Reading about instead of reading

You know what bugs me about my reading habits? I’ve gotten into kind of a rut in which I’m reading good books about great books.

The latest example is the Burton-Christie book The Word in the Desert which I mentioned in my previous post, which is a book about the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. None of what Burton-Christie writes about the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is revolutionary or innovative. It’s simply stuff that’s there in the text and available to the sympathetic and attentive reader. In this sense it reminds me of Derwas Chitty’s masterpiece (much more impressive for the amount of work it evidences, which I don’t think Burton-Christie would quibble with at all) The Desert a City. But, again, these are good books, even excellent books about great books, books and writings which stand in a completely different category.

So why am I not more often reading the great books?

I see that one reason is that I don’t want to take such a book as the Philokalia into my local pub and perhaps spill something on it. And although I’ve always found the noise of a café or pub to be conducive to reading (those are what I habitually did my studying in, in university), I just don’t feel right bringing the Evergetinos or the sermons of St Gregory Palamas into a bar, to be blunt. (And I used to, and my friends found it interesting, but I seldom would get reading done, anyway.) So, don’t go to the bar, right? Read at home, right? Where I’ve got all this other stuff I should be doing, too (three books in preparation, three handritten pages of a To Do list for the summer, and a laundry pile larger than I am), right? Okay, so out on the street corner under the streetlamp reading? (Another favorite spot!) Some of these books are heavy. My hands can’t hold them up for too long before wearing out. Also, I don’t want to get any of these books, some quite expensive, dirty by spilling coffee/beer on them, or dropping them, or possibly having them swiped from my table (it’s happened), or dropped and banged up by my clutzy tired hands (that’s happened too).

But these practical matters are, I think, just excuses I’m making to avoid diving in and paying attention, getting to work, knuckling down spiritually, you might say. Is that so surprising? Don’t we tend to avoid what’s best for us sometimes just when we need it? There’s that at root, partly.

This is especially the case with the Bible. I don’t know how many books I’ve read about the Bible, using up time that would have been much, much (millions of times!) better spent in simply reading the Bible itself. Not only do we have a cacophonous pandemonium (let the reader understand!) in the commentaries and journals and just about anything Bible-related, so little of it even remotely edifying or even interesting, we have very little incentive to weed through it all. The ideal of scholarship is to be widely read and to be able to discuss all aspects of an issue from an informed perspective. That sounds noble and correct. Only the Bible is not an academic treatise, a product of Reason. It is the work of the Prophets, a product of Faith. And regarding the books under consideration, this is the dichotomy: the “good books about” are products of reason, whereas the “great books” are products of Faith. These latter, to the discerning, truly belong in a different category. This is not only because they hold a “classic” status in a religious community and are therefore honored by proxy. It is because they are ontologically different. Their words work differently than those same words work when used by others. The reasons are: Inspiration and Revelation. Is it no wonder that those who are best qualified to write about such things typically ending up simply contributing to the body of them rather than the commentary on them? Only the inspired succeed, but then as they are inspired and their own words are a sort of revelation, their works become honored as more than just “a good book about a great book” and become “a great book” on their own. In any case, to subject a work of one realm to the ministrations of the other realm always ends badly. The realms are entirely separate. The Spiritual is not accessible to the Rational, contra Scholasticism and all its legitimate and illegitimate children. The Rational is thoroughly accessible to the Spiritual, yet it is irrelevant to the Spiritual, which is a much more interesting dynamic. The quixotic (or psychotic) thing is that the Rational thrills to examining the results of the Spiritual, all the while denying the validity and authenticity of the latter. I don’t see how anyone is supposed to take that kind of behavior seriously. In any other such pairing, such as Oceanographers and French Literature, that’d be considered irrational behavior, or at the very least extremely rude. But, that’s the world we live in.

And where was I going with this? Ah, yes! I have some assigned reading that I need to get to: three small books written by the Abbot George of the Monastery of St Gregorios on Mount Athos. I am going to finish The Word in the Desert tonight (an excellent “book about”), and then start on Abbot George’s little books tomorrow. So there we go!

The Commandment of Love

Love was at the heart of the desert fathers’ world. Whatever diverse motives may have first drawn them to the desert, whatever particular struggles occupied them during their sojourn there, the end of all their longings was ultimately expressed as love. The language, the attitudes, and the actions of the desert fathers were filled with this longing, with the desire to be touched and transformed by love. Nearly every significant act in the Sayings either moved toward or grew out of the commandment of love. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the biblical commandment to love, more than any other, defined and gave shape to the world in which the desert fathers lived. The memories of that world, preserved by later generations of monks, suggest that love was seen as the hallmark of early monastic life. A brother once asked an old man why in these [latter] days the monastic life did not bear the kind of fruit it had born in earlier days. The elder answered him simply and directly: “In those days there was charity.” The desire to remember the days when life in the desert was characterized by love accounts for the many stories preserved in the Sayings which portray the desert fathers’ struggle to love.

Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert (Oxford, 1993)

The Sayings referred to in the remarkable excerpt above are, of course, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (the alphabetical collection), often referred to by their traditional Latin title, Apophthegmata Patrum. [There is a widely available English translation by Sr Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (Cistercian Press, 1984); I began a translation here, as well, which I will recommence soon.] Burton-Christie provides a thorough introduction to the Sayings through a very sympathetic reading. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting a quick overview of the intructional ethics of the desert fathers. This introduction in the end is larger than the work itself, which is not too surprising, though it has only barely skimmed the depth of the riches of the Sayings. Can you tell I’m impressed? My only quibble is with the subtitle “Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism”. It smacks of an editorial hand, for one thing. For another, Scripture does not play so primary a role in Burton-Christie’s book on the Sayings. What he does show is how well-internalized Scripture was amongst the desert fathers, to the degree that their lives and instruction were permeated by not only Scriptural phrases and imagery, but by what we might recognize as the underlying ethic of much of Scripture as understood in the first centuries of the Church. The majority of the book therefore focuses on the phenomenon of the “word” given by a desert father in response to a request for such. To anyone who has read the Sayings attentively, none of Burton-Christie’s book will be new. But such a person will (like myself) recognize the value of his book as a sympathetic introduction to the Sayings for a thoughtful and well-read reader who is interested in the Sayings but uninformed concerning the expression of monasticism in Egypt of that day. This will be an excellent introduction in that sense.

On the header pics

The photo used in the header above, along with the others included in the Twenty Ten theme included in the WordPress 3.0 distribution, were taken by Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress.

He describes their origins in a post titled The Headers of Twenty Ten.

He has quite a good eye!

Incidentally, that photo that I’ve had there for a while now is of the approach to Blarney Castle, County Cork, Ireland.


Over the course of the next few days, you’ll be able to watch as I transform the Twenty Ten WordPress theme into something closer to my old biblicalia theme.

It’s about time for a little change around here. It’ll also be good to take advantage of some newer features.

Thanks for all your patience, readers, in my recent lack of posting, as well. I’ll be posting some interesting things soon!