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Ruminating on The Father’s Tale



sheep chewing cud
Here I am, ruminating on The Father’s Tale
In Book Ten of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo
refers to the memory as “the stomach of the mind” – an image that probably
seems strange to many modern readers, but one that has been very useful to me.
He wasn’t talking about the kind of stomach we humans have – which are a kind of way station for food on its way to the intestinal tract – but the kind of stomachs found in
sheep (as well as cattle and goats, etc.), i.e., a ruminant stomach. The
ruminant stomach stores food until it can later be brought back up and chewed
over (ruminated).
I’ve always loved this idea of the memory as somewhere that
we store our experiences until we have a chance to bring them back to mind and
“chew them over” or ruminate upon them. Animals who literally ruminate (chew
food that they have already swallowed) do so in order to get the nutrition out
of what they have eaten, and to be able to digest it properly; in a similar way, as Augustine understood, our memory lets us bring back
things we have already experienced and not only “taste” and feel them again, but
also derive more profit from them than if we just let them sit in our memory
unexamined. When we ruminate (in the figurative sense) we get more out of our

Some of us are more inclined toward rumination than others.
I am definitely a “ruminant creature,” and one of the reasons I started this
blog a few years ago was to give myself an excuse to ruminate on things I’ve
read. In fact, I would say that rumination provides a great part of the
pleasure of reading.
This is why I prefer to read books that will reward
further thought – books that are “good” in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that
term in An Experiment in Criticism.  One of the problems of reading things
that are the literary equivalent of junk food is that they really don’t provide
much of a “mental cud” – if you try ruminating on them, you find that there is
nothing there.

Good books require thorough chewing to nourish the soul

The Father's Tale by Michael D. O'Brien

 A lot of my rumination these days occurs while I am taking a
walk along the shore of the lake where I live. There’s no telling what will
come to mind as I walk along. This morning, it was Michael D. O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale, a book I read a couple of months ago, which I’ve been allowing
to sit in the stomach of my mind until it was ripe for rumination. I have
been planning to write about this book here, and find that there is a lot to
discuss – which suggests that it is a very good book.

You wouldn’t know this from many of the reviews that appear
on the internet. Google “Michael D. O’Brien The Father’s Tale” and you’ll find
that the reviews that show up in the first couple of pages of results complain
a lot about the length of the book (nearly 1,100 pages — one reviewer suggested that you could trim it down to 300 pages and not lose the “essential story”) and the “absurdity” of
the plot. Most readers considering this novel will be put off by such remarks and, like the reviewers who say such things, like the rich young man to whom Jesus said, “You are very near to the Kingdom. One
thing more is required of you,” they will go away sad, never knowing what they are missing. Or perhaps they are more like Euthyphro, whom Socrates had been
guiding toward a true understanding of piety, but quit the discussion at the
last minute, saying it made his head hurt and, anyway, he had more pressing
things to attend to.
The truth is that this book is probably fare too rich for
such readers, who have been weaned on modern novels that traipse expeditiously, and superficially,
through plot points to their happy endings. Such books are the literary
equivalent of a quick meal at Chili’s. The Father’s Tale is not such a one. It is a rich and
varied banquet, one to be savored and ruminated before being digested.
Just as
a banquet is not gulped down in one mouthful, nor quickly digested before
bedtime, I don’t think I can do this book justice in a single discussion. So I
will discuss different aspects of the book in separate posts. These will not be
“reviews” in the usual sense, but reflections on things that I find have
spurred my own reflection.  

Literature, like life, takes us on unexpected journeys

I’m going to discuss this book as if you all have already
read it – so take the spoiler warning as read. Of course, many, if not most, of
you have not yet read The Father’s Tale – that’s okay. Perhaps my discussion of
it will make you want to read it (I hope so). Let me warn you right now,
though, that this is a huge book – both literally and figuratively (nearly
1,100 pages). And it’s a little slow getting started, so hang in there. After
the first 75 or 100 pages, though, it just gets better and better and better,
right up to the last page. 

Reading as adventure, by Alex Vitti
As you read, you may find that the book seems constantly to be
changing from one kind of story into another
– don’t let this upset you. The
author has divided it into four separate parts, which suggests that these kinds
of changes are deliberate, and together they create the overall architecture of
the story. At the beginning of each part, the protagonist’s life takes a sharp left turn. And what happens when you make four left turns? Well … read it, and you’ll see. As the old Shaker song says, By turning, turning, we come ’round right.

By the way, it’s always good to think about not only the contents of a story, but the way they are arranged. I sometimes do this deliberately, as a formal exercise, and I find it gives me a
kind of “God’s eye view” of the plot, revealing the integrity of the story, which
may not be evident in a single, superficial reading (the only kind of reading
that many novels deserve or require).

If you haven’t read The Father’s Tale, but are beginning to
think maybe you should, get started. Don’t rush, but keep going once you begin.
Think of it as an adventure – not as if you were jumping on a jet to get from New
York to Johannesburg
in the shortest time possible, but as if a friend has kidnapped you to take you
on an around-the-world ramble whose itinerary is unknown to you.
Like Alexander
Graham, the protagonist of The Father’s Tale, you will go places you never
expected, experience things that may seem unpleasant and uncomfortable at the
time, you may even reach a point at which you despair of ever reaching the end
of the journey, but at the end you will know that you have been greatly
enriched by the experience.
Update 2015: I realize I didn’t say much about the novel in this post — probably because I didn’t know where to start, it stirred up so many ideas in my mind. But I will get back to it one of these days, honest! Meanwhile, I’ve read O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri (his first and only venture into science fiction) which I also liked very much. If you get a chance, read it — there is a big surprise, about two thirds of the way through, one you won’t want to miss.

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

The grandaddy of Catholic Social Teaching: St Augustine and the City of God

Illuminated capital, Augustine writing the City of GodOne could say that the source of Catholic social teaching starts long before the promulgation of Rerum Novarum. See the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or the Epistles. But as far as non-Scriptural sources go, I’d pick St Augustine of Hippo’s City of God as the first Christian teaching to address the question of the well-ordered society, and the contribution that Christians can make to the common good.

You’ll find a succinct summary of this massive work here on Sparknotes, and a book by book summary here on New Advent. The City of God was written as a response to the accusation by pagans that all of Rome’s problems at the time were the fault of the Christians (sound familiar?). St Augustine first points out that pagan society carried within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and then goes on to show that although Christians are citizens of the City of God (a heavenly City), as “resident aliens” in the City of Man during their earthly lives, they can and should contribute to the common good of the society in which they live.

City of God, Image paperback, with intro by Etienne GilsonI’ve written a bit previously about this work, here where I summarize the introduction to the Image edition by Etienne Gilson, the French historian of philosophy and a Neo-Thomist philosopher in his own right. Here I go on to comment on what Gilson had to say.

Augustine’s City of God is a timeless work relevant in any age, for the City of Man will always be looking for a scapegoat on which to pile blame for its own problems. Certainly that is the case these days.

Conversion stories in the Christian Tradition

St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo St Benedict Restores Life to a Young Monk, by Giovanni del Biondo
St Benedict restores life
to a young monk

Various things the last couple of weeks have kept me from much reading or writing. (Okay, I read a few Janet Evanovich novels about a New Jersey woman who becomes a bounty hunter after she loses her job as lingerie buyer at a local department store — I’m all for career flexibility, but have decided not to follow her example.) This being Lent, I scrounged around for some appropriate reading (not that City of God would not be appropriate!), and found a copy of the second book of St Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, which is devoted entirely to the life of Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, and a number of miracles worked through him. This is an edition from Macmillan’s Library of Liberal Arts series, translation and introduction by Myra L. Uhlfelder, which I picked up a few months ago from Half Price Books for 98 cents.

Hagiography — i.e., stories of saints working miracles and fighting off temptations and demons — was wildly popular reading during the Middle Ages, and of course the Christian literary tradition has always given great importance to the inspiring stories of those who have gone before us and to firsthand accounts of personal experience with the trials and triumphs of Christian life. One of the key differences between the Old & New Testaments is that most of the books of the Old Testament were written long after the events they describe transpired, but the Christian Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are based on eye witness accounts that had been shared orally for a generation or so before being committed to writing. In fact, much of their authority comes from the fact that they were written from eye witness testimony. St Paul’s personal encounter with Christ, risen and ascended, on the road to Damascus lends authority to his many epistles, as well as his preaching. So, one might say that from the very beginning, personal accounts of God’s action and intervention in men’s lives is a unique and essential feature of the Christian tradition.

St Augustine of Hippo understood this when he wrote his Confessions, which is essentially a meditation on how God’s providence led him to become to be a Christian. In Book X, after he has completed the account of his life up to the time of his conversion and baptism, Augustine (who has constantly addressed his narrative to God) brings up the question of why he should allow readers to eavesdrop on his confession to God:

What therefore have I to do with men that they should hear my confessions, as if it were they who would cure all that is evil in me? Men are a race curious to know of other men’s lives, but slothful to correct their own. Why should they wish to hear from me what I am, when they do not wish to hear from You what they are themselves? (X. iii.3)

This, of course, was one of the most important reasons Augustine wrote the Confessions — to get others to see in his own story something that resonated with their own experience, and to learn, perhaps, a lesson similar to the one he has learned. He wants others to recognize what God has wrought in his life, seeing “not what I once was but what I now am,” recognizing his former faults and the way God’s grace has amended them:

Let the mind of my brethren love that in me which You teach to be worthy of love, and grieve for that in me which You teach to be worthy of grief […] but whether they see good or ill still love me. To such shall I show myself: let their breath come faster for my good deeds: let them sigh for my ill. (X.iv.5)

Perhaps what inspired Augustine to take on such a project was the fact that he himself found encouragement to turn from his sinful ways in the conversion stories of others. Book VIII of the Confessions relates a series of episodes in which the example of others inched him step by step closer to the brink of conversion. By this point in his account, Augustine has overcome all of his intellectual scruples and has become convinced of the truth of Christianity, but he hesitates to convert because he knows that the Christian life will demand a total commitment on his part. (Sadly, few Christians today appreciate this!) Doubting that he will be able to overcome his lustful nature, Augustine finds himself caught on the horns of a dilemma: he wishes to take up the Christian life whole-heartedly, living a celibate life of devotion dedicated entirely to God, but his inability to control his sexual urges suggests that he should marry, which would mean that much of his time and attention would be consumed in providing for his family. Seeking advice on how to overcome this dilemma, he visits a wise old priest, Simplicianus.

Rather than giving him straightforward advice, Simplicianus chooses to encourage Augustine by telling him the story of the conversion of one Victorinus. He probably chose Victorinus because he had a lot in common with Augustine: both were prominent teachers of rhetoric, “deeply learned, trained in all the liberal sciences,” who came to accept the truth of the Christian faith but who hesitated to enter the Church formally. In the case of Victorinus, his hesitation seems to be due to his prominence among the pagan “movers and shakers” of Milan, whom he apparently did not wish to offend by a public profession of Christian faith. Repeatedly, when Simplicianus told him, “I’ll believe you are a Christian when I see you in church,” Victorinus would parry by asking facetiously, “So is it walls that make a Christian?”. However, Simplicianus was honest enough that when, through his careful reading and study of Scripture, he became “afraid that Christ might deny him before his angels if he were afraid to confess Christ before men,” he promptly requested formal instruction in the Faith and shortly thereafter made public profession of faith and was baptised. Afterward, when it became illegal funder Emperor Julian (the Apostate) for Christians to teach rhetoric and literature, Victorinus quite willingly abandoned his career.

Saint Augustine reading

Augustine was greatly encouraged by this testimony and “was on fire to imitate him.” But he did not immediately do so he attributed because what was holding him back was not simply pride (which had caused Victorinus’ hesitation) but a divided will, a sinful habit of the flesh that he was not eager to break — we might say, “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.” As Augustine puts it:

The new will which I now began to have [to love God] was not yet strong enough to overcome that earlier will [to indulge his lust] rooted deep through the years. My two wills, one old, one new, on carnal, one spiritual, were in conflict and in their conflict wasted my soul. (VIII.v.10)

Not long after his visit to Simplicianus, however, Augustine would get further encouragement from a personal account told him by an old friend, Ponticianus, which would give him hope that God would be able to help him overcome his struggle against his lustful habits. That, however, is a story for another day.

Meanwhile, we might consider the extent to which these stories from the Confessions resonate with our own experience. How many of us have not known (or been!) someone who claimed that (s)he was a Christian but was unwilling — because of laziness or what “other people” might think — to make any public show of it? Shouldn’t we, like Simplicianus, doubt the sincerity of such a claim? (Isn’t Christianity more than merely a private opinion?) And haven’t we all, from time to time, made Augustine’s mistake of thinking that it is up to us, on our own, to overcome our bad habits and sinful proclivities through a force of will (“mind over matter”)? The Augustine who wrote the Confessions — many years a Christian and now a bishop — can recognize how God was working in his life, although his younger, unregenerate self remained blind to those operations. He “now” knows that Grace can work even through an obstinate will, and that only God’s grace would allow him to overcome his old, carnal will.

Gilson’s Foreward to the City of God

What follows is my summary of the abbreviated version of Gilson’s introductory essay that appears in the Image edition of the City of God that I’m reading. It runs on a bit, so I’ll put my commentary in a separate post.
Gilson emphasizes that our modern aspiration to build a perfect, universal society had its origins in Augustine’s description of the City of God and the way this City cooperates with, and shares benefits with, the City of Man. However, the modern world neglects a fact that the ancient world would have found impossible to deny – that every society is held together (i.e., merits the name of “society”) only insofar as it is united by two things: religion and blood kinship. He goes on to say that Augustine, in writing The City of God, demonstrates that the City of God, or the Heavenly Society, also is defined by these two factors – religion, in that it consists only of those who have held God as their highest good, and kinship, in that it comprises those who recognize not only the physical brotherhood of Men (all descended from the same original parents) but, more importantly, the spiritual brotherhood of Man (adopted sons of God the Father, through His divine Son, Jesus Christ).
In Gilson’s account, Augustine demonstrates that Rome, long before his own day, had ceased to merit the name civitas (“society” or “City”) in the sense Augustine uses the term. That is, it is no longer bound together by a concern for the common good, or a shared understanding of what that good is. Going farther, Augustine demonstrates that the earthly city (not merely the city of Rome, which is its concrete exemplar) has been at odds with the heavenly society since the first generation of mankind, when Cain, who was motivated by pride and self-interest, killed his brother Abel, who worthily worshipped God; thus Augustine illustrates the difference between these two societies, which is the difference between their two primary loves (God or self). By defining things in this way, Gilson shows that, on Augustine’s terms, no earthly city can, with perfect justice, claim the name of “society,” because its primary motivation will always be self-interest (in early Rome, this meant honor or public recognition, later wealth, power, and pleasure) rather than Charity.

Thus, suggests Gilson, any later generation which is inspired by The City of God to create a just, unified, and peaceful society needs to recognize that such a society must be founded on a love of God and neighbor and depend on the grace of God for its peace and unity, and that the any efforts in this world will always, necessarily, fall short of the perfection that can be known only in the life of the world to come. This is why modern efforts to create worldwide social unity are doomed to fail, because, as Gilson puts it, “they have studied everything except the Christian faith in order to find a common bond.” He suggests, “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.”

Current Reading: Arthur & Augustine

I’m currently working on (re) reading a couple of things that I have loved for a while.

First is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I’m reading for the first time in many years, certainly since I began seriously studying the Arthurian literary tradition (in fact, wrote my doctoral dissertation on one of the earliest Arthurian romances, Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail). I loved White’s story of the boy Arthur as a kid, after reading (about 40 times) the “Golden Book” story based on the Disney movie, The Sword in the Stone, which itself was based on the first part of White’s novel. At age 13, I took part in a performance of the stage musical Camelot, based on the latter part of the novel, but I don’t think I made the connection. As an older teenager, I finally read all of T. H. White’s novel (“The Sword in the Stone” is just the first of four parts), and was rather dismayed at the tragic turn the story takes (at that point, I must have made the connection with Camelot). Well, I hadn’t read Malory or Tennyson, so it kind of took me by surprise.

Now that I’m familiar with the whole length of the literary tradition and, of course, “all grown up,” not only am I enjoying White’s novel even more than I did as a kid, but I find all sorts of oblique commentary on the Arthurian literary tradition and its effects on the popular imagination (something Chretien was already engaged in back in the 12th century!). I’m planning to (re)read some of the other major (“literary”) modern additions to the canon of Arthurian literature, too — Tennyson, maybe Steinbeck, and definitely Charles Williams’s Arthurian poems, with C. S. Lewis’s commentary. This is my idea of fun!

St Augustine City of God Doubleday abridged

The other book I’ve started recently is the Doubleday/Image edition of St. Augustine’s City of God. This is an abridged version of the Fathers of the Church translation, cutting out most of Augustine’s digressions, with an even more abridged version of Etienne Gilson’s foreward to the original edition of that translation. I picked this copy up cheap second-hand because my Penguin edition of the complete City of God is, alas, like most of my books, in storage and inaccessible. I will definitely go back at some point and read the chapters that the Image abridgement leaves out. I’ll be commenting on Gilson’s foreward, as well as Augustine’s tome, book by book. I’ve read (and taught) portions of City of God in the past, but that took some of his major ideas out of the context of his larger argument, so I’m interested in putting the familar bits back into their proper context. This will be my first go at reading the whole argument, so I’m actually glad — for the nonce — to be able to skip over the digressions. I’ll note the “skipped” parts as I get to them.

I’m glad to be reading something Arthurian and modern alongside something theological and ancient, particularly something by Augustine of Hippo, who I think had a greater influence on the beginning of the Arthurian literary tradition than most modern critics recognize or admit. We’ll see if the juxtaposition provokes any interesting, new ideas.