Feast of Leo the Great, Pope of Rome
ONE OF THE chief joys of the Eighth Day Institute and its associated bookstore is being one with a community of readers. An early book that put a name to this community was John Ruskin's Sesame Seeds and Lilies. One can find in this work an outline of the secular communion of saints that saved me in my early years. To say that readers shared a real and active friendship with writers, even those on the other side of the tyranny of the present, was affirming to a boy whose first friend in life was Encyclopedia Brown.
Just as we have our common saints—Mary, Joseph, Paul—we have our common friends—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—that belong to all within our tradition. And just as smaller communities carry their own particular devotions (Francis, Antony, Padre Pio for some; Ignatius, Xavier, Faber for others), Eighth Day has its particular saints: the Inklings, John Senior, Chesterton, etc.
And just as each family has its particular devotions, I have grown in time to cherish those books that I do not need to share with others, even of my smaller Eighth Day community. One never knows what eyes might roll when you speak of the saintliness and intercession of a grandmother. So there are those authors whose time has passed except to the curious and the particular.
M. F. K. Fisher is one of those writers for me. She is, unfortunately, baggaged along with "food writers" and enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity when the forefront of the Food Movement still had a brain back in the mid-2000s.
But I first sought her out because I was curious about this unknown woman whom W. H. Auden once called “the best prose writer in America.” In time, I wonder if Auden did not say this as Evelyn Waugh used to say that Helena was the favorite of his books—more to provoke and evade than to declare oneself simply in one camp or another as the reporters would try to tie him down. But there are those characteristics of her composition and method that I find very much like Auden’s; and none more so than the curiosities in her commonplace books, which rival Auden’s own A Certain World. I challenge anyone not to be thoroughly engrossed with Fisher’s A Cordial Water.
Now that I have brought Auden out in defense of my friend, like a presidential letter of commendation for a deceased relative, I want to explain the particular reason why I have chosen to share this family saint with the larger community at Eighth Day.
Here I lay the blame squarely on Eighth Day Institute. If we had not had such a wonderful dialogue on Soil and Sacrament and the work of man in the soil, I should never have been of a mind to remind us of the material result of all this earth-bound toil. There was much good talk of Genesis 1, Wendell Berry, and small farms in Wichita. But we grow the wheat that we might eat bread, and the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. All of which is to say—had I vast sums of money and infinite time—I would invite all my friends from the Symposium on Soil and Sacrament up to Lawrence, KS to spend a weekend or a year around the dinner table discussing Food and Sacrament.
And while I do not pretend M. F. K. Fisher would ascribe to the articles of faith that we shared at the Symposium, she is not unfamiliar with a vision of reality suffused with the divine.
Now, if this were merely a book and author review, I would send you off to find Consider the Oyster and there set you with the proper aperitif before you proceeded to the rest of the banquets Fisher has set for you. But I came today in praise of a very bitter herb: Sister Age. As you might have guessed, this book takes its title as an addendum to St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun.” The book is an amalgam of personal reflections, semi-autobiographical short stories, travel accounts, and even a ghost story. All are tied together by a vision of Age that surpasses this (relatively) young man’s ability to summarize. But if there was ever a companion book to Willa Cather’s Not Under Forty, this is it. Wonder, sadness, awe, discontent, regret, and, above all, a longing for Something More.
In our culture today, old age is caricatured, if not ignored. In the afterword to Sister Age, Fisher predicts too accurately what was to become of a people who removed the old and infirm to hospice, or worse. We are students who have thrown out the teacher, apprentices without a master. Old age is a gift, if we only knew how to accept it.
Patrick Callahan is the Dean of Humanitas, a two-year great books program sponsored by the St Lawrence Institute for Faith and Culture for students at the University of Kansas.