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So–I am the kind of person who likes to read one book at a time, and I do not like to stop in the middle, or not finish.  I make it a point to finish what I start, even if the book is not very good. 

This is a habit that comes to me from my father, who told me, when I was very young, that if I started by not finishing some things, I would end by not finishing anything.  This seems to have scared the hell out of me on a number of levels, and the result is that I always finish what I start.

Well, with a few notable exceptions.  I managed to get out from under Little Women–which is a truly awful book–by telling myself that part one and part two were originally published as two separate novels, and since I had finished part one I couldn’t be said to be not finishing…well, you see what I mean.

The Art of the Renaissance is not a bad book.  It is, in fact, a good one, and some of its essays have been fascinating, but it has one great drawback.

Because it’s an art book, and because the editor and publisher wanted to include lots of full color illustrations, the book is both outsized and very heavy, and printed on thick glossy stock.

This is wonderful for the illustrations, but it’s not so great for someone trying to read the smallish print.  Holding the damn thing in exactly the position it needs to be held for me to read it is physical tiring and sometimes actively painful.

But it’s a book of essays.

So what I’ve decided to do is to read one essay, and then, in between, read smallish books or collections of short stories to sort of relax my hands and eyes and that kind of thing.

This seems to be working fairly well. 

Right now, I’m between art essays, and what I’m reading is a little book called The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

The reason I’m reading The Imitation of Christ–aside from the fact that it was handy on my TBR pile–is that I’ve recently taken to rereading a lot of the things I read in college and graduate school in Latin, but rereading them in English translation.

A book sounds and feels different when you’re not continually translating the thing in your head. 

And with a language like Latin or classical Greek, which is either not spoken at all any more or spoken in limited places and circumstances–Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church, and is the language used at the Roman theological universities–well, trust me, some part of you is always translating.

This is a strange little book, on a number of levels.  For a very long time–almost from its first publication in the 15th Century to the early 1960s–it was the single most popular Christian devotional work in existence, second only to the Bible in popularity.

And it was popular not only among Catholics, but among Protestants as well, and also among people of other religious faiths (Hinduism especially) who found a lot in it that spoke to them.

That popularity was a little odd, if you think about it.  Thomas wrote his little book to be read aloud to monks and nuns in refectory and at recreation.  It was meant to be a work to help consecrated religious perfect their vocations.

Still, hundreds of thousands of people, including hundreds of thousands of people who rejected out of hand the idea of a cloistered, celibate, consecrated religious life, bought and read this book, often many times.

In the edition I have–a Penguin–the introduction was written by what is clearly a devoutly Catholic man.  He wrote in 1952, and spent much of the time usually taken up in Penguin introductions by analysis urging his readers to take the book to heart and follow its advice.  He is sure that the world will be a better place and that Communism will cease to exist if only enough people do.

And that’s a little interesting, too, because the advice is not what you’d think. 

It’s the kind of advice that, I would say, has largely disappeared from Christian discourse by now–it is certainly the kind of advice that you would never hear from the pastor of a megachurch or from Rick Santorum on the campaign trail.

It is an understanding of Christianity as a lived experience that is very old and very extreme, and I cannot remember hearing anybody advance it as an idea since my childhood.

Maybe they still talk like this in religious communities, or at least in conservative religious communities, I don’t know.

But the second very odd thing I realized when I started rereading this book was this;  it was written in the 15th Century.

I think I’d always assumed, when I’d read this before, that it was a book from the High Middle Ages or even before–that it had been written around, say, 1100 or 1200.

I had assumed this because its sensibility is distinctly Medieval.

Its picture of the world is of a place where any joy or comfort you may have is fleeting, to be destroyed in an instant by death or the change of fortune. If you are happy even for a moment, you are a fool, destined to spend eternity in the flames of Hell without Christ because you cared for the ephemerality of the material world (including your family and friends) than you did for your eternal destiny.

Its picture of human beings is of creatures sinful, corrupt, worthless and foul, with no right to claim inocense in anything, ever.  Baptism washes away Original Sin, but not the human tendency to evil, which is part of our corrupted nature until we are cleansed by God at Judgment.

There is not a single thing we do that is worthwhile–not anything at all, even curing cancer (okay, Thomas wouldn’t have put it that way) or relieving the miseries of the poor–if we do it because it is what we want to do, if it is our own idea and a matter of our own will.

This is, as I said, a very old idea of Christianity, but it’s the Christianity of the destruction of Rome and the swelling tides of barbarian invaders, a world without order or certainty of any kind.  It’s the Christianity of the great plagues.

Or at least, I thought it was.

And I find myself with a dilemma–if this is not just a response to wholesale civilizational destruction and massive death by disease, what is it?

And why is t his book still in print 600 years after it was written?

Try to think of yourself as a foul pit of sin and corruption, that needs, before anything else, to empty yourself of all will and desire, of anything that is a part of your self, in order to escape Hell.

That’s your homework for the day.

Written by janeh

May 27th, 2012 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Empty'

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  1. Well, theologically, life is fleeting and good fortune uncertain, even if the harvest is good this year, and man is prone to sin and corruption even if no one’s sacked Rome lately.

    But I did check up a bit. Thomas a Kempis is about 1379-1471, and the IMITATION OF CHRIST is maybe 1441. On a quick review of Christendom west to east: in the British isles, King Henry VI is mad, and civil war brewing. The 100 Years War is under way. (Can you say chevauchee? How about jacquerie?) For the earlier part of Thomas’ lifetime, King Charles VI of France was mad. In Germany, we have the “Town Wars” a four-sided succession struggle which lasted 10 years, and the Hussite Wars. The Swiss are engaged in a series of wars which will eventually destroy Burgundy, which is why there’s “the Booty of Burgundy” still in Swiss museums, but no Burgundy in NATO or the EU. The Swiss were never very good at taking prisoners. Further south, Italy is enjoying what was then called “good war” meaning prisoners were ransomed or exahanged rather than masascred. (Of course, if there was no one to pay the ransom…) But the wars themselves were so continuous as to give rise to mercenary “contractors” or condotiere. In Spain, Castile was enjoying the delights of civil war. In orthodox lands and eastern Europe, these are the years of the Khanate of the Golden Horde, the Battle of Tannenburg, and a brief but memorable incursion of Timur the Lame, also known as Tamerlane. And the wars with the Turks were pretty much continuous. Off hand, it sounds like a world better suited to Conan of Cimmeria than to a monk. And when the monk says there is room for improvement, he may have a point.

    The ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MILITARY HISTORY can be a really depressing book sometimes.


    27 May 12 at 11:35 am

  2. And I forgot the Black Death. Prime years for it, too. “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”


    27 May 12 at 11:37 am

  3. I actually know someone whose personal theology is very similar to that. We’re all unremittingly evil and can only be “saved” by God’s grace. As he is generally a fairly normal person and often both cheerful and sarcastic (my favorite part), it’s jarring to hear him talk about the inherent evil in the world and in humanity.


    27 May 12 at 11:53 am

  4. If what you’re living in is effectively Hell on earth, (as described by Robert) then it makes some sense that people would hope that if they were Very Very Good, and followed all the rules, perhaps someday in the next life, things might be better. In a world of the Black Plague, with medical technology considering a good bleeding cutting edge treatment (no pun intended), frequent death in childbirth, life expectancy in the 30s or earlier, Awful Things happened all the time.

    You couldn’t afford to take your eyes off the prize, not for good works, or making money or enjoying the moment or even looking around at God’s creation and saying “hey, this is nice!” Demonstrations that humankind is evil would have been all around. I suspect the overwhelming feeling at all times was fear. And fear leads people to extreme behavior.


    27 May 12 at 2:19 pm

  5. I’ve been meaning to get to that, but right now I’m trying to finish the Rule of St. Benedict, after re-reading some of the modern writings of Kathleen Norris. And in between I’m reading bits of N.T. Wright, whose ideas, when I think I’ve managed to understand them, I find very interesting.

    And as a result of my eclectic reading on Christianity – I don’t find any of those ideas particularly extreme. Oh, sure, we can – if we allow God to work through us – help the sick, hungry etc in many ways, but that’s not particulary to our credit, it’s just what we should be doing anyway. Joy and pleasure are fleeting, and we are all sinful beings – with Paul, we don’t do the good we want to do and we do the evil we don’t want to do.

    It’s a theology many Christians find uncomfortable – even unacceptable. They prefer a version that tells them that we are all really perfect, just as we are, except we make mistakes now and again, but they’ll all be forgiven if we say we’re sorry.

    It doesn’t take the collapse of civilization to make people question whether the more sunny interpretations of Christianity are a truer depiction of humanity and their world. All it takes is death, disease, and a bit of experience and observation of the betrayals we mete out to each other all the time. A bit of honest self-examination helps too. Most of us have seen and/or experienced all of this by the time we reach middle age at the very latest. Many nowadays don’t react to it by trying to follow the instructions in ‘The Imitation of Christ’, but a surprising number seem to do so by looking consolation in some other type of religious experience. Some, of course, unable to do either, adopt a rather depressing form of atheism or agnosticism.

    And aiming at the truth, reality, is really what those people were and are doing. There may have been some level of desperate longing for there to be meaning in life, but I don’t think I’d blame it all on fear. Once you’ve lost everything and everyone who made your life worth living, maybe to civil war, maybe to disease or accident, I think what’s left is more despair and desolation. There’s not much reason left to fear.


    27 May 12 at 6:15 pm

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