Library Learnings Extra

A Library Learnings “extra”

Sitting under a tree with a book is starting to sound pretty good” 

Early this month, the Daily News from the University of Alberta posted online an article which it had issued originally in March of last year…when your librarians failed to see it. But not this time. Well-written by Bruce Gierson, “The most famous abbey you’ve never heard of”—admittedly lengthy: it’s 48 paragraphs long—can be found at https://www.ualberta.ca/augustana/news/2023/03/the-most-famous-abbey-youve-never-heard-of.

It’s one of those writings which tell a story within which another narrative is unfolded. The outer tale introduces the reader to a young teaching-award-winning scholar, Brandon Alakas, an associate professor of English on the university’s Augustana campus in Camrose. It’s he who tells the inner yarn of a saint in the Middle Ages, Birgitta of Sweden, who founded a new religious order of nuns, the Birgittines; they established the Syon Abbey in London. Gierson calls it “a bastion of independent thinking, with a wild whiff of humanism.”

Below, this inner tale is presented: it describes a “delicious indulgence”—books—which makes it so appropriate for SSUC’s Library bibliophiles.

Ken Fredrick

The sisters and brothers of Syon lived pious and ascetic lives, praying and working and giving every extra penny they earned to the poor. But they did have one delicious indulgence: books. “The Birgittine community was the only one that allowed women in particular to have as many books as they wanted,” Alakas says. At a time when there were strict prohibitions against private property, this was pretty subversive.

And it’s this part of the story that really lights Alakas up—as it would any bibliophile.

Consider that there weren’t actually a lot of books qua books floating around at the time. “Syon Abbey kind of straddles this interesting moment in history, the transition from the manuscript to the printed book,” Alakas says. Because many of the Birgittines came from aristocratic families, they had the resources and connections to amass rare and important works. And so the Syon Abbey library was, by all accounts, one of the finest, and most important, in all of England. Sir Thomas More, English statesman and politician who eventually ran afoul of Henry VIII, used to visit to do work. Erasmus, “the greatest scholar of the Northern Renaissance,” according to Britannica, would drop by to avail himself of the collection.

With the monks doing the actual writing, and the nuns largely steering content by salting the curriculum with the priorities they felt were most urgent to women, the books became a cornerstone of religious observation. They also became a thriving business. In its first century, the Abbey was a kind of boutique publisher, pumping out high-quality devotional guides, many of which became bestsellers and were reprinted multiple times in the 1520s and 1530s. In a sense the Birgittines were like that small band of Harvard undergraduates who produced those Let’s Go travel guides that were snapped up like hotcakes by adventurous hipster travellers in the 1970s. The difference is, instead of maps to explore the world “out there,” the Birgittines created guides to explore the inner world.

And this is maybe the most interesting thing about these nuns: the kind of reading they were doing and promoting. You might think of Syon Abbey as a kind of cradle of the “deep read.” Sitting quietly under a tree reading scripture was the new touchstone of a Christian life. One of the most famous texts of the Birgittines’ describes reading scripture to oneself as “talking to God,” unmediated.

This brand of intense, immersive, devotional reading is as different from the way most people received the Word of God at the time as a freedive is from a 10-second shower. Until then, devotional practices were aural and mediated by a priest, to whom devotees listened passively. In contrast, the Birgittines espoused lectio divina, a multi-stage process of burrowing increasingly deeply into the warp and weft of a text. And though lectio divina had been practised since antiquity, it was typically practised only by men.

“The Birgittine nuns’ great contribution was that they made these elite spiritual practices accessible to anyone who could read,” Alakas says. Their “ideal reader,” you might say, would have been Birgitta herself. The practice of lectio divina, by the way, is sometimes applied to reading poetry or popular fiction.

 

Alakas’s nuns may have been cloistered but with their practices of deep religious reading, their minds were liberated. It’s no stretch to say a

kind of nascent feminism was happening here, 300 years before we think of feminism as actually being a thing. Yet another myth busted! Turns out feminism was not a light that suddenly came on at the end of the 19th century. Rather, “the authority women possessed in society ebbed and flowed throughout the Middle Ages,” Alakas says. And here, at Syon Abbey, at this point in the 16th century, the wave was surging onto the shore….

So why should we care about any of this in 2023?

A short answer is that the Middle Ages—specifically medieval devotional culture—had plenty of lessons for how to live today.

Even in an increasingly secular time, Christianity still matters…. The template for much of western society as we know it now originated here, in the contemplative practices that sprang up during this period. […] “The period might seem long ago and far away,” says Laura Saetveit Miles, a professor of British Literature at the University of Bergen and an editor at the Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures, “but it gives us a mirror into a coherent literary tradition that is still ongoing today.”

[…]

For a lot of us, sitting under a tree with a book is starting to sound pretty good again.

Featured Book: A Second Chance

WWJD? In his 77-page novella about Jesus’ second coming, Rick Herrick tells us by having Jesus affirm, “[Y]ou wonderful folks are going to save me by redefining Christianity according to my original message.” For 2,000 years, “Christians have distorted my message, and created their own religion around the myth of personal salvation in heaven.” But “I’m here to tell people that there is a second chance” to get it right. How? “The point is to get rid of all the foolish doctrine, and focus on learning how to love.”

Herrick, who grew up in Toronto, in a writing for progressivechristianity.org, explains how he’s drawn to “a Christian culture defined by a concern for economic and social justice, inclusion, and nonviolent approaches to solving human conflicts.” A decade ago, he, in an interview with Vineyard Gazette, declared: “I think we need to focus Christianity…towards the ethical teachings of Jesus. They still give me goosebumps. Every time I read the Sermon on the Mount I say, wow, that is some guy.”

A Second Chance is, its publisher reckons, a book that “offers a quick read, and considerable food for thought.” As one reader bewailed, “I didn’t want the story to end.”

A Second Chance
By Rick Herrick
Resource Publications, 2022

Featured Book: Go & Do Likewise

“My church,” Terry Kyllo admits, “limited my capacity to relate to people of diverse cultures and traditions….” As a “cradle Christian,” he “was taught that, in Christianity, God calls forth an exclusive in-group….” That was then, this is now: Kyllo, a Lutheran cleric, now serves as executive director of Paths to Understanding, a Washington State organization that partners with ‘’people across religious, cultural, ethnic, and social lines, in multi-faith peacemaking to bridge bias, and build unity in all the human family.’’ 
Christians, he avows in his book, “do not have to live divided from one another. We can…create a better future together.” But, “to make interfaith work possible, the Christian majority needs to discover their own tradition’s calling to recognize our common humanity.” And that is what he strives to do in Go and Do Likewise. “Coming from an ordained Lutheran pastor,” a Pacific Lutheran University professor emeritus reckons, “gives his interpretation of religious pluralism more currency….”
 
“I have come to believe,” Kyllo affirms, “that knowing, respecting, and working with people of diverse traditions is an inherent part of being faithful to Jesus.” After all, Jesus was called “to gather a community that recognizes all people as equally human….” 
 
Go and Do Likewise: Following Jesus Into Our Common Humanity
By Terry Kyllo
Paths to Understanding, 2023

Featured Book: Reading for the Love of God

Reading, “if done well,” can shape “the one who reads into a better thinker and a better person.” In her July 31 National Review critique of Reading for the Love of God, Alexandra Desanctis explains, “Reading well forms a habit of mind conducive to sustaining deeper thought, cultivating virtue and imagination, gaining insight into the world and human nature, and learning to see others as they are.”

All this is what author Jessica Hooten Wilson posits in this book. “[S]he demonstrates that we deepen our capacity for contemplation, paradox, perplexity,” Rachel Griffis affirmed in a June 23 posting from Front Porch Republic. And makes “a case for reading…serious works of literature in ways that are nuanced, spiritually formative, and rooted in Christian tradition.”

Wilson “argues for an approach to reading…[that] requires balanced attention to the author, the reader, and the text itself,” according to The Christian Century, which describes the book as “a timely and accessible primer for those wishing to develop skills of literary analysis and interpretation.” The author, who is inaugural visiting professor of liberal arts at Pepperdine University, speaks around the world on various topics, including, as her publisher has it, “Christian ways of reading.”

Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice
By Jessica Hooten Wilson
Brazos Press, 2023

Library Learnings: Reading & Writing Part 2

Reading books “written in blood”

“[T]he things your books make happen will be things worth happening,” Frederick Buechner vouched. “Things that make the people who read them a little more passionate themselves for their pains, by which I mean a little more alive, a little wiser, a little more beautiful, a little more open to understanding; in short, a little more human. I believe,” he added, “that those are the best things that books can make happen to people….”

It was 1990, and the late cleric, preacher, theologian, and writer, was addressing the authors assembled that year for the conferring of the annual Whiting Awards. Given each year to 10 emerging writers, the awards—of $50,000 each—are based on “early accomplishment, and the promise of great work to come.” America’s Whiting Foundation “provides targeted support for writers, scholars, and the stewards of humanity’s shared cultural heritage.”

Buechner [1926-2022], who authored 39 books of his own, told those assembled how writing “strikes me as intravenous: as you sit there only a few inches from the printed page, the words you read go directly into the bloodstream, and go into it at full strength. …the words you read become, in the very act of reading them, part of who you are…. If there is poison in the words, you are poisoned; if there is nourishment, you are nourished; if there is beauty, you are made a little more beautiful.” It’s as he remarked earlier in his address, “There is writing that creates, and writing that destroys.”

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Frederick Buechner: the most quoted of writers

Buechner [pronounced BEEK-ner], 96 years old when he died, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but Jeffrey Munroe, in his Reading Buechner, labelled him “neither liberal nor conservative…nor evangelical, nor mainline”. At the time of his passing, Christianity Today republished a 1997 profile in which writer Philip Yancey affirmed, “I have a hunch…that Buechner has become the most quoted living writer among Christians of influence.” Indeed, he became “an oft-quoted source of pulpit anecdotes, devotional tidbits, and magazine fillers,” Dale Brown observed in The Book of Buechner. Critics compared him to such literary giants as Mark Twain and Henry James.

To learn more about him, his writings and legacy, go to frederickbuechner.com, and buechnercenter.com. The latter attests that he has been “an important source of inspiration and learning for many readers.” You should know that your SSUC Library has four of Buechner’s many books, there to be borrowed, plus a muster of his essays and sermons “choreographed” by bestselling author Anne Lamott.

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Buechner went on to introduce a Hebrew word, dabbar, which means “both word, and also deed. A word doesn’t merely say something, it does something. It brings something into being. It makes something happen.”

A couple of sentences later, he explained, “What I am getting around to, of course, is talking about the kind of books that seem to me to be worth all the trouble to write them, let alone read them, the kind of words suitable for injecting into the bloodstream of the world.” He sounded wistful when he added, here referring to students to whom he’d taught writing, “I wish I had told them to give some thought to what they wanted their books to make happen inside the people who read them.”

And here is where Buechner quoted—it’s a famous quotation—“Red” Smith [1905-1982], one of America’s most popular sportswriters, known for his literary craftsmanship: “‘Writing is easy. Just sit in front of a typewriter, open up a vein, and bleed it out drop by drop.’ From the writer’s vein into the reader’s vein….”

He continued: “I couldn’t agree more with ‘Red’ Smith. For my money, the only books worth reading are books written in blood…. Write about what you really care about is what he is saying. Write about what truly matters to you—not just the things to catch the eye of the world, but things to touch the quick of the world the way they have touched you to the quick, which is why you are writing about them. Write not just with wit and eloquence and style and relevance, but with passion.”

Such works, “all of them written in blood, bring about transfusions that can save souls…. They make good things happen…in the people who read them…. …[O]ne way or another, [they] make healing and human things happen in a world that is starving for precisely those things….”

Fellow author Carol Rottman took up Buechner’s hematological image in the 10th chapter, “Transfusion,” in her 2004 book, Writers in the Spirit: Inspiration for Christian Writers, to be found in the SSUC Library, and now a Featured Book: “If you have ever lost blood and needed a transfusion, Buechner’s analogy makes sense. Words on paper, even more than words spoken, are taken in straight, just the way the writer arranged them. …As the blood delivered right into the vein, words can fix a system gone awry. Words beget thought like plasma generates new blood cells.”

Rottman, who describes herself simply as a writer and teacher, goes on to report, “We select the words that deliver what we need—all are not the same. A summer read, a quick read, or a serious read, give us different kinds of pleasure or insight at different times. Our system rejects words we find dull, pompous, confusing, or offensive, like a transplanted organ that does not match….

“’No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader; no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,’ said Robert Frost. The words we write”—remember, her book is aimed at writers, as was Buechner’s Whiting Awards address—”like the words we read, can make something happen in us, as well as in the reader. Part of the impetus for writing is to keep the blood coursing through the veins. …Writing may be essential to your life.”

Reading, too.

Ken Fredrick

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New experiences give new meaning to what we read

It was last May that The Christian Century published an eloquent and wise composition, heartfelt and persuasive, about our need to read books, and to re-read them—“Reading Again: books don’t change, but we do”. Penned by Yolanda Pierce, dean and professor at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., the essay is pointed up here, in a modestly abridged rendering.

“…There are some books I re-read almost every year. I’ve read the same copy so many times that the pages are worn or falling apart. I mark up the margins, and circle meaningful passages. I write comments or questions, adding my own words, punctuation marks, and pieces of myself to the text. […] I return to these worn copies for comfort….

“While the words in each of these books do not change upon re-reading them, I glean something different each time. Part of this can be attributed to the power of great writing: the revelation of truths so significant that people are compelled to read them again and again….

“And each time we return to a book, we can see how much we have grown, changed, or shifted since the last time. I come to the same book each time with a set of new experiences under my belt—older and sometimes wiser—which shapes how I read the words on the page. …[A]ge, maturity, loss, and grief give new meanings…. We return to the same book, even the same words, because we change, and our understanding with us.

“…[W]e need to return to the sacred scriptures again and again…. We can study scripture our entire lives, and still barely scratch the surface of the beauty and mystery of God. We can read the same chapter and verse year after year, and still discover some nuance we missed…. We might notice a word or phrase we missed during the last reading. Some new synaptic link forms in our brain, connecting one scriptural passage to another one we never thought was related. …I often marvel that we are re-reading and retelling a story that is as ancient as days, and yet is still speaking across time and culture.

“We cannot be afraid to be full participants in our reading of scared scripture. …Each exclamation point, question mark, or underlined why [that we append], is an engagement with both faith and doubt, our fears and our beliefs. We can ask questions on the pages of the text that some dare not ask out loud.

“Most importantly, each time we read scripture we approach it with a new set of experiences and challenges. …[O]ur failures and triumphs, our loves and losses, our disappointments and successes—all these influence our understanding of the texts we read.

“…We must hold the book in our hands, with highlighter and pen, unafraid to celebrate or question the passages contained therein. We have to read and read again, so that the words of the sacred text journey with us wherever we go.”

 

Gatherings at 10AM Sundays