The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

My Holiday Reading

The table beside my living room easy chair is always weighed down with, in Dear Diane's words, "an unsightly pile of books." This "pile" consists of the books I'm currently reading and its size allows me to select a book based on my mood or interest at any given time. That's another nice thing about being retired: I am free to read whatever I like. But every year, for some reason, I set aside a few special books to read during the period between Thanksgiving and the new year. I'm not sure why I do this unless it's a holdover from my school days when I read strictly for pleasure during the Christmas vacation.

Because we sometimes travel during this holiday season, or play host to children and grandchildren, I usually limit my holiday reading to only three or four books. But this year, because we were at home most of the time and had guests only for a few days, I expanded my list slightly. I enjoyed every last one of the books I read this year, so it seemed only right that I should include them here.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, by Pope Benedict XVI, Image, NY, 2012.

This, the third and final volume of Pope Benedict's study of Jesus' life, is a marvelous little book (132 pages). Reminiscent of Jean Daniélou's 1967 book, The Infancy Narratives (a rather rare book which I also recommend if you can locate a copy), it focuses solely on the gospel stories of Jesus' infancy and childhood and is filled with wonderful insights that I had never before encountered. I especially enjoyed his commentary on Mary's unique role in the Incarnation. For example, during his discussion of the archangel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary, Pope Benedict writes:

I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke's annunciation narrative: "And the angel departed from her" [Lk 1:38]. The great hour of Mary's encounter with God's messenger -- in which her whole life is changed -- comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments -- from Joseph's dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind [cf. Mk 3:21; Jn 10:20] , right up to the night of the Cross [p. 37].

Later in his commentary on the journey of the wise men from the East, the pope briefly addresses these visitors and their wisdom:

The men of whom Matthew speaks were not just astronomers. They were "wise." They represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God and hence"philosophy" in the original sense of the word. Wisdom, then, serves to purify the message of "science": the rationality of that message doesnot remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiestpossibilities [p. 95].

Although I purposely read this book during the first week of Advent, it is fitting reading for any time of the year. I ended up reading it twice, once rather quickly and the second time much more slowly.

Beginning at Jerusalem: Five Reflections of the History of the Church, by Glenn W. Olsen, Ignatius, San Francisco, 2004.

Dr. Olsen, a Professor of History at the University of Utah, has provided the general reader -- that includes folks like me -- with a fascinating study of the Church as it made its way through five key periods of its history: early Christianity; early medieval times; high middle ages; the confusing time from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment; and modern times.

I was particularly impressed by Dr. Olsen's discussion of the early Church and its appreciation of the central doctrines of Christianity, an appreciation sorely lacking among many Christians today. The following excerpt highlights this concern:

Many contemporary assumptions make it very difficult to appreciate the central Christian doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, redemption through the saving act of Christ, baptism, the Eucharist, and the communion of saints. In each case the individualism of a noncontemplative society stands between us and the appropriation of these doctrines. Our society teaches us that the individual is its basic unit, and we have become so used to the assumption that the individual is a kind of ultimate reality, autonomous and atomistic, that we have become psychologically removed from earlier points of view, which always saw the individual as defined by something larger, a family, a tribe, or city, by being born into some form of relationship [p. 35].

The book is filled with similar insights, each encouraging today's Christian to accept and learn from both the wisdom and the errors of those who preceded us. Here, for example, Dr. Olsen expands on this theme by providing us with another insight particularly valuable for today's married couples:

For him [Aristotle] as many ancients, there is a sense in which "you are me", and "I am you." The ancient Christians expressed this in the idea that the married couple must seek each other's salvation, that likely they would find salvation together or not at all [p. 37].

This is something I've stressed in marriage preparation programs over the years. Inevitably when I tell the engaged couple that each is at least partly responsible for the other's salvation, it usually results in looks of mild surprise. And when they question this, I just refer them to Jesus' words in which He stressed particularly that with marriage the two are now one:

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate [Mk 10:6-9].

If you would normally prefer a visit to the dentist to reading a book on Church history, this book should change your mind. It's well-written and tells an exciting and interesting story. But more importantly the author constantly brings the reality of the past into our present lives, showing us how the Church, although she develops to meet the challenges of history, also retains her essence, the unchanging and essential doctrines revealed through Jesus Christ and the Apostles.

Ancestral Shadows, by Russell Kirk, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2004.

For many, the late Russell Kirk is one of the fathers of the modern American conservative movement. He certainly had a significant impact on my thinking from the moment my father handed me a copy of his book, The Conservative Mind, back in 1961 during my senior year in high school. Kirk simply makes so much sense. As a result my home library is littered with his books. But what a lot of folks -- even many of his most ardent fans -- don't know is that he was also a writer of fiction, but not just any old fiction. No, Russell Kirk wrote ghost stories, and wonderful stories they are, brimming over with moral truths and reminders of the "permanent things" that must be preserved if we are to preserve our humanity.

This anthology includes 19 stories that Kirk wrote and published over his long (but not long enough) career as a man of letters. Kirk, who converted to Catholicism in mid-life, found unique and subtle ways to inject his theological and philosophic ideas into his stories, in which evil is destroyed and good conquers.

Even if you've never liked spooky, supernatural stories, even if you're a died-in-the-wool liberal, you'll still love these stories. Read them...preferably at night.

Toward the Gleam, by T. M. Doran, Ignatius, San Francisco, 2011.

This novel was perfect reading for the holiday season. I can't tell you too much about it without spoiling the heart of the story. Like a good mystery, it's one of those books where half the fun is in deciphering the clues and uncovering the true identity of the characters.

Set in England between the two world wars, the novel tells the story of a professor, a philologist, who finds a beautifully crafted box containing a mysterious manuscript written in an unknown language. This discovery leads him to a lifelong quest to decipher the manuscript and understand its implications, a quest that introduces him to a steady stream of interesting characters. His discovery, however, also attracts the attention of another whose intentions are not quite so benign and may actually threaten the professor and those close to him.

Let me say only that you too will enjoy this novel if, like me, you are a Tolkien and a Chesterton fan. A fun book.

A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin, Harcourt, New York, 1991.

For some unknown reason I had never read a book by Mark Helprin...until now. I had meant to, but just never got around to it. In fact, I actually checked this book out of a local library on Cape Cod back in the mid-nineties, but work or other seemingly important demands -- the stuff of daily life -- got in the way and I had to return it or pay the fine. After that the book and its author slipped into one of those rarely accessible corners of my mind. And then a few months ago I came across a review of one of Helprin's recent books and was reminded of my earlier failure. So I logged onto and ordered A Soldier of the Great War. Two days later it was in my hands and I began to read.

It's not a short book -- 860 pages -- but I hated for it to end. Indeed, I can think of no greater praise for any novel than the reader's desire for more.

Helprin has written a remarkable story, the story of a life that witnessed and experienced tragedy and joy, cowardice and heroism, brutality and mercy, love and hate, loss and gain. It reveals the life of a man, Alessandro Giuliani, who spent several long and perilous years as an Italian soldier in World War I, that horrific, senseless and prophetic war that gave us the twentieth century and all of its man-made calamities. It's a story told by its hero many years later to a young illiterate worker whom he encounters by chance along the road outside Rome. In the telling the old man comes to terms with his remarkable life and the young man comes to an awakening of what life and love are really all about.

This is a book I will read again some day.

I read two other books during this Advent and Christmas season, but it's late and I need my sleep. I will, therefore, simply list them along with a brief comment or two. They, too, are well worth reading.

The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, by Roger Kimball, St. Augustine's Press, South Bend, 2012.

Roger Kimball, editor and published of one of my favorite journals, The New Criterion, offers us a collection of wonderful essays on Western culture and the threats it faces.

The First Thousand Years, by Robert Louis Wilken, Yale, New Haven, 2012.

In this, another book on Church history, Dr. Wilken introduces us to the revolution that was Christianity during its first 1,000 years. If you've never read Dr.Wilken, this book would certainly be a good place to start.

Off to bed...pax et bonum...

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