Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Reading Life: A Gentleman in Moscow (Towles)

I'm glad that I read this book (once I got into it, which took a while) because the writing is way above the average on the market today. That in itself was a treat. Yet, I don't feel like I would have missed much, if anything, by not having read this.
 Many times throughout the book, I found myself wishing I could have the Count's  modus operandi  ingrained in my speech and habits.
 Interestingly, I found  this Q and A with the author  which offers several interesting perspectives. If you have read the book, be sure to read this article, especially "The Two Most Frequently Asked Questions" at the end.
 Several quotes I marked:
“The principle here is that a new generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. Our elders planted fields and fought wars; they advanced the arts and sciences, and generally made sacrifices on our behalf. So by their efforts, however humble, they have earned a measure of our gratitude and respect.”
 “By broadening your horizons, what I meant is that education will give you a sense of the world’s scope, of its wonders, of its many and varied ways of life.”
 “Taking a sip, the Count reviewed the menu in reverse order as was his habit, having learned from experience that giving consideration to appetizers before entrees can only lead to regrets.”  Agreed!
 “If patience wasn’t so easily tested, then it would hardly be a virtue.”
 “Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again. So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding.” How true!   . . . So to circumvent any unease, the Count and Sofia invented a game, “Zut”, where one player chooses a “category encompassing a specialized subset of phenomena – such as stringed instruments, or famous islands, or winged creatures other than birds. The two players then go back and forth until one of them fails to come up with a fitting example in a suitable interval of time (say, two and a half minutes). Victory goes to the first player who wins two out of three rounds.”  What a great game idea! Maybe the game is "out there" and I'm unaware, but what a great thing this would be in compact form -- a booklet that could easily be carried and tucked away but able to be produced quickly -- containing suggested categories. I can think of many other times of use besides waiting on food to be brought to the table. And what a great tool to bring children up on.
 “ . . . [L]ife does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate, and our opinions evolve – if not glacially, then at least gradually.” 


Saturday, January 13, 2018

My Reading Life: The Cloister Walk (Norris)

 The Cloister Walk followed my reading of In This House of Brede (here) to blend and bond this new introduction of monastic life to my understanding. While one is fiction, the other is reality.

I’m not sure how I came to be interested in this book,
but I’d say it had to do with the image the word cloister brought to my mind – walking the cloister of Salisbury Cathedral in 2012. Even amidst throngs of others visiting the cathedral that day, there still existed a quietness, a solemnity, even a solitude in the cloister. The architectural effect of the hard, ancient stones under foot and over head, offered coolness and shade, while the carved curves of the vertical stones became the windows of creation beauty of the landscaped green. Thus I embarked upon The Cloister Walk.
A good synopsis of The Cloister Walk is from the back book cover:
Part record of her time among the Benedictines, part meditation on various aspects of monastic life, The Cloister Walk demonstrates, from the rare perspective of someone who is both an insider and outsider, how immersion in the cloistered world– its liturgy, its ritual, its sense of community– can impart meaning to everyday events and deepen our secular lives. In this stirring and lyrical work, the monastery, often considered archaic or otherworldly, becomes immediate, accessible, and relevant to us, no matter what our faith may be.
The book was a bit draggy for me, but maybe that’s part of the point. Nevertheless, I marked several quotes that stood out to me.
“Benedict’s language and imagery come from the Bible, but he was someone who read the psalms every day – as Benedictines still do – something of the psalms’ emotional honesty, their grounding in the physical, rubbed off on him.”
This reminded me of a dear friend who regularly reads five of the Psalms a day. And then toward the end of the book, Norris says,
“One of the goals of monastic life is to let the psalms become so much a part of one’s consciousness that they surface unexpectedly, in respond to the circumstances of daily life. . . .  It is the aim of contemplative living, at least in the Christian mode, that you learn to recognize a blessing when you see one, and are able to respond to it with words that God has given you.”
I’ve long used the word “intentional” about many things I do, and I think I should add the word “contemplative” also.
I remember when I was a 9-10 year old, how our grocery had, at most, three three-foot shelves of cereal. And how today, the store aisle must be five 100 feet shelves bulging with different cereals. Not surprisingly, this thought stood out:
“ ‘How many kinds of cereals do we need, he asked, ‘in order to meet genuine health needs without falling into thoughtless consumerism?’ ”
And the quote of St. Augustine was delightful:
“Let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten your labors. You should sing as wayfarers do – sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.”
Later, Norris shares
“I know from my limited experience of singing chant that it fosters faith; I believe better and more thoroughly when I’m singing it. . . .The flow of Gregorian music reminds me of the pulse of ocean waves, steady and incessant, but never superfluous, a satisfying sound that my swell unpredictable before ebbing back into silence.”
And this:
“The sister compared the Liturgy of the Hours to housework, as repetitive work that is never done, but work that Benedictines keep coming back to because it forms the individual person and also maintains the fabric of the community.”

Friday, January 12, 2018

My Reading Life: In This House of Brede (Godden)

This book had been on my list for several years, and when I finally found a copy of it, I took the plunge. As a Protestant, I had several misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding monasteries, and I knew virtually nothing of life in one. This book helped enlighten me.
I cannot say I enjoyed the book though, because I found it somewhat slow and tedious. Maybe the author was intentional with that, or maybe it was just me bringing my tiredness to my reading time. Either way, I was glad when I turned the last page.
In her introduction, Phyllis Tickle, whose many books I've read and enjoyed, says that  In This House of Brede is probably the most accessible, accurate, and sympathetic presentation of monastic life in all of English literature.” And, "the stuff of our souls [are] identical . . . to that of every other follower of the Christ.  We are all vowed, and we forget that to our own peril." How true. How often we forget.
This quote stood out to me also:  "[I]n religion a different year revolves within the natural one, the seasons making a background for it."
I have long been drawn to the traditional, formal structure of liturgical worship. An established liturgy binds together worshipers, and through participation in these common beliefs, lends power, depth, inspiration. Because of this, I found this next very short quote profound. Referring to the liturgy, Abbess Catherine says, "It is splendid. That is the blessing of the liturgy, it wipes out self."
My liturgical persuasion embraces both the Apostles and the Nicene Creeds. These are some of those ancient words that Dame Perpetua speaks about: "The church has got blood poisoning, and I think because it has lost the disinfectant of the Creed" referring to the Nicene Creed which had been used daily but now only at Sunday Mass.
I rated this book 2 stars / It was Ok (according to the Goodreads rating system), but upon finishing my thoughts about the book, I upped it one because I think the book tipped me more in its favor than not.
3 stars / I liked it (Goodreads rating system)