Editor’s note: To assist Catholic readers generally, and Catholic parents specifically, to build a “Catholic Home Library,” Crisis has secured from several of our contributors and other serious readers well-known to us their recommendations from among the world’s countless books. We deem this but the first of what we foresee as a series on the subject, and would welcome readers’ additions or emendations.
Prods on Pilgrimage
I can think of no more delightful meditation than to recall some of the books that have prodded me forward on my spiritual journey. My favorite, because I read it while my husband and I were courting and it directly influenced my Catholic conversion, is an old Image paperback, The Belief of Catholics, by the incomparable Ronald Knox. I had read his Enthusiasm as an undergraduate, and had been captivated by Knox’s wit, charm, and profundity. A year or so later, when I was a graduate student, I found The Belief of Catholics in a Bloomington, Indiana, paperback bookstore.
Knox worked from the ground up in building his case for Catholicism, ever stressing that grace amplifies nature. His insistence on the utter reasonableness of the Church, so convincing to anyone who fears “mystery” and looks for proofs, assures us that “you do not, in becoming a Catholic, commit ‘intellectual suicide,’ you follow your reason to its legitimate conclusions.” Thirty years after first reading this book, I am still moved by Knox’s chapters on the Catholic notion of God, our Lord’s claim stated, our Lord’s claim justified, the foundation of the Church, and the object and act of faith. It seems to me that Knox brings up and satisfactorily answers nearly every objection to the Church that one might present. I cannot imagine my life without this beat-up, marked-up little book.
Among so many other favorite books, I think particularly of Henry Adams’ Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, wistful tribute of a modern scientific mind to the unity of the thirteenth-century Christian world. When Adams opens with the sentence, “The Archangel loved heights,” it is impossible not to read further. And it is impossible, in reading this book, not to love Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, two of the greatest seats of Christianity in the world.
Caryll Houselander’s beautiful and delicate The Reed of God is the loveliest book on Mary I have ever read, a treasure for the bedside table, perfect Advent reading.
Through the years I have profited from the books of Father James Schall, and his best, I think, is his latest one—What Is God Like? a summary exposition on the highest things that Father Schall holds dear. His students should read this book as his apologia.
Finally, I mention my two indispensable authors: Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen. Their books are inconceivable without their Christian vision. The Brothers Karamazov is a huge, sweeping, breathtaking masterpiece that pits Alyosha’s and Father Zosima’s Christian view of everything as gift against the Karamazov view of everything as lawful. One does not leave The Brothers without a conversion.
And then there is Jane Austen, the treat of treats and the Aristotelian par excellence. I read one of her novels every year or so, simply to restore my balance. Jane Austen’s classicism, emphasis on prudence, and careful delineation of feeling informed by reason are the antidotes to modern icky sticky sentimentalism. Her theme of marriage as the cornerstone of social order is a corrective to our contemporary loss of community and responsibility. Perhaps Mansfield Park is the meatiest of the Austen novels, but Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion come close. Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite heroine and Pride and Prejudice, especially the red leather edition I bought at Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, my favorite of all novels. For my afternoon turn through the shrubbery, however, I prefer as my escort Emma’s Mr. Knightley to Elizabeth’s Mr. Darcy.
—Anne Husted Burleigh is a contributing editor.
I am hesitant to single out any book or books as having meant the most to me as journeyman in our world, since I feel myself sustained by so many—knowing myself affected by a variety of minds since Adam. But I have no hesitation in commending Flannery O’Connor’s rich letters, The Habit of Being, at this season. They reveal her own journeying in that light from Bethlehem now 2,000 years with us. Hers was a journeying under a range and variety of books—books always measured by her against the reality of her experience in the world under that light. Out of that experience, often clarified by her readings in ancient and modern literature, emerges her remarkable habit of being.
These letters are a part of our permanent literature, revealing a lively, closely observant person, whose concern for the truth of things in our confused and confusing world made her a welcomed correspondent to many. She was open to letters from a range of humankind, from the naïve to the most sophisticated, responding from Andalusia, her farm in central Georgia, out of her concern and fascination with the truth of human existence as affected by the circumstances of history and nature, locally but also more largely taken—that is, taken in the light of eternity. Her wit and humor emerge, as does a certain impatience with nonsense. What is remarkable is the steadiness of her vision, sustained by her commitment to a “habit of being” proper to us as rational, spiritual, created beings.
—Marion Montgomery, retired from distinguished service as professor of English in the University of Georgia, is a prolific author.
It’s true. Even in California we get snow at Christmas. Up in the mountains, Californians curl up by their fires and read. Or, like me, they drive down to the water’s edge and look out over the Pacific (and the U.S. Navy), good book in hand.
But wherever you are, ’tis the season for reading. Here are a few suggestions.
No writer is more thought-provoking (and simultaneously entertaining) than G.K. Chesterton. His best full-length book, for my money, is The Everlasting Man.
A classic your readers might not be familiar with is The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman by Mark Girouard. It’s not only a terrific cultural history of nineteenth-century England, it’s a reminder of how we ought to strive to live.
A great novel with a similar theme is The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, by Siegfried Sassoon. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) thought Sassoon was the very model of an English gentleman. This trilogy (“Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” “Memories of an Infantry Officer,” and “Sherston’s Progress”) is thinly veiled autobiography, marking a country gentleman’s upbringing and his experiences in the First World War. Brilliantly well-written, it is gentle and humane, nostalgic and sorrowful, noble and honest.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. If you haven’t read the book, you should. It’s not a Harlequin romance. It won the Pulitzer Prize—and deserved it. Another Pulitzer Prize winner about the Civil War, (and my boss’ favorite book), is the moving and admirable The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, which Ted Turner recently turned into the epic film Gettysburg.
And finally, an old familiar, Witness by Whittaker Chambers.
—Crisis contributor H.W. Crocker is the chief deputy director of public affairs for Governor Pete Wilson of California.
Books in the Wilderness
Books worth reading. What a tall order . . . for even in our non-reading world we are overwhelmed by an unending stream of books. Yet, we must continue to select and are compelled to choose whether we wish it or not. The great trick in reading is, of course, to distinguish what is worth reading before we have read it. There are no methods or lists on which we can rely, for all such recommendations have themselves been culled from the vast reservoir of unread and unpenetrated books. Scholars and readers become such only by developing a nose or an instinct for the really interesting works, those that are going to make a difference in our lives and our understanding of the world. The effect should be like that on Isaaki in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 who, “when he came to read Landmarks, he shuddered—it was the complete reverse of all he had read before, yet true, piercingly true.” Herewith, therefore, are a few piercingly personal choices on which I believe your time will not be wasted.
Solzhenitsyn himself may be taken as a starting point for recommendations. He is presently engaged in a vast, possibly flawed, but indisputably great literary construction called The Red Wheel, of which only the recently expanded August 1914 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is available in English. Quite possibly his greatest work may turn out to be the Gulag Archipelago (Harper), now available in an excellent abridgement by Edward Ericson. It is not only an invaluable documentary account of the Soviet holocaust, but a work of great intellectual penetration of the nature of ideology and a supreme exemplar of confessional literature recounting the growth of a soul.
The sources of the modern disorder are explored most deeply in Dostoevsky’s five great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, The Adolescent, and most completely in The Brothers Karamazov. The Karamazovs are, of course, the prototype of the disintegrated modern family, and there are few more harrowing accounts of “the battle between God and the devil” within the heart of man. It is this depth of destruction that renders so powerful the emergence of Christ in the famous “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” a portrayal that has been characterized as the most successful presentation of Christ in all of world literature outside of the Gospels.
Within the more moderate struggle against disorder in the liberal democracies, probably there has not been a wiser guide than Alexis de Tocqueville whose Democracy in America foresees virtually all the problems and discerns all the solutions available to us. Most other political philosophers are a good deal more difficult to read than Tocqueville, but certainly one who repays the effort is Eric Voegelin. An approachable entry into his thought is provided by his collection of Published Essays, 1966-1985. It is within that context of a comprehensive spiritual response to the disorder of the modern world that the writings of John Paul II are most illuminatingly read. The most recent Veritatis Splendor is indispensable as his broadest statement to date.
The same quest for truth amid the disintegration of spiritual meaning can be traced even in modern art, as Robert Rosenblum in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko makes clear. A poetic expression of continuing power and appeal is T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which always repays a second or third glance. Musically one might turn for the same interesting exploration of the spiritual to the works of John Tavener, Olivier Messiaen, or Arvo Part. But for the requisite lightness of touch in the whole serious play do not overlook Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash.
—David Walsh is professor and chair in the Department of Politics in The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.—and an Irishman.
Signposts for Seekers
David Bovenizer asked us to reflect “on books with which every Catholic American ought to be acquainted.” Actually, I wrote a book on this very topic, Another Sort of Learning that lists many books that I think qualify—at the head of the list is no doubt Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed.
In a class on Saint Thomas this fall semester, I assigned A.D. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, a well-known book of 1920 that remains in print. In this still worthy book, Sertillanges, writing on the importance of books, remarked that “the source of knowledge is not in books, it is in reality, and in our thought. Books are signposts; the road is older and no one can make the journey to truth for us.” All book recommendations need to begin with this passage.
But December—Christmastide—is a time for books, especially for books that take us out of ourselves, books that remind us of the order of things. I will here only again mention Le Catichisme de l’Eglise Catholique. If we can ever get an accurate and eloquent translation from our bishops of this remarkable book, it is the book we all must read to liberate us from the ideological malaise we find all too often in our Church and society.
But when I am really asked, “what should I read?” I have three books that ought never to be missed: E.L. Mascall’s The Christian Universe, Josef Pieper: an Anthology, and J.M. Bochenski, Philosophy: An Introduction.
What about Belloc’s Four Men, or C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, or Dorothy Sayers’ The Whimsical Christian? Read them! What about The Confessions of Saint Augustine? Read it!
These are books every “Catholic American” should read. What about them Irish Catholics over there, or Australian Catholics or Japanese Catholics or Bolivian Catholics or German Catholics? Them, too!
—James V. Schall, S.J., a regular columnist, is professor of government in Georgetown University.
Poems for the Home
I’m always glad to give book recommendations, especially for poetry books, because I think we often forget what nifty house gifts they make—and the importance of the art, always in need of reader support.
I’ll recommend a scant three volumes here: Coleman Barks’ Gourd Seed from Maypop Press in Athens, Georgia. Rich, dense, thoroughly detailed poems with humor, good sense, and joy for life. Margaret Gibson’s The Vigil is less fun to read, being an examination of the effects of alcoholism upon a family, but it is a searching and important book. It hails from Louisiana State University Press. From Houghton Mifflin comes Rodney Jones’s, calm but devastating Apocalyptic Narrative; there is a comfortable intimacy in Jones’s voice that makes artistically familiar even the most harrowing material. He’s the real right thing.
—Fred Chappell, professor of English in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and winner of both the Bollingen Prize in Poetry and the T.S. Eliot Award for creative writing, is universally hailed as “the resident genius” among Southern writers, and also has been acclaimed “the most variously gifted writer in American today.”
The Best of the West
There already are good guides to the many great books, secular and religious, that every Catholic will want to know. For the modern reader who faces the old question Quid Athenae Hierosolymis?, though, I’d like to suggest a small volume, Theodor Haecker’s Virgil, Father of the West. Though it came out in 1934, it’s still in print. Haecker makes some claims that a classicist might dispute, and his reading of Virgil may focus on only a few themes, but there is no better essay explaining how what was best in Western paganism (the old anima naturaliter christiana) found fruition in Christianity. From the other side of the divide, Ronald Knox’s A Spiritual Aeneid reflects how a man in the throes of conversion may easily find much in pagan Virgil to encourage him. The world could do with many more reflections on how the secular and sacred, nature and grace, may collaborate.
My second recommendation at times puzzles even me. I do not much like Hilaire Belloc as a man (for example, a Westminster Cathedral usher to a standing Belloc: “Excuse me, sir, we kneel here.” “Go to hell.” “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t know you were a Catholic.”) But I find myself returning again and again to The Path to Rome, The Four Men, and The Cruise of the Nona. The only way I’ve been able to explain this attraction to myself is that Belloc at his best seems to be the sovereign wanderer, the homo viator that many people talk about but rarely, if ever, encounter or embody in their own lives. Some spacious pre-modern human spirit, far from contemporary politics and social life, blows in full force through these pages.
Finally, a figure at the opposite end of the spectrum. There may on God’s earth be a more civil, kind, urbane, and self-effacing man than Alec Guinness, but I haven’t come across him. His autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, manages to show how to be a Catholic and a gentleman in the postmodern megalopolis without a single note of whiny annoyance or moral self-superiority. I have given away so many copies of this grace-filled volume to people who have in turn given away many copies themselves that perhaps everyone has already been caught up in this literary chain letter. But as we celebrate the birth of the Savior, there are few better volumes to re-read, or to read for the first time, for a reminder that humanity, humor, and holiness still are alive even in our own very troubled age.
—Robert Royal, a regular contributor, is vice president of The Ethics and Public Policy Center, and the author most recently of 1492 and All That.
For a Full Faith
While undergoing a mid-life crisis of faith in 1951, I had the good luck to come across The Life of Baron von Hügel by Michael de la Bedoyère. With mounting interest, I discovered that the Baron’s intellectual trajectory in the early 1900s had been a paradigm of my own: the troubling encounter with Biblical criticism, the conflict between the liberal and conservative approach to religion, the difficulty of deciding the degree of interior assent to be given papal pronouncements. (Problems, it seems, we will have always with us.) For as Newman brought to the Church the idea of the development of doctrine, von Hügel made us conscious of the necessity of three elements for a full and living religion: the mystical, the intellectual, and the institutional—ideally, but rarely, in harmony and balance.
This synthesis he achieved “costingly” (one of his favorite words) in his own life. When in 1907 Pius X issued his encyclical Pascendi against Modernism, von Hügel was emotionally on the rack and tempted for a brief period to leave the institutional Church. Yet despite this “planting . . . of the Cross” into his scholarly and intellectual labors, he never abandoned the humblest practices of devotional life: the rosary, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, a quarter-hour daily of spiritual reading.
Von Hügel, then, is the exemplar par excellence of the Catholic intellectual: no matter what the tension at times among these three elements, he remains doggedly loyal. Thus, de la Bedoyère’s book is more than a stimulus to the mind; it is a therapy for the soul.
—Roger Sorrentino, retired from nearly 40 years of teaching in New York City Public Schools, now teaches part of each year in the American School in Florence, Italy.
The Pleasures of Prayer
Although they have long been counted among the Church’s greatest treasures, the prayers and hymns of Saint Thomas Aquinas have never before appeared in a complete English-language collection. I have just had the privilege of remedying this by publishing a small volume, Devoutly I Adore Thee, which brings together all of Saint Thomas’ known prayers and hymns in their Latin originals with beautiful English translations on facing pages.
The profound holiness and the lush beauty of these hymns and prayers shatter forever the common notion that Saint Thomas was merely a dry theologian. These prayers demonstrate that he was, above all, holy—a saint whose holiness springs not from study but from long hours of humble, tender, and devout prayer.
These are the prayers with which Saint Thomas Aquinas won heaven, the prayers he composed and used to order his own spiritual life—upon rising, before setting to work, during periods of meditation, before Confession and Communion, and even as he received the Last Rites.
Our new translations are a cooperative effort of Aquinas scholar Robert Anderson and acclaimed Catholic poet Johann M. Moser. They render the originals with doctrinal exactitude and a beauty of expression that rivals Saint Thomas’s own masterful use of Latin.
As could be expected from the Church’s preeminent theologian, Saint Thomas enriched these prayers with the clear, pure doctrines of the Faith. In praying them, we encounter the teachings of Christ distilled. They teach us the Faith and serve as a shield of orthodoxy while we pray.
Reliance on these hymns and prayers will deepen one’s faith, enlighten one’s mind, and lift one’s heart to God.
—John Barger is publisher of Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, New Hampshire.
For Girls Only
The books that probably had the most influence on the formation of my character were not very high-flown; they were the Little Colonel stories of my youth. They were written around the turn of the century by one Annie Fellows Johnston, about whom I know nothing, and there are 12 volumes in the series. To some, these books will need no introduction. North of the Mason-Dixon line, they turn up occasionally in bookstores, but in the South, sometimes an owner will die without heirs and her set will be put up for auction to the highest bidder.
I’m not sure I can give you a proper literary analysis of their appeal, for the same reason that doctors don’t treat members of their own families: they lie too close to the heart. But I’ll try. First of all, the Little Colonel, Lloyd Sherman, is not what you might expect; she’s a girl. She gets her name from her resemblance to her grandfather, a genuine Kentucky Colonel. In the first of the stories, she is five, and in a scene dear to every woman reader’s heart, defiantly throws mud on his white linen suit. Throughout the series, she and a coterie of friends grow up, go off to school, travel, deal with life, and eventually marry. When you find someone else who has read the Little Colonel books, you form an instant bond, for after all, you have a whole slew of friends in common. Why are these little Kentuckians so appealing? Why do we initiates find them so real?
I suppose charm is undefinable anyway. Maybe their attraction is the same as what a friend says of the Dominican Sisters of Nashville: “they bring to their apostolic work all the genius of Southern womanhood.” And these are very apostolic books, never preachy, but still an invaluable guide to the travails of growing up: dealing with peer pressure, infatuation, sentimentality, bad manners, real evil, and, as one character describes a difficult party, “a lesson in How to Attain Ease under New and Exacting Conditions.” There is even a yardstick for measuring the worthiness of potential husbands (I used it). There isn’t anything specifically Catholic about these books—the only church-going incident I recall involves collecting a box of chocolates won in a bet from a boy—but they are everywhere infused with the notion that the life of heroic virtue is lived with naturalness, that the spiritual life consists of the ordinary things you do every day, the little joys and sorrows of daily life, and that people who live such a life are attractive, people you would like to know and hang out with.
A word of warning: avoid at all costs the Shirley Temple movie [“The Littlest Colonel.”—Ed.]. It is offensive to pious ears.
Another word of warning: these books are for any age but they are for girls only. No boys allowed. I recall one horrible brother who always called Miss Sherman the Little Cuteness, and referred to each succeeding volume as The Little Colonel Wets Her Pants. And you wonder why I sometimes speak sardonically of Men.
—Mary Elizabeth Podles, mother of six, has written for Crisis on homeschooling, gardening, and the arts.
America’s No. 1 Book
Buttressed by crutches, fortified by theology, and endowed with insight, humor, and gall, Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) is the youngest and perhaps the least likely of our literary classics. She has become her works; her spirit lives in them. Indeed, her stature is such that I consider the volume of O’Connor’s writings edited by Sally Fitzgerald for the Library of America to be the most valuable, the most invaluable, the most instructive, chastening, and delightful single book by an American ever published in this country.
Of course, it’s true that O’Connor died young (at 39) and wrote but two slim novels and two collections of stories. Yet, surely the prophetic quality of that work, and not merely the quantity of it, is an important gauge in estimating a writer. Has anyone since Aeschylus or Aesop written a better illustration of the proverbial wisdom “Pride goeth . . . before a fall” than Flannery O’Connor did in “Good Country People”? Joy-Hulga prophetically embodies the spirit of existential arrogance and nihilistic smugness which finally hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Her story is more meaningful than ever today, as the perversity of Joy-Hulga stares at us from so many hateful faces, some of which, astoundingly enough, claim O’Connor as an honorary spokesperson for the latest whatever.
O’Connor’s Misfit (from “The Life You Save May be Your Own”) still shows the mysterious action of grace even in violence—the story dares to equate bourgeois propriety with viciousness and non-being. No story ever operated more effectively by that synecdoche which telescopes global violence into the humdrum arbitrariness of a local slaughter. The original of O’Connor’s Misfit, by the way, was from Framingham, Massachusetts; and to that figure O’Connor added a dash, among other things, of contemporary nihilism. In “The Displaced Person,” what seems to be a replication of the betrayal of Christ hints, too, at the Holocaust. So much for the regional limitations of the Sibyl of Baldwin County, Georgia. O’Connor, attuned to things of the spirit though a literalist of the imagination, wrote as definitively of the modern age as did Yeats and Voegelin—of whom she was well aware.
In this volume are included some of the best essays on writing ever penned in this country. And included as well are many of O’Connor’s letters, which show the reach of her mind and the generosity, indeed the catholicity, of her spirit. O’Connor’s tireless search for truth and her probing of the spiritual aspect of reality are as insistently present in her letters as are her outrageous senses of humor, irony, and wonder.
As she put it, “My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.” From sources as disparate as the Bible, the Greek tragedians, Aquinas and Maritain, Hawthorne and Poe, Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Nathanael West, and the newspapers, she forged a synthesis of consciousness and language which speaks powerfully to our experience of this world we are in but not of. Her essays and letters as well as the fictions bound with them in Sally Fitzgerald’s edition amount to a complete education and a matchless guide for the perplexed in which the restrictions of comedy and tragedy are exploded in revelation.
—J.O. Bate, a Georgia native who was graduated from high school in Milledgeville—Flannery O’Connor’s long-time residence—is professor of English in Dowling College, New York City.
The Difficulties of Freedom
At a time when almost every human choice is legally defended, an American who is a Catholic can hardly escape pondering the difficulties inherent in human freedom. For starters, how does man resist the extremes urged by his misguided passions? Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics charts the course of hitting the mean and thus forming good habits. For a political order to be just, the conduct of its citizens must be characterized by moral nobility. The Cuomo-like reluctance to “impose” a moral standard on citizens is handled summarily by our first teacher of ethics in his companion study to the Politics. What fine common sense—so refreshing after watching the network news or listening to National Public Radio.
Now, as pilgrims passing through the City of Man, Christians set out on a transpolitical journey. Augustine’s division between the earthly and the heavenly cities found in The City of God enables us to see the perennial political problem. Though social by nature, man’s efforts to attain the good corporately are marred by the first couple. Augustine’s description of life in that lost garden mysteriously jars our memories. Anyway, Augustine long ago corrected any of my false expectations in politics. He goes far to demonstrate how tasting the apple infects all social relations with the lust for power.
Does America recognize the limits of attaining perfection in the political realm? Yes, and The Federalist Papers should dispel any vestige of utopianism in a Catholic American. Read John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths: Reflections on a Catholic Proposition to better understand that the basis of political unity lies in the “civil conversation” about the common good. Written 30 years ago, Murray’s book warns us that without acknowledging the natural law tradition, the reasonable limits to freedom become indiscernible even to the American Catholic.
The traditional sources of American morality, or of our “habits of the heart,” are delineated in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1838). Tocqueville writes of two countervailing spirits, the spirit of freedom and the spirit of religion. Having a this-worldly emphasis, the former is rooted in Puritanism and English liberties. The political benefits of freedom are not, however, uneqivocal. In America, fortunately, the spirit of freedom is balanced by the spirit of religion with its other-worldly focus. Nestled among his many prescient observations, Tocqueville’s praise of the staying effects of both Roman Catholicism and classical education on the egalitarian impetus in democracy should be studied by every American cleric and educator. The Roman Catholic Church, with its hierarchical structure, hagiography, and archaic ritual, corrects for many of the egalitarian excessives incident to democratic rule. Similarly, the study of Greek and Latin literature provide powerful alternative examples of great aristocratic figures.
Lest the Puritan roots be depreciated, however, try to acquire The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, co-authored by Willmoore Kendall and George Carey. Inspired by Eric Voegelin, the authors demonstrate through Founding and pre-Founding documents how the American symbols of order mirror those of the people of Israel led out of Egypt into the wilderness. Our political roots are religious, even if there is not formal provision for cultivating religious belief in the founding.
I would highly recommend reading Harvey Mansfield’s America’s Constitutional Soul in order to grasp the interior effect of “regime,” or the form of rule, on the shaping of citizen’s characters. On the exterior, regime appears only to be concerned with offices and distribution of authority, but Mansfield shows that separation of powers, for instance, is a teaching about the order of the human soul.
Lincoln’s writings have much to teach the thoughtful Catholic American about how to argue from definition, rather than simply from authority. Richard Weaver clarifies that all-important distinction in another “must read,” The Ethics of Rhetoric. Weaver’s discussion of Plato’s Phaedrus is also a fine introduction to gauging the soundness of various arguments on behalf of political choices. If speech or words fail to point to a human meaning beyond the functional, above the profitable and the pleasant, political life cannot achieve the common good, and friendship—which enables civil conversation—becomes impossible. For institutions to remain free, discourse must remain open to transcendent realities.
—Virginia Arbery teaches at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack, New Hampshire.
Soaring and Simple Beauty
If I were cast upon that proverbial desert island with lonely beaches under trade winds, friendless, I’d hope to be washed up with my treasured book, The Oxford Book of English Verse; specifically, that gem first compiled by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1900 (not the new and improved version, which is merely new). Sometime in my peregrinations, I came across a 1940 printing of the 1939 (then) “new” edition, and ever since I’ve had no trouble believing in grace. The poems contained therein were selected not for their social or political relevance, but for their soaring and simple beauty. It was Quiller-Couch’s intention, he wrote in the original preface, to “serve those who already love poetry and to implant that love in some of the young minds not yet initiated”; he sought out the most authentic of contested texts, but admitted that he often preferred “the more beautiful to the better attested” versions. Note the words “love” and “beauty,” not recognized words in the current critical vocabulary—another reason why we’re safer with the older books. Here those words apply to every selection from the light and frivolous to the sad and profound. Fancy that, an anthology meant to be read and reread, not studied; slowly, it alters the contours of one’s emotional landscape. No other collection so shines forth the amazing fecundity of the human imagination. Old clippings and jottings (including, for some odd reason, the jeweler’s receipt for my wife’s wedding ring) bulge its covers—and I’ve wondered whether my own quotidian life may not be elevated just a little by these stray bits living amid those exquisite lines. “Great men have been among us; hands that penn’d and tongues that utter’d wisdom.” You’ll find that there too. Small wonder that poor Crusoe was so disconsolate. Had he this book, he would not have been quite alone.
—Tracy Lee Simmons teaches literature at George Mason University and writes regularly on literary and cultural topics in Crisis.
With thanks to all the friends who recommended them, here are some of the books that have shaped and confirmed my Catholic faith: Beginning with Theorists—Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism; Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism; William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo; Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism; Etienne Gilson, The Choir of Muses; Joseph Pieper, About Love; Mortimer J. Adler, The Angels and Us; Marion Montgomery, The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age; Yves R. Simon, A General Theory of Authority.
And the Catholic Novelists—Julien Green, The Other One; William Goyen, The Houses of Breath; Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter; Giovanni Verga, The House by the Meddlar Tree; Morley Callahan, Collected Stories; George Bernanos, Mouchette, The Letters of Gide and Claudel; Flannery O’Connor, Introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann; Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil; Shusaku Endo, Scandal; Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome. And the not-Catholic—Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot; John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent; Wyndam Lewis, Self Condemned; C.H. Sisson, Christopher Homm; Cesare Pavese, The Moon and the Bonfires; Fred Uhlman, Reunion.
Playwrights—Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters; Paul Claudel, Break of Noon; Christopher Fry, The Lady’s Not for Burning. Poets—Baudelaire, Wilfred Owen, George Barker, C.H. Sisson. Historians—Frederich Heer, An Intellectual History of Europe; Paul Johnson, Modern Times; George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle; Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture; G.K. Chesterton, The Dumb Ox; John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
Spirituality—Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World; Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ; Raïssa Maritain, Journal; Leon Bloy, The Pilgrim of the Absolute; Julien Green, God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi; Maurice Baring, Robert Peckham.
Words to Music—Ralph Vaughn Williams, Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan), Mystical Songs (George Herbert), Serenade to Music (Merchant of Venice); Gerald Finzi, Dies Natalis (Traherne) & Two Milton Sonnets; Bruckner, Os Justi; Robert Parsons, Ave Maria; Thomas Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium. Latest Discoveries—Sigrid Undset, Images in a Mirror and “Thjodolf”; Torgny Lindgren, Merab’s Beauty; Gustave Herling, The Island; Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Mediocrity and Delusion. Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante, always.
—Deal W. Hudson is a professor of philosophy in Fordham University and an associate of Mortimer Adler at the Aspen Institute.
Books for Each and All
If I could make everyone read just 25 books, at gunpoint, which would they be? I’d be tempted to say Matthew, Mark, Luke . . . etc. But besides The Book:
I. Books necessary to save America and Western Civilization are: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (where we’re headed); A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (the best science fiction novel of all time—and deeply Catholic); The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis (apocalyptic consequences of denying natural law).
II. Books to make you a saint are: The Fire Within, by Thomas Dubay (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross for you and me); Seeking Spiritual Direction, by Dietrich von Hildebrand (deep but Germanic).
III. Books for joy and beauty are: Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis (his most profound); The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (our century’s only competition to Dante, Milton, Virgil, and Homer); Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis (his most beautiful).
IV. Books for sheer brilliance and exuberant orthodoxy are: Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton (the sanity of Catholicism); The Everlasting Man, by Chesterton (Christ in history); The Belief of Catholics, by Ronald Knox (made me fall in love with the Church).
V. Books you’ll either love or hate are: The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien (high tragedy); A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken (romance); Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy (hilarious).
VI. Books of current interest are: Hollywood versus America, by Michael Medved (movie exposé); Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, by William K. Kilpatrick (education exposé).
VII. Stories that give you “the meaning of life” are: The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyevsky (the greatest novel ever written); Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankel (in Auschwitz); Chance or the Dance? by Thomas Howard (the alternative worldview to modernism).
VIII. Imperishable classics are: Augustine’s Confessions in the Sheed translation (inexhaustible depths); Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (yes, you can read it!); Pascal’s Pensees (the most effective modern apologetic I know); Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy (the problem of evil solved).
IX. The best play/movie ever: A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt (see sanctity and sanity in action).
—Peter Kreeft is professor of philosophy in Boston College.
Glimpsing the Cathedral
Of the making of books there may be no end, but perhaps the making of book lists is even more seductive. At any rate, I was moved to compile several. Forthcoming issues of Crisis will offer “Teach Yourself Thomism,” “Introduction to Cardinal Newman,” “The Neo-Palamite Synthesis,” “Celtic Catholicism,” and “A Survival Kit for the Postmodern Catholic,” among others. The present, relatively unannotated list is more along the lines of a preparatio evangelica, including glimpses of the Cathedral from several different vantage points, but no systematic circumambulation. Gargoyles are included.
Begin with a prayer, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Saviour by A Monk of the Eastern Church (Lev Gillet). A beautiful preface was provided by Louis Bouyer. Next, somewhat more technical theology, Louis Bouyer, The Seat of Wisdom: An Essay on the Place of the Virgin Mary in Christian Theology. For the season: Jean Danielou, The Advent of Salvation, A Comparative Study of Non-Christian Religions and Christianity. Also The Angels and Their Mission According to the Fathers of the Church.
For an introduction to philosophy: Plato, Meno. For an indication of how to read this book: Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno, which can itself be supplemented by Remi Brague, Le Restant: supplement aux commentaires du Merlon de Platon. (Brague is a member of the French Communio circle; his book is not yet available in English.) More by Jacob Klein: Lectures and Essays (containing chapters on Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Dante, etc.) and Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra. The latter is rather difficult, but rewarding. It concerns the difference between the ancient and the modern way of intending numbers and touches upon the deepest insights of Plato’s metaphysics and the theoretical motivation of Descartes’ dualism. Understanding the claims of this book would be a necessary preliminary to discriminating between the ontological import and the mathematical formalism of modern physics, an issue which has again come to the fore in certain temerarious metaphysical extensions of the results of physical calculations. A more recent book which makes use of Klein’s work is David Rapport Lachterman, The Ethics of Geometry: A Genealogy of Modernity. Another of Klein’s colleagues at Saint John’s College in Annpolis, gives us one of the best books on liberal education: Eva T. H. Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic. Brann has also demonstrated that the ancient art of writing summae is not dead. She explores a central but somewhat neglected aspect of Western thought in The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance.
Some of the soundest contemporary philosophy is being written by members of the “Washington School” of phenomenology, who have given us a thoughtful appropriation of the themes of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Husserl, and Heidegger, not to speak of Strauss, Klein, and Gadamer. The dean of this “realistic phenomenology” is Monsignor Robert Sokolowski of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. See, first, an elementary book which explicates the context of Catholic theology: Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology. Then, for some attractive examples of phenomenology at work: Sokolowski’s Pictures, Quotations, and Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology and Moral Action: A Phenomenological Study. For foundational reflections see Sokolowski’s Husserlian Meditations: How Words Present Things and Presence and Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being. At this point you might want to take on the precise but hermetic prose of Thomas Prufer, Recapitulations: Essays in Philosophy (which includes a study of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited).
For philosophically informed treatments of modern science: Erwin Straus, The Primary World of the Senses: A Vindication of Sensory Experience. Also Phenomenological Psychology: Collected Papers of Erwin Straus (do not miss “The Upright Posture”). Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. Leon R. Kass, Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. Alexandre Koyre, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (the astronomical revolution). Kurt Riezler, Physics and Reality: Lectures of Aristotle on Modern Physics at an International Congress of Science (Aristotle addresses modern physicists on what their science ignores). D’Arcy W. Thompson, On Growth and Form (for a revindication of the classical notion of form).
Two books by Leo Strauss on political philosophy: Natural Right and History; and Hilail Gildin, ed., An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss. For intellectual history at its best: Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth Century Thought. Also Meaning in History. Three exercises in self-knowledge: R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (the philosopher); Edwin Muir, An Autobiography (the poet); Winston Churchill, My Early Life: A Roving Commission (the statesman).
Novels: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (do not miss “The Professor and the Siren,” also found in the Everyman’s Library edition); Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny; Hermann Broch, Death of Virgil; Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian; also The Abyss. James Stephens, Crock of Gold. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited; also Helena. Rose Macaulay, Towers of Trebizond; Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones; Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees.
For an exposition of the creed: Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity. A classic of theology: Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. Appropriating the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar is undoubtedly the task of the moment for Catholic theology. Try his short book Love Alone: The Way of Revelation as an introduction to his massive trilogy. The God Question and Modern Man is early Balthasar, but forms another useful point of entry into his oeuvre. For spiritual reading in the tradition of Saint Therese of Lisieux, see Pere Jean du Coeur de Jesus D’Elbee, I Believe in Love. Also, Ida Friederike Coudenhove Görres, The Hidden Face: A Study of Saint Therese of Lisieux. On monasticism, a charming Gallic picture book by Genevieve Gallois, The Life of Little Saint Placid. For an example of the fruits of monastic lectio divina: Damasus Winzen, Pathways in Holy Scripture. And on monastic theology: Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. On symbolism: Damasus Winzen, Symbols of Christ; Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, The Bestiary of Christ; Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers. On scholastic thought: Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy.
Englishmen and Russians: Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm; John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua (along with Louis Bouyer, Newman: His Life and Spirituality); Parochial and Plain Sermons (along with Louis Bouyer, Newman’s Vision of Faith); Prayers, Verses, and Devotions (which includes Newman’s translation of the “Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes”). Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner. Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church. Also Sophia, the Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology. Nikolai Berdyaev, The Russian Idea. Vladimir Solovyov, The Meaning of Love. Also War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ.
Two large books to study and to ponder: John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason; Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg), Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (the German edition has an appreciative preface by Hans Urs von Balthasar).
—Derek Cross is book review editor of Crisis.