O is for Old

The letter

brings you today’s post. O is for Old, as in old books.

Reading old books is important. Why? Because people in the past thought differently than we do, and to avoid being stuck in the rut of present thinking, we should read old books. This is a summary of the argument that C.S. Lewis made in his Introduction to Sr. Penelope Lawson’s translation of Athansius’s On the Incarnation. Lewis said similar things in other places, including an essay called “Learning in Wartime” published in Weight of Glory. These are Lewis’s words from “Learning in Wartime” [which I’ve made sort of inclusive]:

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past.  Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated person is merely temporary fashion. A man [woman] who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his [her] native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and microphone of his [her] own age.”

I find I don’t read really old books as much as perhaps I should, but I try to read older things as well as newer things. I know from my experience that reading old books is not the easiest thing in the world, but it can be quite rewarding. My favourite example of the difficulties and rewards of reading old books centres on my choice to read The Book of Margery Kempe for a course in the History of Christian Spirituality. I made the deliberate choice to read a book by a woman, because women authors were not prominent in seminary readings. On my initial reading of The Book of Margery Kempe, I was dismayed by my choice. I didn’t know how to take the odd, even bizarre, writings of this medieval Catholic woman, whose outlook on the world was so very, very different than my own Protestant twenty-first century view. To be honest, my Protestant self recoiled in horror at many of the theological views Kempe held. Yet, I had chosen to read this book and, worse, to try to write a coherent and academic paper on it. I had to try to read it and get inside it and to clearly hear what Kempe was saying in her own context. I decided that I’d better pray about this – it was, after all, a course in Christian Spirituality. So I prayed. I’m afraid I was rather blunt in my prayers about this paper. Most of them went a little like this:

“Dear Jesus, I think this woman is nuts, and possibly an heretic. But it seems like she loved you. So help me to hear what she is saying and be discerning about it. Thanks for your help, Amen.”

Kempe had many visions of Jesus and scenes from the gospels, particularly the passion. She reacted to these visions and other spiritual experiences with emotional outbursts, loud laments, and tears. It appears that she could not control her tears, and saw them as a gift from Jesus. The outbursts often got her in hot water – she was sometimes banned from churches for interrupting worship with her weeping – which was often triggered by taking communion. As I read and re-read Kempe’s book, I was intrigued by her weeping – and eventually wrote a paper called “The Tears of Margery Kempe.” In it I concluded that her tears could be a spiritual gift – or a sign of spiritual understanding, or an indicator of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

One of the reasons I wrote my paper on Kempe’s tears was that I have an embarrassing (to me) problem of crying easily. I’m not very happy about this, particularly as I seem to have little control over tears that come in public with very little provocation, or at inconvenient times. Reading Kempe’s ideas on her tears as a spiritual gift, and finding that others saw tears in a similar way helped me to reassess my own tears. Not all tears are an indicator of something spiritual, but I learned, and am still learning, that it is possible that my tears can be an indicator of something spiritual happening. I’m slowly learning to get over my fear or embarrassment of the easy tears and just make sure I carry Kleenex.

The other thing I learned in reading and writing about Margery Kempe is that I really like research and writing, and find scholarly work a source of joy. Difficult as it was to do, this paper gave me an academic high that affirmed my desire to do doctoral studies.

This is a long post that says: Read Old Books. They are difficult, but also can be really interesting, and good for you.


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