24 January 2016


Religious Reading

Is this still a book blog? From where I sit, it's starting to feel like more of a language blog--and if the drafts I'm currently working on make the cut, it may feel that way from where you sit, too. Yet I still do most of my reading and general media consumption in English, and will continue to do so as long as I have a TBR Pile casting baleful looks in my direction.

What this blog has never been--or so I've protested too much since I started it--is a big-C Catholic blog. There is the occasional religious commentary, but in general, I try to be more small-C catholic. But if you're visiting for the first time, you'd never guess that from this post alone.

Three Big-C Catholic Books
Recently "Redeemed" from the TBR Pile

The Jesuits by Father Malachi Martin

Before I launched my 2015 TBR Challenge (soon to extend into a 2016), I had already thrown my TBR Pile on the mercy of chance--"chance" meaning other people. But my first TBR "Promise" from two years ago didn't do much after two books . . . which I should have seen coming. People can't play your game if they don't know you're playing. And yet as late as two "Three-legged Lists" ago, Terry unwittingly played along when he mentioned an author with a book in my TBR Pile. Although the actual title Terry brought up, Windswept House, was not the one I owned, I decided that I could nonetheless honour my "TBR Promise" with The Jesuits.

This is easily the best all-around contemporary book I've read all year--and the most small-C of the big-C Catholic books that I've got. We get a heartbreaking account of the Jesuit fall into Liberation Theology, tantalising peeks into twentieth-century Vatican politics, possibly the best short biography of St. Ignatius de Loyola ever written, a clear-eyed portrait of the tragic Pope Paul VI by someone who knew him personally . . . and that's just half of it.

Father Martin's focus on the Society of Jesus and the Vatican may make him seem as much of a niche writer as Michael O'Brien from that older post, but The Jesuits is probably the most universally relevant book I've read in some time. If you're thinking that it isn't for you because you aren't the "Traddy" sort . . . or because you aren't Catholic (and would never care to be) . . . or because you think God doesn't exist . . . ah, dear literate people: the more you think The Jesuits isn't for you, the more it is for you! It is for anyone who must live with the ideas that dominate our modern world: if you're going to think them anyway, you might as well know where they came from.

By the way, my bringing up The Jesuits after Tridentine Mass with one of the regulars got him to offer to lend me his copy of Windswept House, which has already inspired a Character Connection and a Locus Focus. So my literary luck has still held up!

Purgatory by Dante, translated by Anthony Esolen

A colleague from work chose this book for me on Facebook--just in time for November, the month when we remember the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Perfect timing aye? But my great reading-related regret of 2015 is that I didn't make this a "Two or Three" Book Club pick. It was wonderful to read, but awful to read alone--kind of the way it is wonderful to be Catholic, but awful to be a Catholic alone.

I think the majority of people who've read any Dante have read only the first part of his Divina Commedia, the Inferno. Indeed, that was my own experience before last year. While I admit that Inferno is the logical book to read first if you're eventually going to get to the others, it's a different story if you probably won't go any further.

So if I were to return to teaching tomorrow (And believe it or not, I've had a real job offer--LOL!), I'd switch Purgatorio for Inferno in a heartbeat. The allegory of Dante's ascent doubles as a guide to a devout Christian life. If the actual "Two or Three" Book Club pick Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales is too literal and prescriptive for you, some imagery and liberality inspired by the Beatitudes just might do the trick. Dante links the Beatitudes not just to the Seven Deadly Sins, but also to the virtues that help us to overcome those sins--and the virtues in turn are linked to Scriptural and historical examples of people who have exemplified them and whom we should imitate. Finally, these are tied to a glorious liturgical pageant, presented to us entirely in symbols, that makes me think J.R.R. "Allegory Hater" Tolkien would have bowed to this exception.

Purgatorio may be even more big-C Catholic than small-C catholic than The Jesuits, but as a classic of world literature, it's something every serious reader should consider. If I've piqued your interest, please also consider getting the translation by Anthony Esolen. Not only is it absolutely elegant, but his detailed notes and helpful appendices at the end mean that you're actually getting two (great) books for the price and size of one!

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI

What a perfect book for Christmas, don't you think? The Church's calendar, rather than a friend, chose this for me. I like switching things up a bit like that. ;-) At the start of Advent, I tossed the compact Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives into the tote bag I take to work and managed to read a little bit of it each day after my daily Mass. Truly "the right book at the right time"--meaning both the right time of the year and the right times in my day!

Pope Benedict XVI begins the book with Pilate's question to Jesus, "Where are you from?" and proceeds to weave an answer out of both the earthly details of Our Lord's life and what He has revealed to us about His higher origin. One is the warp and one is the woof; like the human and divine natures of Our Lord, we cannot really have one without the other. My favourite parts were those which showed the historical context: not just how the world into which Jesus was born came to be, but also how He was foreshadowed again and again through the centuries. We also cannot separate the Old and New Testaments. My second favourite parts were everything about Mary.

There is lots of food for thought and contemplation in this small volume. We're edging out of Christmastide now; but if you're not as liturgically anal as I am, you'll find its fruits ripe no matter when you have time to read it. If you are like me, however, I can also highly recommend another book in Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth "series," which was, incidentally, another "Two or Three" Book Club pick: Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. We read it during Lent 2013, but there's no reason you can't begin this Septuagesima Sunday!

The only way The Infancy Narratives could have been any better is if my copy had been an edition of Die Kindheitsgeschichten. ;-) A friend of mine was just in Germany, and I asked her to get me the last Jesus of Nazareth book that I haven't read yet . . . but it turned out to be too hard to find. Thanks for some things, German Church.

* * * * *

New year, new challenge!
And this time I'm not too late to sign up @ Bookish!!!

But first let me report on the progress made in the last year . . . Not counting the Baby-sitters Club novels, I was able to read fifteen books for the 2015 TBR Challenge. The fourteenth one would be The Christopher Killer by Alane Ferguson, which got to be a the Young Detectives "F" novel, and the fifteenth is Der Kleine Prinz by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which is yet another "Two or Three" Book Club pick, because apparently I read best when I read with others.

I think that I should do a bit better than that for 2016. I'll aim for the "Friendly Hug" level, which is 11 to 20 books--my personal goal being a Very Friendly Hug. ;-)

Care to keep helping me out? =) I'm still getting through the novel suggested to me at the end of the previous Three-legged List, but I will put the first suggestion in this combox right after it in the queue!

Here is the 2015 TBR Challenge pile (which I don't want to update for 2016 yet, to give the older books a chance) and these are the titles I've already finished: Adam of the Road, The Bad Beginning, Carry on, Jeeves, Chocolate Fever, Father Elijah, Jitterbug Perfume, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sense and Sensibility, The Time Traveler's Wife, Where the Red Fern Grows, and the BSC books up to #18.

Image Sources: a) The Jesuits by Father Malachi Martin, b) Purgatory by Dante Alighieri, translated by Anthony Esolen, c) Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI


MrsDarwin said...

I would read The Everlasting Man with you.

Enbrethiliel said...


I totally forgot I had that one! Thanks, Mrs. Darwin! =)

Star Crunch said...

I picked up the Divine Comedy on a whim (Huse translation, I guess) at a used bookstore and finished it maybe a month or two before the suggestion came down for all the faithful to read it. I wasn't sure if that counted. :)

Here's what I found in "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien":

Dante... 'doesn't attract me. He's full of spite and malice. I don't care for his petty relations with petty people in petty cities.'

"My reference to Dante was outrageous. I do not seriously dream of being measured against Dante, a supreme poet. At one time Lewis and I used to read him to one
another. I was for a while a member of the Oxford Dante Society (I think at the proposal of Lewis, who overestimated greatly my scholarship in Dante or Italian
generally). It remains true that I found the 'pettiness' that I spoke of a sad blemish in places."

The commentary says he was writing back to Charlotte & Denis Plimmer, after they gave him the draft of an interview they did with him for Daily Telegraph Magazine. The italicized parts are the before, the rest his follow-up comments. I also scanned the index of the letters collection I have from Lewis but could only find Dante or Tolkien individually.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Petty relations with petty people in petty cities"!!! Tell us what you really feel, Professor Tolkien!

I admit that I still can't tell the difference between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs (and kind of agree that it's petty enough for me not to be bothered even to look it up now) . . . but I find that Dante's love of what to him was "merely" local and contemporary to be a great element in the Divina Commedia. The universal is not diminished here by being mixed with the particular. It is only revealed to be more human.

I have an atheist friend who says that even if God were real, he would never believe any evidence or testimony that came via a human source, because humanity is too "tainted." (His word!) And the difference between him and me is that I would be more likely to believe a revelation that came to me through a human source, be it an eyewitness or an ancient tradition. The Church has shaped me so! If Dante had made himself a generic Everyman, like Christian in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Process, perhaps then his Divina Commedia would deserve Tolkien's general criticism of allegory.

Tolkien's "outrageous" complaint also reminds me of some common points I noticed between Dante's Divina Commedia and Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol. While hell, Purgatory and Heaven are not perfectly analogous to Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future, both stories are about true conversion and Christian living. Ebenezer Scrooge is both less petty and pettier than Dante: less because the details of his life are painted with a broader brush and peopled with "stock characters" we all can recognise . . . more because his conversion takes place in a context no greater than his own personal circle. There is nothing historic or apocalyptic in Dickens's fantasy.

Hey, would you happen to know Tolkien's thoughts on A Christmas Carol as well? =D

Star Crunch said...

Nope, nothing on A Christmas Carol, unfortunately. With Dickens more generally I only find "I have never been able to enjoy Pickwick". I've not read anything from him, so don't know if this says much.

Enbrethiliel said...


"I have never been able to enjoy Pickwick" is something I would say! LOL! Seriously, I tried to read it many years ago and couldn't understand a thing. I was more successful with Oliver Twist.

The main reason The Pickwick Papers was on my radar was Little Women: the March girls loved it enough to play at being the characters. I was just impressed that they were able to understand anything in that prose!

Sheila said...

I tried to read Pickwick Papers for the same reason -- I thought if it was anything like those bits of Little Women it would surely be great. Only ... it wasn't and I tapped out before the end of chapter one. I assume it gets better?

I have read the whole Divine Comedy, but I liked the Inferno best. It's so deliciously lurid, what can I say? Whereas Purgatory and Paradise are kinda preachy and not so dramatic. But I wished I'd paid better attention in the Purgatory when I found out it was the main reference in Ash-Wednesday, one of my favorite poems ever.

Enbrethiliel said...


We'll have to find a Dickens fan who has read through Pickwick if we are ever to find out!

I read John Ciardi's translation of Inferno and it just didn't hit any of the right notes with me. I'd be interested to take up Anthony Esolen's try and see how differently I receive it.