Category: Books

Archie Says

I was glad to hear him laugh, because it seemed likely that if there really were ice-picks sticking in my head he, being a doctor, would be taking them out instead of laughing at me.

— Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men

Archie Says

Her hair started far back above the slant of her brow, and that made her brow look even higher and broader than it was, and noble and spiritual. But her eyes were very demure, which didn’t fit. If you’re noble and spiritual you don’t have to be demure. There’s no point in being demure unless there’s something on your mind to be demure about.

— Rex Stout, Black Orchids

Archie Says

I’ve been re-reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, and enjoying them thoroughly. One of the things that’s particularly striking this time through is the way that Archie Goodwin describes the various people he runs into.

But wait a moment. You do know who Archie Goodwin is, don’t you? You are familiar with his narrative voice, aren’t you?

You aren’t? Then what are you wasting your time here for? Get thee to Amazon, or any other bookstore or library of your choice, and begin feasting! (I use the word advisedly.)

OK. I love the way Archie describes people. He doesn’t emphasize the physical details, but somehow he manages to package up their appearance, their character, and his opinion of them all in a very few color words. For example,

She looked more like a school teacher— or maybe it would be more accurate to say that she looked like what a school teacher looks like before the time comes that she absolutely looks like a school teacher and nothing else.

— Rex Stout, in Black Orchids

And then,

Colonel Tinkham, who looked like a collection of undersized features put together at random in order to have somewhere to stick a little brown mustache, had had some kind of a gumshoe job for a big New York bank.

Rex Stout, in Not Quite Dead Enough

I’ve been collecting these; I’ll start doling them out over the next few weeks.

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 1

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

How would you describe your lived relationship with God to this point in your life?I’m a Lay Dominican, and so making God part of my daily life is simply something I do. That includes regular times of prayer, as well as cultivating an awareness of the presence of God as I go about my day.

What does the word “discipleship” mean to you? To be a disciple is to accept a teacher’s discipline, or way of life. We are to be disciples of Christ, and to follow his ways.

Do you perceive a need in the Church today to help lay Catholics become more fervent followers of Jesus Christ? Absolutely. We Catholics are generally happy to pitch in to help others, and so follow the second of the two great commandments; but the first great commandment is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we mostly haven’t been taught what that means.

How would you describe your parish’s current efforts at discipleship? A hotbed of discipleship? A weekly gathering of spiritual sleep-walkers? Or perhaps something in between? It’s hard for me to say, precisely, because of my involvement with my Lay Dominican chapter, which is at another parish altogether. But there are some things I have seen happening over the last several years:

  • For the last year or so, we’ve had an adult faith formation program up and running. Due to our family’s schedule I’ve not generally been able to participate, but I hear good things about.
  • Our pastor has been preaching heavily on the subject of discipleship over the last sixth months; this past Sunday he actually used the phrase “intentional disciple” in his homily.
  • We have quite an active Lifeteen program at our parish, which I’ve been somewhat tangentially involved with. It’s been running for seven years now, and I gather we have a number of young men discerning a call to the priesthood, and at least one young woman discerning a call to religious life.
  • The bishop over our region in the archdiocese has been a strong supporter of the work of the Catherine of Siena Institute for quite a while now (if I remember correctly, he’s mentioned by name in the book).

So things are looking good for the future.

A Primer on Philosophy and Education

NewImage A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading a pre-release review copy of Sam Rocha’s new book, A Primer on Philosophy and Education. The book is not (nor does it pretend to be) a general introduction to Western philosophy; rather, it’s an introduction to philosophical thinking, especially as it applies to education—and here Rocha has a bit of fun.

Rocha is a philosopher of education, and from that and the title of the book one might think that this is a book about schools, teachers, and chalkboards. On the contrary: Rocha refers to all of that as “schooling”; by education he means “learning”, or more precisely, the ability to learn for one’s self, and to go on doing so all one’s life. But that precise meaning only emerges in the course of book. (Whoops! Spoilers. Sorry, Sam.)

The day I read this I was at home sick with a cold, and so it’s a fairly strong statement to say that I enjoyed it and that it held my attention. That said, I find I can’t judge the book fairly, as I’m really not a member of Rocha’s intended audience: his students, and others at a similar level. I don’t claim to be a philosopher of any stripe, but I’ve been delving into it long enough that at least I’m no longer a beginner (perhaps I’m a philosophomore). Whether I’d have found this book helpful when I was beginning that journey, I don’t know. But it all made sense to me, and as I say I enjoyed it.

Anathem

Anathem Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is that most odd of things: philosophical science fiction. By which I mean that in order to enjoy it fully, you really need to have at least a passing acquaintance with the history of Western philosophy from Thales on down; and the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy watching it play out. Not that this is a book of philosophy, or that you have to be a philosopher to read it. There’s plenty of action, interesting characters, and the like.

It is also a difficult book to describe without giving the game away. Heck, it’s a difficult book to describe even if you dogive the game away. But Stephenson has too much fun doling out the information for me to want to spoil it.

The book takes place in a world that is, we are assured, not our own, though there are many points of similarity. Our protagonist is one Fraa Erasmus (“Raz” to his friends) who lives an ascetic sort of life in something that seems very like a monastery, but isn’t, the Concent of Saunt Edhar.

No, I didn’t mispell that. “Saunt”, in Erasmus’ world, is a corruption of “savant”. Edhar was a great and noted thinker in his day, and the Concent, a stronghold of the “mathic world”, was founded to be a place where thinkers could do their work in seclusion, safe from the turmoils and upheavals of the Saecular World outside. Erasmus is a young fraa when we first meet him, winding (with three partners) the great clock that occupies the central tower of the Concent; he is still learning, and has yet to choose his mathic order, the path that he will follow for the rest of his life. He, like all other fraas and suurs, is free to think, to create, and to learn, but he is limited to the most basic technology (called praxic in his world): his bolt, a length of cloth that can become longer and shorter, thicker and thinner at need, that he wears as a garment; his chord, a rope-like object that can also change size, used to keep his bolt from coming off (among other things); and his ball, a soft round object that can be as small as a tennis ball or as large as a truck, but which is mostly used for sitting on. The ball can also glow to provide light.

The fraas and suurs live in almost complete isolation from the Saecular World, coming into contact with the extramurals, or “extras”, those from outside the walls, only during the time of Apert, a week-long festival that occurs once a year…or once every ten years…or once every hundred years…or once every thousand years…depending on who you are. Fraa Erasmus lives in the Decenarian Math, meaning that for him Apert will come every ten years. And as the book begins, Apert is coming; and what will it bring? Therein lies the tale.

I don’t want to say too much more, but I will say this. First, Stephenson’s world-building is phenomenal. I am literally in awe. Second, though there were one or two slow parts I enjoyed the book considerably; it’s the kind of book I’d like to read again for the first time. Third, the intellectual climax of the book is so audacious I can hardly prevent myself from giving it away. Fourth, although Erasmus and his friends have definite, strongly held points of view, with which I sometimes disagree, it never feels like Stephenson has an axe to grind. That impresses me as much as anything.

The only other book by Stephenson that I’ve read is Snow Crash, which had its moments but which I’ve never felt any need to re-read. Anathem is much, much better.

If anyone is interested, I’d gladly discuss my further thoughts about the book down in the comments.

It’s the Poetry, Stupid!

Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis notes something that made me hit my head and go “D’oh!” All scripture (even the prose bits) is akin to poetry. Even the bits that are simply reporting something that really happened are akin to poetry, because God is the author of creation. As a poet uses images to convey something deeper, so God uses events to convey something deeper. You can’t get away from it.

And as an analytically minded math-major turned software developer, I have not much taste for poetry, nor much patience for it. If they want to say something why can’t they just say it clearly?

Wait! Please don’t try to answer that. I’m not going to argue that poetry is a waste of time; I know better, intellectually at least, and I regard my lack of taste for poetry to be a personal flaw. I’m confident that there’s a there there, so to speak, at least in the non-feculent 10% of poetry predicted by Sturgeon’s Law.* I just don’t enjoy it.

But I want to hunger and thirst for God’s word. And if there’s a sense that God’s word is akin to poetry, then it would appear that there are some important and relevant skills that I’m lacking.

Sigh.
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* And how do you figure out which 10% is non-feculent? Alas, you have to wade through a lot of—but I digress.

Matthew and Mind Maps

Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew I am reading through Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. You can see all of my posts on this subject here.

Matthew 1:22 tells us that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit that prophecy might be fulfilled; and Erasmo speaks of what prophecy is and what it says.

But first, I need to talk about mind maps. I’ve been using mind mapping software for some years as a fancy kind of graphical outliner; it’s especially useful for capturing notes from group discussions. However, I’ve recently discovered that there’s another side to mind maps, especially if you draw them by hand: it’s a way of getting your creative, pattern-matching, relation-making backbrain to come out and play with your analytical, verbal fore-brain. As a working programmer I’ve long since learned to rely on my back-brain to solve problems, but I’ve usually had to rely on walking, driving, or taking a shower to get the solutions to come to mind. Making mind maps by hand can do the same trick, apparently, and in a more focussed way, and so I’m making an effort to learn how to do it.

Most mornings, consequently, after reading and pondering what Erasmo has to say, I’ve tried putting it together in a mind map. Here’s the one I came up with this morning.

Mt1 22

This isn’t really intended to speak to anyone but me, of course; and in this case I’m using the mind map as more of an input device, to help me remember what I’ve learned, than as an output device. But it captures the following points:

  • In the Gospel, God’s Wisdom is always the chief actor and mover of events.
  • However, God’s Wisdom generally works through the prophets, those who “speak before”, that is those who prepare.
  • The purpose of the Old Testament prophecies was always to prepare for the coming of God, and hence was intended to lead to the creation of a Tabernacle, an appropriate dwelling for God.
  • But sometimes you build the altar one place so that the lightning can strike somewhere else. The Tabernacle of the Temple was the best that man could build; but all of history leads up to the Annunciation, and the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb.
  • And so Christ’s conception is the fulfillment of all of the prophecies; God now truly dwells among us.

The point that struck me most, reading Erasmo’s lectio, is the first one: in the Gospel, God’s Wisdom is always the chief actor. I’ve tended to focus on the people in the story; but in the Gospel, of course, the Author is also an Actor; the Father and Holy Spirit, though not usually manifesting explicitly, are always present.

He Will Save Us From Sins

Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew I am reading through Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. You can see all of my posts on this subject here.

For Matthew 1:21, Erasmo looks at Christ’s mission: he will save us from our sins. He didn’t come to throw out the Romans or make Israel politically powerful; he came to make us holy, to claim us, us as individuals, for himself.

Idolatry is always strong in human society; and in our society the two dominant forms it takes are individualism and collectivism. As individuals, we worship ourselves: we exercise, we eat right, or we feel guilty because we don’t do these things as the culture says we should. And, of course, the cult of the almighty orgasm is, in the end, simply the cult of our own pleasure. We Have To Have Our Own Way.

Jesus says no; we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That’s the first great commandment; and it’s all about sanctification, being holy. Erasmo says,

Until our lives are reoriented toward God and doing what is good, our endeavors in any field of human activity can only be a function of our sinfulness and egotism.

The second idol is collectivism: the notion that all social problems—poverty, addiction, violence, racism, what have you—are systemic, and the key to fixing them is to fix society. The Good of All thus becomes the thing to worship; but “All” is an abstraction. There is no “All”, concretely speaking, but only all of us individuals, and worship of the “All” leads in turn to worship of the State, which is the only entity big enough to conceivably “fix” society as a whole.

Jesus says no; the problem isn’t Society, but rather Our Sins; that’s the systemic problem. He came to fix it at the root, by his death and resurrection. Now it has to play out in our lives as individuals. And this leads to the second great commandment, that we must love our neighbors—our real neighbors, those people we see every day—as ourselves. I wish to be well-fed, clothed, and housed; I wish to have a fulfilling, interesting life; I wish to become holy, to love God as He deserves, that I might spend eternity with Him. I work to achieve things things; and so I must work to achieve for my neighbors. It is my individual responsibility, and it relates not to some vaguely defined collective but to individuals: not to society, but to people. These people may live thousands of miles away from me, or they may live in my house, but they are individuals, created by God in His image.

Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I

Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew I am reading through Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. You can see all of my posts on this subject here.

Having spent the last week with Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis’ Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I, I’m now ready to give some preliminary impressions: preliminary because I’ve not read the whole thing, or even a tenth of it. But I spent an hour with it on Monday evening, and half-an-hour each morning since, and I think I’ve got the flavor of it.

Bottom line: I love it. It’s a keeper.

To recap, I got this book after praying for help from God to jumpstart in me a deep love of scripture. I want that precisely because the scriptures are a chief way God chose to use to make himself known to us. They are, in a sense, incarnational; and as St. Jerome said, ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ. Conversely, to know Christ one must know the scriptures, and to love Christ one must love the scriptures.

And Erasmo clearly loves the scriptures. It’s clear in every line. He has read them, tasting the words, chewing on the meaning, and coming to know the Lord he loves through them, and he has made his meditations available to us.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction (around fifty pages) entitled, “A Cordial Reading of God’s Word,” which gives Erasmo’s approach to the project. These fifty pages (or, at least, the thirty or so that I’ve studied) might be worth the price of the book all by themselves. Here’s a sample:

The principal care of one who would make his house within Christ’s Word must be to allow the sacred text all its importance, all its resonance, all its radiance and centrality. He will ceaselessly allow it to occupy the central “block” of both his page and his loving attention, as in those manuscript commentaries on The Book in the Middle Ages—of Jewish, Christian, or Moslem origin—which display a minimal portion of the inspired text within a solid square in the middle of the page and whose thick margins, on four sides, became more and more crowded with the glosses of scribes who prayed, studied, memorized, and recopied—in a word, celebrated—the text inexhaustibly.

Not only is the Word of Scripture central to the study of Christ, it is to be central to our lives. The page with the Word at its center and glosses around the outside is to be the model for my life: my life is to be a gloss on the Scripture.

Every page is like this: every page has some fact, some link, some relation, some metaphor, rooted in the Word, rooted in the Faith, rooted in the Liturgy, that opens my eyes and begins to lift me up to heaven. I could multiply examples endlessly, but if I gave as many as I’d like then I’d certainly be hearing from the the Copyright Cops. But here’s one more example, in paraphrase.

At one point, while talking about the importance of the Greek text, Erasmo notes that the word St. Paul uses in Letter to the Ephesians for the “offering” of the temple sacrifices is the same word Matthew uses when people “bring” the sick and lame to Jesus to be healed. The sacrificial victim must be spotless, without flaw; and when folks bring their loved ones and “offer” them to Christ, he heals them, makes them clean and spotless, so that he can in turn offer them to God. And this adds a crucial element to the scene:

The situation in Matthew is then enhanced from a merely thaumaturgic one (even if this is establishing Christ’s crucial identity as Messiah) to a cultic, mystagogical, and even eucharistic one.

Jesus is not just a magician, not just a wonder-worker: in healing those brought to him, he is foreshadowing what he came to Earth to do for all of us on the cross.

In addition to reading and studying the opening essay, I’ve been spending some time each morning with the actual scripture of Matthew and Erasmo’s meditations on it. I’ve gotten partway through verse 19 of Chapter 1, which is slow going consider that the first 16 or 17 verses are all begats. (There are important lessons in the begats!) And my experience with these shorter meditations is similar to my experience with the opening essay: on every page there’s a connection I had not made, an image that will stick with me and enrich all future readings. I hope to have more to say about some of them in coming days and weeks.

In the meantime…if anything I’ve said appeals to you, go ahead and get a copy. I think you’ll find it to be worthwhile.

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