Advent Reading

Here comes the winter night. If we were our oldest ancestors, tucked into draughty recesses of caves with blue hands hugged around us as we slept, we’d be dreaming of summer: we’d be using our human freedom to step away from circumstances to wish that all mornings were June mornings, all noons burned yellow in the sky, all days ended in easy heat under green trees. But for us the night laps comfortably around warm houses. From within our walls the cold seems something to relish. The sharp air outdoors drives the blood from the surface of our fingers only so the soft air inside can return it, tingling. The darkness beyond the window glass gives us the black outer frame for winter comforts like a still-life. Red curtains, green leeks chopped for soup, oranges in a bowl. All glow more because they stand out from a border of shadow.

The opening of “Winter Night”  in Francis Spufford’s essay collection, True Stories & Other Essays (which is as good as one might expect). I don’t have any new recommendations to add to my previous Advent reading ideas (which I still think aren’t too bad). It’s not that there isn’t other stuff out there, I just haven’t really had time to search out new texts for the season.

A lot of my reading this time of year is now taken over with toddlers’ picture books about Christmas and Advent, and I have to say that most of them are pretty bad (ranging from the foolishly sentimental to what can only be described as crass money-grab schemes by publishers trying to cash in on Christmas consumerism). A notable exception is Song of the Stars, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alison Jay (and I’m sure there are others out there that I’m forgetting or haven’t found yet) which captures the links between the doctrines of creation and incarnation. The book illustrates well the idea that in the incarnation the Creator has come to his own creation – as Athanasius … or Irenaeus … or Gregory Nazianzen (one of those old, bearded guys, anyway) says – and they’re really just echoing John 1 – which should get more Advent season airplay in our contemporary moment. So there you go, I’ve given you an Advent reading recommendation after all.

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Oliver O’Donovan on Pride

But when we are simply ‘proud,’ we have not kept our satisfaction focused on the concrete object, just one accomplishment among many accomplishments, but have taken it into our moral self-consciousness. The achievement drops out of sight; what remains is the standing that it leaves us with. This halts in its tracks the dynamic progress of practical reason from one provisional end to the next, from faith to love to hope and back to love again, keeping faith and hope in play until the final end is reached. Pride thus makes absolute the sins against self, world, and time. Agency is re-founded on what we have made of ourselves, instead of being received afresh in faith as God’s gift. The social world becomes our prey, raw material for our self-valuation. Time is seized and over-mastered, since it cannot be endured. The proud individual, people, or civilization no longer learns or does, for it is always having to maintain its position, scanning the world of appearances for proof of its power, technique, or wealth. At the root of its impotence is a moral vacuum, an intolerable doubt as to the point of existence, an inability to live without a surrogate for the meaning it has lost sight of.

Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest

Ellen Ullman in 1998

I fear for the world the Internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.

Ellen Ullman, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, in an essay from 1998 titled “Museum of Me.”

Life will not conform

The death of the spirit is to lose confidence in one’s own independence and to do only what we are expected to do. At the same time, it is a mistake to expect anything specific from life. Life will not conform.

Penelope Fitzgerald, at the end of her life, quoted in Hermione Lee’s biography. “Life will not conform” summarizes Fitzgerald’s own struggles in many ways, and is a fundamental theme of her fiction (“life makes its own corrections” as a sledge driver says in The Beginning of Spring). They should probably just stamp it on the back of the books, I’m sure it would boost sales.

(As an aside: Lee is very good at arranging her material. She places this quote just prior to Fitzgerald starting to write and publish, in her late 50s. In another wise decision she discusses the books not in order of publication, but in relation to the parts of Fitzgerald’s life to which they seem most connected – although something like this was inevitable, I suppose, given how late in life Fitzgerald started writing/publishing).

The Present Moment

Ok, I said. As long as I’ve got you here, we’re going to use and appreciate this present moment. Because I wish, and I’ve wished a thousand times since you went, that we’d known it was the present, and that we were living in it.

Ali Smith, Artful

A world in need of amateurs

First, I am an amateur. If that strikes you as disappointing, consider how much in error you are, and how the error is entirely of your own devising. At its root lies an objection to cookbooks written by non-professionals (an objection, by the way, which I consider perfectly valid, and congratulate you upon). It does not, however, apply here. Amateur and nonprofessional are not synonyms. The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers— amateurs—it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness. In such a situation, the amateur—the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy—is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak. If he loves Wisdom or the Arts, so much the better for him and for all of us. But if he loves only the way meat browns or onions peel, if he delights simply in the curds of his cheese or the color of his wine, he is, by every one of those enthusiasms, commanded to speak. A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job.

From Robert F. Capon’s boisterous theological cookbook, Supper of the Lamb

There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be percipitate, or he runs over it: he must not rush into the opposite extreme or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Dickens, The Pickwick Papers