Sunday, August 10, 2008

Dustin Long, Icelander, 2006.

I acquired this novel from McSweeney’s as I renewed a subscription two years ago, and have been looking forward to reading it for some time. Its book jacket/slip describes it as a “Nabokovian goof on Agatha Christie; a madcap mystery in the deceptive tradition of The Crying of Lot 49; The Third Policeman meets The Da Vinci Code. …an intricate, giddy romp steeped equally in Nordic lore and pulpy intrigue.” I’m not sure I can offer anything more than that. What, indeed, can one say about a book that begins with a Dramatis Personae list which includes “Hubert Jorgen: Rogue library-scientist”?

It’s an odd book that has an unreliable narrator, an unreliable editor, and a host of wacky and intriguing characters, the rogue library-scientist included. Others include a pair of detectives that seem a cross of I Heart Huckabees and Thomson and Thompson from Tintin; a main character of a detective who doesn’t want to detect (quite unlike her famous mother); an under-developed-as-a-person avatar of a Norse God; a macguffin named MacGuffin who is only semi-macguffin-y; and a peculiar take on Iceland itself (which seems to have spread to the United States), and fortunately exists in a parallel universe.

As a book, it’s a delightfully silly romp (the detective plot is formulaic and unexceptional, but that’s actually by design) that will have you counting allusions to everything from, well, Tintin to As I Lay Dying, to… well, many, many more places. The allusions are both well done and silly, and made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. It seems like a McSweeney’s book: it asks for well-read readers, and won’t disappoint them with the particular style associated with Eggers and his cohort. It was a lovely light read to use to emerge from my retreat, before I dive into something with more heft.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

… continuing our travels with M. Proust…

I finished the “Place-Names • The Name” section: that accomplishment means I have now finished the first volume of the novel. Swann’s Way, which has long sat beside my bed at home, can be placed back on its bookshelf. I am not in a huge rush to draw the next volume from the shelf; I think I may pause. Yet I did greatly enjoy this final section: the contrast between M. Swann’s love affair in the previous section and the first blushes of love in the narrator show both the similarities of every new infatuation and the differences of habit in those of different ages. There’s a deep sweetness to this section, almost a gentle self-deprecation while not minimizing the profundity of the experience of the narrator’s love for Gilberte. The intriguing question for me, as I continue in the novel, revolves around the disparity of affection toward M. Swann from the narrator’s parents when at Combray and when in Paris: I do wonder if I’ll learn yet more about their relationship as I move into further volumes. First, though, I will need a variety of divertissements before reading more if In Search of Lost Time. I’ll end this entry by quoting the end of the volume, a lovely musing on memory and place:
“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin, slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (606)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

jon mcgregor, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, 2002.

W— and S— gave me this book as an ordination present. I opened it, with W— sitting in my office with me, and he told me that they wanted to give me something that they didn’t think I’d have read, and something that might speak to my ordination and my new urban context for ministry. He told me that it revolved around an event, and spoke of a series of individuals’ reactions to that event, how they had been irrevocably scarred by their experience of it. I was intrigued. I started to read the book a night or two later, and was awed by the first few pages: they’re remarkable. I knew I needed some uninterrupted time to read this book, and so I brought it with me on retreat.

The first pages are lyrical: they describe the song of a city, and how it pauses for only the briefest of moments. It’s a beautiful prose poem, and reading it I couldn’t help but think of Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”: it’s that descriptive, that evocative.

From there, the scars are evident almost immediately. What’s astonishing is how the cast of characters remain almost entirely nameless: we meet and remember them by description, by the sort of characteristics we would notice if we encountered them in our neighbourhood but never said more than a polite “hello”—and it’s entirely intentional, a sharply pointed comment about our intertwined lives but about how we maintain such incredible gulfs of separation with our very neighbours. What astonishes me is that the writing makes it work, that the writing is capable of sustaining the effort across the 275 pages of the novel: names, despite the assertion in T.S. Eliot’s feline poetry, do not always convey our deepest beings, our longings and sorrows and our delights and our joys. One of the effects is that each segment, each brief piece about some of the very real people feels anecdotal—just a story about someone I happened to know. They are anecdotes made universal by their lack of identification yet at the same time deeply real and particular in the crisply rendered details that mcgregor feeds us as we read.

The prose does not remain as stunning throughout as in the first few magnificent pages, but it’s never expository, never dull: it remains elusive, revealing bit by bit in a skilfully crafted story. There are some passages, though, which live up to the promise of those first pages. While it is my habit to quote from books in entries in this blog, I’m not going to, with this book: the passages are sharper and stronger in context, and while not less powerful as excerpts, they convey more still in situ. The passage that gives the book its title is one such; for it alone, this book is worth reading. The images—oh, the bungee jumping!—are a delight, and mcgregor handles them so deftly that I’d be interested indeed to know if he writes poetry, as well. As the plot moves slowly along, as we watch relationships develop we move inexorably closer to learning the events of the tragic day: after such a prolonged build-up, it was a relief that, though entirely prosaic, they did not disappoint and were indeed so strong as to move me to tears.

Thank you, W— and S— for this lovely and wonderful gift which I now look forward to re-reading and to sharing with others. You certainly succeeded in all your objectives with this present! For those who read this blog and take it seriously, I’d like to give you a strong recommendation: go and buy this book, and devour it. You’ll thank W— and S—, too.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

L. William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, 1999.

As my ordination was looming nearer, and I was chatting with my friend M—- about my desire to make better sense of ordination as a sacrament, he strongly recommended Countryman’s book. I began to read it before my pre-ordination retreat, but hardly had much time to spend with it, before or since. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was the focus of my retreat this past week.

Countryman’s book is genius, absolute and stunning genius. It’s dense and far from an easy read, but is profoundly rewarding. He begins by defining “priest” as “any person who lives in the dangerous, exhilarating, life-giving borderlands of human existence, where the everyday experience of life opens up to reveal glimpses of the HOLY—-and not only lives there, but comes to the aid of others who are living there” (xi). To gloss this idea slightly, allow me to recast it: a priest is someone who has been aware in some way of the presence of the ONE WHO IS and then makes an effort to help others into their own experiences of the TRANSCENDENT. (The small-cap thing, which I'm not learning how to do in html, is Countryman’s stylistic habit, and makes a certain amount of sense in context: you, reading only this blog entry, must simply live with me using it in this entry.) What is fascinating about this definition is the unavoidable conclusion that we are, simply by being human, priests at some moments in our lives. Those with a priestly identity are those more attuned to living in the “borderland” in which we can encounter GOD, and who make a conscious effort to help others attune their own livings of life to be attentive to the presence of the HIDDEN REALITY. The other conclusion we can draw is that religion, in its variety of forms, is a stylized effort to try to mediate and re-present the ULTIMATE to those who participate in the rites and faiths tied to the practice of religion. Ordained priests at their best and most honest then are a sacramental representation of our inherent human priesthood. OK: simpler still, priesthood is about seeking and sharing the experience of TRUTH in our lives, and about remembering that this is the important focal point for how we live out our own lives.

The book is brilliant. The footnotes are engaging, and have provided for me a number of interesting things to read (though I recommend reading the book once, ignoring the footnotes, and then reading it again with the footnotes, so as not to bog down in the asides and interesting ideas: not sources so much as other thoughts with which Countryman is in conversation). I would recommend it highly to those interested in thinking about vocation, about how we encounter and share our encounters of the HOLY, and about the meaning of vocation itself. I will leave you with a sample of quotations from the book which may pique your interest further.

“I cannot say too often that the priesthood of the whole people is the fundamental priesthood. Even for the ordained minister, Christian priesthood still means primarily one’s exercise of the priesthood shared with the whole people. The ordained priesthood is a sacramental service offered not so much to the whole people (which would imply a stance over and against the laity) as in and for that prior and more universal ministry.” (109)

“The great tool of priesthood is not any specific knowledge—whether of the Bible or history or theology or newer disciplines such as pastoral counselling or church growth. Any or all of these are of potential value, but the great tool of priesthood is a priestly life, a priestly self. And such a self, as we have been saying, grows and matures by the fact of our living, attentively and in communion with other priests, on the border of the HOLY. It occurs in conversation with GOD and with one another.” (152)

“The Bible, church history, the traditions of intellectual theology, the ethical reflections of past and present, the liturgical tradition—all these interact with one another and, above all, with our lived experience of GRACE, to create the present and future of our faith.” (155)

“Jesus’ living out of the fundamental human priesthood serves to focus and guide our living out of it in our own time and place. But it will never be enough if we try merely to copy what Jesus did. Instead, we pray that what we learn from Jesus will shape us so that we can live responsibly and generously, in our own day and place, as Jesus did in his.” (77)

Monday, August 04, 2008

The past week has been wonderful for reading. I read the entirety of if nobody speaks of remarkable things, a wonderful present from W—and S--, and a book which left me in awe both of the skill of the artist and the world in which we live. I finally finished Swann’s Way. I finished, and then read again, L. William Countryman’s book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All, which is about priesthood (both the ordained kind and the more important kind that stems from our humanity) and what it is to live in ways open to the HOLY. I read quite a number of poems by Rowan Williams. I spent a lot of time with the book of Kings. I enjoyed and learnt from Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life. I read Edmund Gosse’s biography of Jeremy Taylor, and a large and not overly fruitful chunk of Jeremy Taylor’s own work, including the entirety of Holy Dying, in the fond hope of finding a passage that has been occupying my spiritual life for some time now. I browsed throughout the monastery’s library, and read bits and pieces of a number of different things, about which I will not make an effort to blog. I’ve reread The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and chunks of de Waal’s expansive commentary on the rule of Benedict, A Life-Giving Way. I’ve started reading Icelander, an amusing and odd mystery novel (“A Nabokovian goof on Agatha Christie,” reads the back), if only because its name sounds soothing in the midst of the heat of summer (though chapel, library, and refectory have been deliciously cool).

I have also read a lot of psalms. Some I sang, some I spoke, and many more I listened to. In one of the books I glanced into there was a story of a Zen master visiting a Camaldolese monastery and commenting on the amount of time the monks spent reading the psalms. The response given to the Zen master by one of the monks was no: we spend far more time listening to our brothers read them to us. We are quiet here, and we listen. This retreat of mine has been about space and about calm, about an entirely different rhythm of life than that which I experience at home. It will be interesting for me to pay attention to how I carry the rhythms of this place back with me. To a large extent, that’s why I brought my copy of the SSJE rule with me, and the de Waal commentary: I want to be more intentional about how I am, and they’ve offered me some help in making sense of how to re-engage the process of reflection on my life. More helpful still was the endless flow of psalms, the wave of scripture read, and the wash of “chapters” that share stories of the saints and our call to respond to God’s love that have enveloped me and made space for me to be quiet.

I have been still.

I have enjoyed the rich waft of cedar that has held me in a close embrace in the chapel.

On my way to and from that space of prayer (and particularly on my way to and from Matins, at 4:00am) I have revelled in the odd smell that reminds me of the strawberry fruit roll-ups that were a staple in my grade school lunch boxes. It took me five or six trips along the path before I was able to identify the smell, and it evoked waves of nostalgia, and makes a fitting image of this time and my reading: a Proustian recollection; an invitation, a la Countryman and Brown Taylor, to look deeper into all things of the world, that we may experience and share our encounter with the ONE WHO IS, a reminder of the transitory nature of life from Williams’ poetry, and a true Benedictine way of being quiet, and listening. Away, I’ve had much needed time for reading and prayer. I’m looking forward to discovering how to carry this experience back with me into the rest of my life: I will be still, in the midst of busy-ness.