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Blithely browsing my Facebook feed, I came across astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s 8 books every intelligent person should read.  I’m always interested to read these kinds of lists.  I always presume knowledge and expertise, as well as good will, on the part of the book selector.  Boy did I bomb out on this one.

Here is the first item on the list:

1.) The Bible (eBook) – “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”

Seriously? That’s the only reason to read the Bible?  Any book list that begins with such a potshot at the Bible is an automatic and complete FAIL.  It’s such an ignorant, dishonest, and arrogant statement that I can not possibly let it slide.

First of all, if the Bible’s adherents were so eager to be told what to think and believe, then why did they resist the Romans (and other powers before them) to the point of enduring torture, death, and all out genocide?  They could have easily saved their skins and their way of life by just offering incense to the State Gods to appease their oppressors.  They didn’t.  Why is that?

Secondly, the Bible didn’t just fall out of the sky saying “Here, this is how you have to think and act and believe. Do it or die.”  Rather, the Bible–not one book, but a diverse collection of books–came about over centuries and centuries, growing up from the thoughts, insights, religious beliefs, life experiences, and aspirations of a people. The Bible was a result, not a dictator.

It’s a full, rich body of literature, comprising everything from historical chronicles to songs, apocalyptic literature to erotic poetry. It’s full of profound wisdom, brutal honesty, a magnificent comprehension of human nature, and glorious artistry. And if the human writers, and we who have followed, have believed that their inspirations came from God, then fine–respect it and assume that they and we are sincere in that belief, even if you personally don’t believe it.

But whatever you do, if you care about being regarded as intelligent, don’t hold up a book you obviously don’t know or understand and misrepresent it to make yourself look superior.

Any true striving for knowledge requires humility and liberal-mindedness–they are required, not optional. Tyson betrays his lack of both, right from the beginning. And I bet there are lots of people who will gladly take his word for it.  Hopefully there are also people who will take his recommendation and find out for themselves the true value of reading the Bible, be they a detached scholar or a religious believer.

Finally:

Tyson concludes by saying: “If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.” 

Come now, sir, for that to be true, the list should have included at least one classic work from the Greeks, Romans, or Medievals.  Machiavelli and Sun Tsu are the best you can offer?  Western Civilization is neither impressed nor amused, Mr. Tyson.

This is one of my favorite quotations ever.  My mind comes back to it frequently, as I learn the truth of it again and again:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1596.

I am reading Dietrich Von Hildebrand’s masterpiece, Transformation in Christ. I am currently reading the chapter on “True Simplicity.” If there is one thing I can always use more of, it is simplicity!

Von Hildebrand writes on this topic at length, for there are many (erroneous) ways to define “simplicity.” If we consider his own life during the time he was writing this book, we would scarcely consider it a simple life; he was being chased down by the Nazis, fleeing for life itself. And yet one would never guess that if one were reading this book without knowledge of that context. The text is radiant with clarity, with calm and very detailed analyses of many topics, as if the author were completely at leisure, at peace, and in comfort.Von Hildebrand was obviously writing from personal experience, from his own transformative relationship with Christ. That is one of the things that makes this book so great.

Below are some brief excerpts that I found helpful in thinking about how I can better live my life and weather life’s many storms. I already know that I need to keep things in proper perspective and keep God as my focus and my highest priority. I was reflecting just yesterday that one source of many of my life’s problems is that I get fixated on people or on things, worrying and fretting over them, trying to exert some sort of control and order of my own. That always results in life becoming all askew and frustrating. Life can’t be otherwise whenever we leave God out of it.

And so, Von Hildebrand says:

The more our life is permeated by God, the simpler it becomes. This simplicity is defined by the inward unity which our life assumes because we no longer seek for any but one end: God. … One supreme point of view governs our entire life and in subordination to that point of view all else is judged and settled. It is the principle of conduct enjoined by these words of the Lord: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

If we consider all things in conspectu Dei, every genuine good finds its right place in the cosmic order and discloses its specific value more splendidly than if we attend to it in arbitrary isolation, merely for its own sake. … We only take true account of a genuine good if we see it in the place where it properly stands in the thought of God. Nor do we fully honor or love a created good of genuine value unless we honor and love God more than that good.

I am especially struck by that last sentence: “Nor do we fully honor or love a created good of genuine value unless we honor and love God more than that good.” It makes perfect sense, of course. True charity is to love God above all things, and to love others for love of God. When we regard other people as fellow children of God, when we see His image shining through them, do we not find that love naturally wells up in us in greater abundance? Do we not have much greater respect for created things when we remember Who created them? God is the source and fullness of all love and all being.

Sometimes, I just need to read or hear things put in a different way, I guess, and Von Hildebrand is one of those people who constantly sheds new light on things for me.

I have begun reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, which you can read online via Google Books.  It’s a wonderful telling of St. Joan’s story, beginning with her life in Domremy.  Although not a Catholic, Mark Twain had a very deep and fond admiration for Joan and spent 12 years researching her story, reading all of the original transcripts of her trials and other sources.  He considered it one of his own best and most important works.

Twain originally published the story anonymously so that readers would not have any preconceived notions about it or expect it to be similar to any of his other works.  He wanted people to take this story seriously, and they did; the readers of the story when it was originally serialized believed that they were truly reading a contemporary man’s personal recollections of Joan, recently translated into modern English by a fictional translator named Jean Francois Alden.

The narrator is a childhood friend and faithful companion and confidant, Sieur Louis de Compte.  Below is an excerpt that I found particularly beautiful, vivid, and haunting.  Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The day was overcast, and all that grassy space wherein the Tree stood lay in a soft rich shadow. Joan sat on a natural seat formed by gnarled great roots of the Tree. Her hands lay loosely, one reposing in the other, in her lap. Her head was bent a little toward the ground, and her air was that of one who is lost in thought, steeped in dreams, and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of grand proportions—a robed form, with wings—and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of, except it be the whiteness of the lightnings, but even the lightnings are not so intense as it was, for one can look at them without hurt, whereas this brilliancy was so blinding that it pained my eyes and brought the water into them. I uncovered my head, perceiving that I was in the presence of something not of this world. My breath grew faint and difficult, because of the terror and the awe that possessed me.

Another strange thing. The wood had been silent—smitten with that deep stillness which comes when a storm-cloud darkens a forest, and the wild creatures lose heart and are afraid; but now all the birds burst forth in song, and the joy, the rapture, the ecstasy of it was beyond belief; and was so eloquent and so moving, withal, that it was plain it was an act of worship. With the first note of those birds Joan cast herself upon her knees, and bent her head low and crossed her hands upon her breast.

She had not seen the shadow yet. Had the song of the birds told her it was coming? It had that look to me. Then the like of this must have happened before. Yes, there might be no doubt of that.

The shadow approached Joan slowly; the extremity of it reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its awful splendor. In that immortal light her face, only humanly beautiful before, became divine; flooded with that transforming glory her mean peasant habit was become like to the raiment of the sun-clothed children of God as we see them thronging the terraces of the Throne in our dreams and imaginings.

Presently she rose and stood, with her head still bowed a little, and with her arms down and the ends of her fingers lightly laced together in front of her; and standing so, all drenched with that wonderful light, and yet apparently not knowing it, she seemed to listen—but I heard nothing. After a little she raised her head, and looked up as one might look up toward the face of a giant, and then clasped her hands and lifted them high, imploringly, and began to plead. I heard some of the words. I heard her say:

“But I am so young! oh, so young to leave my mother and my home and go out into the strange world to undertake a thing so great! Ah, how can I talk with men, be comrade with men?—soldiers! It would give me over to insult, and rude usage, and contempt. How can I go to the great wars, and lead armies?—I a girl, and ignorant of such things, knowing nothing of arms, nor how to mount a horse, nor ride it. . . . Yet—if it is commanded—”

Her voice sank a little, and was broken by sobs, and I made out no more of her words. Then I came to myself. I reflected that I had been intruding upon a mystery of God—and what might my punishment be? I was afraid, and went deeper into the wood. Then I carved a mark in the bark of a tree, saying to myself, it may be that I am dreaming and have not seen this vision at all. I will come again, when I know that I am awake and not dreaming, and see if this mark is still here; then I shall know.

I honestly haven’t been up to writing on religion.  So here is a fun excerpt from Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian! Captain Jack Aubrey has come to fetch Dr. Stephen Maturin for a fancy soirée at the commandant’s place.

“Must I put on silk stockings?”

“Certainly you must put on silk stockings. And do show a leg, my dear chap: we shall be late without you spread a little more canvas.”

“You are always in such hurry,” said Stephen peevishly, groping among his possessions. A Montpellier snake glided out with a dry rustling sound and traversed the room in a series of extraordinarily elegant curves, its head held up some eighteen inches above the ground.

“Oh, oh, oh,” cried Jack, leaping on to a chair. “A snake!”

“Will these do?” Asked Stephen. “They have a hole in them.”

“Is it poisonous?”

“Extremely so. I dare say it will attack you, directly. I have very little doubt of it. Was I to put the silk stockings over my worsted stockings, sure the hole would not show: but then, I should stifle with heat. Do not you find it uncommonly hot?”

“Oh, it must be two fathoms long. Tell me, is it really poisonous? On your oath now?”

“If you thrust your hand down its throat as far as its back teeth you may meet a little venom; but not otherwise. Malpolon monspessulanus is a very innocent serpent. I think of carrying a dozen aboard, for the rats–ah, if only I had more time, and if it were not for this foolish, illiberal persecution of reptiles… What a pitiful figure you do cut upon that chair, to be sure. Barney, Barney, buck or doe, Has kept me out of Channel Row,” he sang to the serpent; and, deaf as an adder though it was, it looked happily into his face while he carried it away.

Oh, Dr. Maturin! He is not a person I would want to make peevish! He does like to torment Capt. Aubrey at times. But he’s got a softer side. As we see, he loves animals… and they love him. (I just love the image of the snake looking happily into his face!) And he does have a true fondness for, and patience with Aubrey, even when Aubrey sticks his foot in his mouth, does something stupid, or gets into trouble… which happens pretty frequently.

As I’m learning from the 2nd book in the series, Post Captain, Maturin has a surprisingly soft side for ladies too! He makes efforts to spruce up his appearance and everything! Unfortunately, so far, the ladies often regard him much as Aubrey does: as a good friend and a trustworthy confidant. Poor Maturin!

Can you tell who my favorite character is?

I do love Aubrey too. He can be rather a clueless ass at times… but he knows, and regrets, that he can be a clueless ass. And well, it’s hard not to love Aubrey. He can be dead serious… and he can also crack you up. He’s a very open, honest person, nearly incapable of lying or being intentionally mean to anybody.

The characters are definitely one of the greatest things about this series.

It’s time for a literary/fun post.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, my friend Julie has been reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin on her podcast, Forgotten Classics.  She has completed the novel, and you can find every episode here.  I talked before about how human, how moving, and how engrossing the story is.  I am nearing the end of it, and I’ve only become more engrossed in it.  We’re now at Simon LeGree’s plantation, which is hell on earth.  We’re witnessing what happens to human beings when they are pushed to the farthest brinks of despair, steeped in evil and injustice, seemingly forsaken even by God.  In particular, we will see what happens to Uncle Tom, whose powerful faith has been relentless and seen him through so much loss and tragedy already.  What will happen to him now?  Will his soul too be crushed and his faith be in vain?  It is not looking good at all.

Anyway, I highly, highly, highly recommend that you listen in over at Forgotten Classics.  Or read the book.  It remains a very important and relevant book today.  For my part, it is inspiring me to make a greater stand against what I consider today’s greatest injustice–and a legal one, as we know: abortion.  I wish Harriet Beecher Stowe could tell us what she thinks about that.  I also wish I could write half as compellingly and as boldly as she did against the injustices of society.

For my fun reading (whenever I get a chance), I have at long last taken the many, many recommendations and exhortations I have received to begin Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, beginning with Master and Commander.  I resisted for a long time.  I thought, “Really, now, how entertaining can a nautical story be?”  And, as I found out from page 1, the answer is: “Pretty darn entertaining!”

I am almost finished with M&C, and I have to say that I still don’t get a lot of the nautical stuff–although seeing the excellent film version did help bring the setting to life.  Even so, the characters, the dialogue, and O’Brian’s masterful command of the English language have been more than enough to keep me turning those pages!  Central, of course, is the unlikely friendship between Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin.  These guys are about as different as can be, save their mutual love of listening to and playing music.  But as I’ve found out in my own life, such unlikely friendships can often be the strongest and truest.

Somebody on YouTube called “swisskun” made some cute little cartoons that provide a loose summary of the novel.  Emphasis on “loose.”  I think they do a pretty good job of capturing the “spirit” of the story, particularly the characters and the humor.  Here are the first two parts.  The first is a bit fuzzy, but you get the point.  The second uses some of the great music from the film.

Part 1: 

Part 2:

There is a third part, as well as some miscellaneous little “Jack and Stephen” vignettes, which you can find here.

Thanks to Julie and her book club, I am currently reading Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

It’s a modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno.  Even better, the main character and narrator is a sci-fi writer who died in a freak accident during a sci-fi convention.  So as he explores Hell, he keeps trying to make sense of everything in sci-fi terms.  It’s hilarious!

I only just started reading it, and I’m pretty hooked.  It’s good crazy fun.  And suitably disturbing for a story about journeying through Hell.

This book is just what the doctor ordered.

Off to read some more before bedtime!

I’d just like to take this moment to say that the 2 books I’ve recently mentioned–Taming the Restless Heart and Keep it Simple–are actually books I picked up a while back for $2 each online at Sophia Institute Press.

Yes–$2 each (plus shipping).

What’s even better is that Sophia Institute Press is still offering a selection of $2 books!  They have some different ones than when I ordered.

These are good books.  I’ve always liked SIP’s books.  They’re such a joy–very portable, very easy to read, nice typeface and layout.  And they specialize in preserving some older and perhaps forgotten classics, which is a mission very dear to my heart.  I try to support them whenever I can.  Hopefully you will too, if you don’t already!  :)

I had this little book sitting on my shelf and thought it would be helpful right now: Taming the Restless Heart by Father Gerald Vann, OP (Sophia Institute Press, 1999; originally published in 1947 as His Will is our Peace).

I read the entire thing, slowly, in maybe 2 hours.  But boy did it pack a punch!  And I really wish I had read it during Lent, because it’s all about keeping your eyes on God and keeping yourself in His presence… not turning in on yourself and your very limited resources… and not letting bad things get you down.  It would have been a great “textbook” for my Lenten Lesson:

[The Lord] does not tell us that we must not work, must not plan ahead. He does not tell us that everything will be done for us. But He does tell us that we must not be always worrying and fretting and making a great commotion, as though we, and not He, were responsible for the universe.

Yeah… the Lenten Lesson!  Well, reading this book really helped to reinforce the Lenten Lesson.

The book is written in a very clear, sort of conversational tone.  It seems very much written for us ordinary layfolk–and Father Vann understands what we need!  He doesn’t give us anything esoteric or complicated.  In fact, he emphasizes the importance of starting with small steps and gradually, naturally building those small actions into lasting habits.  He speaks of things very familiar to us all, such as the actions we do at Mass, our interactions with other created things–objects, animals, and other humans–and the power of the Our Father.

Even a small action like genuflecting can take on great significance with a bit of reflection and concentration:

To genuflect, to bend the knee: what does it mean? It is a sign of submission, of dependence, of loyalty and service, as of a subject to his king. It means: I recognize that You are the important one, not I. It means, in the words of the psalmist, “I am Thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid.” It means, in short, “Thy will be done,” expressing precisely that union of our will with God’s which it is our object to achieve.

Now, we tend, of course, by force of habit, to make our genuflections rather automatically, unreflectingly; they become a matter of routine. But if we do that, we again miss a great opportunity.

In the first place, a genuflection is a sacramental. This means that if it is done with sufficient care and devotion in mind and will, it can be an occasion of actual grace for us; it can bring us nearer to God. And there is thus a sense in which, like the sacraments, although in a different way, it will effect what it signifies: it will lead to the bringing about in us of a deeper sense of that loving acceptance of God’s will which it expresses in symbolic form.

In the second place, we shall, if we are wise, form a conscious habit to counteract the effect of the unconscious effect of routine.  We shall choose some phrase that, for us individually, expresses vividly and cogently the sense of worship and of creaturely concentration on God and the will of God,* and we shall make our genuflection deliberately enough to allow us to say the phrase in our hearts, with our eyes and our minds on Christ in the tabernacle, addressing the prayer to Him.  And so we shall make His presence a reality to ourselves, until perhaps, in time, the sense of that presence becomes habitual with us even when we are not in the church…

* It could be, for example, the words of the publican: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13); our our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38); or the words of the apostle Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28); or simply “Thy will be done.”

I just love how he delves into the meaning of that small gesture we so easily take for granted.  I am definitely going to take a moment to offer a small prayer as I genuflect from now on!

I highly recommend Taming the Restless Heart for a brief but very inspiring spiritual pick-me-up.

This beautiful poem expresses for me what pure love is.  Love that seeks no reward.  Love unfettered by fear.  Love that is free!  Love that simply longs for and pursues the beloved–and nothing else matters!

I am not moved to love Thee, O my Lord,
By any longing for Thy Promised Land;
Nor by the fear of hell am I unmanned
To cease from my transgressing deed or word.

‘Tis Thou Thyself dost move me–Thy blood poured
Upon the cross from nailed foot and hand;
And all the wounds that did Thy body brand;
And all Thy shame and bitter death’s award.

Yea, to Thy heart am I so deeply stirred
That I would love Thee were no heaven on high–
That I would fear, were hell a tale absurd!

Such my desire, all questioning grows vain;
Though hope deny me hope I still should sigh,
And as my love is now, it should remain.

Anonymous (16th or 17th century)
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Walsh

O brothers and sisters, let our love for our Lord be so pure as this anonymous poet’s was!

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