Archive for October, 2007

Wanted: Things that go bump in the night

October 31, 2007

Seasonal Round-up: Ghost Stories
Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural
Various authors (Random House, 1944)
94 of 1080 p. First reading.

Every year around the end of October I throw a spanner in the works of my reading plan by devoting some time to the guilty pleasure genre of ghost stories. Last year I finished the stories in The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, so this year I cast about for another collection and settled upon this weighty volume which, if this year’s pace is any indication, will serve me well for the next decade or more of ghostly adventuring. The stories in this volume are of high literary quality, and are on a larger scale than I was expecting. I managed to read just three tales this year.

The first was Balzac’s short story “La Grande Bretêche”, which tells a tale of marital infidelity and chillingly calculated revenge. It’s a good story, but not a good ghost story, because not a ghost story at all. It turns out that the first stories in this volume are tales of “terror”, and only after several hundred pages does one find tales of “the supernatural”. I therefore paged ahead with anticipation (though not without appreciating the very considerable art of Balzac’s story-telling).

But even here, in the midst of the tales of “the supernatural”, my quest for a satisfying ghost story was thwarted, for neither of the two stories I read truly qualify. This seems an ill omen for the years ahead. For instance, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-nineteenth century story “The Haunters and the Haunted” has all the makings of a grand ghost story: a house in which a stream of potential residents refuse to lodge more than one night, rumours of strange and terrifying goings-on beneath its roof, a courageous and enterprising skeptic determined to put the rumours to rest, apparitions, disembodied hands, secret rooms, whimpering dogs, and so forth. But then the story takes a peculiar turn: put all that ghostly superstition out of your mind, dear reader, for everything can be explained scientifically! Don’t you know about mesmerism and ESP and the powers of the mind over matter? Don’t you know that diligent study and commitment and powers of concentration can grant the mind physical control of objects and cast visions into the minds of others and stop the aging process? Well, they can! It’s a very strange mixture of hard-headed debunking married to pseudoscientific gullibility.

The final story I read was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, written in 1844. Set in medieval Padua, it tells of a young man who falls for the daughter of a local botanist. It turns out that said scientist has an unhealthy lust for experimentation, and has been exposing his dear daughter to a variety of poisons since infancy, so much so that her touch — indeed, her very breath — is death to living things. She is a femme fatale if ever there was one. Our poor suitor doesn’t know what he’s in for, and even burn marks on his skin where she touches him are not enough to deflect his enthusiasm. A tad imprudent, that. When he discovers her predicament, he tries to offer her a potent remedy, but it doesn’t turn out well. It’s a very finely written story, and encourages me to read more of this American author whom I’ve not encountered since reading “Young Goodman Brown” many years ago in school. Note, however, that it’s not a ghost story! There’s no supernatural element at all. I’m still glad I read it — it was written thirty years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and touches on similar themes of scientific hubris and the perils of securing power over nature — but I do wish this collection of ghost stories had yielded at least one specimen to satisfy my seasonal appetite. Maybe next year.

A papal parade

October 30, 2007

The BBC is running an interesting radio series on “Ten Popes who Changed History”. Eamon Duffy of Magdalen College, Cambridge, author of the important history The Stripping of the Altars and, more recently, of Marking the Hours, is the host. The segments, which are each about 15 minutes in duration, discuss the lives and legacies of these Popes: St. Peter (c.30-c.64), Leo the Great (440-461), St. Gregory the Great (590-604), Gregory VII (1073-1085), Innocent III (1198-1216), Paul III (1534-1549), Pius IX (1846-1878), Pius XII (1939-1958), Blessed John XXIII (1958-1963), and John Paul II (1978-2005). That’s a rather heavy emphasis on the last 100 years, but I suppose that’s okay. The series is on-going until November 2.

New wine in new wineskins

October 29, 2007

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought
Robert Louis Wilken (Yale University Press, 2003)
390 p. First reading.

From our vantage point, it is not easy to imagine ourselves back into the first centuries of Christianity. The habits of thought and feeling that have formed our civilization, and which we take for granted, were then in many cases new, or yet to be born. Over those first few centuries a chain of serious, talented, and devoted thinkers undertook the great task of understanding the founding events of Christianity and unfolding their meaning. In this book, Robert Louis Wilken presents us with a sweeping survey of their accomplishments.

Christianity is not merely a philosophical system appealing to the intellect, nor is it a set of rules for proper behaviour. It is a way of life, integrating thought, morality, and ritual into a whole, having its own institutions, traditions, and practices. Even its intellectual aspects are incarnational, in the sense that they are grounded in the real world of culture and history, rather than being derived from a set of abstractions. “Christian thinkers were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something.” Wilken shows, by systematically considering one subject after another, how early Christian thought grew organically out of its contact with the historical events that founded the Christian community, with the lived experience of liturgy and worship, and with Scripture. In other words, it is deeply concerned with history, ritual, and text:

The distinctive marks of early Christian thinking can be set down in a few sentences. Christians reasoned from the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ, from the experience of Christian worship, and from the Holy Scriptures (and earlier interpretations of the Scriptures), that is to say, from history, from ritual, and from text. Christian thinking is anchored in the church’s life, sustained by such devotional practices as the daily recitation of the psalms, and nurtured by the liturgy, in particular, the regular celebration of the Eucharist. Theory was not an end in itself, and concepts and abstractions were always put at the service of a deeper immersion in the res, the thing itself, the mystery of Christ and of the practice of the Christian life.

In their attempts to understand the meaning and significance of the life of Christ, early Christian thinkers drew heavily on the language and concepts of Greek philosophy, which was the most advanced intellectual tradition available to them. For this they have sometimes been criticized for allowing Christianity to be “Hellenized”, as though the native spirit of the Christian message had been forsaken in favour of a more rarefied, tamer, and ultimately foreign understanding of Jesus. Wilken considers this view, but finds it lacking in historical truth. In case after case, he finds the Greek concepts adopted, but altered to express the new thoughts, rather than the new being forced into the form of the old.

For instance, a central question that early Christian theologians had to address was the question of how God is known. They well understood that their faith was grounded in God’s self-revelation in history, and the Jewish Scriptures portrayed God as deeply involved with their history. Yet for the Greeks, God is known only through the mind being purged of sensory impressions. God is immaterial, and material things are obstacles to knowledge of him. Celsus, a very astute early critic of Christianity, accused Christians in his book True Doctrine of being too preoccupied with sensible things, with a person — in his view, with unintellectual things. Against this view, the early Christian thinkers, such as Origen (185-c.254), argued that God may be known only when he descends to us, and this descent and involvement with humanity he called “grace”. This orientation toward the past had the effect of making history a matter of serious intellectual inquiry, a status it had not had among the Greeks.

For the Greeks, God had often served as the conclusion of an argument, a philosophical abstraction, an inference, an explanatory principle. But for the Christians, God was a starting point, a person. The God they sought to understand was one who was already known, in part, through his mighty acts. Thus the early Christians set forth no proofs for the existence of God. Instead, they developed an account of knowledge of God drawn from Scripture: knowledge of God is “seeing”.

In the Scriptures, seeing is never simply beholding something that passes like a parade before the eyes; it is a form of discernment and identification with what is known. What one sees reflects back on the one who sees and transforms the beholder. As Gregory the Great will put it centuries later, “We are changed into the one we see.” There can be no knowledge of God without a relation between the knower and God. To see light is to share in light and to be enlightened.

Knowledge of God is participatory. He can be neither perceived nor known without love, and love draws the knower further into an encounter. In the words of St. Augustine: “By believing we love him, by believing we esteem God, by believing we enter into him and are incorporated in his members. This is why God asks faith of us.” Faith is the means by which we enter into the life of God, and it draws life from God himself. In religion, mere intellectual curiosity will keep one ever on the margins. Faith is not a disinterested knowing, and still less a kind of cosmic crossing of the fingers. “It is an interior knowing that transforms the knower.” It involves the intellect, but reaches deeper to touch the will and the affections. “It is like seeing a light. One cannot see a light without being enlightened, without sharing the light.” Faith bears fruit not so much in understanding, but in “wonder, adoration, obedience, and love”.

From the beginning, the Christian Church maintained a close relationship between its historical roots and its liturgy. There has never been a time when the Church, the community of believers, was not an integral part of Christian life. The early Christians celebrated the sacraments together and prayed at the tombs of the martyrs, and in this way affirmed their unity of spirit through time. The liturgy, like the Psalms, recounted God’s actions in history. Yet the liturgy was more than just a remembrance, for it also made the past, and the God of history, present. It celebrated the living Christ and honoured his presence in the Eucharist. Their constant contact with the liturgy affected the thinking of the Church Fathers, and Christian worship and sacramental life are at the root of many later theological developments. St. Irenaeus (2nd c.) emphasized the interrelatedness of theology and worship in clear terms: “Our teaching is consonant with what we do in the Eucharist, and the celebration of the Eucharist establishes what we teach.” Thus the early, and foundational, doctrinal developments of Christianity are firmly rooted in the sacramental life of the Church.

The same principle applied to the interpretation of Scripture, which was guided by experience of the liturgy. This point is worth stressing: the early Fathers affirmed that in Biblical interpretation we do not start from the text. We start from the events of history and from the Church’s lived experience in the light of those events. Since the Christian life is a participation in realities beyond our understanding, the only way to further our understanding is through that participation. Only when read in the context of the church’s life and worship does the text disclose its meaning.

When you begin to read the Church Fathers, two distinctive features of their treatment of Scripture are obvious. First, their language is saturated with the sacred text. Even when they are not explicitly quoting, they make allusions and employ phrases drawn from Scripture. Second, they read the Bible as a unity. The whole Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, they saw as telling a single story: that of Christ and the redemption of the world. This was simple enough in the New Testament, for there Christ is the explicit theme, but the Old Testament is silent about the person of Christ. To accomodate their reading, therefore, they developed an interpretive framework in which the Scriptural text is granted many different, mutually complementary, meanings. For example, many texts were read allegorically in order to tease out their connection to the life of Jesus. The result of this project was an immense enrichment of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, going far beyond (and, of course, also in a different direction from) the precedent established in the Jewish tradition.

This interpretive framework played an important role in early doctrinal developments, such as that pertaining to the Trinity. In his book Introduction to Christianity, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had stressed that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a deduction from abstract philosophical principles, but an attempt to come to grips with the meaning of Scripture. For instance, when St. Thomas the Doubter saw the resurrected Christ he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”, and in doing so he used the same words as are used in the Jewish Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” What, then, was the meaning of Thomas’ exclamation? Or consider the fact that while in the Hebrew Scriptures the references to God as “Father” are infrequent, in the New Testament it appears more than 170 times, often on the lips of Jesus himself. What is the meaning of this? The efforts of early Christians to penetrate these and other texts resulted, in the end, in an enrichment of the doctrine of the oneness of God, and revealed God’s relations as part of his essence.

If God is not solitary and exists always in relation, there can be no talk of God that does not involve love. Love unites Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, love brings God into relation with the world, and by love human beings cleave to God.

The influence of Scripture also gave Christians a very different understanding of creation and the nature of man than that prevalent in the ancient world. The creation account of Genesis — which, take note, the Fathers insisted must be read non-literally — affirmed that the world is ordered and good. St. Basil perceived that the meaning of the Scriptural creation story is that there is an intelligent cause behind the universe; the world is caused by wisdom and love, not chance and disorder. He also affirmed that God created everything ex nihilo by the power of his will, a view quite different from that found in ancient sources, such as the Timaeus of Plato.

It was St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th c.) who was the first great thinker to unfold the Christian understanding of the nature of man. Because Genesis affirms that creation, including man, is good, Christians rejected the view that the soul is trapped in the body as in a cage, as Plato had said. The body is good, and is an integral part of human nature. St. Augustine, for instance, wrote that for this reason Christians must always show respect for the bodies of the dead. Yet a materialistic account of human nature is also inadequate, for though we are part of nature, we are unique insofar as we find happiness and fulfillment only in God, who is prior to and beyond nature. Furthermore, Scripture states that man is made in the image of God, and Christians saw that this teaching had radical implications for our understanding of our own nature. On the basis of this teaching, the writings of the Fathers are permeated by a sense of the greatness and dignity of man. Gregory, for instance, is the first to condemn slavery, and he does so on the grounds that since we are all made in God’s image, we are all free and equal by nature. The doctrine opened up other vistas as well. It affected, for example, reflection on the Delphic dictum to “know thyself”: “Because our mind is made in the likeness of the one who created us, it escapes our knowledge”, said Gregory. Something of the mystery of the Triune God is present even in ourselves.

As the Church grew and developed, Christians were forced to think about their relationship to the secular authorities, and the respective roles of Church and state. As we have seen, the Church was not an abstraction, but was understood as a distinct society with its own laws, traditions, rituals, and governance. It could be seen, therefore, as in some sense a rival to the state. St. Augustine, in his great Civitate Dei, was the first to deal at length with this issue. In his thinking, the city of God is distinct from the city of man, but is not separate. A Christian remains a member of the earthly city even as he vows allegiance to the Lord of the heavenly city. It is in the city of God, however, where justice and peace are more fully realized: “A society that denies or excludes the principle that makes human beings human, namely, that we are created to love and serve God, will be neither just, nor virtuous, nor peaceful.”

It is also good to remember how different the Church was, structurally, from what had been the norm in religions of the pagan world. The Christian Church, though spread throughout the empire and beyond, saw itself as an intrinsic unity, a view testified to by the calling of ecumenical councils and the extensive correspondence between bishops. The role of the priesthood, too, was altered, for whereas in the pagan world priests had been largely functionaries of the state, obliged to carry out the rites but not much more, Christian bishops were well-educated and often eloquent teachers who sought to lead their flocks by setting a good example. More importantly, their authority was independent of the state.

In two very interesting chapters, Wilken looks at the development of early Christian poetry and art. He introduced me to the poet Prudentius (348-c.410), who was among the first to write large-scale poems on Christian themes. (Some of these early literary experiments were odd; one poet rewrote the Gospel of Matthew in hexameter!) Of greater theological import than poetry was early Christian visual art, such as icons, for inevitably Christians had to contend with the Biblical commandment to “make no graven image”. To this day, both Jews and Muslims lack a religious representational art on account of this commandment, yet the same is obviously not true of Christianity. The reason for the difference is the Incarnation. In Christ’s Incarnation, material things became tied up with spiritual realities. The Logos, the divine Reason, became bound up with matter, and could therefore be represented in material form. The Council of Chalcedon (451) decreed that “it was not possible to speak of Christ’s divine nature without referring to his human nature, or to refer to the man Christ without seeing him as God incarnate. If the two natures cannot be separated, a portrait of Christ depicts not simply his human nature, but the God who has become man.” In effect, it was now licit for Christians to make images of God because God himself had done so first. Thus icons became an enduring and beautiful expression of the sacramental imagination: “Icons, like the consecrated bread and wine, the wood of the cross, the book of the gospels, are witnesses to God’s sojourn among us as a human being.”

In their reflection on the moral life, Christians inherited and adopted the pagan account of the four virtues: courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. But they adapted them by defining the goal of the moral life as “to be like God and to remain in him”. As humanity had been made in the image of God, but that image had been tarnished and tainted by sin, so the goal of the moral life was to restore the original likeness. Since it is love that motivates us to do good, virtue consists in a right ordering of one’s love, and in this ordering the love of God, being the greatest good, must be preeminent. Religious devotion, or piety, was therefore joined to the others as a new virtue. Even here, however, despite all the talk about the catalogue of virtues, Christian life was more than a theory. Early Christian lives, or biographies of good people, emerged as a genre for instruction about the moral life, and imitation of these good people was urged as a path to virtue. Throughout, the stress was not only on good actions, but on good interior disposition, for the Christian God sees into the heart, and is not fooled by duplicity as the pagan gods had been. “Imitation, the virtues, interior disposition, character, likeness to God” — these were the elements of early Christian moral reflection.

Whether they are writing about the moral life, or about the arts, or about faith, or about the nature of man, there is a common theme that recurs: “Nothing is more characteristic of the Christian intellectual tradition than its fondness for the language of the heart.” Christianity has never embraced the Stoic ideal of detachment, choosing instead to cultivate the passions, and especially love. Even the austere Cistercians of the twelfth century, in whom one might of all people suspect an unsmiling gravity, took as the special source of their spirituality the passionate and sensual Song of Songs. Christian thinkers saw that since man, whether he knows it or not, truly desires God, progress in the spiritual life depends on the right nurturing of desire. They were guided by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, comparing God to a fresh spring of water, said it this way:

As you came near the spring you would marvel, seeing that the water was endless, as it constantly gushed up and poured forth. Yet you could never say that you had seen all the water. How could you see what was still hidden in the bosom of the earth? Hence no matter how long you might stay at the spring, you would always be beginning to see the water…. It is the same with one who fixes his gaze on the infinite beauty of God. It is constantly being discovered anew, and it is always seen as something new and strange in comparison with what the mind has already understood. And as God continues to reveal himself, man continues to wonder; and he never exhausts his desire to see more, since what he is waiting for is always more magnificent, more divine, than all that he has already seen.” (Homily on the Song of Songs 9)

Wilken has written a wonderful, illuminating book. He wears his learning lightly, and the book is a relatively easy read. Alongside the theological content, he has written short biographical introductions to the major figures of early Christian thought, ranging from Justin Martyr in the second century through figures like Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Maximus the Confessor, all the way to John of Damascus in the eighth century. It is a long, fascinating, intellectually creative adventure rooted in history, ritual, and text, and animated throughout, in the words of Hilary of Poitiers, by “the warmth of faith”.


October 25, 2007

To my delight, I have the opportunity to visit Barcelona for a few days in the not-too-distant future. Though I have been to Spain once before — mainly to walk El Camino de Santiago — this will be my first time in Barcelona.

The question is: what shall I do while I am there? I am already planning, of course, to see the city’s cathedral and Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, and I hope to make a day-trip up to the monastery of Montserrat. The prospect of travelling up the coast to see the Dalí museum in Figueres has also crossed my mind.

It occurs to me that those who kindly deign to read this web log may be able to offer other suggestions. If you’ve been to the city and would like to recommend some sights to me, please do so! I will be most appreciative.

Their birthday

October 23, 2007

Last week in the evening class I teach we were discussing systems of linear equations. This is a highly enjoyable topic that, despite its initial simplicity, contains a wealth of truly fascinating mathematics (though we don’t cover the fascinating stuff in my class). I was delighted, therefore, when a friend sent me the following riddle this week, and I thought I’d post it up for the health and enjoyment of all. The first person to post the solution shall be rewarded with . . . a well-deserved sense of satisfaction. (The person who sent me the riddle — and he knows who he is — is excluded from the fun.)

Here we go:

It’s their birthday, you see,
The same for all three,
It’s strange but it’s perfectly true.

There’s Bertie and Ben
Who differ by ten;
Eight years older than one there is Sue.

Double one brother,
Plus treble the other,
Plus Sue’s age makes seventy-two.

From what’s on this page
You can find the girl’s age.
It’s really quite easy to do.

[J.A.H. Hunter, Fun with Figures. Dover Pub. 1965. p. 67]

Only integer solutions shall be accepted.

If Middle Earth had chattering classes…

October 22, 2007

The good folks over at McSweeney’s have dug up a transcript of a fascinating conversation between Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky about the politics of The Lord of the Rings.  Those gentlemen have some peculiar ideas, ideas that seem strangely familiar. . .

Liebestod on a lark

October 21, 2007

The Loved One (1948)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 1990)
127 p. Second reading.

My tour through Waugh’s novels continues with this slim volume, which I was delighted to meet again after a long absence. I was delighted, but surprised too, for though I knew that it was a satire, I had not remembered just how savage it really is. There is a studied naivety in the narrative voice, which remains blandly unperturbed as it piles one grotesquerie on top of another — but beneath all I perceive a flashing grin.

Of all the ways a novelist could handle the twin themes of love and death, few can have been as luridly original as what we find here. Waugh’s treatment of romantic entanglements in the funeral parlours of 1940s Los Angeles draws on a vein of deep and dark satire. What are we to think when Mr. Joyboy, the talented mortician at Whispering Glades Memorial Park, seeks to woo his young assistant Miss Thanatagenos (I am not making this up) by arranging the faces of the corpses that pass between them, now with a comely smile, now full of woe? At least Dennis Barlow, the young British ex-pat who works down the hill at the Happier Hunting Grounds pet cemetery, when he tries to win the heart of Miss Thanatagenos, has the decorum to use, not dead poets themselves, but only their words — passing them off, of course, as his own. Thus courtship by proxy becomes a central plot device.

The main target of the satire, however, is not how we love, but how we die. Waugh began the book after a visit to America, and some commentators have said he satirizes “the American way of death”. Personally, I think his target is wider than that, though I’m not surprised that exposure to Hollywood would catalyze his thoughts. His critique is against the attempt to de-fang death, to make it a bland, non-sectarian “stage of life”, or to make it cold and scientific. He intends, I believe, to leave a blistering welt on the backside of our culture, which, when it cannot just forget about death, smothers it in presumptuous reassurances about the benignity of what follows. Consider a conversation that occurs when Dennis Barlow makes his first trip to Whispering Glades:

“Mr Barlow, you are afraid of death.”
“No, I assure you.”
“It is a natural instinct, Mr Barlow, to shrink from the unknown. But if you discuss it openly and frankly you remove morbid reflections. That is one of the things the psycho-analysts have taught us. Bring your dark fears into the light of common day of the common man, Mr Barlow. Realize that death is not a private tragedy of your own but the general lot of man. As Hamlet so beautifully writes: “Know that death is common; all that live must die.” Perhaps you think it morbid and even dangerous to give thought to this subject, Mr Barlow; the contrary has been proved by scientific investigation… Choose now, at leisure and in health, the form of final preparation you require, pay for it while you are best able to do so, shed all anxiety. Pass the buck, Mr Barlow; Whispering Glades can take it.”
“I will give the matter every consideration.”

It’s an amusing passage. There is, first, the frank commercialism disguised as friendship. Second, we know that Hamlet never said, much less wrote, anything of the kind, and in any case to choose Hamlet as an exemplar of one at peace with death, that “fell sergeant”, is absurd. Like so many other things at Whispering Glades, these reassurances are built on pure piffle. And that’s just the point, isn’t it? For all the talk about frank openness and common daylight, the way of death built on the advice of the psycho-analysts and scientists is paved with euphemism and misdirection. Those who trod that path cannot, it seems, look squarely and manfully at this private tragedy — for, whatever else death may be, it is certainly that. They cannot even tremble for fear at the thought of annihilation. Instead, they have “scientific investigation” and therapy to enervate them as they approach the precipice. In this passage, and I think through much of the book, we therefore see an element of Waugh’s enduring critique of modernity as a thin, degrading substitute for a truly ennobling humanism.

And so, in its way, it is a serious book. Like all satirists, Waugh exaggerates to make a point, but the point is pointed, and he does make it.

It goes without saying that the book is gracefully written. In that regard, he could do no wrong. More than that, however, the craft with which the story is put together is exquisite. On this small scale, perhaps, the craftsmanship is more than usually evident. All of the major plot elements — the two funeral parlours, the two suitors, the English and American characters, the suicides, the poetry — everything is part of the story. Take a piece out, the story doesn’t work. The book is like a many-sided figure built up from interlocking parts that can be held and admired, now this way, now that — a literary objet d’art noir.

[Grooming the suicide]
“You are sure that they will be able to make him presentable?”
“We had a Loved One last month who was found drowned. He had been in the ocean a month and they only identified him by his wrist-watch. They fixed that stiff,” said the hostess disconcertingly lapsing from the high diction she had hitherto employed, “so he looked like it was his wedding day. The boys up there surely know their job. Why, if he’d sat on an atom bomb, they’d make him presentable.”
“That’s very comforting.”
“I’ll say it is.”

It takes all sorts

October 19, 2007

I don’t make a habit of these quizzes, but I do have a weakness for them:

What Kind of Reader Are You?

Your Result: Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm



You’re probably in the final stages of a Ph.D. or otherwise finding a way to make your living out of reading. You are one of the literati. Other people’s grammatical mistakes make you insane.

Dedicated Reader



Book Snob



Literate Good Citizen






Fad Reader



What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

I don’t know about being a literato — at the very least, I would have thought that my affection for Tolkien would have disqualified me — but the bit about grammatical mistakes is true enough.

Not that it matters very much these days. My poor reading plan has fallen on hard times of late, what with the wedding planning, and the two jobs, and the weekend trips. It seems that several of my reading plan’s epicycles have broken, and the former flow of words is down to a trickle of hardly 5-10 pages each day. But times change, and to everything there is a season.

If you try the quiz yourself, I’d not mind knowing the results.

Book sale season

October 17, 2007

It’s that time of year again. Ranked high among the delights of studying at the University of Toronto, and collectively constituting one of the few good reasons to live in Toronto (the others being opportunity to taunt Leafs fans and true love), are the annual used book sales. Around about late September and October, a number of the university’s colleges throw open their doors to bibliophiles and sell off tens of thousands of books collected over the course of the previous year. Where these books come from is a mystery to me: donations, bequests? But come they do, and, by sale’s end, they’ve gone again.

Over the years I’ve taken advantage of these sales to build my personal library in a fiscally responsible manner. I used to queue for the sales six or seven hours in advance of opening, in hopes of being the first to the table and making a grand discovery, and also just for the sheer pleasure of it. I would pass the time by practicing my book sale calisthenics: the elbow swing (very effective at defending one’s position at a good table), the overhead box hoist (necessary for efficient navigation through the frenzied crowd), the table dive (to gain access to the heretofore untouched boxes of books stashed under the tables), and so forth. I have happy memories of struggling homeward with overflowing boxes perched precariously on various parts of my bicycle. Those days are gone, at least for now: the double-punch of having a real job and living five hours away kept me from attending opening day at all this year, and I was only able to attend two of the five sales I was wont to frequent in former days, but both were of high quality and I’m content with the results. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Ah, yes, the results:


Every year I find a couple of really outstanding things at these sales, and I’m happy to say that this year was no exception in that respect, despite my being forced to miss Day One. This year the cream of the crop included a handsome volume of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur printed with Caxton’s original Middle English text — no modernization here, please — and my astonished discovery of hardback editions of Churchill’s straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth six-volume history The Second World War — the whole set for the princely sum of $12. Those who ask whether and how I will ever find time to read these books are kindly requested to keep their thoughts to themselves.

I also picked up: a few adventuring books about daring ocean crossings and Antarctic journeys; some fine travel books by H.V. Morton, my favourite mostly forgotten travel writer; a couple of Walker Percy volumes; several literary biographies, including Peter Ackroyd’s Dickensian door-stop. Well, you can see for yourself in the photograph. (Click to enlarge.)


The holy man of the mountain

October 15, 2007

The Golden Epistle (c.1145)
A Letter to the Brethren of Mont Dieu
William of St Thierry (Cistercian Publications, 1971)
150 p. First reading.

William of St Thierry was a Benedictine abbot, a friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the middle of his life, he resigned his position as abbot to join the nascent Cistercian order for which Bernard was such an eloquent spokesman. A number of his works have survived. Of those, the present epistle has historically been the most widely read, but for a peculiar reason: it was wrongly thought to have been written by St Bernard himself. But its value persists even when that famous name is stripped away, for William was an intelligent, deeply perceptive man in his own right.

The Golden Epistle was written to encourage and instruct the brothers at the newly established monastery of Mont Dieu. It is both a manual of ascetic spirituality and a treatise on the meaning and purpose of monastic life. William calls the monastic vocation “the loftiest of professions”, for the monk dedicates himself to the recovery, within himself, of “likeness to God”. But anyone who attempts to tread that path will encounter difficulties. The very structure of the monastic life is designed to assist him in these struggles — it encourages him, for example, to let his external life be governed by reason rather than whim, to avoid self-indulgence in eating and sleeping, to avoid idleness, to read and study worthy subjects, and to do so prayerfully, with God and the goal of life set always before him, and, not least, to undertake manual labour, which besides being an obligation in Scripture will also, says William, aid concentration and unity of being. Adding to these external helps, William offers a variety of advice to beginners: make inner piety, “the continual remembrance of God”, the foundation of the inner life; do not judge others, for no man can know another as he can know himself; imitate a worthy model, and in turn set a good example for others; be moderate in asceticism, for though the body be at times weak, yet it is not evil; let your activity be meaningful; cultivate prudence, modesty, and simplicity of spirit; remember that the humble life of the monk imitates Christ, who humbled himself to share in our redemption; be patient and persistent in prayer; do not speak idly of the graces God grants you, but keep them close to your heart; love your cell.

This matter of the monastic cell is one that comes up frequently as William writes. Each monk spends the greater part of his time alone in his cell, and in William’s thought the cell itself becomes an active influence in the monk’s life. It should, he says,

be a dwelling-place of peace, an inner chamber with closed door, a place not of concealment but of retreat… For the cell cherishes, nourishes and enfolds the son of grace, the fruit of its womb. It leads him to the fullness of perfection and makes him worthy to hold converse with God. But one who does not belong to it or is brought in under false pretenses it quickly disclaims and casts out. That is why the Lord said to Moses: “Undo the shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” For a holy place or holy ground is quite unable to endure for long the carrion of dead affections or a man who is dead at heart.

Thus the cell is a testing ground, which either purifies or casts out. My own limited experience in this area bears that judgment out, for on visits to monasteries I have known the intensity which the inner life takes on when deprived of distraction, and I have seen others bolt from their cells under the same pressure. Those who imagine that such a life is dull have, I suspect, never tried it. It is in his cell that the drama of a solitary is played out, and in which he reaches his fulfillment, if he is reach it at all: “The man who has God with him is never less alone than when he is alone. It is then he has undisturbed fruition of his joy, it is then he is his own master and is free to enjoy God in himself and himself in God.”

William sketches his understanding of the whole arc of monastic life, distinguishing three main stages, which he calls the animal, rational, and spiritual, and I think it is worth looking into his scheme for a few moments. Although each man is making progress in each stage at all times, it is generally the case, says William, that novices begin mostly in the animal stage, struggling with the body and its discipline, and, God willing, they gradually progress through the other stages.

In the animal stage, one is motivated more by enthusiasm or authority than by reason. The will is undisciplined, and progress is made primarily through growth in self-control. Attempts to found self-control on pride, as when a man refuses to indulge some vice for fear of what others might say of him, is self-defeating, for pride too will block spiritual growth. Instead, it is humility, a simple and good will, which is the only sure foundation for the spiritual life. Nevertheless, beginners will struggle with sensuality, both in their body and their imagination, and temptation may be very severe, prayer may be difficult, and often the novice will chafe against discipline and lust after novelties. For these reasons, William counsels that it is best that beginners not try to govern themselves, but submit in obedience to a wise spiritual father. And there is wisdom in this, for it is true that the will draws more strength from externally imposed laws than from those which are self-imposed, for the latter may be self-unimposed all too easily when temptation arises. Self-mastery is an indispensable requirement for growth in virtue and love, for how can we give ourselves in love until we have command of ourselves? “How can we see the gods face to face”, said C.S. Lewis, “till we have faces?” William agrees, and makes the acquisition of virtue — stable good habits confirmed by a good will — the goal of the first stage.

In the rational stage the soul is led by knowledge of the good, but not yet animated by love. Progress is made by determined adherence to what one knows to be good, a habit that eventually bears fruit in a spiritual affection for the good. Reason leads onward toward love, until the two become one thing. Reason, in William’s sense of the word, is not only instrumental or discursive reason (what he calls “reasoning”), but “a gazing on truth”. Reason is how we apprehend truths, and contemplate them. This reason, being the highest thing in man, naturally seeks that which is higher than itself. Reason thirsts not merely after facts, but after understanding, and always pushes to deepen, enrich, and enlarge that understanding. Ultimately, in other words, it seeks God, even more so because it is itself made in the image of God: “the devoted image hastens to cling to its exemplar” (209). Thus we can perceive a two-fold movement: with the growth of self-mastery, the will is more and more liberated from what has shackled it, and this in turn frees reason, understood in this rich sense of knowing, to conform more and more to truth. For William is well aware that our sin, our willfullness and selfishness, prevent us from freely pursuing truth, preferring to flatter ourselves. This must be broken, and our waxing freedom makes possible a truer reception of the world, and a growing capacity for love.

In the spiritual stage it is this love that pulls one forward. It is desire that works within to transform the soul into the image of that which is loved. In his discussion of this final stage, William’s thought mounts up on heights where I have difficulty following. This is to be expected. Briefly, however, he says that in this stage the mind learns to entertain only worthy thoughts of God, and the will, animated by love, unites itself to God, so that the soul becomes like God, which is the goal of the spiritual life. “Man becomes through grace what God is by nature” (263). When this happens, it is only as a gift of God, and no one can persist long in that state of perfection.

…grace sometimes as if in passing touches the affections of the lover and takes him out of himself, drawing him into the light of true reality, out of the tumult of affairs into the joys of silence, and to the slight extent of which he is capable, showing him for a moment, for an instant, ultimate reality as it is in itself. Sometimes it even transforms the man into a resemblance of ultimate reality, granting him to be, to the slight extent of which he is capable, such as it is. (269)

It is probably wisest to remain silent in the face of such words, but I’ll just say two things. First, notice how the passage is permeated by language of love and joy. Second, notice how the spiritual life, which is here reaching its apex, is always oriented toward reality, toward the truth of things. Both of these points seem to me important.

All too often I forget the privilege a book offers me when I pick it up. In the whole of my life, I may never meet in the flesh anyone with the intellectual or spiritual gifts of those who have left me their thoughts in their writings. There, in those pages, they speak directly to me. Reading William has reminded me of this privilege.

[Idle and meaningful activity]
“It is ridiculous to take up idle pursuits in order to avoid idleness. A pursuit is idle which either has no usefulness or does not tend to some useful purpose. The aim of activity should not be merely to pass the day more or less enjoyably or at least without becoming too weary of leisure but also that when the day is over it always leaves something in the mind that will contribute to the soul’s advancement and that some fresh treasure is added each day to the heart’s store. A good hermit should consider that he has lost a day of his life if during the day he cannot remember having done any of the things for which a man lives in solitude.” (82)

“When you go to sleep always take with you in your memory or your thoughts something that will enable you to fall asleep peacefully and sometimes even help you to dream; something also that will come to mind when you wake up and renew in you the previous day’s purpose. In this way light will be shed on the night for you and it will be as the day, and the night will be your illumination in your delights. You will fall asleep peacefully, you will rest in tranquillity, you will wake up easily and when you rise you will have no difficulty in returning with your wits about you to what you have not wholly laid aside.” (136)

[The Holy Spirit]
“He it is who gives life to man’s spirit and holds it together, just as it gives life to his body and holds it together. Men may teach how to seek God and angels how to adore him, but he alone teaches how to find him, possess him and enjoy him. He himself is the anxious quest of the man who truly seeks, he is the devotion of the man who adores in spirit and truth, he is the wisdom of the man who finds, the love of him who possesses, the gladness of him who enjoys.” (266)

[Dynamics of the inner life]
“We must first of all know that Wisdom, as we read in the book that bears its name, “anticipates those who desire it and comes to meet them, joyfully revealing itself to them on the way” (Wis 6:14). Whether it be in the effort to advance or in meditation or in study “it reaches everywhere on account of purity” (Wis 7:24). For God helps with his countenance the man who looks upon him; the splendour of the Highest Good moves and leads onward and attracts the man who contemplates it.
And when reason as it progresses mounts on high to become love, and grace comes down to meet the one who so loves and desires, it often happens that reason and love, which produce those two states, become one thing, and likewise wisdom and knowledge, which result from them. No longer can they be treated or thought of separately. They are now one thing, flowing from one activity and one faculty, both in the perception of understanding and in the joy of fruition. And so although each must be distinguished from the other, since the matter stands so, each must be thought and treated of with the other and in the other.” (195-6)

[Modesty and reticence]
“But before everything he should not think highly of himself, beyond his just estimation but have a sober esteem of himself, according to the measure of faith which God has apportioned to him. He should not entrust his treasures to men’s mouths but conceal them in his cell and hide them away in his conscience, so as to have this inscription always in the forefront of his conscience and on the front of his cell: “My secret is my own, my secret is my own.” (Is 24:16)” (300)