The Books of My Life: An Essay from the Original Synaxis

Feast of St. Aquila the Apostle among the 70

Front_Cover_Original_Synaxis_Square.jpgOVER THE last couple of weeks, I’ve been completely reorganizing my library at The Ladder. I’ve had to install a number of new shelves to get the many stacks of books off the floor of the upstairs. The main floor is finished and the second floor will be completed this weekend. This reorganization was provoked by something I will tell you about next week when we kick off our summer fundraising campaign.

Going through all these books reminded me of an essay I wrote for our very first issue of Synaxis, which appeared back in the winter of 2012. The theme for that issue was “The Book." My piece was a reflection on the books that have been most influential in my life. Since it has never appeared on our website, I’ll share it with you here.

And please don't forget that all of the books listed below are available for purchase at Eighth Day Books! Visit the store or give them a call at 1.800.841.2541 and support the greatest independent bookstore out there!

THE BOOKS OF MY LIFE

I REMEMBER being surprised by the Eighth Day Books application form: a blank piece of scratch paper. After asking for a form, I was given paper and pencil and asked to provide my personal information, along with a list of a few books that had influenced my life. Almost a decade later, at an annual Eighth Day Christmas party, our bookish after-dinner fun involved a similar exercise. We each had to name the ten most influential books of our lives. Although I don't remember the exact list I gave that evening (nor do I remember the books I listed on the “application form”), a few years ago I fondly recalled this exercise and nostalgically proceeded to create a list. This time, however, I put it in writing so I wouldn't forget. What follows is a slightly adapted and expanded version of that list, a glimpse, if you will, into the books of my life.

THREE TREATISES ON THE DIVINE IMAGES
By St. John of Damascus

I vividly remember the first time I read St. John Damascene’s defense of icons. My wife and I had just recently experienced our first liturgy at an Orthodox Christian Church. It was late and I was reading in bed with the nightline on when I came across a passage in which the Damascene monk describes an eighth-century church service. It sounded exactly like the one we had just visited at St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas. The similarities between two church services separated by 1200 years struck me like lightning. As I continued to read, St. John’s defense of icons helped me begin to understand the importance of the incarnation. By becoming human, God not only brought salvation to the world, but He also demonstrated His blessing of the physical world by using its materials to facilitate our salvation: a mother and a cave for His birth, flesh for His humanity, water for His baptism, bread and wine for the Last Supper, a tree for the cross, and iron for the nails.

FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD
By Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book reinforced the incarnation and sacramental view of the cosmos that I had learned from St. John. Two points, in particular, stood out. First, Schmemann suggests that man is fundamentally a worshipping creature (homo adorans).

Second, he argues that the liturgy is a sacrament. From the moment we start preparing for liturgy, we set out on a journey: we begin leaving the world behind to initiate an ascent into the joy-filled Kingdom of God. Every single dimension of the liturgy – architecture, candles, icons, hymns, homilies, crosses, water, bread, wine, etc. – and the order and manner in which they all work together (what Schmemann calls the ordo), facilitates an ascent that culminates with the eucharistic banquet table in the Kingdom of God.

THE SACRED IN LIFE AND ART
By Phillip Sherrard

Sherrard’s book proved to be instrumental for my Master’s thesis on the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy (Patriarch, Monk & Empress:  A Byzantine Debate over Icons).  Sherrard further clarified my understanding of the sacraments, particularly the liturgy, the icon, and their transfiguring relevance for the modern world. Echoing Schmemann’s articulation of the liturgy as an ascent to the Kingdom of God, Sherrard compares the liturgy to a mystery play: just as the spectators are led stage by stage and act by act to the climax, the liturgy leads the worshipper to the Eucharist. To do so, according to Sherrard, the reality of two key events must be conveyed: the Incarnation, which “signifies the actualization of the Spirit in matter,” and the Transfiguration, which “makes evident the consequence of this, and that is the sanctification or spiritualization of matter and of human and natural existence.” The ordo that I had unconsciously encountered at St. George, and had been introduced to by Schmemann, is thus crafted to convey the reality of Christ’s Incarnation and Transfiguration so that we may experience the transfiguring reality of the Eighth Day Kingdom of God.

ON THE INCARNATION
By St. Athanasius

My encounter with Sherrard coincided with my first year of teaching at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts. I had the privilege of facilitating a Great Books seminar for the seniors that first year. In addition to works by Sigmund Freud, Thucydides, William James, Anton Chekhov, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Joseph Conrad, and Flannery O'Connor, we read this theological treatise. Written at a very young age and at a very tumultuous period in the history of the Church, St. Athanasius’ work articulates a clear defense of the full divinity of Christ. Nicknamed Athanasius contra mundum (“Athanasius against the world”) because of his key role in facilitating the Orthodox victory at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 A.D., Athanasius reaffirmed my understanding of the Incarnation and its central role in my spiritual life. His most famous line, which encapsulates the Christian scheme of salvation, caught my attention: “God became man so that man might become god.”

THE WEIGHT OF GLORY
By C. S. Lewis

The notion of man becoming god was initially quite disturbing. Shortly thereafter, however, I came across an Orthodox theologian who suggested a more helpful translation for my Western ears: “God became man so that man might be glorified.” I like that, especially in light of my favorite C. S. Lewis sermon which describes the vocation of humanity as sons and daughters of God who reflect His glory in terms of brightness, splendor, and luminosity. Lewis is so inspiring I simply can’t resist sharing him with you:

We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star. . . . For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths which people air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves and the modern poetry which talks as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul, that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. . . . When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch. . . . It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. (The Weight of Glory, pp. 42-3, 45)

While certainly inspiring, and extremely helpful for my intellectual grasp of Athanasius’ famous saying about becoming gods, this vision of glorification also seemed to me overly idealistic. Athanasius and Lewis painted a picture in my mind of what I could become, but the practical question of how was still a dilemma for me.


Membership_Logo_v._2.jpgIn addition to a piece by Warren Farha on the importance of the physical book ("Why Bother with Books"), this original issue of Synaxis includes other pieces by authors such as Dale C. Allison Jr., Wendell Berry, David Fagerberg, Gregory Wolfe, Neil Postman, et al. Become a new Eighth Day Member over the next two weeks (July 14 – July 28, 2017) and I'll send you a complimentary copy.


 

THE LIFE OF ANTONY
By St. Athanasius

During my second year at Northfield I began teaching the History of Western Civilization. Committed to the “Great Books,” I integrated the reading and discussion of about a dozen key texts – not just short selections from your typical source book, but entire book, including this hagiography in which Athanasius continues his defense of the incarnation and portrays Antony as a Christ-like figure. What struck me, however, were Antony’s ascetic practices: locking himself in tombs and deserted fortresses, extreme fasting, battling demonic beasts, not bathing, and sleeping on the ground. As I read this gripping tale, I couldn’t help but think such practices excessive. The strict lifestyles of Antony and the early desert fathers certainly come across as extreme to the typical American sensibility that prefers – dare I say worships – comfort and convenience. Their practices also seem to border on the Gnostic with seemingly negative attitudes toward the body and the material world. What I discovered, however, is that the denial of the flesh is simply a path to its renewal. To live one must die. The prelapsarian harmony between body and spirit can only be achieved through asceticism, i.e., spiritual athletic training. The Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov explains it this way: “The purpose of Christian asceticism is not to weaken the flesh, but to strengthen the spirit for the transfiguration of the flesh.” Hence, the goal and fruit of all ascetical endeavors, whether married or celibate, in the city or in the desert is a transfigured body that reflects the glorious splendor and luminosity of God, i.e., a creature one would be tempted to worship.

THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS
Tr. Benedicta Ward

THE WILDERNESS OF GOD

MARY AND THE MYSTERY OF THE INCARNATION

THEOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY

DISCERNING THE MYSTERY
All by Andrew Louth

Shortly after being introduced to St. Antony, I began reading The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a treasury of sound teaching on the spiritual life in the form of short and pithy sayings and stories. I also had my first encounter with Andrew Louth through his book The Wilderness of God. Louth develops the theme of the desert through the lens of the Bible and various other figures (e.g., Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, Russian saints, T. S. Eliot, the Desert Fathers, et al.). The combined force of these two works, one ancient and one new, was deeply moving. I was especially impressed by the way Louth so effectively brought together such an eclectic array of personalities in a convincing argument for the desert’s enduring relevance for the contemporary world.

I was curious to read more of Louth, and my next encounter was through two small booklets. The first, Mary and the Mystery of the Incarnation, helped me begin to understand the central role of Mary in the economy of salvation. As Theotokos, Mary is the Mother of God and thus worthy of the Church’s hymnographic veneration as “more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.” The second booklet, Spirituality and Theology, transformed my view of theology. According to Louth, theology “is, as the word suggests, some sort of understanding of God, some sort of articulation of awareness of God, of His relation to the world, of His activity within the world” (p. 1).  I later came across a similar definition in Alexander Schmemann’s book, Introduction to Liturgical Theology: “Theology is above all explanation, ‘the search for words appropriate to the nature of God' (qeoprepeis logoi), i.e. for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and experience of the Church” (p. 17). I thus learned that theology is not a systematic explanation of God so much as a humble attempt through words to offer a glimpse into the reality of God by means of one’s experience of Him in the Church. Echoing a famous desert saying by Evagrius Ponticus, Louth concludes: “The theologian is one who prays, and one who thinks about the object of his loving prayer” (p. 13).

Louth was three for three and I was hooked. So I next read one of his books that I have returned to more than any other book, apart from Scripture and liturgical texts. While Theology and Spirituality discusses the great divide that emerged between theology and spirituality in the Middle Ages, when theology moved out of monasteries and churches into classrooms and textbooks, Discerning the Mystery critiques the role that science and the Enlightenment have played in widening this gap. Fr. Andrew points to the patristic tradition as a path back to a proper understanding of theology, particularly its allegorical approach to scriptural interpretation. For the early Church Fathers, he argues, “allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of Scriptures” (p. 96). He goes on to suggest that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura and the Enlightenment method of historical criticism have replaced the patristic allegorical approach and the effects have been detrimental. Scripture now tends to be approached as an arsenal rather than a treasury, “a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation” through the same tool now used to extract meaning from literary texts: historical criticism. Louth thus helped initiate my return to what he describes as “the traditional devotion to Scriptures as the Word of God which we find par excellence in the Fathers” (p. 101). He helped me begin to let go of my modern obsession with the scriptural text, to see Scripture and its words more as a window through which I could encounter the Word Himself. He also introduced me to another book that reinforced my shifting stance toward Scripture.

MEDIEVAL EXEGESIS
By Henri de Lubac

This massive, four-volume work provocatively argues that Christianity is not truly a “religion of the Book.” Citing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, de Lubac asserts that it is instead a religion of the word, but “not of a word, written and mute, but of a Word living and incarnate.” De Lubac concludes that Christianity is not a biblical religion but the religion of Jesus Christ. To illustrate his argument, he explains why Origen of Alexandria, the third-century Herculean exegete, had such a joy and passion for Scripture:

What Origen searches for with such ardor, what he finds with such joy, is it not the Word of God Himself, a Speech buried in the letter before being incarnated in the flesh? . . . For the sense of Scripture is not just any thought; it is not an impersonal truth; it is He. The secret and hidden sense of Christ itself. Here He is who is appearing behind this wall of the letter. He is living: He watches through the windows, He spies in across the trellis-work. One could believe Him to be entirely confined within the text, like the water within the urn of the Samaritan woman: but ‘He is worth more than the urn,’ He is the Source from whence it is filled. (Vol. 2, p. 159)

The patristic allegorical approach advocated by Louth and meticulously explicated by de Lubac has helped me seek and find that dancing Presence in my personal study of Scripture. 

THE LETTER TO MARCELLUS
By St. Athanasius

CHRIST IN THE PSALMS
By Patrick Henry Reardon

FIRE OF MERCY, HEART OF THE WORD
By Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis

Alongside the influence of Louth and de Lubac, these three books have been particularly helpful in teaching me to find Christ the Uncontainable Word beyond the surface of the textually-contained word. I read Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellus annually because it inspires me to renew my commitment to daily dwell in the scriptures and to pray the Psalter on a regular basis. Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms sits right next to my Psalter for two reasons: in addition to connecting the Psalms to their liturgical context, his short meditations help me discern Christ’s dancing Presence throughout the Psalter. Written by a philologist and true craftsman of words, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word is a biblical commentary that does what a commentary ought to do: facilitate lectio divina and lead one to prayer and worship – that’s precisely what it does for me.

THE LIST of influential books I jotted down several years ago included about thirty titles. Instead of dragging on through the rest of that list, let me instead conclude by drawing together several texts which, combined with the aforementioned, have played such an important role in the development of my thinking as a doctoral student over the last several years.

“TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT”
By T. S. Eliot

From the beginning of my doctoral studies I have been interested in how the Church should exist in our world today. More specifically, how can the Church engage our secular culture in a manner that is creative and yet faithful to the Christian Tradition. As I reflect on this difficult but vital question, I find myself repeatedly returning to this essay by Eliot. Along with Lewis’ “On the Reading of Old Books,” it inspires me to keep myself immersed in the great old books.

A SECULAR AGE
By Charles Taylor

This work has been essential to the development of my thinking about secularism. Taylor sets out to explain why, on the one hand, it was practically impossible not to believe in God in 1500 in our Western culture, and why, on the other hand, it is easy and almost inescapable for many in the twenty-first century to dismiss the reality of God. He goes on to tell a long and detailed story of this momentous shift after offering a few preliminary contrasts of our movement from an enchanted world to a world of disenchantment, from a world in which God was implicated in the existence of society to one in which He is excluded, from a society in which sacred time frequently interrupted secular time to one in which time is empty and homogeneous, and from a world in which we lived in a cosmos to one in which we are merely included in a vast universe. Several books that have helped me reflect on these shifts include: The Work of Enchantment by Matthew Del Nevo, Leisure: The Basis of Culture and What is a Feast? by Josef Pieper, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West by Robert F. Taft, and The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI).

ON LITURGICAL THEOLOGY
By Aidan Kavanagh

THEOLOGIA PRIMA
By David Fagerberg

These final two books have been pivotal in opening my eyes to the organic, but too often broken, connection between liturgy, theology, and asceticism. I’ll let Fagerberg, Kavanagh’s student, summarize:

Christianity involves liturgy, theology, and asceticism the way a pancake involves flour, milk, and eggs: They are ingredients to the end result. Leave out one and you don’t have exactly the same thing anymore. Liturgy is a substantially theological enterprise; asceticism is a product of an prerequisite for Christian liturgy; liturgy and theology integrate by ascetical means. . . . Liturgy is the place of communion with God; asceticism is the imitation of Christ by a liturgist; and the end of liturgical asceticism is sharing God’s life, rightly called theologia. (Theologia Prima, pp. x, 5)

THIS ISSUE'S foreword opened with my playful confession of bibliomania. Well, I really am a bibliophile. I really do love books. But I love them because they have changed my life over and over again. Their words have consistently connected me to the divine Word, and their stories have inspired me to run with perseverance the race marked out for me.

I also really do love bookstores, particularly local and independent ones. But I especially love Eighth Day Books, where I know that each and every one of the books of my life were ordered with care and attention by Warren Farha. I also know that my dear friend Warren and his staff personally unpacked them and either shelved them for me to find or held them for me to peruse (and hopefully purchase). The books of my life came from their hands to mine, and they have subsequently steered the course of my life toward the Eighth Day Kingdom of God. Hopefully, they are making me less of a horror and corruption found only in nightmares, and instead transfiguring me into a true theologian: an ascetical liturgist who truly prays, and a son of God who shares in His life so as to splendorously reflect His glory.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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