Authors that “Sit” on Top of Your Head
October 31, 2010 § 13 Comments
There’s a challenge going around. I got roped into it. It has kind of a fancy name, but basically it requires you to come up with the authors or books that have impacted you so much they rise into your consciousness almost unbidden, once challenged to come up with a list (in 15 minutes more or less). I must admit a good number of these books were ones that came to mind a bit over a year ago when a neighbor, interested in deepening his prayer life, wanted some recommendations. (He thought it would take me some time to compile such a list, but I had gathered all the the books into a pile by the next morning. Most are on this list, and that was before I ever even “thought” of becoming Orthodox.)
Twice in my life my work has literally “driven me” to prayer. The first time was during my 8 years teaching young children. The second time was during my decades doing psychotherapy. I’ve practically starting writing my “memoirs” about some of that at Nothingness, so I’ll just link to those posts if there’s a need for further explanation of some books on this list. Intense work (either with rambunctious children needing so much from a teacher or troubled adults needing so much from a therapist) presents so many challenges in the areas of emotion, intellect, and personal presence, that, as I wrote elsewhere, “over and over I have needed to turn to God – or perhaps you could say: God has turned to me.”
The List of books:
- TS Eliot: Four Quartets
- Andre Louf: Prayer and Humility
- Anonymous Author: The Way of a Pilgrim / Philokalia / Prayer of the Heart
- Anonymous Author: The Cloud of Unknowing
- Walter Ciszek: He Leadeth Me
- Lanza del Vasto: Return to the Source
- Abhishiktananda: Prayer and a Christian approach to Vedanta
- Ruth Burrows: prayer, biography, spiritual life
- Jean Marie Howe: Secret of the Heart
- The Gospel of John
- The Psalms
- Aelred Squire: Asking the Fathers
- Solzhenitzin’s early novels
- Theophane the Monk: Tales of a Magic Monastery
Also, all too many books that I am currently reading… or “getting to”.
Nearly everything I’ve listed I’ve read and reread, sometimes so many times that the copies are nearly falling apart, or else I’ve had to replace them, because I’ve loaned them out and sometimes they never return.
Prayer, the spiritual life, is like taking a journey. So maybe it’s not surprising that many of the books listed relate to journeys. The Way of a Pilgrim. Return to the Source. He Leadeth Me. Even Ruth Burrows and Abhishiktananda. I’m never likely to reread the first, because it set me off on a journey of my own, but it’s certainly an unforgettable book and may have been one of the first that set me on a path to Orthodoxy… little did I know. For it led me to purchase volumes on the Philokalia or on Prayer of the Heart (in the Orthodox tradition). Thus I’ve grouped those books along with Way of a Pilgrim as they’re companions, so to speak. (I have just realized so many of the books and writers above date back to a Benedictine monastery I used to live near – in the 70’s, a place that is close to my heart.)
Return to the Source tells the story of a young Frenchman who went to India, thinking he’d stay there and work with Gandhi, but whose life took another turn after he made a pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges. For many reasons that book spoke to me long ago. The connection with Gandhi. The idea of a search for the “source” as well as the metaphor of climbing into the mountains. The idea of a pilgrimage. All of these metaphors have been fruitful in my life.
He Leadeth Me is the story of a Jesuit priest, trained to work in Russia, taken prisoner, held in solitary for 3 years of interrogation and finally released for 20 years of hard labor in Siberia. A powerful story of one man’s dependence on God, his “school of prayer” in solitary confinement under interrogation, and his suffering servanthood to his fellow prisoners during the long years of forced labor. It’s a little-known book; it has been very helpful to me in my work and as an example of learning to accept everything as coming from the hand of God (if only I did learn it!).
Ruth Burrows was extremely helpful to me at certain points (especially years ago) and with certain concepts. She provides very interesting metaphors of the spiritual journey and has some interesting insights about how God gives some people a kind of light on experience, so that they can explain that journey to others, while most people have a light off type of spiritual journey where they are feeling their way in the darkness. (I have to admit to a lot of stumbling in darkness, punctuated with sparks of light. Also, I will forever be indebted to her for introducing me to the concept of Holy Mystery as a term for God.)
And in the journey category, another Frenchman who went to India as a Benedictine monk, remaining there and living very simply. But I’m saving that for my last paragraph. A teaser… to keep you reading.
Several books could be grouped as “books that led me towards Orthodoxy” – though I had no idea of it, especially long ago. I’ve already mentioned the books on prayer of the heart, but I would also include Andre Louf, Aelred Squire, and Jean Marie Howe in that category, for they either deal with the Fathers (Squire and Louf) or introduced me to modern Orthodox thinking (Howe). Howe, an elderly Cistercian nun, was particularly helpful related to the subject matter of this blog, for she coined the term “spiritual priesthood” as a way of discussing theosis, explaining me to myself in a sense and helping me to discern my way forward at a very crucial point. Louf also refers to prayer of the heart and the priesthood connected to an inner liturgy of the heart (in his book on prayer). His little pamphlet on Humility is so helpful; humility as ultimately the breakdown of everything in yourself (as a project), that casts you into the waiting arms of God.
Poetry: The Psalms which are prayers, poetry, wisdom literature, and an endless source of delight, in that the psalmist has seen it all, felt it all, knows the highs and lows, the dread and the exaltation, the atheists, the cynics, the pious, the needy. Did I say I love the psalms? And my all-time favorite poem: Four Quartets. A mystical poem. One that is so much fun to declaim aloud. So full of wisdom. A great poem as you grow older, though I first read it in my early 30’s. I may have read it a hundred times! John’s Gospel is like that too. So rich and poetic. I recall the summer after my Sophomore year of College being entranced with John’s Gospel. Puzzling over the lines. Feeling the meaning just out of reach. Stretching to find that meaning. And rediscovering that same fascinating pull decades later – only to be shocked that some of the meaning had already revealed itself or explained to me things I’d experienced, allowing me to plumb them at a much deeper level. Like TS Eliot, John’s Gospel does not yield it’s wisdom easily. And that’s true in some ways of the psalms as well. You keep finding deeper meanings, deeper allusions to other parts of the bible. Words ring in my mind across books and verses. I’m sure TS Eliot has some lines about that – much better than what I’ve just written. But he also describes how words slip and slide, how hard it is to understand things sometimes when they’re happening and you get the meaning later, or how you can miss the present moment in your effort to grasp it’s meaning right now.
Which brings me to favorite quotes. One from Four Quartets:
“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”
And another from Solzhenitsyn, one I copied out at maybe age 23 from Cancer Ward, one that has seen me through many troubles:
“It is not the level of prosperity that makes for happiness but the kinship of heart to heart and the way we look at the world. Both attitudes are within our power, so that a man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy, and no one can stop him. “
I am a pondering person. I end up with lots of questions. Unless I start out with them. A question is a very good place to start. Sometimes a single word sets me off on a search. Or a line or verse. When I say “search” I could mean decades. I’m not talking the kind of thing you could find on google, but the kind of thing that grabs your attention and forces you to dig deep, to read and reread. The kind of thing that rings bells when you catch a glimpse of it in some strange place or manner you never thought of before. I like writers who tend to be pondering people too. The Author of the Cloud of the Unknowing would like us to forget about all that pondering. Leave it aside and just let the wings of your heart, so to speak, beat against the “cloud” of darkness, that Eliot would call the “darkness of God”. And there’s a certain side to me that really “gets” that too. Or at least tries to rest in that way station of nothingness and emptiness. Ah yes, Rest. That’s one of the words I’ve been pondering and following for decades. The rest that Jesus promises. The restthat is promised by God in the Old Testament. The Spirit rests. I also wonder if the Spirit is involved in forgiveness, in mercy. The author of the Cloud … would have me drop those questions, I’m sure…
Which brings me to Theophane the Monk. But first a digression. For a long time I’ve enjoyed Teaching Tales. I have copies of Hassidic Tales, Sufi Tales, Zen Tales, Tales of the Desert Fathers, Merton’s translations of Chuang Tzu’s Tales. I recommend them all! But the best of these comes in one tiny book by Theophane, a Cistercian monk who spent at least a year in a zen monastery and whose Tales of the Magic Monastery take pondering to a whole new level. Every once in a while I begin to fathom the deeper meaning or a new meaning or at last some of the meaning of these Christian stories in a Zen style. I have a little story of Theophane himself. It happened about 10 years ago. We were leaving Snowmass Monastery and Theophane, this tiny slip of a frail old man, did a little jig in response to my request for “some words of wisdom for the journey.” That was so Zen! It was so apt! I will never forget it!
There is one tiny book on prayer that I still read from time to time, one I have underlined so much there is hardly a paragraph that isn’t full of underlines. So I’ve also copied lots of quotations onto sheets of paper – as if the mere copying would somehow seal the thoughts into my brain. For his writing is so densely beautiful, so rich, and yet so simple. The mark of a man full of Holy Presence: A French Benedictine, who so identified himself with the tradition of Indian sunyassi that he took an Indian holy name and integrated his prayer life with the Vedas, sacred Hindu hymns dating back thousands of years before Christ. In 63 pages he presents the whole of the spiritual life, together with the essentials of Christian doctrine, integrating that with the long tradition of spirituality in India. Quite a feat! (His other book, related to Vedanta, is definitely out of my league. But I possess it. I’ve had thoughts of trying to wade through it on various occasions. But we all have our limits…)