Category Archives: book characters

Books in privacy and retirement.

books one openIt’s now mid-afternoon and I haven’t said a word to anyone today. It’s the largest chunk of solitude to come my way in a long time, and very welcome. In Mansfield Park, which I am still reading, I really identify with Fanny, who, if she is not talking with her one dear friend and cousin Edmund, likes nothing better than to sit in her own room or walk outdoors where she doesn’t have to take part in conversation.

Her personality and character are in stark contrast to her Aunt Norris, who does whatever she can to enjoy “all the comforts of hurry, bustle, and importance.” And to Mary Crawford, who is fatigued by resting and does not take well to “privacy and retirement.”

The meaning of retirement here is not what most of us nowadays think of, but rather a “withdrawal into privacy or seclusion.” For me, today, it helps that the skies are rainy and I’m enjoying a last chance to wear my cozy flannel shirt as I do what many people in this kind of retirement do: read.

While I and people of my sort may be secluded from people here-and-now, we are very engaged with the author and/or the characters in the book. The National Endowment for the Arts research found that those of us who read are more likely to do volunteer work and to be involved generally in our communities. This kind of rest from one kind of “labor” energizes us for other kinds of work and service.

red horse bookIn the interest of reading a greater variety of books than I can heft while lying down in bed, I bought a Kindle. One of the first books I loaded on it is The Red Horse by Eugenio Corti, a giant of a book in every way. At least ten years ago I was deep into it, as one takes a needed vacation or The Cure at a sanatorium, but I had to give it up, mostly because of its size.

If any of my readers have read good books on e-readers, I’m open to suggestions. Many on my To Read list aren’t available on the Kindle, but it seems there are enough to keep me happy for a while. I definitely won’t be giving up altogether on printed books.

Now I must close and get myself another proper retirement accessory: a big mug of tea.

What to read during Lent? Maybe Austen.

screwtape letters book old Some people who watch a lot of television are exhorted to turn off the tube and read something – anything – during Lent. I suppose the assumption is that if they are serious enough about their repentance to change their use of leisure time that drastically, they won’t waste the effort by taking up unedifying reading habits.

Our parish bookstore is full of titles obviously appropriate for the season, like the classic Great Lent by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. And I know many people who read The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, because the senior devil’s instructions on how to keep a man in chains are so revealing of all the subtle sins we like to ignore or make excuses for. screwtapes-desktop1 FOFI didn’t get around to adding a Lent-specific book to my stacks this year, and I felt a little embarrassed about taking up a Jane Austen novel last week. If I had been more familiar with her books I might have known that there is plenty of material there for God to work with. But I blush to say that I hadn’t read one Austen book since high school.

I don’t remember what it was the particular bloggers said, but more than one book review that came my way in the last few months made me think I would like Mansfield Park. Soldier and Joy gave it to me for my birthday, and here I am.

mansfield park

The introduction by Amanda Claybaugh quickly piqued my historical/philosophical interest, as she explained the context of the story (The French Revolution) and Austen’s metaphorical connections with lines like this:

“The theater thus functions in this novel as the art form of unbridled ambitions and abrogated duties, as the art form of revolution.”

Right there, lines from our lenten prayer of St. Ephrem come to mind, the ones referring to Lust of Power and Sloth. I couldn’t wait to get into the story itself, where I was immediately introduced to sinners as common as myself.

Mrs. Norris: “As far as walking, talking, and contriving reached, she was thoroughly benevolent, and nobody knew better how to dictate liberality to others, but her love of money was equal to her love of directing, and she knew quite as well how to save her own as to spend that of her friends.”

Have you known anyone like Mrs. Norris? I have. Not being a delegating kind of person, I don’t fall into that particular type of sin. Mine are perhaps more along the lines of the Miss Bertrams, whose “vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs….”

It’s these sins of vanity and pride that we who look respectable on the outside seem most prone to — and that are often invisible to ourselves. Self-centeredness is my default setting, after all, and feels perfectly natural, so why should I even think of changing the setting for a minute, much less manage to leave it at a strange place on the dial?

The same could be said of Mrs. Norris, of whom the narrator tells us: “…perhaps she might so little know herself, as to walk home…in the happy belief of being the most liberal-minded sister and aunt in the world.”

It’s good to read something during Lent that warns me not to think highly of myself, not to think I am “spiritual.” Something that facilitates my efforts to join those happy/blessed ones who in the Gospel Beatitudes are called Poor in Spirit. It’s toward that end that we pray along with St. Ephrem the Syrian: “Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother….”

How can I see my own errors, when the window of my soul is all dirty with various sins? Perhaps if I repent of what I do know, I will find the window a little less dirty, so that I can see more to repent of. I’m hoping that as I progress through Mansfield Park I will encounter more stunning examples of smudged windowpanes that with God’s grace I’ll recognize as similar to my own, and get on with the scrubbing.

Elder Zosima and his brother

In my reading of The Brothers Karamazov, I came this morning, Monday of Holy Week, to the part “From the Life of the Elder Zosima.” The elder first relates about his older brother, who only at the age of seventeen and sick unto death, turned from anger and scoffing toward a path that might lead to repentance, and seemingly only to please his mother. But that is not an entirely bad reason.

…on Tuesday morning my brother started keeping the fast and going to church. “I’m doing it only for your sake, mother, to give you joy and peace,” he said to her….But he did not go to church for long, he took to his bed, so that he had to confess and receive communion at home. The days grew bright, clear, fragrant — Easter was late that year. All night, I remember, he used to cough, slept badly, but in the morning he would always get dressed and try to sit in an armchair. So I remember him: he sits, quiet and meek, he smiles, he is sick but his countenance is glad, joyful. He was utterly changed in spirit — such a wondrous change had suddenly begun in him!

The young man asked forgiveness of everyone and talked about his great sin, but at the same time was so happy and full of thankfulness and exhortations, that people thought he was going mad.

Thus he awoke every day with more and more tenderness, rejoicing and all atremble with love. The doctor would come — the old German Eisenschmidt used to come to us: “Well, what do you think, doctor, shall I live one more day in the world?” he would joke with him. “Not just one day, you will live many days,” the doctor would answer, “you will live months and years, too.” “But what are years, what are months!” he would exclaim. “Why count the days, when even one day is enough for a man to know all happiness. My dears, why do we quarrel, boast before each other, remember each other’s offenses? Let us go into the garden, let us walk and play and love and praise and kiss each other, and bless our life.”

This older brother died a few weeks after Easter, when the teller of the story, the elder Zosima, was only eight years old. He talks, now near death himself, more about his childhood, and how it was also during Holy Week that he began to see more when he went to church.

But I remember how, even before I learned to read, a certain spiritual perception visited me for the first time, when I was just eight years old. Mother took me to church by myself (I do not remember where my brother was then), during Holy Week, to the Monday liturgy. It was a clear day, and, remembering it now, I seem to see again the incense rising from the censer and quietly ascending upwards, and from above, through a narrow window in the cupola, God’s rays pouring down upon us in the church, and the incense rising up to them in waves, as if dissolving into them. I looked with deep tenderness, and for the first time in my life I consciously received the first seed of the word of God in my soul. A young man walked out into the middle of the church with a big book, so big that it seemed to me he even had difficulty in carrying it, and he placed it on the analogion [lectern], opened it, and began to read, and suddenly, then, for the first time I understood something, for the first time in my life I understood what was read in God’s church.

The reading was from the book of Job. And tonight I myself plan to attend this liturgy, and though I haven’t seen the program for the service, I now have confidence that I will hear this same reading. How many times have I also watched the beams of light shining down when I stood in church, and even felt their heat on my face, like the warmth of God’s Holy Spirit?

The Elder Zosima is a fictional character, but he is believed to be based on a real-life monk in old Russia. In the novel, where I am reading, Zosima goes on in his very moving fashion to tell his life’s story: “– and over all is God’s truth, moving, reconciling, all-forgiving!”

Isn’t it sweet that God should arrange for me to read this passage this morning, to help me in an unusual way to become even more receptive to His being with us tonight by means of hymns such as, “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense….,” and the Psalms of Ascent — and the Holy Mysteries!

Last week our bishop was present with us, and he gave us a good word about the last days of Lent — well, technically Lent has come to an end, but we are still in the anticipation and preparation that is Holy Week. He said that Lent is not about finding every bit of dirt in our souls, but about the bridal chamber, about discovering the great love that our Lord Jesus has for us.

Perhaps Zosima’s brother went to a Bridegroom Matins service on Tuesday; we have three of them this week, and tomorrow I hope to attend at 6:30 in the morning. The Lord Himself has been filling my lamp with the oil of His Holy Spirit!

The Hungry Soul – Struggle to Stand

The charming children we get to know in the recent documentary “Babies” are, at the end of the film, struggling to become toddlers, persons enjoying the upright posture that is a mark of homo erectus. They don’t even think about it, because it seems to be a given that children want very much to stand up and walk.

That is, unless you are Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead, who lives in an electric house that does everything for him; Tommy can’t bring himself to get out of bed or even stand up without assistance. But his story is meant to teach any self-respecting child to be self-respecting, to be human, and not lazy. He is the hero of a children’s book I liked to read to our children.

In the chapter on “The Human Form,” in his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature, Leon Kass examines how the erect and forward-facing posture that distinguishes us from most of the animal world contributes to our outlook and coordinates with our calling to be lords of creation, as it were. He takes many of his foundational ideas on this subject from the neurologist-psychologist Erwin Straus, and from his essay titled “The Upright Posture.”

In my reviews I’m skipping around in the book, but I should explain that the first chapters make a case for the primacy of form. That is, all living beings are more than a collection of the same kinds of particles. Even though absolutely all our material is replaced during our lifetime, we retain the same recognizable form. And as this is a book about the human soul, the subject is next narrowed to the human form. From there the author goes on to discuss what humans do with these bodies.

The uprightness of our form is what I am trying to stick to in this post. I think of this a lot now, when I wake up in the mornings and am lying in bed for at least a few seconds. Rarely do I have to get up with an alarm clock, for which I am grateful. But at this time of my life no baby is demanding that I get up to feed her and no child will be late for school if I linger a bit. This morning when I woke I realized that God had answered my prayer to be wakened in time to go to Bridegroom Matins, so I hopped out of bed.

But it isn’t always so easy. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could keep that verve that children have, that makes them get up, or cry to be let out of their cribs, as soon as they wake up? It seems that God gives us a special grace, when we are new to the world, to work hard at standing before we know what work is.

Though upright posture characterizes the human species, each of us must struggle to attain it. Our birthright includes standing, but we cannot stand at birth. Feral children who have survived in the wild were not found upright but were able to become so. As with other distinctively human traits (speech, for example), human beings must work to make themselves do or become what nature prepares them to be or do. Upright posture is a human, and humanizing, accomplishment.

Kass quotes Straus:

Before reflection or self-reflection start, but as if they were a prelude to it, work makes its appearance within the realm of the elemental biological functions of man. In getting up, in reaching the upright posture, man must oppose the forces of gravity. It seems to be his nature to oppose nature in its impersonal, fundamental aspects with natural means. However, gravity is never fully overcome; upright posture always maintains its character of counteraction.

And Kass elaborates:

Effort does not cease with rising up; it is required to maintain our uprightness. Automatic regulation does not suffice; staying up takes continuous attention and activity, as well it should, inasmuch as our very existence is at stake. Awakeness is necessary for uprightness; uprightness is necessary for survival. Yet our standing in the world is always precarious; we are always in danger of falling. Our natural stance is, therefore, one of ‘resistance,’ of “withstanding,’ of becoming constant, stable.

It doesn’t get any easier, does it? As we get older and weaker, the temptation is to sit down more often. I notice that tendency in church, where in my tradition we stand during the services, which means for one or two hours at a time we stand. What better attitude could we take toward The Holy Con-substantial Life-Creating Trinity?

Yes, we can prostrate ourselves, and I know people who do that when their ailing backs prevent their standing in prayer. But I notice in the Bible that after people fall on their faces before messengers of God, they are told to stand up. The Psalms speak of standing in His presence, and in the New Testament we are told, “…having done all, to stand.”

Stand firm, stand in the gap, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord…The posture is both a metaphor for and a support to our efforts, the whole Christian life being a struggle against laziness, even to the point of, “Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest.” (Hebrews 4) Perhaps if I stand a little longer than is comfortable in church, or work a few more minutes at my household chores before sitting down, it will make me call out to God and ask for help to be the kind of person He wants.

And if I doubt my ability, let me remind myself, “You’ve been doing this your whole life, resisting gravity, walking this precarious walk against natural forces that want to pull you down. You can keep doing it, you can!” I will call to mind the words of T.S. Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” And not forgetting the difference between the metaphor and the reality, I’m only too aware that some people who are no longer able to stand with their bodies are standing in the gap for me.

As to lying in bed, for most of us it is a near necessity, though the saints’ lives testify that some of them avoided it like the plague. One wants to avoid the condition described in Proverbs 26, “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” I haven’t yet figured out how exactly it fits in without spoiling my thesis, but I have to mention my dear G.K. Chesterton’s delightful essay, “On Lying in Bed,” in which he cautions tongue-in-cheek against legalism and hypocrisy, mostly about how early one rises:

A man can get used to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and the unexpected. I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.

This drawing of Lazy Tommy illustrates what happens after he is all dressed and fed, and the long afternoon stretches ahead of him with nothing to do but propel himself up the stairs — not walking, but crawling, it should be noted — but his bed is the attraction that gives him that much energy.

I like this picture, only because it shows that even Tommy is capable of struggling. Maybe we could think of him as a late bloomer, crawling when he should have learned to walk — but at least he is showing some spunk. At the end of the book he experiences enough discomfort resulting from an electrical outage and the failure of technology that he resolves to “turn over a new leaf.”

As I finish this post we are in Holy Week. All through Lent I wanted to write something about the wonderful midweek services that we have (and at which I hope to worship tonight), but it seemed to be beyond my ability to capture even a bit of the sweetness in words. One thing I love about them is that all the Psalms that are called Songs of Ascent are read at each service. And the last of those, Psalm 134, provides a fitting picture of our souls’ posture before our God.

Behold, bless ye the LORD,
all ye servants of the LORD,
which by night stand
in the house of the LORD.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary,
and bless the LORD.
The LORD that made heaven and earth
bless thee out of Zion.

Other posts on this book: The Hungry Soul — Intro (Why I love this book) and The Hungry Soul – How Science Disappoints