Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sacred, Saving Texts

(To listen to a podcast of my sermon this past Sunday at Cleveland’s Trinity Cathedral, click here.)

In a recent interview, Garry Wills said, “Nabokov was right: there is no real reading but rereading. I rummage in old favorites all the time.”

Having typed this, I look across the top of my laptop and see what remains of my copy of Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek on the bookshelves in my home office. The binding is completely gone. What I see are the pages pressed together by James Baldwin’s Giovanni's Room and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot on either side. If I were to remove it, I would have to hold it as carefully as an ancient manuscript lest the pages spill all over the floor.

The professor who introduced me to this sacred text was convinced that Kazantzakis would have won the Nobel Prize for literature if he had not written in Greek. What a gifted storyteller! And thank God he met Zorba, who, in the book and possibly in real life, challenged him not just to write about religion, but to embrace a lusty, embodied spirituality.

In similar shape, on the bottom shelf, is my childhood copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, whose Boo Radley and Tom Robinson and Atticus Finch all spoke to different parts of me as a young boy who knew what it meant to be queer, to be unjustly judged, to want to work for justice. And Scout—dear Scout—I wanted to be a story teller like her. If one only reads or writes one book, this is the one!

Three books down the shelf is The (well-worn) Portable Mark Twain, whose keen wit and humor cut through my youthful piety, both religious and patriotic. Huck Finn, included in this volume, I consider the long lost friend I never met. And between Lee and Twain is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, whose Shangri-La and valley of the Blue Moon cultivated my hunger for the contemplative life.

Worn Volumes 1 and 2 of my Norton Anthology of English Literature remind me of the road not taken as an English major (either as professor, novelist, or poet) yet revisited again and again as a reminder of the ecstatic possibilities of language. And in the center on top of my bookshelves is Shakespeare, a nine volume set published in 1863, less read than revered, symbolic of his many plays and sonnets I read and reread in less fragile editions, also on my shelves.

Less worn but more read than other books on my shelf is Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, whose anguish I better understood grieving his death and later, grieving the death of what I thought would be a lifelong relationship, and whose more positive entries I reread whenever I need to remind myself that I too am a beloved child of God.

Suffering severe book spine problems are books by Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Mahatma Gandhi, J. Barrie Shepherd, Anne Lamott, Maya Angelou, and John Boswell. The most fragile of these is Mohan-Mala, A Gandhian Rosary, 366 “pearls of thought” from Gandhi, which I’ve read through daily for as many as a half-dozen years strewn throughout the decades since I acquired it at the Lake Shrine bookstore of the Self Realization Fellowship in California when I was in college. And on the same shelf is Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings and Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, both frequently consulted.

And I’ve already written of The Temple of God’s Wounds, which I have reread almost every Holy Week since a fraternal worker in India, Rev. John Cole, gave it to me during Eastertide, 1988.

Finally, the Bibles—the most used and worn of all. My clothbound Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version is going the way of Zorba, its binding barely hanging on, curled outward, and its back cover completely detached. Inside, the pages bear underlinings and markings of agreement and disagreement, exclamation points and question marks, a few coffee or wine stains, as well as occasional welts on the thin paper caused when we were caught in an unexpected rain doing our prayers.

I can’t find the exact quote on the internet, so I paraphrase Gertrude Stein: readers have no need of heaven, for they have had books!

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. Past posts are available in the archive in the right rail on the blogsite. Tax-deductible donations welcome! Please click here. Thank you!

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