Category Archives: Popular

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

by Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI (2007)

This book could be Pope Benedict’s version of “What I did on my summer vacation.” True. When it comes to theology this pope was a trekkie in every sense of the word. And I love him for it. I love that he didn’t let his job as the keeper of the papacy hold him down. He just had the good taste to make sure he did this stuff on his own time.  Not that he let that give him an excuse for shoddy workmanship. This book was world class all the way.

My favorite parts are the entire chapter on The Lord’s Prayer and the chapter on the parables, with particular mention to his treatment of The Good Samaritan. Another tip of the hat goes to the part called “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath” in the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount.

From the last chapter, Chapter Ten, “Jesus Declares His Identity”, we have an excerpt from a section called “The Son of Man”:

Let us turn now to the scriptural passages themselves. We saw that the first group of sayings about the Son of Man refers to his future coming. Most of these occur in Jesus’ discourse about the end of the world (cf. Mk 13:24-27) and in his trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mk 14:62). Discussion of them therefore belongs in the second volume of this book. There is just one important point that I would like to make here: They are sayings about Jesus’ future glory, about his coming to judge and to gather the righteous, the “elect.” We must not overlook, however, that they are spoken by a man who stands before his judges, accused and mocked: In these very words glory and the Passion are inextricably intertwined.

Admittedly, they do not expressly mention the Passion, but that is the reality in which Jesus finds himself and in which he is speaking. We encounter this connection in a uniquely concentrated form in the parable about the Last Judgment recounted in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), in which the Son of Man, in the role of judge, identifies himself with those who hunger and thirst, with the strangers, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned–with all those who suffer in this world–and he describes behavior toward them as behavior toward himself. This is no mere fiction about the judge of the world, invented after the Resurrection. In becoming incarnate, he accomplished this identification with the utmost literalism. He is the man without property or home who has no place to lay his head (cf. Mt 8:19; Lk 9:58). He is the prisoner, the accused, and he dies naked on the Cross. The identification of the Son of Man who judges the world with those who suffer in every way presupposes the judge’s identity with the earthly Jesus and reveals the inner unity of Cross and glory, of earthly existence in lowliness and future authority to judge the world. The Son of Man is one person alone, and that person is Jesus. This identity shows us the way, shows us the criterion according to which our lives will one day be judged.

– pp. 327-328

Not everything in this volume is as readable as the passage above, but the entire thing is worth the challenge.

 

 

Four Quartets

Four Quartets

by T. S. Eliot (1943)

I understand and acknowledge that poetry is a little off the beaten track of expectations for recommended spiritual reading, but this is not typical poetry. It reads like a meditation, and in some parts, almost like scripture, or at least sermon. Eliot was a deeply spiritual man and struggled greatly to make sense of some of the tragic aspects of his life, one being the descent into insanity of his first wife, another being the realization of a love that could never be consummated. (Happily, he ultimately found love with somebody completely devoted to him, yet since it happened when he was relatively advanced in age, it too had an element of tragedy in that it was all too short.)

The Four Quartets is actually a series of four long poems consisting of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, which were originally released gradually, one at a time. If you pay attention, you will see things that hearken to St. John of the Cross, such as references to the “darkness of God” in part III of East Coker:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on              darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing façade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long                     between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of                      nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                                        You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
     You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

– pp. 27-29

Here also is part IV of East Coker:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

    Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

     The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

     The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

     The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

– pp. 29-30

 Here is another astounding passage from section V of The Dry Salvages:

More reflective moments

UPDATE: An unexpected find of a recording of Eliot reading the entire poem.

 

The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters

by C. S. Lewis (1942)

This work of imaginative fiction is a series of letters from Screwtape, a senior demon, to Wormwood his fledgling nephew with advice on how to win the soul of the human (the “patient”) that has been assigned to him.

Here is a brief excerpt from letter number 14 to give you the flavor:

My dear Wormwood,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of ‘grace’ for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation! This is very bad.

I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride–pride at his own humility–will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt–and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. …

Your affectionate uncle

SCREWTAPE

– pp. 69-70, 73

 

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy

by G. K. Chesterton (1908)

I am reluctant to say much about this book (as I unconsciously also was about The Everlasting Man, apparently), because discovering what it’s about is too enjoyable to spoil for you. I will say that I cannot think of another book that has such an ostensibly off-putting title and then turns out to be as every bit as lively and open-minded as the title appears to suggest only dullness and rigidity. That is quite a triumph. And a thoroughly delightful one indeed.

One thing that I cannot omit: Chesterton was about 100 years ahead of his time. Lucky for us. He is so very readable today.

One more thing: I have seen mentioned somewhere that this is a companion piece to GKC’s Heretics, which preceded this book by a couple years.

I will again give a taste of this great work with a couple of quasi-brief excerpts.

First, from Chapter VI, “The Paradoxes of Christianity”, this is without a doubt my favorite quotation on courage:

[T]ake the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice. He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.

– pg. 94

And following on the heels of that, a couple of lines later, comes this sublime passage:

And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. Take, for instance, the matter of modesty, of the balance between mere pride and mere prostration. The average pagan, like the average agnostic, would merely say that he was content with himself, but not insolently self-satisfied, that there were many better and many worse, that his deserts were limited, but he would see that he got them. In short, he would walk with his head in the air; but not necessarily with his nose in the air. This is a manly and rational position, but it is open to the objection we noted against the compromise between optimism and pessimism–the “resignation” of Matthew Arnold. Being a mixture of two things, it is a dilution of two things; neither is present in its full strength or contributes its full colour. This proper pride does not lift the heart like the tongue of trumpets; you cannot go clad in crimson and gold for this. On the other hand, this mild rationalist modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland. Thus it loses both the poetry of being proud and the poetry of being humble. Christianity sought by this same strange expedient to save both of them.

It separated the two ideas and then exaggerated them both. In one way Man was to be haughtier than he had ever been before; in another way he was to be humbler than he had ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am the chief of creatures. In so far as I am a man I am the chief of sinners. All humility that had meant pessimism, that had meant man taking a vague or mean view of his whole destiny–all that was to go. We were to hear no more the wail of Ecclesiastes that humanity had no pre-eminence over the brute, or the awful cry of Homer that man was only the saddest of all the beasts of the field. Man was a statue of God walking about the garden. Man had pre-eminence over all the brutes; man was only sad because he was not a beast, but a broken god. The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard. When one came to think of one’s self, there was vista and void enough for any amount of bleak abnegation and bitter truth. There the realistic gentleman could let himself go–as long as he let himself go at himself. There was an open playground for the happy pessimist. Let him say anything against himself short of blaspheming the original aim of his being; let him call himself a fool and even a damned fool (though that is Calvinistic); but he must not say that fools are not worth saving. He must not say that a man, qua man, can be valueless. Here, again in short, Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

– pp. 95-96

UPDATE: I have tagged this as Anglican, though I believe Chesterton himself was already a Catholic in his heart by the time this was published. He would wait more than a decade before making his Catholicism officially explicit. By the time The Everlasting Man was published, he was formally a Catholic.

 

The Everlasting Man

The Everlasting Man

by G. K. Chesterton (1925)

There can be no imaginable higher praise for this book than to point out that C. S. Lewis credited this book for his conversion to Christianity.

With that, let’s give an excerpt that opens the second half of the book:

This sketch of the human story began in a cave; the cave which popular science associates with the cave-man and in which practical discovery has really found archaic drawings of animals. The second half of human history, which was like a new creation of the world, also begins in a cave. There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravanserai had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. But in that second creation there was indeed something symbolical in the roots of the primeval rock or the horns of the prehistoric herd. God also was a Cave-Man, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously coloured, upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life.

A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.

– pp. 169-170

(For a good short commentary on the book, see Chesterton biographer Joseph Pearce at The War of the Wells: Bellocian Bellicosity vs. Chestertonian Charity.)

UPDATE: In the post for Orthodoxy, I state that GKC was about 100 years ahead of his time. One of the best examples is found in this book–and it falls only one page later than the above quotation:

Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanisation of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You can not suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

– pg. 171

The Seven Storey Mountain

The Seven Storey Mountain

by Thomas Merton (1948)

The fiftieth anniversary edition labels itself as “An Autobiography of Faith”. Fair enough, though most people might already know that by 1998. At over 450 pages, this is a long book. It takes time to get through. Some of the comments on Amazon are less than positive or charitable, but many of those refer to typos in the Kindle edition, while others come across as anti-Catholic, and still others as flat out anti-Merton. So be warned. Merton has his detractors.

This book is full of little surprises that I would hate to ruin for you, so I will say very little in terms of details. I will at least give some random vague references of things you might find unique or of interest:

His time at Columbia University in the 1930’s. His time at St. Bonaventure in Buffalo, NY. His terrible troubles with dental health. His memories of his parents, especially his father. Also his relationship with his younger brother, John Paul. His first visit to America from Europe. Experiences in Harlem. His time spent in old European cathedrals. His literary ambitions. The authors that influenced him. His initial visits to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. And not insignificantly, hints of what would characterize his later writings, a sample of which is found here:

Seven great Merton paragraphs

The above passage falls about one-third of the way through the book and is unique to the book. There is no other passage that is similar in the rest of the 450 pages. I believe that was intentional, but even if it was not, it foreshadowed the best works that Merton would publish over the next dozen or so years.

Personal note: My mother mentioned this work to a friend when I was about 10 years old (mid 1970s), her enthusiasm giving me the impression she had recently read it. While I was reading it a couple years ago and discussing it with her, I learned that she had read it shortly after it first came out, when she was probably a sophomore or junior in high school. Here I was thinking that I had been reading it at approximately same age as she did, but I was quite mistaken.