Saturday, December 17, 2005

Now my head's well-read.

Every so often - the last time was when I returned from summer villa at Omena - I like to post some notes on books I've been reading recently. When I graduated from Georgetown, I promised myself that, no matter how busy I was, I would make some time each day for pleasure reading. I'm proud to say that I've kept that promise, even though it has had the result of creating a perpetual pile of books-to-be-read alongside my bed. Most of the books I read are never mentioned on this blog. However, once in a while I think it's good to make note of a few, both to give readers a sense of the kind of books I read and to single out titles that deserve attention for one reason or another.

I recently read two books by Russian Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann: For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy and The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. The accessible and concise For the Life of the World presents the Orthodox worldview as it is revealed in the church's sacraments. Written in the early-1960's, when many Christian theologians were grappling with the effects of secularization, For the Life of the World calls on Christians to affirm that Christ is presence in the world despite what can sometimes seem like overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In a blurb on the back cover, Thomas Merton suggests that "every novice read [For the Life of the World] twice" - something I just might do. The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, which Schmemann completed shortly before his death in 1983, offers detailed reflections on the meaning of each part of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Though I found The Eucharist a bit dense for a non-specialist like myself, I nonetheless derived much spiritual nourishment from Schmemann's insights. The only defects I could find in Schmemann's final work stem from the author's premature death; at various points, Schmemann promises to elaborate upon particularly provocative or significant ideas in appendices at the end of the book - appendices he didn't live to write. If you've read nothing by Schmemann, The Eucharist probably isn't the place to start. By contrast, For the Life of the World would probably be profitable reading for any committed Christian - Catholic, Orthodox or otherwise.

On the heels of the Schmemann books discussed above, I read two newly-published memoirs that caught my eye for different reasons. One of these was Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir, Paul Clemens' account of his experiences growing up in the city of Detroit in the 1970's and '80's. Raised as a white Catholic in a series of Detroit neighborhoods that were each in the process of becoming predominantly African American and mainly non-Catholic, Clemens has had life experiences that make for a unique memoir. Clemens' complex and constantly evolving feelings on the subject of race are at the heart of Made in Detroit; however, the author's Catholicism also forms an important part of the story. Raised in a close-knit parish environment and educated in Catholic schools, Clemens was formed by a religious culture in the process of dispersion - a culture now represented in Detroit mainly by churches devoid of parishioners and erstwhile parochial schools that are now occupied by community organizations or by one of the city's umpteen charter academies. Raised as a white Catholic in a series of Detroit neighborhoods that were each in the process of becoming predominantly African American and mainly non-Catholic, Clemens has had life experiences that make for a unique memoir. Written by a Gen Xer, Made in Detroit nonetheless seems like an account of everyday life in a bygone age.

The second memoir I read recently provides another unique Gen X Catholic perspective: Peter Manseau's Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son. In vivid and often touching detail, Manseau tells how his parents grew up, discerned vocations to the priesthood and religious life, fell in love and embraced a new vocation of marriage, and raised a family together. All these events unfold against the backdrop of late 20th century Massachusetts, a religious and social world that I know very well. Numerous memoirs have been written by Catholics who entered religious life in the pre-Vatican II Church and then left during the turbulent days of the late '60's and early '70's, but Vows is the first book I've seen that examines the era from the perspective of the son of a former nun and a former priest. (I should note, however, that Manseau's father disputes the "former," and his struggle to be recognized and accepted as a married Roman Catholic priest are an important theme in the book.) Though Manseau's viewpoint is ostensibly what makes Vows unique, the most interesting sections of the book are those discussing events that took place before his birth, namely his parents' courtship and the controversy that surrounded their 1969 marriage. By contrast, the author's suburban upbringing comes across as surprisingly unexceptional. In college, Manseau studies world religions, develops an intense interest in Buddhism and considers becoming a Trappist; though the author draws a link between these experiences and his parents' past, his religious seeking seems fairly typical of his generation. Vows is far from a perfect book, but it is an interesting and well-written one that I am happy to recommend to interested readers.

Among books I've read in the last couple weeks, I'll note two. The first is Beginning to Pray, a short but remarkable work by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, late Russian Orthodox archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland and author of numerous other books on prayer and spirituality. A book that could be read attentively in under two hours, Beginning to Pray is nonetheless chock full of insights, offering instructive and foundational advice on prayer that I'd never before seen in print. Indicative of how much I enjoyed the book is the fact that I not only plan to purchase a copy for myself but also foresee buying several copies in order to have some to give away to others. I didn't get quite as much out of another recent read, Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience: A Radical Option for Life, by Diarmuid O'Murchu, M.S.C. A priest and psychologist who writes from an emphatically interdisciplinary perspective, O'Murchu offers a reevaluation of the vows of religious life with nonviolence as a paradigm. Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience contains a number of provocative insights, some of which I found thoughtful and constructive and others of which were edgy to say the least. Nonetheless, O'Murchu adds an intriguing voice to a larger conversation on the role of religious life in the modern world. I don't quite know what to make of the book Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience - there were some things I agreed with, other things I disagreed with, and other things I'm not sure about. Unlike Beginning to Pray, I will not be handing out copies of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience anytime soon. In any case, all the books I've discussed here are available from, and you're free to order any that attract your interest. Happy reading, AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home