Saturday, August 02, 2003

Old Books

I have come to like old books. If I have a choice between ordering a new edition of a book and combing the used book websites, its Alibris every time. I have acquired this strange matter of taste since coming into the Church in 1995; there are many classics of Catholic spiritual literature that are out of print and cannot be obtained except through web sites like Alibris. After I ordered the first couple of these books I noticed something that made me a fanatic for these books -- there is almost always something about the book, either what the author wrote or some indication in the physical appearance of the book, that reminds me that 30 years ago or more there was such a thing as a Catholic culture.

First, as I said, I am a convert; I did not grow up as a Catholic. I did grow up in a neighborhood with many Catholic families, not a few of whom I was friends with. I remember going out with these friends in high school and having to accommodate their meatless Friday observance. I remember their desire to eat out late on Saturday night and rise early for Mass on Sunday morning, to observe the rule that one ate nothing after midnight on Saturday night until one had attended Mass sometime on Sunday. It behooved one to go to Mass early. I remember all of that but was not a part of it. I say this because I may be mistaken in what follows and if I am, I ask forgiveness and understanding for my ignorance.

My friends took their religion seriously. They would not think of not going to Mass on Sunday, of having anything to eat before Mass, of not eating fish on Friday -- it just wasn't done. Their faith made a difference in their lives. For me, growing up Presbyterian, there was no such visible difference made in my life by my so-called faith; there were no rules of religious practice that had any effect on my day to day existence. That is the difference I noticed in the old books by Catholic spiritual writers -- they were Catholic and took it as a matter of course that Catholic readers spoke their language. It set one a bit apart to be Catholic and their Catholicism shows through in their writings. Just one minor example, one writer invokes St. Benedict and St. Bruno without bothering to explain who St. Bruno is; he takes it for granted that everyone knows who St. Bruno is. I've never heard of St. Bruno. Most of these authors refer to saints, as well as, customs and practices that were obviously familiar to any Catholic living 50 or 100 years ago that are now perhaps practiced by Catholics but not commonly written about. They talk about a person making regular acts of faith, acts of sorrow and resignation, acts of the will, etc. How often are these things spoken of today as if they were common practice in the spiritual life of most Catholics?

The difference also often shows in the things the former owners of these books did to the books. For example, one of the books I bought was from the library of Mary Manse College in Toledo. Inside the front cover there is a book plate with the library catalog information on it. The book plate is a black and white engraving of a nun holding a book in her hands surrounded by three or four young ladies, wearing what appears to be something akin to togas, sitting at her feet, on the floor, in rapt attention. One girl is sewing something, the others, if I remember correctly, are holding books or note books and are obviously enthralled with what the nun is saying. The library catalog info was handwritten on this book plate, in a nice lady's hand, with a fountain pen. Today we would think this kind of thing hokey, in fact, totally unsophisticated. Yet, there must have been a time when people took something like this seriously, or at least did not think it laughable. The book I am referring to was published in 1969, not that long ago.

I don't know if our times are better than those of, say, the 1950s or even late '60's, but they are different. Today, the lives of most Catholics are indistinguishable from those of their pagan neighbors; they often do not observe the Friday fast, seldom go to Confession, may have something to eat right before and/or right after Mass (sometimes something provided by the parish!), and may have no idea what an act of the will is. Josef Pieper, in the 1970s could write "Every child knows that in the list of the cardinal virtues fortitude comes third." Can we so easily toss off that kind of statement today? The loss of a Catholic culture means, I think, a loss of faith. I wish we could recover both.

In the mean time, I will continue to order old books.

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