15 January 2012

'A School for the Lord's Service': St Benedict's Rule & Classical Education

This was an article I wrote for our school newsletter, Remarkable Providences. I have corrected a passage which got seriously distorted in the print edition thanks to my own hasty perusal of the proofs, and also added notes and links.

In his profound critique of modern ethics, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously wrote, ‘We are waiting, not for a Godot, but for anotherdoubtless very different—St Benedict.’ [1] The reason for these words is that St Benedict, traditionally known as the ‘Father of Western monasticism’, was responsible for the formation of small communities committed to the cultivation and teaching of virtue even as the world around them lost all cohesion. They are communities to which we would do well to look for inspiration today.

Indeed, civilisation as a whole owes a very great debt to these monks. Benedictine monasticism, that is, monasteries which were organised and lived according to St Benedict’s Rule, were the ark in which all of the classical culture of the Latin world was preserved from the flood of barbarism and the seedbed in which germinated many of the great monuments of mediæval culture. In the words of Dom Jean Leclercq, ‘education’ in the sense of instruction in grammar, of reading and writing, ‘is not separated from spiritual effort’ in the Benedictine vision. [2] The mediæval Western theologian par excellence, Thomas Aquinas, was raised and educated in St Benedict's own monastery of Monte Cassino, [3] and in his Divine Comedy, the greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, has an important exchange with St Benedict in the heavenly sphere of the contemplatives. [4] But to produce Aquinas and Dante, Latin-speaking Christendom had to begin from the ruins of Roman civilisation. John Henry Newman emphasises the gradual nature of the great Abbot’s achievement:

St Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and city. [5]

St Benedict’s Rule was a powerful agent in the civilisation of Europe, a project which, for the Rule’s author as well as its followers through the centuries, was explicitly educational. In his Prologue to the Rule, St Benedict quotes extensively from the Scriptures on the importance of holy living and concludes, ‘Therefore we intend to establish a school for the Lord's service [dominici schola servitii].’ [6] This reference to the monastery as a ‘school’ should not of course surprise us, however, since already in the opening words of the Rule, St Benedict has addressed his readers, ‘Listen, my son, to the lessons [praecepta] of the teacher [magistri].’ [7] Indeed, the Rule assumes throughout that the monks are discipuli, or ‘students’, and that the abbot is their magister, or ‘teacher’. In the words of the late Dom Adalbert de Vogüé, ‘the task of the monastic school is to educate us in the life of perfection according to the Gospel.’ [8]

But to this end, the monastic ‘school’ has need of a handbook, curriculum, and curriculum objectives, which are contained primarily in the Holy Scriptures, but also in the Rule itself and in the various writings of the Church Fathers which it recommends ‘for anyone hastening on to the perfection of the monastic life’. [9] In the Rule St Benedict lays out in painstaking detail how the ‘school’ is to be organised, even down to the exact daily schedule and arrangement of the services to be carried out and Psalms to be chanted in the church. The times for prayer, work, and individual study of Scripture, all summarised in the famous motto Ora et labora (‘Pray & work’), [9] are delineated. There are exact prescriptions of punishment for various offenses. The way in which meals are to be taken is described at length, with allowance for the different fasts of the Christian year.

This strict organisation of life as a ‘school for the Lord's service’ suggests obvious parallels to the efforts of those of us involved in classical Christian education today. In the opening lines of the Prologue, we find a beautiful distillation of what classical Christian education must assume at the outset. The late John Senior, one of the founders of the renowned [and sadly long defunct] Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, has taken each of the four imperative verbs of these opening sentences in the Latin text and shown clearly how relevant and challenging they are for both students and faculty.

The very first word, ausculta, means ‘listen’. Senior points out that this reminds us that education begins with quietly listening, for—

it is only to the just, gazing in rapt silence like a lover on his beloved at the art or thing, it is only to the patient, silent receptive listener, that the meaning of the poem, or the mystery of the number, star, chemical, plant—whatever subject the science sits at the feet of—is revealed... [10]

The next imperative is inclina—‘attend with' or ‘incline the ear of your heart’. Perhaps the most foreign concept to modern education, according to Senior:

This means students must love their teachers and teachers must be worthy of such love. Learning is a motion of the heart and not a mercenary contract in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ where the natural desires of youth to reach the stars are distracted from their aim by catalogues, orientation sessions and academic advising impelling them to marketable skills and government grants. [11]

The third imperative is excipe, that is, ‘accept’ or ‘welcome the admonition of a loving father freely’. In other words, the student must freely accept—

not just the precepts and the counsels but accept the correction and rebuke of the teacher who stands in loco parentis as the strong, gentle, pious father. Humility is a necessary condition of learning. The relationship of student to teacher is not one of equality, nor even of quantitative inequality as between those advanced and less advanced on the same plane; it is the relationship of disciple to master in which docility is an analogue of the love of man and God, from Whom all paternity in Heaven and on earth derives. [12]

Finally, the last of the four imperatives is efficaciter comple—‘faithfully put it into practice’. According to Senior, ‘The student must not only receive the knowledge, counsel and correction of the teacher, he must fulfill them . . .’ [13] To do this, the student must ultimately move beyond merely parroting or complying to truly understand what he is taught, ‘and by learning, become assimilated to the spiritual, intellectual and moral model of the teacher. . . . [Faculty and students] according to this rule should be better than the rest of the community, not only in intelligence but in manners, morals and taste as well.’ [14]

We at Providence Hall would do well to heed the teaching of St Benedict's Rule if we too wish to be ‘a school for the Lord's service’.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1984), p. 263. I have written a post on MacIntyre's reference to St Benedict called ‘Waiting for St Benedict: MacIntyre, Monasticism, & the New Dark Ages’.

[2] Dom Jean Leclercq, OSB, The Love of Learning & the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, tr. Catharine Misrahi (NY: Fordham, 1961), p. 24.

[3] This was first called to my attention by James Taylor in Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), pp. 39-40: ‘It was, then, into a society, a culture, built on centuries of slow Benedictine influence so eloquently described by Newman [see above], that Aquinas was born in the thirteenth century. . . . Certainly to be considered is the fact that Thomas was placed with the Benedictines of Monte Cassino at an early age.’ But I later discovered that Taylor's teacher, John Senior, emphasises the point much more strongly: ‘St Benedict, Patron of Europe, founded Monte Cassino in 529. St Thomas as a little boy of five entered there to go to school around 1229—seven hundred years in the womb of Benedictine work and prayer and then you have St Thomas! The seedbed of theology is the Benedictine life, without which no one has the prerequisites’ (The Restoration of Christian Culture [Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008], p. 87).

[4] Paradiso XXII. Dante’s choice of words in l. 98 to describe St Benedict rejoining the other contemplativesCosi mi disse, e indi si raccolse / al suo collegio, e ’l collegio si strinse (‘Thus he concluded and the voice was stilled. / Collegiate to collegium withdrew’)seems to highlight in a fortuitous way the connection between St Benedict and education. The Italian I’ve taken from Dante, Paradise, tr. & ed. Anthony Esolen, illust. Gustave Dore (NY: Modern Library, 2007), p. 240; the translation is Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy 3: Paradise (London: Penguin, 1962), p. 252.

[5] John Henry Newman, ‘The Mission of St Benedict’, {410}.

[6] Here I quote RB1980, but throughout the article I have in some cases given my own translation to emphasise the point I want to make, or I have offered alternatives from various translators. For the Latin text, I have used Abbot Justin McCann, OSB, tr. & ed., The Rule of Saint Benedict in English & Latin (Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.).

[7] My own translation.

[8] Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, Reading St Benedict: Reflections on the Rule, tr. Colette Friedlander, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1994), p. 34.

[9] I have written on this motto in the post, ‘Ora et Labora?

[10] Senior, p. 93.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 94.

[13] Ibid., p. 95.

[14] Ibid.

14 January 2012

St Cyril, Leisure, & the Teaching Vocation

In thinking about what I can start posting here, I realised that one order of business might be to get a few more homilies up. I intend to try posting them in chronological order, in which case I shall begin with a little talk I gave on St Cyril the Apostle-to-the-Slavs at our faculty in-service training over the summer.

I'd like to talk today about our vocation as teachers, but focusing on an often neglected dimension of that vocation.

In the mid-9th c., a young man from Thessalonica named Constantine completed his university studies in the capitol of the East Roman (or Byzantine) Empire--Constantinople. He had been a student of the empire's best teachers, including St Photius the Great, who was directly responsible for the preservation of much of the ancient Greek literature now extant. [1] Constantine received a thorough classical education. Having mastered grammar:

He studied Homer and geometry with Leo [the Mathematician], and with Photius dialectic and all the branches of philosophy, and together with these rhetoric, arithmetic, astronomy, music; and all the other ancient Greek sciences. . . . Speed went hand in hand with diligence, for it is thus that knowledge and science are perfected. [2]

In a viva voce examination by Theoctistus, the imperial Logothete (i.e., 'Secretary of State'), Constantine was addressed:

'Philosopher, I should like to know what philosophy is.' To this, Constantine replied without hesitation: 'Knowledge of things human and divine, insofar as Man is able to approach God, for it teaches Man by his actions to become the image and likeness of his Creator.' [3]

Much could be said about this answer--in fact, there is a whole scholarly article about it that our future school librarian, Chris Rosser, was kind enough to obtain for me [4]--but here I shall make just a few comments (I've made others here).

First, Constantine's answer does not imply a so-called 'works-righteousness', since the 'actions' to which he refers consist first and foremost in turning to the Lord in repentance and calling on His grace. Second, the language of the response itself, is the epitome of the classical Christian tradition. Constantine is not making this up, but reciting something he has memorised. Third, the response shows the linking of knowledge and action, and, although the teacher is not mentioned, the connection of both with teaching and learning.

We shall come back to this last point later; for now, let's focus on Constantine himself. We know that the Logothete Theoctistus intended the young man for a brilliant political career--but this he flatly refused, insisting that he was interested in wisdom and knowledge alone. At this point, I should point out for all of you that Constantine went on to become famous for something very practical indeed: today he is known all over the world as St Cyril, the Apostle-to-the-Slavs. He produced the first translations of the Scriptures and Church services into the Slavonic language, bringing not only the Gospel to the Slavic peoples, Bulgarians, Serbs, Russians, etc.), but literacy itself by inventing the Glagolitic alphabet and the Old Church Slavonic literary language. For this, St Cyril has been called 'a linguistic genius' who ranks 'among the greatest philologists Europe has ever produced', [5] though his well-trained students eventually replaced the esoteric and hermetic characters of Glagolitic with an adaptation of the Greek alphabet named after their teacher.

But my point is this: St Cyril didn't set out from college to become a missionary and 'CHANGE THE WORLD!', as George Grant would say in one of his ACCS talks. Right out of college, the first thing St Cyril did was to go to a monastery for six months. He did briefly accept a position teaching philosophy, and served as a kind of missionary attaché to a diplomatic mission to the Arabs (whom he dazzled with his learning), but then he went to a second monastery where he and his brother, St Methodius, spent several years.

The real point of this talk about St Cyril is precisely these monastic interludes. Why did he do this? More importantly, what can we learn from him as educators?

In his magisterial study, The Christian Philosophy of S Thomas Aquinas, the great French historian of mediaeval philosophy, Étienne Gilson, writes:

Man can choose only between two kinds of life, the active and the contemplative. What confers special dignity on the functions of the Doctor [teacher] is that they imply both of these two kinds of life, properly subordinated the one to the other. The true function of the Doctor is to teach. Teaching (doctrina) consists in communicating to others a truth meditated beforehand. It demands of necessity both the reflection of the contemplative in order to discover the truth, and the activity of the professor in order to communicate his findings to others. But the most remarkable thing about this complex activity is that there is an exact correspondence between the higher and the lower, between contemplation and actions. . . .

In the first place, it is clear that the activity of the Doctor is not superimposed artificially upon his contemplative life. Rather, it finds its source in his contemplation and is, so to speak, its outward manifestation. [6]

I read these words while sitting on my front porch on a peaceful summer's day shortly after school ended (and before the real heat wave began!), and I've been thinking about them all summer. When Mr Carr asked me to speak at In-service on a topic of my choosing, I thought about these words, then I thought about St Cyril. St Cyril went to monasteries to engage in contemplation--which he drew upon in his active teaching among students in the capitol, among Arabs, Khazars, his close disciples and missionary companions, the Slavs, and others.

This distinction between 'action' and 'contemplation' goes back to ancient Greek philosophy. It was taken up by the Church Fathers, who saw it embodied in the story of Ss Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. But the Fathers by and large seem to have used these words in a different sense to the Thomistic tradition as represented by Gilson. For the Fathers, and therefore for St Cyril who deeply imbibed them, 'action' is not merely the 'hustle and bustle' of life, but a struggle for virtue and purification from the passions. It is therefore a preparation for contemplation. According to Bl Theophylact of Ochrid, St Martha of Bethany represents 'active virtue', but so do Christ's feet at which St Mary sits, so by sitting St Mary has already attained active virtue. Furthermore, 'contemplation' is not merely 'thinking' (and I realise it is not merely this for Aquinas either), but praying and ultimately encountering God Himself, especially in 'vision'. In St Luke's Gospel, St Mary 'contemplates' Christ--she gazes at Him, listening to His words. [7]

In the Patristic sense, St Cyril is engaging in both action and contemplation at the monastery--and as Christian teachers, it is important for us as well to do both. We must struggle to acquire the virtues ourselves on the one hand, and we must pray and encounter God on the other, hoping eventually to see Him 'face to face'. Deep participation in the divine life is the goal we aim for as well as the font from which we draw in incarnating Christ in the lives of our students, in teaching the Bible, in leading prayer, in loving others, etc.

But Gilson points the way to a more prosaic interpretation of these terms, as well as of St Cyril himself, and therefore of the teaching profession. It is not fortuitous that I did this reading and thinking during the summer. The summer is a time of 'leisure' for teachers, and leisure, even a little bit, is necessary for contemplation. Another Thomist philosopher, Josef Pieper, connects the two when he points out that the 'Christian concept of the "contemplative life" was built on the Aristotelian concept of leisure'. [8] The purpose of leisure, in fact, is contemplation: ultimately, 'gazing' at God, prayer and worship (doxology, celebration of feasts), but also the more prosaic 'thinking' on truth, study, etc. We often think that the purpose of leisure is to 'unwind', 'veg out', or 'relax' after work in order to be refreshed to go back. But Pieper argues that this idea is the product of the modern materialistic culture and our slavery to work:

Now leisure is not there for the sake of work, no matter how much new strength the one who resumes working may gain from it; leisure in our sense is not justified by providing bodily renewal or even mental refreshment to lend new vigor to further work--although it does indeed bring such things!

As contemplation, so leisure is of a higher rank than the vita activa. [9]

In other words, leisure and contemplation are goods per se, they are the highest activity of man. They are good for us as human beings, making us more fully human, and not beasts of burden. But of course, they are also good for our work, and especially for teaching. Indeed, leisure and contemplation--even in the less spiritual and more intellectual or philosophical sense of just reading and thinking--are crucial to our vocation as teachers. Reading, quiet time on porches, conversation with each other, and academic conferences (especially the CiRCE Institute conference, where there were no 'workshops' on bulletin boards, just steady reflection on the theme 'What is Man?'!) need no justification. They are not work, but we draw upon them in our work.

As an illustration, and apropos of my reference to the CiRCE conference, in a session on 'Mimetic Teaching and the Cultivation of Virtue' Andrew Kern described a Christian interpretation of 'mimetic teaching':

First: Truth is the aim.
Second: the soul must be like, i.e. be conformed to, compatible with, the Truth.
Third: to be perceived the Truth must be embodied.
Fourth: this embodiment is then imitated.
Fifth: in this way Truth is known per se (the embodiment becomes transparent). [10]

The teacher's knowledge of Truth must be gained through some kind of contemplation (requiring leisure). The teacher embodies the Truth, the student imitates, the student knows the Truth. It is a pattern that can be applied to all kinds of objects and methods of contemplation, from St Paul's 'Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ' (I Cor 11:1), to using Lucy Pevensie to illustrate childlike faith, to letting Kindergarteners do arithmetic with beans.

To return at last to St Cyril, the monastery in Asia Minor was the shady porch where he spent his summer reading deep, thought-provoking books; his Glagolitic alphabet and the translations of the Gospels and liturgy he produced were the lesson plans (or in-service talk notes) born out of that deep reflection; the barbarian lands of Eastern Europe were his classroom and the barbaric Slavs themselves his students (hard to see the analogy, I know!). And what students they turned out to be! While Christians in the West have by and large remained woefully ignorant of the 1200-year Christian Tradition among the Slavs, suffice to say it has produced countless giants of the life in Christ as well as of Christian culture, art, and literature. St Cyril and his brother, St Methodius, really did 'change the world', but not by setting out to do so. They spent less time 'strategising' and more time reflecting on what man is. Theirs was an activity born out of profound contemplation.

[1] L.D. Wilson & N.G. Reynolds, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), p. 57.

[2] Qtd. in Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 25.

[3] Tachiaos, p. 27.

[4] Ihor Ševčenko ‘The Definition of Philosophy in the Life of Saint Constantine [Cyril]’, For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, 11 October, 1956, comp. Morris Halle, Horace G. Lunt, Hugh McLean, and Cornelis H. Van Schooneveld (The Hague, 1956), pp. 449-57.

[5] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Byzantium & the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1994), p. 207.

[6] Étienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, tr. L.K. Shook, CSB (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957), pp. 3-4.

[7] Bl Theophylact of Ohrid, The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, Vol. III of Bl. Theophylact’s Explanation of the New Testament, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), pp. 121-2.

[8] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, tr. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St Augustine's Press, 1998), p. 5.

[9] Pieper, p. 34.

[10] This is based on my notes from Kern's talk.

12 January 2012

'a lost child travelling in the snow'

All the way back in 2009 I posted one of my favourite Christmas poems, Chesterton's 'Child of the Snows' (here). Well, last year I bought a copy of Michael Patrick Hearn's Annotated Christmas Carol, and as I was reading it with my students around Christmas time, I noticed the following passage in the description of the Cratchits' Christmas celebration:

All this time the chesnuts and the jug went round and round; and bye and bye they had a song, about a lost child travelling in the snow, from Tiny Tim; who had a plaintive little voice, and sang it very well indeed. [1]

For the first time, while reading this passage I thought of GKC's poem, and then I noticed Hearn's annotation:

Apparently Dickens had no specific carol in mind; no such song has been found in any old collection of Christmas carols. G.K. Chesterton realized this omission, and included in his Poems (1926) 'A Child of the Snows', which might stand for Tiny Tim's carol until another might be found. [2]

I chose the image above as a good, classic, Logismoic piece, but the image here is more of a real illustration of the poem.

[1] Charles Dickens, The Annotated Christmas Carol: A Christmas Carol in Prose, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn, illust. John Leech (NY: Norton, 2004), p. 108.

[2] Dickens, p. 108, n. 63.

09 January 2012

Ad blogges!

A number of factors have combined recently to convince me that I should return to the practice of crafting the occasional post for this blog. Not the least of these was this stirring post at Reading the Maps, discovered via the very medium the author denigrates and in which so many of us guiltily indulge: Facebook. How can I continue to neglect Logismoi after reading the following?

Blogging may have been superseded by new and inferior innovations, but the medium need not die. Indeed, bloggers should treat the rise of alternative forms of online communication as a liberation, rather than a disaster. Freed from the curse of coolness, blogging can now develop as a literary and artistic genre, or set of genres. Blogging may have lost some of its old practitioners, but it should be able to attract writers, artists, and political thinkers dissatisfied with the short attention span of twitter and the ritualised onanism of facebook. Blogging may become an act of resistance against the dumbing down of culture and political discourse in the twenty-first century.

I am not so certain, however, that this first new post since last summer can aspire to the lofty heights called for here. Instead, I intend to ease back into the practice beginning with a simple and, for me at least, enjoyable genre: the newly acquired books overview. In my household, we exchanged gifts for the Nativity according to the Church's calendar four nights ago, and I had already previously come by a few other titles, either received as gifts or purchased with gift cards and/or money. Having forgotten the order in which I acquired them, I'll settle for the alphabetical order of the authors' last names.

1) Ibrahim S. Amin, The Monster Hunter's Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Saving Mankind from Vampires, Zombies, Hellhounds, & Other Mythical Beasts (NY: Bloomsbury, 2007). An unexpected gift from a friend, this one is a sheer delight. For a small taste, consider the author's response to the question, 'Why would anyone want to hunt monsters?'

...A hunter kills to test himself against what nature has to offer, to see if his humble human mind and body can overcome the power, quickness, and savage cunning of the beasts. Thus a true hunter will wish to pit himself against the most challenging prey--creatures that will push him to the limit. Any fool with a gun can shoot a deer, but only the greatest of sportsmen will be able to overcome a Hydra.

However, even among the most dedicated sportsmen in the field there is also a second, and perhaps far more noble concern--no less lofty a goal than the protection and preservation of the human race.

The entry on each creature even includes a citation of early, often classical, sources. My only complaint is that, despite the appropriately arcane, antique-looking cover design, the illustrations are brightly coloured, modern-looking things. They just don't do justice to the subject matter.

2) G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Vol. 1: Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Blatchford Controversies, ed. David Dooley (SF: Ignatius, 1986). I was excited finally to come across an inexpensive used copy of a volume of GKC's Collected Works, a set of handsomely designed, but rather pricey volumes from Ignatius Press. I hope to see more some day.

3) Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol: The Original 1843 Manuscript (Delray Beach, FL: Levenger, 2011). A gift from my always thoughtful mother-in-law, this is the first-ever full-cover facsimile of Dickens's original manuscript of A Christmas Carol. It features a facing-page transcription, a beautiful red cloth Smythe-sewn binding gold-stamped with a design from the 1st edition, a silk ribbon marker, and, it seems, 'Archival paper selected to match the color of Dickens’s manuscript paper'. It also has an introduction by the curator of Literary & Historical Manuscripts at the Dickens MS owner: The Morgan Library & Museum. See the photo above. Now I can, just barely, read my favourite lines in Dickens's own handwriting:

'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive Ocean of my business!' (p. 14)

4) David L. Edwards, OBE, Poets & God: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton, WOrdsworth, Coleridge, Blake (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005). I was off to Half Price Books to kill some time, hoping to find a copy of Gerald Basil Edwards's Book of Ebenezer Le Page. But while I saw no sign of the latter, I did discover this book by another Edwards, apparently a former Dean of King's College, Cambridge. The blurb on the back says this:

These great English poets are at the centre of a cultural heritage which goes along with the world-wide appeal of the English language, yet they have often become the object of study rather than of pleasure.

Scholarly, entertaining and often provocative, David Edwards's new book reveals their relevance to the current quest for an authentic spirituality in a mostly church-less society. Poets & God will excite the reader to rediscover and enjoy their work.

5) Thomas C. Oden, Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011). Although Tom Oden's niece, Amy Oden, was my Church history professor in college, and I myself briefly met the old fellow at a lecture about the Green Collection of Biblical artifacts here in OKC a few months ago, I've managed never to read any of his work. My father gave me this one with the explanation that he never knows what I have, and it was new enough that he could be pretty certain I didn't have it. I fully intend to read it through. I already glanced at the conclusion and found it profoundly moving. Oden is explaining how and why he is passionate about the subject, and apologising in advance for the tentative nature of his conclusions:

Why, then, have I continued to pursue this difficult task to the very end, when I had other urgent projects sitting on the shelf awaiting my attention at a late date in my life? Because so few know about this obscure area; because its role in early Christianity was so significant; because it has been so neglected as a subject of historical inquiry by Western academic colleages. These motives have been the engines of desire.

Now that I am at last ready to offer its results for scholarly and public examination, I am all the more aware that many of its conclusions may seem at first hard to defend and easy targets for academics who are working out of very different premises about reliable knowledge. I hope that someday someone will do more justice to this subject than I. But my time to do anything in this world is limited and growing more so. Hence I offer it for the reader's consideration, hoping for clemency.

6) Rob Pope, How to Study Chaucer, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 2001). I do of course enjoy reading Chaucer, but my primary motive in buying this one was that I am going to be teaching Chaucer to my 8th-grade students this Spring. As I do not know him nearly as well as most of the other books we have been reading, I need all the help I can get.

7) David Simay, Swordfishtrombones: 33 1/3 (NY: Continuum, 2008). Some of you may recall that I posted briefly about Tom Waits a few years ago (here), but if you're not aware, I am an enormous fan. My sister gave me this little book (apparently the 33 1/3 series of books about albums is all the same size), a 'study' of sorts of Waits's groundbreaking album, 1983's Swordfishtrombones. Again, the back blurb says it best:

At the end of the seventies, Tom Waits felt trapped in a stalled career: his musical persona an artistic straightjacket. At a dark, desperate time in his life he got the phone call that offered a way out and met the woman who would change his life. What followed was Swordfishtrombones, one of the most daring transformations in pop music history.

Tom Waits is an elusive subject, sly and evasive. Through extensive research and a close, playful reading of his work, David Smay unwraps the vinegar pleasures of Swordfishtrombones and creates a freewheeling portrait of an American genius. This is the album where Tom Waits beats the blues with a hammer, drags his piano into the rain and burrows deep underground. This is the story of a man who reinvented himself and changed the musical landscape forever, a love story built on exotic percussion and phantom landscapes. This is a story about crows and mules.

8) J.R.R. Tolkien, Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham (NY: Del Rey, 1986). I bought this with a HP Books gift card after I had the disconcerting realisation that I didn't own a single copy of 'Smith of Wootton Major' (I had 'Farmer Giles' in the Tolkien Reader). It's such a beautiful story, and the descriptions of Smith's journeys oddly reminded me a little bit of Lovecraft's dream stories (another Tolkien/Lovecraft connection).

9) Leo Tolstoy, The Bear Hunt & Other Stories (NY: Little Leather Library Co., n.d.). I received this curious little volume only just tonight from an old family friend. I'd never seen or heard anything of this series, but according to this description the 'Little Leather Libary' books were a series of small classics bound in what was once brownish green imitation leather (mine is decidedly brown) in the early 1920's, apparently inspired by the Arts & Crafts-related Roycroft Press. The Tolstoy volume (Box 2 Volume 91 of the series) contains the stories 'The Bear Hunt', 'What Men Live By', and 'A Fairy Tale'.