The Idler: The Catholic Home Library Part II

Editor’s note: December’s “Catholic Home Library” feature was popular with readers and contributors alike, and so we offer several more suggestions for leisurely reading and meditation as the new year begins.

Leisure Instead of Illusion

Any honest list of books recommended around Christmas time will necessarily be brief, Christmas being the holiday currently designed as an escape to the busy world of illusion. The very words “Christmas holiday” are illusory on three counts. They have little to do with Christ, or with the holy. Even the common meaning of holiday, a time set aside for the leisure required to re-create and recollect oneself, is forgotten at this time when all things seem to conspire to deny any form of leisure whatsoever.

An act of leisure taken during the Christmas and New Year holidays is an act of theft done to keep a tight grip on reality. To these bold ones I recommend they fill their stolen moments of leisure with readings capable of helping them preserve their sanity.

Proceed in order, as time permits.

1. Matthew’s (Chapters 1 and 2) and Luke’s (Chapters 1 and 2) description of the birth of Jesus.

2. John’s description of the significance of that birth (Prologue and Chapter 1).

3. Paul’s description of the profound effects of that birth (Romans, Chapter 5, and I Thessalonians, Chapters 4 and 5).

4. The letters and essays of Seneca (The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, Doubleday) reveal the author as a naturally good man. Having studied Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, taught and advised an emperor, and lived an uncommonly full and yet reflective life, Seneca embodies the limits of the naturally good man. Understanding these limits can help clarify both the difference and the relationship between natural and supernatural man.

5. The Philokalia (see especially volume 1) is a collection of writings by devout Christians living in an earlier but equally confused age. The subjects they treat are diverse, but all of them examine seriously some aspect of the difference or relationship between natural and supernatural man.

6. Giuseppe Toffanin’s The History of Humanism, unlike the above collection, is a scholarly study, but it treats the same issue. He attributes the sharp disagreements among theologians and philosophers about natural and supernatural man to their failure to define the meaning of two crucial terms, “the sacred” and “the profane.”

7. George Weigel’s The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism examines the conflict between natural and supernatural man as it was fought this century on the battleground of Eastern Europe.

Andrew Tadie teaches English at Seattle University.

Gulag Reading

If the thought police at my door informed me that I could read in the place where they were taking me, and I could fill a suitcase with a dozen books from my shelves in five minutes, I would reach for these to teach and console me: Dante, The Divine Comedy (3-volume bilingual version with John D. Sinclair’s translation); Saint John Climacus, The Ladder (Holy Transfiguration Monastery translation); Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome; the Bible in King James’s translation; Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour; a complete Shakespeare; Virgil, The Aeneid (Loeb Library); Grossmith and Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody; T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets; and P.G. Wodehouse, The World of Jeeves (Perennial Library collection of short stories).

John Stoll Sanders is president of the publishing firm of J.S. Sanders & Company, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee, among whose works is The Southern Classics Series.

Aladdin’s Lamp

There it was! Like the lamp in Aladdin’s cave, just waiting to be taken out and dusted off, that book I’d been searching for suddenly gleamed out in Ellie’s Paperback Shack, Waldorf, Maryland — John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the comic masterpiece saved by the persistence of the mother of the tragically deceased author and by Walker Percy’s pushing for its publication. As I laughed my way through scene after scene in the life of that hyperperceptive slob, Ignatius J. Reilly, I was left with the innate dignity of the entire cast of flawed rascals.

Another book that glowed in the back of a secondhand bookshop, this time in New Orleans, was Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, in its Avon/Bard paperback edition of 1982. There’s a great line in it where Sutter, who’s rather a bad egg, in an upside-down way says something that accounts both for the richness of Toole’s book and of Percy’s own novels: “There is after all something worse than being God-forsaken. It is when God overstays his welcome and takes up with the wrong people.” Most of Toole’s and Percy’s characters are the wrong people.

A third book I’ve been enjoying over the last few months was Jay Tolson’s Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy, which enormously enriched my appreciation of Percy’s novels by relating his books to his life. As Tolson quotes from a wonderful letter, he comments that it is “perhaps the most explicit statement [Percy] ever made about the dilemma facing the Christian artist”: “What I really want to do is to tell people what they must do and what they must believe if they want to live…. When the holy has disappeared, how in blazes can a novelist expect to make use of it! Holderlin said that God had left us and I think that one can give that a Catholic reading that though he has not left us, his name is used in vain so often that there remains only one way to speak of him: in silence. Perhaps the craft of the religious novelist nowadays consists mainly in learning how to shout in silence.”

I think one of the best self-portraits of Percy can be found in a remark in another recent book I’ve been devouring, More Conversations with Walker Percy, edited by L. Lawson and V. Kramer: “My ideal is Saint Thomas More, an English Catholic… who wore his faith with grace, merriment, and a certain wryness.”

As well as the artistic, there’s the intellectual overcoming of our present spiritual crisis, which my friend David Walsh of Catholic University of America has worked towards in his After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom. It’s a magnificent exploration of the courageous exodus which four paradigmatic figures, Dostoyevsky, Voegelin, Camus, and Solzhenitsyn have made from the bleak murk of ideology, and how they (particularly the Russians) recovered the foundations for a renewed Christian culture. Another Aladdin’s lamp, well worth shining up.

Father Brendan Purcell is lecturer in philosophy in University College, Dublin, Ireland, now spending a year on sabbatical in the United States.

Hear Him! Hear Him!

War between Protestant and Papist. War between English and Irish. War between Spain and England. War between France and Spain. War between America and England. Treachery and chicanery between them all.

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels continue to attract new legions of devoted followers — and accolades beyond the power of superlatives to match the most singular literary achievement of the modern language.

To the inexpressible delight of his recent audience at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., an appearance coinciding with the publication of The Wine Dark Sea — sixteenth in the spell-binding series — O’Brian confessed he has already completed the fifth chapter of the next. The world-ranging story of the Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, the Irish Catholic-Catalan naturalist (who doubles as an unpaid British secret agent) continues to unfold.

These are not war stories. They are not mere tall-ship tales to follow in the wake of Hornblower. Nor are they simply stories to swell the heart and brace the shoulders as canvas unfurls overhead, the deck slopes to leeward, the strakes slip under the waves, the futtock shrouds howl in the wind — though there is enough and again enough sailing lore to send even the most able seaman to his locker seeking Faulkner’s Dictionary of Marine Terms.

These stories are fundamentally stories of relationships: the way people deal with one another, the way we love and hate, support, betray, fail and endure one another.

“My novels,” O’Brian told his National Archives listeners — who were packed three deep in the aisles and rear like an anxious boarding party ready to scramble across the decks for a slashing, carronading, pistoling attack on a French Privateer — “are essentially to do with human relationships and most particularly with the nature of friendship. Love enters into many of them, perhaps into most — love between men and women, I mean, with its intense emotional charge — but in all there is the constant factor of the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, as well as various other people, most of them sailors.

“And, when you come to think of it, there are few better places for observing the development of relations between men than a ship, above all, a sailing ship, a man-of-war in Nelson’s time, when people aboard lived so very much on top of one another, when they might travel for weeks, months, and almost years seeing no one else, and when no one could get away. It provided a hot-house atmosphere in which the plants of good and evil, liking and hatred, close comradeship and its reverse could grow fast and without distraction from outside sources, there being no outside sources apart from the weather and the enemy (neither of them, admittedly negligible).”

O’Brian offers the first and only reasonable answer to the timeless question of what book or books to have on a desert island. Read one and you will want to devour them all. Devour them all and you will be cast into the outer darkness where those who have gone before you wail and gnash their teeth, awaiting the next installment.

Robin Lind of Manakin-Sabot, Virginia, is a writer whose latest book, Pedaling Northwards, was recently published by Hope Springs Press.


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