Open Book, January 2021

child in space dreaming with book

Timely reading, entirely coincidental: a few days before the U.S. Capitol became the scene of violence and death, I began reading Jailed for Freedom: the Story of the Militant American Suffragist Movement by Doris Stevens. Written a century ago, it’s almost painfully relevant now. Stevens was one of the “Silent Sentinels” who stood in ongoing vigil outside of Woodrow Wilson’s White House, urging him to get behind women’s voting rights.

Not only did the President refuse for far too long, but he stood by when the women who were demonstrating were abused, arrested, and jailed. Note well that the violence was on them, not by them. These were not passive women; they were living proof of how tough nonviolence needs to be in its goals, persistence, and commitment.

That’s not an academic point. Witness the recent events in Washington.

TLDR, spoiler alert: President Wilson finally got the message, and so did Congress. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920.

book cover Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins

A friend told me about Carrying the Fire, and I have no idea how I missed it before now. It’s wonderful. The author is Michael Collins, a man of parts, probably best known for his time as an astronaut. This memoir covers flight training, Air Force service, and his time at NASA including his role as command module pilot for Apollo 11. Collins writes like a dream; I read pages out loud just to revel in his style.

He offers unsparing (though not unkind) brief character sketches of his fellow astronauts. It’s interesting to read contemporary accounts of men who are now part of history.

Pioneering pilot Charles Lindbergh provides two fitting grace notes to the book. The first is his foreword. The second, shared by Collins at the end of the book, is a letter he wrote to Collins after the Apollo 11 flight. In the years since 1969, Collins has sometimes been treated as a footnote to the moon landing; he was the guy who had to stay in the ship while Armstrong and Aldrin left footprints on the moon. Lindbergh took a different view. The man who flew solo across the Atlantic understood the particular beauty and peace of solitude in purposeful flight. In his letter, he greeted Collins as a man who could understand that.

book cover Litanies and Legacies, Mystics and Mysteries by Rev. Paul G. Mast

Litanies and Legacies, Mystics and Mysteries: Themes for living life as a Spiritual Litany is a source of refreshment for me these days. It’s a good companion to Adoration. These are not the usual litanies. From author Rev. Paul G. Mast: “Each litany is different in biographical details and reflection material. But, all the litanies are pathways to God.” (GospelSoft Books, gospelsoftretreats.org)

Open Book is a monthly blog linkup hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

Featured photo: Pixabay.

Open Book, October 2020

Basket of books, cup of tea

It’s been awhile since I’ve contributed to the Open Book linkup, hosted by blogger Carolyn Astfalk and the team at CatholicMom.com. Time to catch up and find out what other folks are reading.

I’m looking forward to reading more than just excerpts from Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti, released a few days ago. Headlines seldom do justice to encyclicals. At the same time, I’m re-reading St. John Paul II’s The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), which was released 25 years ago.

I just finished this one, and I highly recommend it for anyone who likes good stories and elegant prose: West With the Night is a memoir by Beryl Markham (1902-1986), probably best known for her pioneering transatlantic flight in 1936. I picked up the book out of mild curiosity about how she described her own accomplishment. What I found was one of the most beautifully written works I’ve read. The epic flight rates a single chapter near the end, and those few pages are a small treasure in themselves.

I’m reading a book of G.K. Chesterton mysteries that I found in a bookshop, knowing nothing about them except the author’s name. The Man Who Knew Too Much contains eight short stories with an interesting common bond: to borrow from the book’s cover, “justice does not take its usual course.” These are eight quick little diversions.

Every time John LeCarré puts out a new book, I read it in the usually-vain hope that he can match the perfection of his Smiley trilogy, published about 40 years ago. That’s hardly fair. I’m in the midst of his latest, Agent Running in the Field. So far, so good-ish.

When this year started, I made a list of all my yet-unread literary finds from yard sales and used-book shops. It’s an imposing list. The idea, or rather the good intention I had on New Year’s Day, was to either read them and then pass them on to someone else by the end of the year. I’m actually about halfway through the list at this point, three-quarters of the way through the year. The giveaway box is filling up. That’s progress.

#OpenBook: Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim

For September’s Open Book link-up, I offer Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim by Malcolm Muggeridge (Harper & Row, 1988).

This month, it’s back to my personal library to pick up this short treat for the first time in many years. It’s not a full-dress autobiography (see Chronicles of Wasted Time for that). Instead, Confessions is a brief survey of the phases in journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s life, each a stage on what he recognizes as his pilgrimage. He was late in life, 79 years of age, when he was received into the Catholic Church. In Confessions, he looks back at the uneven route he took to get there.

I have always felt myself to be a stranger here on earth, aware that our home is elsewhere. Now, nearing the end of my pilgrimage, I have found a resting place in the Catholic Church from where I can see the Heavenly Gates built into Jerusalem’s Wall more clearly than from anywhere else, albeit if only through a glass darkly.

Each phase of life gets a chapter – The Boy, The Journalist, The Soldier, and so on, sketched with a lifelong journalist’s deft touch. I knew before I picked up the book how it was going to end; Muggeridge was a celebrity whose conversion made news. The heart of Confessions lies in the way he describes what led to that conversion: the steps and missteps and unlikely occurrences in his life.

He gives credit to Mother Teresa, whom he met in the course of a documentary project that remains his best-known work, at least in the United States (Something Beautiful for God). She gave a nudge, and left the rest to time and God’s grace. In her, Muggeridge’s lifelong skepticism met its match.

The younger Muggeridge would have been astounded to know where that would lead: “It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become Catholic.” That was a countercultural claim, even thirty-odd years ago, particularly from a worldly man.

Despite such blunt declarations, Confessions is full of warmth and humor. I love his insight into what he calls “The Steeple and The Gargoyle.” Since reading this for the first time, I’ve never looked at a photo of an old church in the quite the way I did before.

This assumption that a sense of humour and a Christian faith are incompatible is totally mistaken….

The true function of humour is to express in terms of the grotesque the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance. Mysticism expresses the same disparity in terms of the sublime. Hence the close connection between clowns and mystics; hence, too, the juxtaposition on the great medieval cathedrals of  steeples reaching up into the Cloud of Unknowing, and gargoyles grinning malevolently down at our dear earth and all its foolishness. Laughter and mystical ecstasy, that is to say, both derive from an awareness, in the one case hilarious, in the other ecstatic, of how wide is the chasm between Time and Eternity, between us and our Creator.

Let us then, while, as we should, revering the steeples, remember the gargoyles, also, in their way, purveyors of God’s Word, and be thankful that, when the Gates of Heaven swing open, as they do from time to time, mixed with the celestial music there is the unmistakable sound of celestial laughter.

This #OpenBook linkup is hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.