bible that it’s distracting to even try to pray with it. Too many caveats feel necessary to even begin to try. So I asked my favorite professor, Stephanie Paulsell, if she would spend a semester teaching me how to pray with Jane Eyre. Throughout the semester, we homed in on what I was searching for, a way to treat things as sacred, things that were not usually considered to be divinely inspired. The plan was that each week I would pull out passages from the novel and reflect on them as prayers, preparing papers that explored the prayers in depth. Then, together, we would pray using the passages.
This proved more challenging than I’d expected. I so resisted praying. In Judaism, prayers are prewritten and always in Hebrew. It felt like too much of a betrayal to my Judaism and to my family to pray in English. I just couldn’t do it. Stephanie would invite me, gently, to pray every once in a while. But I always resisted, so instead she would hand me books. She gave me Guigo II, a Carthusian monk who developed a four-step reading practice to bring his fellow monks closer to God. She gave me James Wood, a fellow atheist who wrote How Fiction Works. She gave me Simone Weil, a Jewish woman who escaped to America from Vichy, France, only to go back to Europe and die of starvation because she would not eat more than the prisoners of Auschwitz ate, unable to handle her privilege of escaping.
Eventually, we decided that sacredness is an act, not a thing. If I can decide that Jane Eyre is sacred, that means it is the actions I take that will make it so. The decision to treat Jane as sacred is an important first step, surely, but that is all the decision was—one step. The ritual, the engagement with the thing, is what makes the thing sacred. Objects are sacred only because they are loved. The text did not determine the sacredness; the actions and actors did, the questions you asked of the text and the way you returned to it.
This premise is obviously quite different from traditional ideas of engaging with sacred texts. What makes the Bible sacred is a complex ecosystem of church legitimacy, power, canonization, time, ritual, and other contributing factors. When the sacredness of the Bible or the Koran is questioned, great bodies of people and institutions will rush to defend them. Regardless of how these sacred texts are treated by an individual, they are widely considered to be sacred texts. In how I was treating Jane Eyre, I was saying the opposite: if one treats Jane Eyre as a doorstop, it is a doorstop. If one treats it as sacred, then it can be sacred.
Over the months we worked together, Stephanie and I discerned that you need three things to treat a text as sacred: faith, rigor, and community.
Faith is what Simone Weil called “the indispensable condition.” And what I came to mean by faith was that you had to believe that the more time you spent with the text, the more gifts it would give you. Even on days when it felt as if you were taking huge steps backward with the text, because you realized it was racist and patriarchal in ways you hadn’t noticed when you were fifteen or twenty or twenty-five, you were still spending sacred time with the book. I solemnly promised that when I did not know what a passage was doing, or what Brontë was doing with her word choice, rather than write it off as antiquated, anachronistic, or imperfect, I would have faith that the fault was in my reading, not in the text. In Friday night services, rabbis do not talk about what year the book of Genesis was most likely written and how the version we have today was canonized. A good rabbi instead considers the metaphor of God separating light from dark instead. That was how I set about considering Jane Eyre.
Faith does not mean that I think the text is perfect. Perfect and sacred are not the same thing. My parents, who are sacred to me, are not perfect. Things that are not perfect can give you blessings not only in spite of their imperfections, but because of them. When I was fifteen, I saw Rochester keeping Bertha at home and out of an asylum as an act of mercy. At thirty, his locking her up in an attic and all but forgetting her was not nearly enough to impress me and became something I had to forgive, rather than a virtue of his. Both times, Rochester’s and the novel’s presentation of that act were generative to me. The text was in conversation with my evolving sense of what mercy really is. The text’s imperfections accompany me in my own imperfections and will continue to act as reflection points for me whenever I return to it.
Rigor means that you keep at it even when your heart isn’t in it. You have to do the work whether or not you are in the mood. You have to be slow and deliberate even if you aren’t called to be so that day. It was a commitment, not a hobby. The best secular example of rigor I can think of is the way my brothers look at a baseball scoreboard. We see the same numbers. But they keep looking and looking at them until it becomes clear to them what pitch the pitcher is going to throw next, and they are usually right.
Another example of this kind of rigor is the way you might read into a text message from someone you have gone on a date with. You read it and reread it until you think the “truest” meaning of the message has revealed itself to you. You show it to friends to get their opinions. I was going to do that with Jane Eyre. The person receiving a text has faith that there is a real meaning behind that text and if they can figure it out then they will be able to better manage their own emotions and expectations. And I have faith that Jane Eyre always has some sort of important news to give me.
Community, the final component for treating a text as sacred, is the simplest of the ideas. It means that you need a gym buddy, someone to force you to work out even when it feels like the one thing you don’t want to do. You need someone to question your opinion when you are most sure you are right.
And even more than that, a kind of magic happens when you work in community. Other people’s points of view will blow your mind and open you up to things that you never would have seen in the text on your own. Speaking out loud to someone you respect will help you find your own voice. Engaging with others in sacred, committed, rigorous spaces allows you to treat them as sacred, which is the point of all this anyway.
Vanessa Zoltan has a B.A. in English literature and creative writing from Washington University in Saint Louis, an M.S. in nonprofit management from the University of Pennsylvania, and a M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School. She is the CEO and founder of Not Sorry Productions, which produces the podcasts Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Twilight in Quarantine, and Hot & Bothered. She also runs pilgrimages and walking tours that explore sacred reading and writing.
Adapted from Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice, by Vanessa Zoltan, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Vanessa Zoltan.