Published in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CIV (February, 2004), 46-53.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057
READING FOR CLERICS
“Father Latour arranged an order for his last days; if routine was necessary to him in health, it was even more so in sickness.... Morning prayers over, Magdalena came with his breakfast, and he sat in his easy chair while she made his bed and arranged his room. Then he was ready to see visitors. The Archbishop came in for a few moments, when he was at home; the Mother Superior, the American doctor. Bernard read aloud to him the rest of the morning; St. Augustine, or the letters of Madame de Sevigné, or his favorite Pascal.”
– Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop.1
“Every author has a meaning in which all the contradictory passages agree, or he has no meaning at all. We cannot affirm the latter of Scripture and the prophets; they undoubtedly are full of good sense. We must then seek for a meaning which reconciles all discrepancies.”
– Pascal, Pensées, #683.
A friend of mine in Florida, the columnist Mary Jo Anderson, once wrote to me that “God had taken her off of the tennis courts.” When I inquired just why it was “God” who ended her matronly tennis career, she replied:
The short-ish version is that I had piled up quite a stack of Catholic books on the bedside table to read. I promised God I’d get to them when my last child went to college. And when he departed, I picked up a tennis racquet instead and within two years, I was playing tennis four times a week.... Then, when I passed the stack of books one day, I said to myself, “Lord, some day when I get time....” I went downstairs, and rolled up a rug to take to be cleaned. It was too heavy – result, bulging disc. The orthopedic surgeon tried several remedies ... None worked. He put me to bed for three months. I had plenty of time to read. I tried to resume playing; finally I got the message. I put the racquet away and turned my attention elsewhere.
As a result of putting the tennis racquet away, she began to read.
Mrs. Anderson was college graduate who, like many of us, did not read much in college, or much of what was worth reading. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about these books?” she once asked me. But we have to be ready to listen when we are told about them. She has, in fact, as those who read her know, become a good, careful reader, not just of Catholic books, but of these too. Her implied conclusion is that if we do not voluntarily keep our promises to God to read, He will see to their fulfilment some other, less pleasant, way. God thinks reading important!
This lesson about reading is not to take anything away from tennis or golf or the value and need of relaxation or exercise in anyone’s life. Indeed, I think that the lessons we learn from sports, both the playing of them and the watching them – indeed even the referring of them – have manifest and even profound lessons for the life both of mind and of faith. But the lesson is that if we want to make time for what is worthwhile doing, we do have to look at our priorities and see these in the light of a real hierarchy of things worthy of doing.
In this reflection, I am not going to advocate reading on the grounds of “obligation,” though I think that is an element, just as required wind-sprints are an element in winning races. We can say, for example, that we are “obliged” to read the Epistle to the Romans because we are clerics, because that is our profession. It may take some further prodding, however, to “make” us read it along with the other books we may need to help us understand it – commentaries or dictionaries, for instance. Another friend of mine, Anne Burleigh, the author of a very insightful book called Journey Up the River (Ignatius), wrote to me about her grandson: “He has taken off like a shot with his reading. He has just finished first grade and just read D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. He is half way through Treasure Island. What a great thing to learn to read. There is no joy quite like it.” It is something of this spirit that I want to suffuse these remarks for us even as we are clerics, well beyond first grade. Thus, what I prefer to emphasize is the spirit of Father Latour. You will notice what he had read to him, even as he was dying – St. Augustine, Madame de Sevigné, and Pascal, “his favorite.” These are books of a priest who knows about reading.
I recount this earlier reflection of my friend, from the life of a normal, intelligent wife and mother, on tennis and reading, because, I suspect, that its lesson is one that many a cleric has had to learn, or wishes he had learned, in his lifetime. Most priests are at least conscious of the need to develop and keep that philosophic and reflective character that has to be, at some level, a reality in the life of even the busiest priest or religious.
John Paul II recently told some Indian bishops – India has 11,303 clerical students in philosophy and theology, the United States has 5,080:
Proper theological preparation requires instruction which, while respecting that part of the truth found in other religions, nevertheless unfailingly proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Way and the truth and the Life. To this end Catholic educational institutions must offer a sound philosophical formation which is necessary for the study of theology. Truth transcends the limitations of both Eastern and Western thought and unites every culture and society” (Zenit, 27 June 2003).
I take this admonition as a charter to priests to keep their intellectual interests, including those having to do with theology, broad and informed.
Catholicism, for better or worse, is a religion of intelligence. That is, it has always recognized, as Leo Strauss pointed out, that philosophy is essential to its overall understanding and mission. Fides et Ratio, the Holy Father’s recent encyclical on reason and revelation, is quite clear, even blunt, on the need and practice of genuine philosophy. In this light, I was rather disappointed that the recent lengthy Instruction from the Congregation for the Clergy, “The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community” (L’Osservatore Romano, English, January 15, 2005) did not contain some specific mention of this aspect of the priestly life, not merely philosophical but general literary and historical interests..
The Instruction did mention, however, the Daily Office. “In the Divine Office he (the priest) supplies what is lacking in the praise of Christ and, as an accredited ambassador, his intercession for the salvation of the world is numbered among the most effective” (#14). But while the Office is an act of praise, it is also an act of or exercise in intelligence. There is no daily office that does not contain some basic and profound insight into the nature of things, divine and human. The Second Readings are often gems of reflective profundity from the Greek Fathers, Augustine, Teresa of Avila, the great Popes, a Gregory, or a Leo. There is a relation between worship and intelligence that is brought home to us every day in the Office. Moreover, the repetition of these basic readings year after year, even in some instances daily, or weekly, or monthly, gives us a lesson in reading again, mindful of C. S. Lewis’s quip, that if you have only read a great book once, you have not read it at all.
It is my general observation, however, that the time of any good priest in almost any parish in the world, if he is doing even half of what he should be doing, takes more time and energy than he has or ever can hope to have. Prudence means that we do what we can and live with it. God does not ask us to be supermen, even when our bishops or superiors seem to disagree. I still recall having celebrated Sunday Mass in the Parish of one of my nephews on a visit in Texas. The pastor was there after Mass. I asked him how many parishioners he had? “Twenty-three thousand,” he told me. I was astounded. “Do you have any help?” “Yes, I have two assistants plus a Jesuit who comes in on Sundays.” In other words, the man’s normal life was simply to be daily overwhelmed, with or without the Jesuit.
Good bishops and religious superiors often have to chide, cajole, or even command that time be given, not just to prayer and spiritual life, but also to the life of the intellect. Yet, in the Church of Rome, an intelligent priesthood is not a luxury. The newspapers, alas, are full of what happens when we do not have a virtuous priesthood. The relation between mind and virtue is not of minimal importance Most failures of intellect, I suspect, can be traced back to a prior failure of virtue, of spiritual life. Still, there are, I think, few more fatal mistakes for a cleric than that of under-estimating the importance of his own intellectual life. I mean by this emphasis, that he must have some intelligent grasp of why Catholicism is true, some awareness of the arguments and practices that purport to deny this truth.
Where does one get this time? The first step today, I suppose, is to examine how much time we give to television, internet, and such absorbing modern gadgets. I acknowledge that in a very restricted sense, when we control them and not they us, they can be useful. But one must make a general declaration of independence of them. We can only do that if we have a source of information and knowledge that is independent of their influence. This is one of the things we need to put in place. I do not just mean the things about these media that are wrong or subtly ideological. If our only source of news is PBS or the local newspaper or television station, we are probably in serious trouble. We have need of a few intelligent or scholarly journals or web sites that provide genuine alternatives to the content of the media. It is never neutral, as my friend Tracey Rowland has shown in her new book, Culture and the Thomist Tradition (Routledge).
An army officer friend of mine recommended to my attention a book on the Marine Corps called Absolutely Americans. He remarked that the book pictures well both the nobility and the disorder of troops. Young soldiers are often addicted to internet pornography. And “addicted” is probably the right word. No doubt we need to be aware that pastoral guidance today has to include the disorders of soul and mind that can come, if we let them, from internet or other such sources.
We all know that the internet also contains, on any given day, all the news from the Vatican, many good Catholic web sites, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the works of St. Thomas or almost any saint. It can be and is a most useful tool. But it can also be corrupting. We are not going to get much help in controlling this allure from outside of ourselves. The government has become itself an active player in this corruption in many ways. Virtue has always been a matter, in part, of self-discipline. This is doubly so today.
What is the alternative? I suggest that in today’s world, the only alternative is to be oneself pursuing truth seriously and steadily, yea, all of our lives. I conceive this primarily as a joy. One of the first books I would recommend to learn how to have the time to read what we want to read is the western writer Louis L’Amour’s The Education of a Wayfaring Man (Bantam). This book was given to me by a friend long after I was approaching senility, so much of its advice I had already learned from my own mistakes and experiences. I have written my own guides to reading in Another Sort of Learning and The Unseriousness of Human Affairs.
But I have often recommended L’Amour to others. Its advice about how to find time to read, how to record and remember what we read, indeed how to go about systematically learning about something, say, the Smith and Wesson pistol, or the gullies in Wyoming, is both graphic and useful. Aside perhaps from A. D. Sertillanges’ classic, The Intellectual Life (CUAPress), no book is quite so helpful as L’Amour’s about how to organize our time and how to learn what we do not know, even what we do not want or need to know. .
As I suggested, Catholicism is a religion of intelligence. It is likewise a religion of revelation, but it conceives this revelation as coming from and directed to intelligence, that is, as directed to the truth of things. We are fortunate if our seminary education gave us some adequate literary, historical, and philosophical background. We are usually relatively young when we are ordained, at least by Greek standards. We cannot be just “theologians” and still be theologians. Yet, we need not consider ourselves as some sort of universal geniuses either. We will always meet people more intelligent, better educated than ourselves. This is something in which we can rejoice, without forgetting that not a few of the most brilliant people who have ever lived have been priests – we think of Aquinas, Augustine, Newman, Francis de Sales, or Bernard of Clairvaux. I think we are wise to keep at our finger-tips reflections of priests who are notable intellectuals – Romano Guardini, for example, or Henri de Lubac, or von Balthasar, or Josef Ratzinger. I would place Karol Wojtyla also in this category.
A priest needs to have and cultivate his own library. I recently had the pleasure to stay at the parish of Msgr. Stephen di Giovanni in downtown Stamford, Connecticut. He is a scholar in his own right, has written a very excellent study of how the New York Times reported the relation of Pius XII and the Jews all during and immediately following World War II. Very favorably, it turns out. His study, I was not surprised to see, contains a marvelous collection of books. I am only sorry I did not think to copy down the titles of some of them and I admit of coveting not a few..
Looking through my own shelves, I found a book I had almost forgotten, the anthology George Schuster, the former president of Hunter College, once made entitled, The World’s Great Catholic Literature. If you see a used book with such a title, it is probably worth having. One of the brief selections in this book was Giovanni Boccaccio’s observations on Dante. For our purposes, it is worth citing. Not knowing something of Dante, after all, is to miss half the grandeur and, yes, delight of Catholicism. “In his studies, he (Dante) was most assiduous,” Boccaccio tells us, “insomuch that while he was occupied therewith no news that he heard could divert him from them.” To prove this point, Boccaccio charmingly tells us that once in Siena, in front of an apothecary shop, someone presented him with a little book that Dante had not before seen. It was unnamed but, to quote Boccaccio, “very famous among the men of understanding.” Who could resist that description?
Dante was so excited to read this book that he immediately stretched himself out on his stomach, on a bench in front of the shop. He began to read. Meanwhile, all around him was going on a big sporting event, with bands, dancing girls, yells and screams, sort of the Sienese version of the Superbowl. But, unperturbed, Dante read on for three straight hours, from three to six in the afternoon. “Yet he afterwards declared to some who asked him how he could keep from watching so fine a festival as had taken place before him that he had heard nothing. Whereupon,” Boccaccio adds, “to the first wonder of the questioners was not unduly added a second.”2
Now, I do not necessarily intend to commend here always stretching out on the floor during the Rose Bowl to read a book “very famous among the men of understanding.” But I do not intend to knock the practice either. I usually spend Christmas vacation at my brother and family in San Diego. We rarely miss the big games on New Years. But I do vividly recall reading Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed during Christmas vacation, though it did interfere some with the games. I think the following of a good game is a very Aristotelian experience. Of course, I might add, The Possessed is a book “very famous among the men of understanding,” as is all of Dostoyevsky. He is an author whose treatment of the priesthood itself and of the human condition is something no priest should miss.
Another reason we priests should be readers, readers of what is most profound among us, is that, however large our experience of human nature, and a priest’s exposure is usually greater than most, it is never large enough for what we need to know about our flock or even ourselves. Plato was very aware of this need, and of its dangers. C. S. Lewis put it well:
Those of us who have been true readers all our lives seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it we should be suffocated. The man who is content to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me.... Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.... But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing. I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.3.
It would be difficult to find a more insightful passage.
This C. S. Lewis book, incidently, An Experiment in Criticism, was first published in 1961. I never heard of it until a former student gave it to me for my seventy-fifth birthday. The book astounded me. Ths point is, it is never too late. But it would be nice to have had it sooner, though I am not sure I would have recognized its insight earlier. As my friend in Florida exclaimed, “why did not someone tell me about these books.” We cannot always blame someone else. I might suggest too, that most of us have sisters or brothers or folks or cousins who give us Christmas and birthday presents. We get shirts and sweaters. I suggest that having a goodly list of book we would like to read handy when we are asked what we want for Christmas is a good idea, not that we don’t need and appreciate the sweaters also.
Probably, the greatest book ever written explaining why bishops should not be married is Anthony Trollope’s famous novel, Barchester Towers. It is not to be missed, especially if one wants to be a bishop. However, we find here also, by way of irony, just why our clergy should be liberally educated and keep their awareness of what the world is like. “There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.... With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood tests, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the instructions he gives us!”4 We would be deaf today, many of us, if we did not frequently hear similar criticisms of our sermons.
In Western literature, the sermon is also an art form. We have but to read Newman to realize this, if we have not already. Newman’s name alone should be enough to remind us of our need to be men of mind and intelligence as an essential part of what we are. I would not deny that the Cure of Ars or the Country Priest in the novel were simple, even rather unlearned men. But they were holy and wise men, mostly exempt from the vanity or pride that is often associated with the more learned.
There exists a volume entitled, The World of Wodehouse Clergy. My copy is the gift from other friends several years ago. It too was a book I had never heard of before it was given to me. It is one of the most amusing books I know. It does not lack that quality of a good novel, even a humorous novel, of enabling us to see ourselves. Again, like the clerics in Trollope, the family of the Mulliners are members of the clerical orders in the Church of England. No doubt this is a book full of insight and amusement about the human condition, the unique humor of which seems to be made especially possible by the very existence of Christianity.
In one memorable scene, the Bishop of Stortford, who I believe is a Mulliner, comes down into his living room where his daughter, Kathleen, of whom he is naturally protective, is sitting reading what the bishop, at first, thought was “a book of devotion.” In fact, it was a novel entitled, Cocktail Time – a title perhaps wittily redolent of T. S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party. Trying to be unobtrusive, the Bishop stealthily read, over his daughter’s shoulder, some passages from the middle of Chapter 13. Alarmed by what he read, the Bishop-parent grabbed the book from the girl. He returned it to his study to see “if he had really seen what he thought he had.” As Wodehouse put it, “he had.”
The Bishop’s church was called, delicately, “St. Jude the Resilient, Eaton Square.” The following Sunday, in the pulpit himself, the Bishop spoke on the text of Ecclesiastes 13:1, “He that touches pitch shall be defiled.” The core of the sermon was an attack on a novel entitled Cocktail Time. To an undoubtedly startled congregation, “he described it as obscene, immoral, shocking, impure, corrupt, shameless, graceless and depraved.” Now, what do we suppose was the effect of this astonishing sermon of the Bishop of Stortford in the pulpit of St. Jude the Resilient? Here is Wodehouse’s description: “all over the sacred edifice you could see eager men jotting the name (of the novel) down on their cuffs, scarcely able to wait to add it to their library list.”5 Here, in a brief passage, we have a combined insight into the dangers of a naive clergy, into why censorship usually does not work, into the power of novels, into male human nature, and, finally, into how to build up our libraries, though not, to be sure, necessarily with the most edifying books.
In 1926, G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay entitled, “Why I Am a Catholic.” What I have been attempting to do in these remarks about clerical reading is to remind us that we are, in a way, in a very privileged position. Everyday, just in reading our Breviary, we come across ideas, persons, and insights from almost every century and from a wide variety of people. What the Venerable Bede said is not alien to us. Both the Council of Nicea and Vatican I dealt with things that remain pertinent to us and, when we reread them, we are refreshed. The Psalms are with us daily, some text of the New Testament, of the epistles or the Old Testament. In a large class, few will know who the Good Samaritan was, let alone what the Acts of the Apostles were, or who Albert the Great was.
But Chesterton saw that things fit together. If a thing was past, it did not mean that it was unimportant or that it was not present within our own world, only we did not recognize it. “Nine out of ten of what w call new ideas,” Chesterton wrote,
are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves.... The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as a human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. There is no other case of one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years.6
Our reading, I think, to use Chesterton’s notion, keeps our maps of intellectual reality from being merely an intellectual maze.
Basically, I want to say that a priest should first of all manifest himself as someone who loves the truth, even in a world that maintains that it true that there is no truth. This love of truth is not just an intellectual quest, but it is at least that. No priest can afford to lack some of that fierce determination to become a philosopher, to know the truth, that Augustine manifested in his Confessions. And while I do not conceive that the pursuit of truth is only or primarily a matter of books or formal learning – wisdom resides too in the unlearned, as surely we all know from the experience of those who are wise – I do insist that an intrinsic component of Catholicism is precisely books and formal learning . Perhaps I should rather say that it is the active mind that goes into reading and seeking in or with the help of books.
If I were to recommend one book or author that every priest should read immediately and regularly, it would not be a book of a priest. It would be Josef Pieper – an Anthology.7 I recommend this particular book by way of suggesting that reading the whole corpus of Pieper, most of which is reflected in this Anthology, is a fundamental way to keep intellectually alert and aware of the depths of both reason and revelation. It is also the best introduction to St. Thomas and a constant reminder of how important Aquinas is to us. Pieper himself is the clearest and briefest of all the philosophers. He is a marvel of lucidity and historical contest. He does not neglect the poets, nor should we. Above all, he seeks the truth and is a sure guide for those who know enough about themselves to see that this is what we should be about.
But I do not necessarily want in this reflection on reading for clerics to concentrate only on books that are Catholic. Aristotle and Plato are at the top of any list. Chesterton tells us in Orthodoxy that he became a Catholic because, as it were, he never read a Catholic book. He had only read the heretics, read them carefully. If we are taught any lesson by the current Pope, it is that we should accept truth wherever we find it. On the other hand, this does not deny that we are more likely to find it in some places rather than others. In his very wise book, Iris Exiled: A Synoptic History of Wonder, Dennis Quinn has written, “With the advent of Christ, it became clear how and why we must love our neighbor – not for their own sakes but because of and for the love of God. Wonder then turned wholly toward the absolute mystery beyond self and society, and, insofar as it was under biblical inspiration, the focus of wonder shifted decisively from the subject wondering to the object wondered at and to the relationship between the two.”8 “Wonder,” of course, is the great Aristotelian word that defines best why it is that we freely seek to know what is and its causes.
A priest and his reading, I think, should above all manifest himself as some one who is drawn to where he is, to what he holds and to how he lives because he is seen to be freely pursuing where reality leads him. Wise reading will be what enables us, not only not to recommend Cocktail Time to our congregations when we become bishops, but to become the thousand men who have seen the “the truth of things.” We need not perhaps always read with the avidity of a Dante on his stomach in Siena during a celebration. Let it be said of us, that we too have joined those who have been “thinking about thinking for two thousand years.” At our end, let us too remember what Father Latour, Archbishop Lamay’s friend, had read to him in his last days – Augustine, the letters of Madame de Sevigné, and Pascal, “his favorite.”