Tuesday Reading Roundup

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I quoted it yesterday and raved about it last week. Read Wolf Hall, then read this. (Or if someone else already has Wolf Hall checked out from your library, read Bring Up the Bodies then Wolf Hall.)

“Emptying the Bell: An Interview with Peter Matthiessen” by Lawrence Shainberg. In the wake of Matthiessen’s death this past week, Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) tweeted the link to this illuminating piece from the Fall 1993 issue of Tricycle.

“How to read the Bible” by Celia Wolff. Wolff is a Th.D. candidate at Duke, and she has provided with this post a fantastic, brief way for anyone (whether Biblical scholar, theologian, preacher, layperson, or reader of the Bible as literature) to learn to read the Bible better. Seriously, if you are interested in the Bible at any level or in any way, read this, post it to your Facebook wall, tweet it, email it to your church’s preacher(s). (Thanks for serving us all with this one, Celia! However this post relates to bigger projects you’re working on, you are doing it right.)

“Learning guitar licks and other tricks at Afghanistan’s Rock School Kabul” by Larisa Epatko. A burgeoning rock scene in Kabul is being helped along by music educators.

“Life Is Short, Proust Is Long” by James Camp. It’s not so much that I agree with this fairly critical read of what SpritzInc.com is trying to do for the world of reading, but that conversations with friends about this article brought me back around to reassessing the usefulness of speed-reading in my own life.

On the Trinity by AugustineDoesn’t need my recommendation, but if you’re familiar with it, I’m about to begin Book IV. Also, buy the edition I linked to. The footnotes and various introductions written by translator Edmund Hill are fantastic.

“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997” translated by Timothy S. Murphy. A beautiful and natural pairing that I would not have known to wish for, if I had not learned this week that it happened.

“The Praying Habit: Catholic” by Carolyn Browender. Over at Killing the Buddha, Browender has been pursuing a Lenten discipline of praying within various traditions other than her own (and you can see them all here). In this particular post, she talks through her relationship to Catholicism, her favorite saints, and her attempts at learning the rosary, along the way describing how her relationship with all of that is one of both consternation and blessing.

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare. Reading about Henry VIII has me wanting to read more about the other Henrys and about Elizabeth I, which leads me to Shakespeare. From Sonnet III:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for several years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been particularly interesting, thought- or conversation-provoking, and/or entertaining.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

 

 

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. When DC was trying to relaunch some classics with 1980s grit and sadness, they turned to Frank Miller, who had already written The Dark Knight Returns. Year One is the story of the rising of James Worthington Gordon and The Batman, who in this telling both arrived to clean up Gotham on the same day. The new show Gotham has to be laboring under Frank Miller’s Batman’s shadow once again, although I’ve not read anything directly connecting the show to this book. At any rate, among the best parts of Year One has to be this.

Benediction by Kent Haruf. A few years ago, I adored Haruf’s Plainsong. Benediction has that earlier novel’s same simplicity, strong characterization, and focus on real story (not plot-drivenness, but story). For one instance that stands out in contemporary fiction, there are very few living novelists who can describe a meeting in a church basement where the basement is real and the people in it are real and the things they talk about and argue about and speak spitefully and speak charitably about are real. Holt, Colorado–where all of Haruf’s novels take place–is a real place.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Mantel’s Wolf Hall was among the best books of 2009, and its sequel is somehow just as good. The two books (and a third in-the-making) follow the life of Thomas Cromwell, who was born a commoner but rose to be a chief adviser to Henry VII (historical spoiler alert: but did not end his life happily). I am not someone who loves every British historical drama that comes along, but this is not just historical fiction. It’s just a great and ambitious novel. Which I’m only 1/4 of the way through.

“A Net, at last, for the Golden Gate Bridge?” by Tad FriendSixteen-hundred suicides in since its opening in 1937, the Golden Gate might finally be getting a net.

“An Open Letter to the Director of Blue Jasmine by Wade Sheeler. Although I’ve closely read most of the articles appearing in the wake of the resurfacing of child sexual abuse allegations, this isn’t one of them. Admittedly that makes it safer to share, but in my defense, it’s just a good article and few of the sex abuse allegation articles are. It’s from August 2013, and it calls Woody Allen to task for refusing to move beyond his long-time soundtrack choices.

Steve Jobs said a thing in an interview once, which was quoted on Twitter. It really reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s word to beginning writers that the most important thing is to actually finish what you’ve started, because the process is so great a teacher.

The Trinity (this ed.) by Saint Augustine. This is going to be on here a while. The introduction by Edmund Hill is fantastic, worth reading on its own for situating Augustine’s work theologically and historically. And then I shared a bit from Augustine himself yesterday.

“‘Tuches Sleeps With the Dictionary!’: Remembering Lester Schonbrun, and the dingy Times Square games parlor where he found a second home” by Stefan Fatsis. In this obituary over at Slate, Fatsis leads the reader into the wild world of boardgame hustlers and champions in 1960s and 1970s New York City.

“Waving to Virginia: Patti Smith Reads Virginia” by Maria Popova. Brain Pickings remembers the death of Virginia Woolf on March 28, 1941 with an archived performance/reading by Patti Smith.


Tuesday Reading Roundup has been a regular feature of this blog and its predecessor for a few years. Entries must: 1) Have been read by me in the previous week; 2) Have been interesting, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining.

St. Augustine’s “Sheets of Sound”

John Coltrane icon

One of saxophonist John Coltrane’s trademarks was his so-called “sheets of sound” technique. It’s a sound that attracts the non-jazz-listener with its virtuosity, a sound that beginning sax players will try to emulate in their own early solos, and a sound that comes full circle with mature horn players and listeners hearing that beneath what sounds like pure flash is miles of depth. At least when Coltrane did it.

Saint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne

One of Augustine’s techniques also had a “sheets of sound” quality to it. He had the Scriptures and a host of other texts virtually memorized, and at times he would pull out all the stops (to mix musical metaphors), with results like this from De Trinitate, Bk.1, Ch.4:

In the form of God, all things were made by him (Jn 1:3); in the form of a servant he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Gal 4:4). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (Jn 10:30); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have life in himself (Jn 5:26); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Mt 26:38). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 Jn 5:20); in the form of a servant, he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Phil 2:8).

In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (Jn 16:15), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (Jn 17:10); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (Jn 7:16).

Courageous Faith

A Christological Reading of Genesis 12:1-4
from March 16, 2014 (Lent 2A) at New Horizon UMC, Champaign, IL

Genesis 12:1-4 (NRSV)
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

The Communion of Saints and Pastoral Care

All Saints Icon

We believe in…the communion of saints!

I return to connecting pastoral care to the saints because when Christian ministers say that we believe in the communion of saints, part of what we are saying is that we cannot do ministry apart from the communion of saints. A reactionary Protestantism (not to be confused with all of Protestantism, as if there were any “all of Protestantism”) limits this truth to the living community while forgetting (or ignoring) that Jesus names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob among God’s living community.

When we do ministry, we are not ministering alone. We are the hands, feet, hearts, and bodies of Christ in the room. We are also the hands, feet, hearts, and bodies of those who have died in Christ and continue to do the work of Christ with Christ and in Christ. The whole Church prays from under the altar. This is that noisy Church which the lucky ones among us have already experienced, the church that talks back and prays back: “Help him, Lord!” and “Help her, Lord!” and “Amen,” while we as Christian ministers are offering ourselves at the bedside, in the hospital, in the prison, at the gravesite.

One Gorgeous Bee Meditation

Himalayan Honeybee

Who knew that Merton cared so much for the bees? Not I, until Kathleen Deignan gathered all of them together in one place in her edited collection of Merton’s nature writings (which I am loving more each page), When the Trees Say Nothing. The following is just one gorgeous bee meditation, excerpted from the final volume of Merton’s journals, The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey. (It’s worth noting that in his hermitage years at Gethsemani, Merton was increasingly drawn to nature and nature writers such as Thoreau):

Nonviolent Himalayan bees: after one had lit on me quietly three times without stinging, I let it crawl on my head a while, picking up sweat for some eclectic and gentle honeycomb, or just picking up sweat for no reason. Another crawled on my hand and I studied it. Certainly a bee. I could not determine whether it was stingless, or just well behaved.

Utility vs. Communion: Receiving the Gift of Creation

In the beginning

There is a certain futility in the efforts being made–truly sincere, dedicated, and intelligent efforts–to remedy our environmental devastation simply by activating renewable sources of energy and by reducing the deleterious impact of the industrial world. The difficulty is that the natural world is seen primarily for human use, not as a mode of sacred presence primarily to be communed with in wonder and beauty and intimacy. In our present attitude the natural world remains a commodity to be bought and sold, not a sacred reality to be venerated. The deep psychic change needed to withdraw us from the fascination of the industrial world, and the deceptive gifts it gives us, is too difficult for simply the avoidance of its difficulties or the attractions of its benefits. Eventually only our sense of the sacred will save us.

From Thomas Berry’s Foreword to When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature by Thomas Merton, edited by Kathleen Deignan

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Berry’s read of the West’s environmental conversation as we normally have it is devastating in its accuracy: talk of renewable resources and conservation is the other side of the coin from talk of our “right” to use the earth however we see fit. The question we ask in both cases–although we have differing answers–is ever, “How much can we take? How much can we use?” and never, “In what ways might we grow in loving relationship with the rest of Creation?”

For Christians–in particular those who wish to emphasize the gift of the earth to humankind in the beginning of Genesis–the challenge is to show our thankfulness for God’s very good gifts. We as recipients need to recognize that the Creation is not an object or a thing. A pet given to a child is not a thing the child can do with whatever she pleases, and a pet given to a child is a poor metaphor for how God has placed the earth and its creatures in our care.

This gift is not a thing or an object, and it’s not even a mere place. God’s good gift is a home and a family. (This particular home is even part of the family!) And the gifts of home and family are (as anyone who lacks either can tell you) not for utility but for communion.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

Merton's Palace of Nowhere

When James Finley finished high school, he did what so many other 18-year-olds do: he made his way to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he knew that Thomas Merton was a monk. Finley spent over five years at the monastery, part of that time with Merton as his spiritual director, before leaving at his superiors’ suggestion to continue his formal education. Finley eventually earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Although he never made final vows as a monk, Finley’s practice as a psychologist and retreat leader up to the present day has integrated contemplative practice and insight.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere is Finley’s most well-known and celebrated book, but he has written others (including The Contemplative Heartwhich I reviewed here). The most immediate difference between Merton’s Palace of Nowhere and The Contemplative Heart is that the earlier book is much more Christian, at least overtly. I don’t know if the difference is merely due to different intended audiences or to an author whose views have evolved into a more universal view of contemplative spirituality over time (much as Merton’s did).

Reviewed most simply, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere is an excellent book which well deserves its status as a contemporary spiritual classic. Anyone who has benefited from the works of Thomas Merton, and even anyone who has not yet read a word of Merton could gain much for their spiritual life and growth from these pages. In fact, it can be effectively read as an entryway into Merton’s life work.

And that crazy title? Surely a reference to Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle (and I’d love if anyone’s made the in-depth comparison) in a quote original to Merton, the Palace of Nowhere is the contemplative life, a spacious and beautiful place but which is no-where because there is no-arriving at its no-final-destination, which has no-door which can only be opened by no-one. Or as someone else once said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Finally, because I love sharing excerpts:

An unborn baby that could think and have its way might choose not to be born. The violent wrenching from its dark, warm world into a horizon beyond its fingertips might seem like a transformation too great to bear. Yet, mercifully, it has no choice. The child finds itself, screaming in protest, flung by the heels into an unfamiliar world.

 

The spiritual life is a kind of birth. In fact, Jesus proclaimed that unless we are born again we will never enter into that life that knows no death. But every birth is a kind of dying. Every new stage of growth calls for a letting go of what went before it. And this letting go hurts. The cross is the source of life yet it pierces us and drains us of the the only life we know.

 

The Father, Jesus said, prunes every fruit tree clean to increase its yield. Prayer unveils our heart, allowing it to be cut by God’s delicate touch. There is no growth in prayer without some degree of exposure to this purification process out of which the true self emerges in its unexpected splendor.

In Which T.S. Eliot Helps Us All Celebrate Epiphany

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

(h/t to Jason Byassee for the video)

Contemplation and Walking by the Spirit

And so asking how to realize the true self is much like facing a large field covered with snow that has not yet been walked on and asking, “Where is the path?” The answer is to walk across it and there will be a path. One cannot find out how to realize the true self and then set out to reach the clearly visualized goal. Rather, one must walk on in faith and as one goes on, the goal appears–not before, nor within, nor beyond us, but it does appear.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere

When I was young, I was taught that the center of the Christian life was to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), a verse which was interpreted to mean that the Christian life is to learn the voice of the Spirit and then to obey. The problem: in the most-of-the-time when God isn’t speaking, then what do you do? One answer: do nothing.

Since then I have learned that the Christian tradition has developed precise language for this. The dynamic of waiting and only waiting I experienced then and which I tend toward now is what the Christian tradition has named Quietism, and the pole opposite Quietism is Activism. Both poles are problematic, Quietism being disembodied and solitary (and therefore anti-) Christianity and Activism being Peter cutting off Malchus’ ear at the arrest of Jesus.

The contemplative life springs from the conviction that there is a way to be grounded in God and to navigate between those two poles. Yes, we do work out our own salvation, but we never forget that we do so with fear and trembling.