Saturday, 26 April 2014

Hitting the Nail on the Head with G.K. Chesterton

"Most modern history, especially in England, suffers from the same imperfection as journalism. At best it only tells half of the history of Christendom; and that the second half without the first half. Men for whom reason begins with the Revival of Learning, men for whom religion begins with the Reformation, can never give a complete account of anything, for they have to start with institutions whose origin they cannot explain, or generally even imagine. Just as we hear of the admiral being shot but have never heard of his being born, so we all heard a great deal about the dissolution of the monasteries, but we heard next to nothing about the creation of the monasteries."

An extract from St Francis by G.K. Chesterton, published in 1923.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Time to Keep Silence

There are times when the outsiders' perspective leaves the reader with a sense of being slightly short-changed, but there are also occasions when the outsider is able to communicate what he sees with as much (or more) clarity than those on the inside. Take Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, for instance, a great book about monasticism from an acclaimed travel writer.

This passage gives a sense of what you are given in the book as a whole: "Listening to the singing of the Hours in the language of fifth- or sixth-century Western Christendom, one can forget the alterations of the twentieth and feel that the life-line of notes and syllables between the Early Church and today is still intact: that these, indeed, might have been the sung words to which King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha listened when St Augustine first set foot in the Isle of Thanet."

What we have here is a sympathetic author who a) writes beautiful prose b) understands and appreciates the Church's continuity c) to many students' delight, writes a book that weighs in at under 100 pages. 

But those same students might find these 95 pages lexically challenging. Take this extract from page 36: "Tierce ended, the officiating monk entered in his vestments, and the deacon and sub-deacon, the acolytes and torch-bearers. They genuflected together, and the Mass began. Every moment the ceremony gained in splendour. If it was the feast of a great saint, the enthroned abbot was arrayed by his myrmidons in the pontificalia. A gold mitre was placed on his head, and the gloved hand that held the crosier was jewelled at the point of the stigma and on the third finger the great ring sparkled over the fabric. The thurifer approached the celebrant and a column of incense climbed into the air, growing and spreading like an elm-tree of smoke across the shafts of sunlight. The chanting became steadily more complex, led by a choir of monks who stood in the middle of the aisle, their voices limning chants that the black Gregorian block-notes, with their comet-like tails and Moorish-looking arabesques, wove and rewove across the threads of the antique four-line clef on the pages of their graduals. Then, with a quiet solemnity, the monks streamed into the cloister in the wake of a jewelled cross."

Not that the comparative complexity of the language should be a reason to ignore this book. Rather, in much the same way that the author had to adjust himself to the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we, his readers, need to adjust our reading to his language. Just as he had to adjust to the pace and rhythm of the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we need to adjust our reading to the pace and rhythm of his prose. Just as there is a time to keep silence, so too is there a time to read slowly.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Hero on a Bicycle

Shirley Hughes is best known for her Alfie books for toddlers but she recently wrote a book for older children which is well worth reading.

Hero on a Bicycle is set in Italy during World War II and features a Catholic Anglo-Italian family who are, rather unwillingly, drawn into helping the resistance. I won't give away too much of the plot but if you want to read another review from a Catholic perspective that tells you more, click here.

Unlike Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman, this is not a book that is suffused with Catholicism - it seems to be Catholicism from an outsider's perspective - but it is a book which takes the Faith seriously and respects it.

I shall be recommending this book in conjunction with Road to Valor, about another Italian Catholic hero on a bicycle.