12 February 2010

A 3-Book Weekend

It occurred to me that the first report on the Climacus Conference (here) would have been the logical place to report on my book takings. But I suppose it’s never too late. As readers may recall, the greatest bookstore on the Great Plains, Eighth Day Books, had a bountiful display at the conference, offering a cornucopia of volumes to delight any Orthodox bibliophile (thanks to Joshua for his diligent efforts setting it up—I would have been happy to help, but I only lend my services for a fee!).

But alas, it was only with a little help from my friends that I was able to afford the trip, much less books. I couldn’t leave empty-handed, obviously, but I had to content myself with a single selection. And as the conference immediately preceded the feast of St Gregory the Theologian on the Church’s calendar, I chose the only volume of his from the SVS Popular Patristics Series that I did not yet possess—Nonna Verna Harrison’s translation of the Festal Orations (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2008). Harrison says of St Gregory, ‘His reputation and influence in the Byzantine world as both theologian and rhetor are unsurpassed in ways that Western scholars have sometimes overlooked.. . . Byzantines made more copies of Gregory’s writings than of any other texts except those of Holy Scripture.’ [1] Though I have not yet finished the Introduction, and have only glanced at the orations themselves, I have already been surprised to learn the following:

. . . [T]he poetic prose of Gregory’s homilies, especially the Festal Orations, is quoted extensively in Byzantine hymnography, often in texts that are still sung in Byzantine rite churches today. . . . John of Damascus, a patristic scholar as well as a poet, drew heavily from the Theologian, as did other hymnographers. Andrew Louth has shown how the Damascene used Gregory’s orations as his primary source in composing the Paschal Canon, which is sung at the high point of the church year. So Orthodox Christians have been learning and praying his theology in church for over a thousand years, even if they have never read his writings. Attentive readers familiar with the church’s festal hymnography will find passages in this book that seem strikingly familiar. [2]

Indeed. When I read this, I had already turned to the first of two Paschal homilies and read the following lines:

1. It is the day of resurrection and an auspicious beginning. Let us be made brilliant by the feast and embrace each other. Let us call brothers even those who hate us, . . . . Let us concede all things to the resurrection. . . .

4. Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him; yesterday I died with him, today I am made alive with him; yesterday I was buried with him, today I rise with him. . . . [3]

I’m sure it would be even more striking if I had the Greek texts in front of me to compare, but even allowing for the differences in translations, compare those passages with these from the Matins of Pascha:

It is the day of Resurrection; let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, O brethren, even to those that hate us: Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection; . . . . [4]

Yesterday I was buried with Thee, O Christ, and today I a rise with Thine arising. Yesterday I was crucified with Thee; do Thou Thyself glorify me with Thee . . . . [5]

So, I look forward to reading both Harrison’s Introduction all the way through, as well as, obviously the orations themselves. But satisfied as I was with my purchase, I was slightly dissatisfied with what is usually one of the many things I love about Eighth Day—the free bookmark. They print beautiful bookmarks with their logo and some wise or enticing quotation. Well this time I got a quote from Kazantzakis’s St Francis. I am dissastisfied for two reasons: first, I consider Kazantzakis to have been too deluded to be worthy of quotation, and second, I feel the cult of Francis of Assisi hardly needs more encouragement, particularly by Orthodox Christians. There are so many better things that could have been used, and now if anyone sees my bookmark, they’ll think, ‘Aw, he likes St Francis too!’ But it is a relatively minor complaint about a shop I love.

Fortunately, the generosity of my good friend, Owen White, did not allow me to return home with but a single book. In fact, he had already shown me two more that he was offering from his own personal library. To my surprise, as he was loading his things into the trunk of my car in Memphis last Friday, he told me I could have, first, a now one hundred years-old first edition of Chesterton’s The Ball & the Cross (London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., 1910), and second, a first edition of Hilaire Belloc’s The Hedge & the Horse (London: Cassell, 1936), illustrated by G.K. Chesterton!

Although I’ve never read The Ball & the Cross, I am of course an enthusiastic Chestertonian. But I have never read a single word by his close friend, Belloc, with whom he was so closely aligned that they are sometimes referred to by the portmanteau, Chesterbelloc. I thank Owen profusely for these little gems, both bound in lovely green cloth so that they truly belong side by side. Both still bear his book plate as well, featuring a woodcut of three bewigged gentlemen in frock coats, breeches, and stockings, excitedly examining a book, and the quotation,

No profit grows where is no pleasure taken.
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.

The Taming of the Shrew, I,I,39

[1] St Gregory the Theologian, Festal Orations, tr. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2008), p. 11.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] Ibid., pp. 57, 58.

[4] A Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1995), p. 182.

[5] Ibid., p. 166.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I was wondering about your book selections. Thanks for sharing.


JLB said...

It is one thing to say I haven't read St. Gregory, but I've never read any Belloc, either, excepting what Fr. Jonathan Tobias has posted on his own site, and the only Chesterton I've read is Orthodoxy.

Of course, even the little that I have read gives me tremendous respect for each!

SubDn. Lucas said...


Have you read St. Nikodemos' exposition on the Paschal Canon in his Eortodromion p. 418ff.?

aaronandbrighid said...

SubDn. Lucas> No, I haven't. Thank you for bringing it to my attention--it looks wonderful. Is only one page available at that site, or is it possible to read the rest?

SubDn. Lucas said...

Indeed, the whole of the work is available; they have it set up in such a way that you must click the yellow arrow at the bottom of the page to advance.

I had thought I'd found a more user-friendly .pdf of the work, but can't seem to find it just now. I'll let you know if I recover it.