Monday, December 20, 2010

Fifteen authors, part two.


Picking up where I left off, here is the second half of my response to the 'fifteen authors' meme. If you're coming to this post without having read the first half, or if you would simply like to review its contents, click here before reading further. For the sake of clarity and convenience, here is a restatement of the rules of the meme:
15 Authors (meme)

Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what authors my friends choose.
The first seven authors are listed chronologically in order I first read them in my earlier post, together with more or less detailed explanations of my experience with each author's work. My treatment of the final eight authors will be somewhat briefer, mainly because I'd never finish this post if I tried to do otherwise. So, without further delay, here are the remaining eight authors promised earlier:

8. WILLIAM DALRYMPLE is a Scottish travel writer and popular historian whom I encountered by way of his book From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (the U.S. edition received a different subtitle - A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East - which offers a concise summary of the book's narrative content but is nonetheless much less enchanting than A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium). From the Holy Mountain remains the only one of Dalrymple's eight books that I've read, but that one work had enough of an impact on me to earn its author a spot on this list.

A vivid, thoughtful and often highly poignant travel narrative lamenting the steady decline of the world’s oldest Christian communities, From the Holy Mountain confirmed and deepened my longstanding if sometimes latent attraction to Eastern Christianity. My first reading of Dalrymple's book took place after, in in some sense in reaction to, a trip to the Holy Land in March of 2000 during which I had a number of vivid (and, to be quite candid, life-changing) encounters with Christian communities that are (to quote the title of another book) 'dying in the land of promise.'

Writing about From the Holy Mountain leads me to recall a particular encounter that I had ten years ago in Jerusalem, a conversation with a very elderly Armenian Catholic priest whom I met on the Via Dolorosa. We spoke in French, our only common language. The old priest carried himself with a kind of stoic dignity; born around the time of the Armenian Genocide and long resident in Jerusalem, he had spent a lifetime in the shadow of tragedy and conflict. He spoke matter-of-factly about the worsening conditions of life that had led many local Christians to emigrate, and he admitted that discrimination and harassment were a daily reality. As for acts of violence directed against members of his community, the old priest said elliptically, "Il y a des histoires..." Over the past decade, I have often thought of that priest and his words; I never knew his name and I have no idea what happened to him afterward - I presume that he now sleeps in Christ - but our brief meeting has haunted me since. From the Holy Mountain is haunting in its own way, so I very much encourage you to read the book if you have not.

9. I have occasionally written about ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN on this blog, and I regret that I haven't had the time to write even more, as it's hard for me to think of another modern theologian who has done as much to shape my understanding of the Christian life as Father Schmemann. Though I know that I read Schmemann's For the Life of the World for the first time when I was a Jesuit novice, I can't recall exactly how I discovered the book; it may have been suggested to me by a Jesuit priest on the novitate staff who was acquainted with Schmemann's work, or I may have simply found it on my own. In any event, For the Life of the World got me hooked on Schmemann and led me to read as many of his books as I could get my hands on, including The Eucharist, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, and O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?.

Each of the above books has had its own particular influence on my life, but I don't think any of Schmemann's works has had quite as much impact as the Journals that he kept during the last ten years of his life. I would not recommend the Journals to someone who has never read Schmemann before - For the Life of the World is probably the best place to start - but I would recommend them to those who are not only acquainted with the author's work but are also ready for a book that will challenge and perhaps even fundamentally change their view of life in the Church. The Journals are candid, sober and utterly unsentimental, but they are also full of a spirit of true Christian joy which makes many other expressions of that sentiment seem trite and empty by comparison. I ought to write more about this, but (as I've noted before) the most important things in life are often the hardest to write about. If you would like to learn more about Father Schmemann and sample some of his writings, visit this website.

10. METROPOLITAN ANTHONY (BLOOM) OF SOUROZH was another author I discovered in the novitiate, for we had several of his books in our house library and I was eager to read anything I could find on Orthodoxy. Metropolitan Anthony's short books like Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer have a simplicity, directness and practicality that instantly won me over when I first read them; I still return to Beginning to Pray with some frequency, and I happily recommend the book to any readers who may be coming across Metropolitan Anthony's name for the first time. A lot of Metropolitan Anthony's talks, sermons, and shorter writings are available on the Internet - the Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Archive and the Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh Library both have a lot of excellent material online, making it particularly easy for the spiritually curious to begin their initiation.

11. The ANONYMOUS AUTHOR of the Russian spiritual classic known variously in English translation as The Way of a Pilgrim or The Pilgrim's Tale is another writer I first came into contact with as a Jesuit novice. (In passing, I should note that this author's identity is no longer the mystery that it once was: careful research and textual analysis by Russian scholar Aleksei Pentkovsky apparently proves that the primary authors of The Pilgrim's Tale were two nineteenth-century monks, Mikhail Kozlov and Arseni Troepolski.) The Pilgrim's Tale amounts to a popular treatise on the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), blending pious exhortation with personal testimony on the fruits of the prayer in the lives of the narrator and other people he meets or hears about. The practice of the Jesus Prayer has traditionally been regarded as a means of reaching the goal of unceasing (and unconscious) prayer; in other words, if the remembrance of God is always on our lips, that remembrance will ultimately rest in our hearts as well. I can hardly say that I pray without ceasing, but the Jesus Prayer is the prayer that I repeat most frequently. Accordingly, I think it would be fair to say that The Pilgrim's Tale (read in this translation) has had an important effect on my life.

12. SAINT ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA is an author I first encountered in graduate courses at Fordham, a fact which gives me some regret as I wish I had begun to read his work much earlier. (In this and other contexts, "better late than never" could serve as the motto of my intellectual life.) Athanasius' Life of Antony and On the Incarnation of the Word each had an immediate and very powerful effect on me when I read them for the first time, albeit in very different ways. The Life of Antony affected me on a primarily intellectual level, deepening an ongoing interest in the history of Christian asceticism and monasticism and leading me to read more (and think more) about the topic. On the Incarnation held considerable intellectual interest as well, but it also moved me on a much more affective level: this, I felt, was quite simply the best exposition of the core of the Christian faith that I had ever read. I still feel that way today, and I try to make time to read On the Incarnation over again each year at Christmas. When I head home to Massachusetts in a couple of days, my well-worn SVS Press copy of On the Incarnation will be going with me.

13. Continuing the "better late than never" theme, SAINT BENEDICT OF NURSIA is another author I read for the first time at Fordham. I never gave much thought to becoming a Benedictine when I was discerning my vocation; for me, the Jesuits were always the only show in town. That being said, for virtually as long as I've known the Jesuits I've also had some interest in monasticism and even made a couple of retreats at a Benedictine monastery and visited scores of others. When I did decide to enter the Society of Jesus, a couple of people I knew told me that they weren't surprised I had chosen to pursue a religious vocation but that they had expected me to become a Benedictine. In spite of all of this, I somehow managed to avoid reading the Rule of Saint Benedict until after I had completed my novitiate in the Society, professed vows, and gone off to study philosophy in New York.

That being said, Benedict's Rule really threw me for a loop when I read it for the first time. The Rule seemed to reflect a realistic appreciation of human frailty and imperfection that I found very appealing - here, I thought, was an eminently humane approach to asceticism. Reading the Rule as a Jesuit, I could not help but see a contrast between Benedict's apparent realism and the idealism that permeates the Constitutions and other instructions by St. Ignatius of Loyola. There is a subtle point to be made here which stands in need of greater elucidation and development, so I had better stop there and leave further consideration of this topic for another time.

14. Macrina Walker correctly states that the DESERT FATHERS really cannot be considered "an author"; even so, Macrina and I both have an acknowledged debt to The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, also known as the Apophthegmata Patrum. Reading the Apophthegmata had been on my 'to do' list for several years before I actually tackled the text, though I should note that I read a variety of ancient ascetical and monastic texts before attempting this one, including John Moschos' Spiritual Meadow (which I was inspired to pick up on account of frequent mentions in William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain) and The History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus as well as sundry scholarly works focused on the period in which the Desert Fathers lived, such as Peter Brown's The World of Late Antiquity, Ramsay MacMullen's Christianizing the Roman Empire and Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, and Pierre Chuvin's A Chronicle of the Last Pagans.

(As an aside, I'd like to note that my once-intense interest in the historical process by which Christianity replaced various traditional Mediterranean religions reflects a broader - and still very strong - interest in the nature of cultural and social change. One book that helped to further stimulate this interest and deals with a context other than Late Antiquity is Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic. Another work on related but more contemporary themes that has affected me very strongly is a book by Dutch journalist Geert Mak that was originally published as Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd - "How God disappeared from Jorwerd" - but found itself rechristened in English translation as Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe and, more recently, An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village. No matter what title you find it under, Mak's book deserves your attention.)

Getting back to the Desert Fathers, what has impressed me most about them is their utterly direct and unvarnished honesty. There is nothing saccharine or romantic about the spirituality of the Apophthegmata; in this text, one finds the stories of men (and some women, of course - there were Desert Mothers as well) dedicated to following God in a very harsh and difficult environment. Spiritual tourists expecting pious and edifying words of salvation from the desert ascetics of the Apophthegmata more often received stern admonishments, sometimes delivered with what seems like a dose of ironic wit. Not having the book or my notes on the text in front of me, the best I can offer right now by way of example is contained in this post from last year.

15. In a sense, this list comes full circle with CHARLES REIS FELIX. Like Herman Melville, the first author on the list, Charles Reis Felix produced a masterpiece set in New Bedford, the city of my birth. Unlike the New York-born Melville, though, Felix is actually a New Bedford native; in his evocative and sprawling memoir Through a Portagee Gate, Felix describes what it was like to grow up as the son of Portuguese immigrants in New Bedford in the 1930s and '40s. Felix is also the author of a second memoir recalling his service as an infantryman during World War II (Crossing the Sauer) and two autobiographical novels (Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 and Tony: A New England Boyhood), but I think that Through a Portagee Gate ought to be considered his greatest work, in part because its descriptions of New Bedford are almost the best to be found (I say "almost" only to acknowledge the peerless greatness of Moby-Dick - after that book, Through a Portagee Gate is probably the greatest literary work with ties to New Bedford).

So there's the rest of the list. Once again, I'm sorry that it took me so long to get the whole thing posted. Hopefully you'll find something here that you've never read (or perhaps even heard of) and might want to pick up. AMDG.

2 Comments:

At 12/21/2010 10:08 AM, OpenID avowofconversation said...

Thanks for posting this, Joe. With the exception of the last, these are all very recognisable. (And I was also in the Holy Land in 2000 - staying with the Melkite sisters in Nazareth - and it had a similar impact on me! I'd read Dalrymple before I went, having previously read his first book that traced Marco Polo's journey, and when I heard that he'd written this one knew that I had to read it!)

On the re-reading of Saint Athanasius: you may know this, or not be into such things, but in case you don't, and are, both the Life of Anthony and On the Incarnation are available in podcast form on Maria Lectrix's wonderful site.

Reading your post I also realised that I also totally forgot to mention Father Schmemann's Journals - quel oversight! Actually, I read them fairly late (had been trying to get hold of them for some time without success) but they were very important.

 
At 12/21/2010 10:23 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Macrina,

Thanks for the comment - I'm sorry it took me so long to finish posting the list. As for Charles Reis Felix, I doubt many people outside my home area (and, perhaps, pockets of Portuguese settlement elsewhere in the United States) have heard of him. I hope that including him on the list gains him some new readers.

I haven't visited Maria Lectrix's site, but I'll check it out - thanks for the recommendation.

Schmemann's Journals are indispensable, I think - once one has read them, it's hard to be without them! A really amazing book.

 

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