I read a lot.
One of the many books on my bedside table these last weeks has been the 614-page Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence by Hans Urs von Balthasar.
This is quite a bit headier than my usual fare: British lady explorers from the Victorian age; memoirs about dysfunctional families, cults, and people who move to remote islands to raise bees or train otters or brood; biographies of painters, composers, and writers; fiction by Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, Chekhov, Raymond Chandler and a zillion others; nonfiction about Indian airport slums, snails, the craft of writing, mesquite trees. A lot of books lately about Africa.
For spiritual reading, I have a ton of old favorites: de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence, Augustine’s Confessions, Joseph Schmidt on Therese of Lisieux, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, anything by Caryll Houselander, Dorothy Day, Madeleine Delbrel.
But really I depend on the Office and that day’s liturgy. I have never been drawn to dense theology. I like Bernanos because he was a novelist, a somewhat curmudgeonly layperson who thought we should all strive to be saints, a faithful son of the Church who was driven crazy by much of what goes on in the Church, a husband and father who was more or less perpetually broke, and mostly because he wrote Diary of a Country Priest, which if you haven’t read you really should, no matter your persuasion.
If you come to the Church as a sinner, you don’t need a lot of theology. There’s no deeper “theology” than to be the recipient of unmerited mercy. My own conversion took place through the heart, in the gut, not through the intellect. Last week was the feast of one of my all-time favorites, St. Mary Magdalene. I read a commentary that day by a guy, striving as guys so often do, bless their hearts, to be “down with the women,” that basically said Mary Magdalene is often portrayed as a penitent prostitute but to reduce her to this trope is an offensive disservice to women the world over, etc blah.
And I was like, Why? I was never a prostitute–I gave myself away for free–but to be a penitent prostitute, to have a humble and contrite heart, to realize that your desire for love is genuine but that maybe you can start to channel that desire in a way that requires true passion, as in sacrificial suffering, is a beautiful, profound transformation that is bound to order your life from that day forward.
You don’t come to an understanding like that, through reading theology. You come to it through prayer, and again, through really kind of terrible suffering. Which is why I’m drawn in my reading to books about people who have in some way suffered for what they love. That’s what speaks to me.
Which brings me back to the Bernanos book. The way the book came into my possession was that a few months ago I posted on FB a quote from Bernanos to the effect that sin is the failure to love. And this very kind, very generous guy from Connecticut messaged to tell me about the Balthasar commentary.
People are always sending me youtubes, podcasts, book suggestions. I try to honor their thoughtfulness by at least checking the thing out. So I looked up the Bernanos book and the cheapest one used was fifty bucks or something like that, which I reported back to the guy, not so secretly relieved that I’d be off the hook. At which point the guy offered to lend me his copy–I’ll mail it to you, he said.
Well then, okay.
So he sent the book and since he had made the effort, I made a decision to make the effort and read the book. Which was really pretty stupendous. I can’t believe a person could write even one such book, so dense with thought and research, in a lifetime, though of course von Balthasar wrote a ton of them.
Nonetheless It took me several weeks, as I could only ingest small does and because I read about fifteen other boks in the interim. I put Post-Its on pages with passages I like, as I always do when I read.
There were probably fifty Post-its by the time I finished yesterday. And then, as is my habit, I sat down and typed out the passages on my laptop, which is kind of laborious as I have some kind of keyboard learning disorder such that I have never in all these years become a fluent typist. Also my keys stick, no doubt because I’ve dropped so much food and dripped so much coffee over them.
As I was typing this morning, I thought: Why do you insist on this cumbersome process? I could have bought the book myself if I really wanted to read it, and underlined. I could have pretended to read it, kept it for a respectable length of time and sent it back with a nice thank you note.
But there’s something in me that is always reaching for the incarnational, for lack of a better term. I’m not sure why: I just love having these huge files of quotes. They often came in very handy. From tying them out, I remember them better: not verbatim, but the gist of, and can then word search later. I feel like I’m honoring the author somehow, his or her hard work. I’m saying thank you.
Similarly, Mass for me is always richer when I’ve walked to church, and richer still if I’m tired. A garden has a whole other dimension to it when you do the work yourself, by hand, without power tools, in silence and prayer. I believe that we consecrate a place by bringing our body and blood to it, and that a eucharistic exchange takes place when we bring our body and blood to the place where someone we honor or admire has brought their body and blood–Holywell Cemetery in Oxford, to name just one example, where I knelt before the grave of Kenneth Grahame, author of my most treasured childhood book: The Wind in the Willows. I believe that little acts avail; that somehow, somewhere, they “register”: console someone, encourage someone, help alleviate someone’s suffering.
I guess in some way it’s a “practice,” though to me it’s just the way I live (a way of life, by the way, that’s been modeled to me by my truly incredible friends, who are way more self-giving, hardy, and faithful than I will ever be). Many many hours on the phone listening, receiving. Many hand-written thank you notes. Innumerable email replies, return texts, replies to blog, FB or Instagram comments, and even so I slip, I miss, someone is hurt, someone feels slighted or overlooked.
Or that’s what I imagine anyway: I’m sure this all means way more to me than to the other person.
The reason I bring it up, though, is that at some point I realized that–inefficient, time- and labor-intensive, and slightly insane though such a way of life is–it is also kind of the Kingdom of God.
I mean who even has time to write a blog post like this? While eating an Orange Blossom Espresso chocolate bar, no less, from a package of super cancy chocolate and coffee that arrived FedEx the other day without a note: WHO SENT THEM TO ME?
Anyway, since I’ve copied out my quotes, many of which are very much to the point, I figured I’d share them. So here you go!
“Each of us is in some way or another, and in succession, a criminal and a saint.”
“The role of the poor in human society…is comparable to that of the woman in the family, or, even better, to that of those older aunts who remain unmarried. Not infrequently these are the ones responsible for the honor and prosperity of many households. It is their lot to atone for the faults of each family member, and in the end they go to their graves gnawed by the remorse of having been a burden to everyone.”
“I have always striven to awaken those who sleep and to keep the others from falling asleep. This is a labor that does not bring in great profits or great honor but instead closes off many possibilities of employment. No matter!”
“You will know a tree by its fruits: this is what Scripture teaches you. A certain kind of justice is known by its fruits, even when it adorns itself with the name social…That justice that is not according to Christ, in other words, justice without love, quickly becomes a rabid beast.”
“If the good Lord really wants you to bear witness, you must expect to work a lot, to suffer a lot, to have ceaseless doubts about yourself, whether in success or failure. Because, seen in this way, the writer’s profession is no longer a profession: it’s an adventure, and above all a spiritual adventure. And all spiritual adventures are Calvaries.”
“Come what may, we must never count on anything except the sort of courage God bestows day by day, penny by penny as it were,” and this courage is usually accompanied by the sting of anguish and fear. The courage to confront what we must derives from an interior decision and invites others to follow in this decision. But such a decision creates persons who are essentially solitary.”
“The writer’s vocation is often—or, rather, is at times—the other aspect of a priestly vocation.”
“My house is surely not what they expect, but it belongs to them. It is open. I’m happy that I build my life so poorly that anyone can just walk in as you would into a windmill. And, if I may be allowed to continue the comparison, I would add that I don’t regret having gone such a long way across the sea, because in this country I’ve found, if not the house of my dreams, at least the house that best fits my life, a house made for my life. Its doors have no locks, its windows no panes, its bedrooms no ceilings, and the lack of a ceiling makes it possible to discover in it that in other houses remains hidden: what the backside of the beams, girders, and rafters really looks like; the pink-spotted pale grayish gold of the smooth, worn tiles; the thick patches of shadow that the daylight can barely gnaw at and that seem to grow even blacker in the light of our lamps; the uneven ridge of the walls where phantom rats run, nowhere else to be seen and strangely respecting our corn and manioc; the extravagant bats and those enormous May-bugs, armored with black steel and yet so fragile that the least drop of insecticide hurls them to the ground like bullets, stone dead. Of such a house I suppose one could say it is an open house!…We are in the hands of every passerby just as we are in the hands of God. And may we—my books and I—always, together, remain at the mercy of every passerby!”
“We have been created in the image and likeness of God because we are capable of loving. The saints have a genius for love. But do please note that this particular genius is not like that of the artist, for instance, which is the privilege of a very small number of people. It would be more precise to say that the saint is the man who knows how to find within himself—and make well up from within the depths of his being—the water of which Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman: Those who drink of it shall never thirst again.It is there inside each one of us, this deep cistern open to the heavens. Its surface is indeed cluttered with refuse, broken branches, and dead leaves that give off the stench of death. Or it beams the cold and harsh spotlight of the reasoning intellect. But, underneath this diseased layer, the water at once becomes so limpid and pure! Still a little deeper down, the soul finds itself in its native element, infinitely more pure than the purest of waters: the uncreated Light that bathes the whole of creation—in him was life, and this life was the light of man.”
“The visible Church is actually what we can see of the invisible Church, and this visible part of the invisible Church varies with each of us. For, the less worthy we are of knowing the Church’s divine reality, the better we know what she has about her that is human. If this were not so, how could you explain the odd fact that those who are most entitled to be scandalized by the flaws, the distortions, and even the malformations of the visible Church—I mean the saints—are precisely the ones who never complain about them?”
“A hero gives us the illusion of surpassing humanity. But the saint does not surpass it: he assumes humanity; he strives to realize it as well as possible.”
“Never again forget that what still keeps this hideous world from falling apart is the sweet conspiracy—always attacked yet always reborn—of poets and children. Be faithful to the poets, remain faithful to childhood! Never become a grownup!”
“Would you…allow me to say…that what the Church needs is not critics but artists?…When poetry is in full crisis, the important thing is not to point the finger at bad poets but oneself to write beautiful poems, thus unstopping the sacred springs.”
In the novel Rȇve, Simone Alfieri declares to Ganse that she does not believe anyone “has ever quite succeeded in uprooting totally the little child he once was…In any case, if such a thing still exists within you, don’t let go of it. It isn’t very likely that there’s enough of it to help you live, but it will surely be of use to you to help you die.”
“Our vocation is not at all to oppose injustice but simply to atone for it, to pay the ransom for it. And, since we possess nothing other than our wretched persons, we ourselves are this ransom.”
“A true writer is only the steward and distributor of goods that do not belong to him, goods he has received from certain responsible consciences in order to pass them on to others. If he fails in this duty, he is less than a dog. In my opinion, this is only one aspect of that universal collaboration among souls that Catholic theology calls the communion of saints.”
“I picture the silence of certain souls as being like vast places of refuge. Finding themselves at the end of their rope, wretched sinners enter there gropingly, with their last drop of strength. They can sleep in peace and then leave refreshed and consoled, with no memory of the great invisible temple in which, for a short while, they have laid down their burdens.”
To that last point, at Mass this morning, the priest wound up the petitions with “For all the people who need our prayers, and of whom we may not know.”
And now, I need to write a thank-you note, walk to the Post Office, and return that book.