Archive for May 29th, 2007

Reading the Readers

May 29, 2007


I like to buy books at a bargain – when I can and if I can. These days, books often come at a bargain with Amazon’s listing of used books. Occasionally the prices are almost irresistable (especially for a book lover). What has become of occasional interest to me can only happen with a used book. The ad reads, “some writing in the margins.” I can hardly resist. There is the book to read and the reflections of someone else who read the book.

It’s an incomplete experience – you are reading snatches of a conversation between the reader and the writer. If you’re fortunate an insight might be hidden among the notes. And often as not the reader is just emoting along the margin and the book gains an echoe.

One of my earliest such experiences was in seminary. One half of my seminary (in modern times it was the offspring of a marriage between two older seminaries) was founded in the mid 1800’s. One of the early founders had made a trip to England to raise money for the American Midwestern adventure – and to raise something far more valuable – a library. He prevailed upon various English dons to share the abundance of their private libraries with their less well-equipped American cousins. The result was a delight. My own adventure into that delight was to study St. Gregory Nazianzus in a text that had once belonged to John Henry Newman.

Those were notes worth deciphering (indeed, they were occasionally in Latin).

My largest volume of Father Sophrony’s work, Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, is heavily notated. But in this case it is not the notes of a scholar – simply the notes of someone who likes to disagree occasionally with the text. It can be rather jarring to turn the page of someone’s work whom you pretty much revere as a saint and to see a large “NO!” scribbled in the margin. It makes me read more carefully. It also makes me wonder what the reader actually thought. That mystery will remain unsolved.

But the contrast between note and text have reminded me of Tradition. Tradition is not a 2,000 year old argument among Christian scholars. There are long-running arguments among Christian scholars – but they have little to do with Tradition. Tradition is a stream of life – a continuity running through the life of the Church and the lives of her saints. It is the Life of Christ, finally, that we encounter in place after place. Winding its way through languages and media, it bears witness not to many truths, but to a single Truth.

Though I have my own likely differences with Newman, I recognize that he is likelier car closer to Saint than I, and I realized when I was handling his book, that he and I were in deep agreement on at least one thing: the text in front of us was the text of a saint. There were no “No!”‘s scribbled in his steady hand just the gentle assent of the human spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the work of Tradition – deep speaking unto deep.

There are those books you own that you know belong to such a Tradition. They are not the stuff with which we argue but the stuff which we ponder. To me they are made only more valuable by having been held in hands before mine.

One of my sons-in-law has been assigned to a Russian-speaking parish. I had a valuable treasure that was given me several years ago. I have made it his treasure now. It is a Sluzhebnik, a service book, in Slavonic, for the Divine Liturgy. Only this one is written in pencil in a small notebook. It was written in the Displaced Persons camps after World War II by a Russian-priest acquaintance whom I helped bury several years ago. His family gave me a number of his priestly tools for my own. It is a Tradition that continues flowing. It is a joy to think of one, written in pencil, flowing in the tongue of my daughter’s husband. For this is so much the life of the Church. Not just the Tradition you know, but the life from which you received it. I often think that when someone asks me to explain Apostolic Succession that there are no words to completely explain it. It is hands laid on the head of a man, but it is also the stories and the lives of those who laid their hands. It is Chrismation, an oil mixed and blessed only once every three years – but containing a portion of the oil that went before it – and for how many years now? When I smell the Chrism at Baptism, I know that I share an experience, a smell, with thousands of saints before me. The Holy Spirit is the Life given us – the Living Tradition that leads us into all truth. But sometimes He does so on the margins of a page, or in an odor in the air. How rich and wonderful are Thy ways, O Lord!