Read this book, change your life

Read this book, change your life

What if I told you Amazon sells a book for $20 that can change your life?

I’m exaggerating somewhat, in that it’s how you read the book which can change your life. Also, there’s a good chance that you already own the book, so you can save yourself $20.

I’m talking about the Bible. But specifically, I’m talking about the Reader’s Gospels, which makes for a unique reading experience, and is excellent value:

Crossway’s Readers Gospels

The Reader’s Gospels, published by Crossway, is far and away the best edition of Sacred Scripture suited to spiritual reading. It employs the English Standard Version (ESV) translation, which is not my favourite, but on every other measure it is superior: the text spans the page in a single column paragraphed layout; the typeset is large (12pt) and easy to read; the paper is heavy. The book is hardcover, well bound, and includes a ribbon bookmark. And best of all, there are no chapter and verse numbers, no cross-references, and no footnotes — all of which conspire to distract from spiritual reading.

Not your typical edition of the Bible

If you still need persuading on the book’s production value, take a look at this blogger’s review, which is crazy on detail.

Many of the saints recommend a daily reading of the Holy Gospels:

If you spend just five minutes every day, reading the Holy Gospels, you will read each Gospel several times a year. You will become intimately familiar with the life of Christ — so much so, that you will spontaneously relate the events of your own life to details recorded in the Gospel. In a similar way, when friends share their problems, or perhaps seek your advice, you can relate their situations to incidents in the Lord’s life and teaching. You may not necessarily preach that at them (often inadvisable), but it will certainly help you to pray for them. Daily reading of scripture is a great way to foster supernatural outlook.

Our task on earth is to “incarnate the Gospel” — to enflesh, in our own lives, the life of Christ. But to do that we have to frequently and constantly return to the source. After the Mass and holy communion, I think there is nothing in the Christian life more important than regular reading of the Gospels. Crossway’s ESV Reader’s Gospels makes that task a joy. (This is not a paid endorsement by the way!)

By reading the Gospels for 5 minutes each day, you will get to know our Lord better. It’s inevitable and inescapable, and the answer to everything. For to know Christ is to love him, and to love him is to serve him.

Remembering St John Paul II

Remembering St John Paul II

In April 2005, at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, I was only a few months into my seminary studies. The whole College assembled in the refectory to watch his funeral, but I have no memory of it.

I can picture the Book of Gospels on his coffin, blown open by the wind. And I can recall then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s evocative homily, describing the late pope standing at the window of his room in the Father’s house, bestowing a blessing upon us. But those moments are easily relived on Youtube, so it may be repeated viewings that engrained them in my memory, not a recollection of the funeral itself.

jp2-coffin

A few weeks later, the seminary cohort again assembled in the Cluny refectory, again around the big screen, to watch the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI. I remember that occasion much better, if only because a wide selection of German beers were available at the bar!

It’s hard to believe this all happened ten years ago. Some of the current crop of seminarians were still in primary school. That may not be the case for first year seminarian Andrew Kwiatkowski. I think he was already in secondary school — but only just! In this latest instalment of Corpus Christi College’s video series on the saints, Andrew recalls his own memories of the pope’s funeral, and the impact the great man had on him.

Andrew’s reflections remind me of a newly published book that one of the third year seminarians, James Baptist, has highly recommended to me: St John Paul the Great: his five loves, by Jason Evert. It is especially suited to young people, most of whom have a limited memory of John Paul II, and no attachment to him.

jp2-book

This book, James tells me, changes that. It fosters in a new generation of Catholic youth the sort of love and affection which my own generation had for our dear Holy Father. It’s on my reading list; add it to yours!

Evelyn Waugh and Fr John Hardon

Evelyn Waugh and Fr John Hardon

Why, an astute readers asks, does Fr John Hardon nominate A Handful of Dust as one of Evelyn Waugh’s specially recommended works?

This is a good question, especially since Waugh’s later, explicitly Catholic Sword of Honour trilogy, is not included in Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan. What’s going on here?

First, I think it’s fair to consider what Fr Hardon has to say about Evelyn Waugh. My copy of The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan finally arrived, and I think everybody should track down a copy. It is so much more than a list of books, as I think his treatment of Waugh shows. Fr Hardon writes:

Most of Evelyn Waugh’s writing was done after his conversion in 1930. By his own estimate, Brideshead Revisited is his best book. This is the story of a great British Catholic family through the decades between the two world wars. When critics found fault with the novel’s strong religious atmosphere, Waugh admitted that some people would be outraged “at God being introduced into my story. I believe you can only leave God out by making your characters pure abstractions.” Modern novelists “try to represent the whole human mind and soul, and yet omit its determining character — that of being God’s creature with a defined purpose. So in my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style; and the attempt to represent man more fully — which to me means only one thing, man in his relation to God.”

Fr Hardon then turns his attention to Waugh’s biographies, which are nearly as good as his novels, before concluding:

Evelyn Waugh’s writings reveal an author who had a deep sense of history. But he also had keen foresight. His books show every promise of being ‘relevant’ beyond the twentieth century.

Specially recommended:

  • Brideshead Revisited
  • A Handful of Dust
  • Edmund Campion

It’s perhaps worth noting that although Waugh considered Brideshead Revisited his masterpiece for several decades, in his final years he was embarrassed by its excess, and settled on Helena as his greatest novel.

Helena is an historical novel, focused on St Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Helen was no mystic, and was afflicted with the sort of character defects and bad habits which Waugh identified in himself (and which you and I see too, when we gaze at the proverbial mirror). But Helen is a canonised saint because of her work in the Holy Land. She devoted much or her life, and her wealth, locating the places which were significant in the life of Christ, and recovering relics like the true cross. Helen’s was a “practical faith,” which recognised that Christianity is incarnational. Helena an interesting study of sacramentality and holiness. But it’s not as good as Brideshead, or Sword of Honour, or A Handful of Dust, so not many people share Waugh’s appraisal that it’s his masterpiece.

Back to Fr Hardon’s appraisal. It’s good to remember that his Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan includes a comprehensive biography, which includes all the works in print and in English written by the 104 authors he profiles. So the book list I have prepared, which derives from Fr Hardon’s Reading Plan, is not only minimalist, but also arbitrary — perhaps unfairly so. Fr Hardon’s list is really a list of authors whom he writes about, not book titles.

It’s telling that his entry on Waugh is so focused on the religiosity of Waugh’s novels. It’s no wonder he “specially recommends” Brideshead Revisited. I’m very surprised Fr Hardon does not include the Sword of Honour trilogy, which in some ways is a more successful study of “man in his relation to God.”

But apart from all that, why does Fr Hardon include A Handful of Dust in a Catholic reading plan? My theory is this: although A Handful of Dust is not explicitly Christian, and really a study of humanism, not religion, it is nonetheless a brilliant and profound study of morality. I didn’t mention this in my previous post because you can’t mention everything, but this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Indeed, this is part of Waugh’s unique genius. But that’s another post. Maybe for tomorrow.

 

Depressing and hilarious all at once

Depressing and hilarious all at once

A Handful of Dust lived up to my expectations of mirth. You may recall that I laughed out loud reading the first page, and there are many more such moments.

But I can also add that Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is one of — if not the — most distressing book I’ve ever read. An alternative title might be, The Death of a Marriage.

The first part of the novel describes the grim detail of marital infidelity. I’m not talking about sex scenes. Waugh’s a better author than that. I’m talking about the passive-aggressive manipulation which confuses the innocent party, and the rationalisation and self-deception which afflicts the traitorous party. It is a compelling and excruciating portrait of infidelity, even in the midst of comic hilarity.

Halfway through this novel I realised it is probably semi-autobiographical. Evelyn Waugh’s wife and his best friend had an affair which most of his circle learned about before he did. In fact, he learned of the affair only when his wife left him. I think the suffering and humiliation Waugh endured is given masterful expression in A Handful of Dust. (In the aftermath, depressed and overwhelmed, Waugh swam out to sea one night intending not to return. But his suicide attempt was thwarted by a stinging jellyfish attack which forced him back to shore. Is it any wonder Waugh is a master of black humour?)

Nonetheless, although the death of the protagonist’s marriage is harrowing, the plot actually gets even more depressing. Waugh kills off one of the novel’s most attractive characters, and he subjects another to a torturous fate worse than death. Again, all in the midst of comic hilarity!

As every reader knows, the measure of a good book is the feeling which comes when you finish it. If you’re sorry that it’s ended, and wish there was more, and wander around desolate for a while, then you know you’ve read a good book. In the case of A Handful of Dust, I was glad it was finished, wished I’d never read it, and resolved to recommend it to nobody.

And yet, in the days since I’ve finished A Handful of Dust, my thoughts have returned again and again to the book’s characters and themes. That’s not the measure of a good book. That’s the measure of a great book — the sort of book you can and will re-read every decade or so.

So in the end I do recommend A Handful of Dust, whole-heartedly. I concur with its popular recognition as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. But I completely reject the suggestion that it is Waugh’s masterpiece. Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy eclipse it.

The three titles have a great deal in common. They document and critique the decline of western culture and the rise of modernity in all its banality and viciousness. But where Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour extol Catholicism as a glowing exception, a bastion of order holding out against chaos, A Handful of Dust barely mentions religion. Its focus is secular humanism of the noblest kind — the kind exemplified in Charles Dickens. Nonetheless, this humanism is no bastion: it is exposed as deficient and unworthy. A Handful of Dust endorses the Christian tradition, but only implicitly.

I can understand why the secular reader would prefer A Handful of Dust. It shares many themes with Brideshead Revisited and A Sword of Honour, and the economy and richness of Waugh’s prose is a joy. Moreover, it makes no demands on the reader’s faith, or their view of the Catholic religion.

Yet what Waugh achieves in A Handful of Dust is perfected in his later novels, where the negative gives way to the positive. So I can’t imagine a Catholic reader anywhere who would prefer A Handful of Dust to his explicitly Catholic novels. But perhaps I’m wrong. I’d like to hear it if I am.

 

Incidentally, there is a film adaption you can view online, but as one YouTube commenter remarks, it’s “dead boring.” Moreover, it’s probably inscrutable to anyone who hasn’t read the book first.

Reader’s Feast

Reader’s Feast

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My biannual dentist check up brought me to Collins Street this morning, which revealed a pleasant surprise. Reader’s Feast, my one time favourite bookstore, had relocated!

I spent hours and poured a fortune into this bookstore in my university days, when it was on the corner of Swanston and Bourke Streets. The place shut its doors in 2011, and I wasn’t the only one who thought Reader’s Feast was finished.

Turns out, though, that Reader's Feast is bigger and better than ever!

Turns out, though, that Reader’s Feast is bigger and better than ever!

It’s many many years since I browsed a bookstore. I buy all my books online now, which is cheaper and more convenient, but not as much fun. There’s something almost luxurious about wasting time in a bookstore!

I had intended to have a coffee with someone after the dental appointment, but since that didn’t work out, I figured I could blow the price of two coffees on this:

I laughed out loud at the very first paragraph, which is a good sign.

The very first paragraph made me laugh out loud, which is an auspicious start.

A Handful of Dust made it to Fr Hardon’s lifetime reading list, and George Weigel puts it in the running for Waugh’s finest novel. I’d have thought Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy vie for that title, and both also vie for greatest novel of the twentieth century in my estimation. If A Handful of Dust belongs to their league, it must be worth reading indeed!

Brideshead Revisited, incidentally, also graces the other Catholic lifetime reading plan I presented last week. Fr John McCloskey’s list is perhaps not as audacious as Fr Hardon’s, but then the genesis of his reading plan is quite different.

Where Fr Hardon published a book-length reading plan which is in itself worth reading for its survey of Catholic history and literature, Fr McCloskey’s list has much more practical origins. In the early 2000s, he was Director of Opus Dei’s Catholic Information Center in Washington DC, and one of his tasks included stocking the Center’s bookshop. His list of titles is less academic and more accessible than Fr Hardon’s. It includes many modern works which probably won’t be remembered in 100 years, but which are nonetheless useful to a contemporary audience. (See, for example, The Emotions God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett.)

The abundance of green demonstrates a significant cross over with Fr Hardon’s reading plan. I think Fr McCloskey’s list is every bit as interesting and helpful. Enjoy.

Download the PDF or view online:

Fr John Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan

Fr John Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan

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Father John Hardon SJ, Servant of God, 1914-2000, was a great man. With parents like his, it’s no wonder.

When he was still an infant, his father, who was a construction worker, was killed in a workplace accident. He apparently sacrificed his own life to save the lives of his colleagues.

To honour her husband’s memory, and the heroism of his death, Mrs Hardon resolved she would never remarry. So she scrimped and saved and struggled to support herself and her young son. As often happens, material poverty and solid faith produced spiritual riches.

Fr Hardon’s earliest memory is accompanying his mother on all-night vigils before the Blessed Sacrament. He would be tucked up, asleep on a pew, and wake occasionally to find his mother always in the same position — kneeling next to him, head bowed in adoration, deep in prayer.

Some Lutheran schoolgirls boarded with the Hardons, which provided some income. When he was still young, John demanded to know why they got to eat meat on Friday, and he did not. Mrs Hardon discreetly raised the issue with the girls and their parents. The girls would have to adopt the Catholic practice, or find somewhere else to live. The girls wished to stay, and their parents agreed. The girls were like sisters to John, whom he loved and admired. He attributed his early positive exposure to the Lutheran faith to a lifelong interest in ecumenism, long before it was mainstream.

After his ordination, he was sent to Rome to study theology, and he became an expert in Protestantism and in the oriental religions. Fr Hardon was a hard worker, a clear thinker, and a brilliant one at that. From what I’ve read, it could be fair to say that he is the English-speaking world’s answer to Joseph Ratzinger. By that I mean: Pope Benedict is the greatest theologian alive today, and the outstanding Catholic thinker of his generation. What can be said of Ratzinger at a universal level, may be said of Fr Hardon in the smaller pond of the Anglosphere.

Fr John Hardon, Servant of God

Fr John Hardon SJ, Servant of God

Unfortunately, Fr Hardon was a casualty of the culture wars which raged throughout the post-conciliar Church. He was deemed to be too conservative and divisive by his superiors, banned from teaching, and effectively exiled. (That happened to many Jesuits in the 80s and 90s. Pope Francis suffered a similar fate in the decade following his term as Argentine superior general. It was only his episcopal appointment which lifted him from obscurity.) Nonetheless, Fr Hardon’s marginalisation in America didn’t inhibit fruitful collaboration with three popes.

With Pope Paul VI, Fr Hardon produced The Catholic Catechism (1975), which was the normative English-language catechetical text until the Holy See produced a definitive Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. (Fr Hardon contributed to that project too.) When Pope John Paul II asked Mother Teresa to expand her ministry to the poor to include catechesis and evangelisation, he referred her to Cardinal Ratzinger. Ratzinger, in turn, referred Mother Teresa to Fr Hardon, who worked closely with the Missionaries of Charity for many years, developing catechetical means which are still in use.

Apart from his scholarly virtues, Fr Hardon was by all accounts a holy priest. He had a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, which isn’t surprising in view of his mother’s example. He was widely sought to lead retreats, hear confessions, and minister spiritual direction. His cause for canonisation was opened in 2005.

Fr Hardon’s scholarship, his catechetical expertise, and his interior life conspire to recommend, I think, his Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan (Amazon listing). This book-length plan was published in 1989, and it’s not so much a list of books as it is a list of 104 authors he recommends Catholics read.

I ordered this book several weeks ago, but I’m still waiting. I’m looking forward to learning why Fr Hardon recommends the authors he lists. He profiles each author in two or three pages, and includes their most recommended writing. Apparently the book also includes an exhaustive bibliography, with the details of all the significant works of each author. In the meantime, I’ve made do with the bare bones: names of the authors and the books Fr Hardon especially recommends.

You can download the document, or read it online:

  • Jonathan Aquino has blogged a very short profile of each work.
  • I can’t vouch for the historical categories of authors. These are Fr Hardon’s categories, but I’ve had to guess where they fit. For example, I presumed that Fr Hardon numbered St Thomas More as the last of the medievals, and St Ignatius Loyola as the first of the Counter-Reformation authors. But until I receive my copy of The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan, I can’t corroborate that.
  • The green authors and titles are cross-reference to an alternative Catholic lifetime reading plan I’ll post tomorrow.
  • Some of the titles are accompanied with a book symbol. This annotates a novel! (See yesterday’s post: The thrilling romance of orthodoxy.)

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