It is not often that I read a book and find myself engrossed in a process that I suspect will alter my world view. I enjoy reading, but most books are not enduringly memorable. Right now, I am reading one that I think will change the way I think. In fact, since Christmas, I have read two books that have fundamentally challenged the way that I look at the world, my own personal holiness, and the very possibilities for holiness in our world. My guess is that most of you have not heard of either of them.
The first is a little gem by Sigrid Undset called Kristin Lavransdatter. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I think it is important to mention that this “little gem” is really more of a sprawling diamond mine: the translation I read was about 1200 pages. It is broken into three parts though, and I must say that it is perhaps the finest book I have ever read, and it is certainly the most Catholic. I have no intention of writing a book review for an epic that already sports the honor of having received the Nobel Prize in Literature; what was so amazing was the effect that the book had on me while I was reading it. It was like watching the advent of a saint. Kristin transgresses early in her life, and while she is reconciled to God and the Church in the sacrament of confession, she lives out the consequences of her actions in their various forms without rest, finally dying in a manner nothing short of stupefying. (I’m not spoiling the book. You know from the beginning she will die in the end.)
One of the things that struck me in the story was the regularity of prayer in the lives of these people in medieval Norway. (I know...you just thought to yourself “medieval Norway?” I make no apologies.) There was a regularity to greeting God in the lives of these people that I think would make a seminarian jealous. Regardless of the ins and outs of life, morning prayer, evening prayer, and various other times of prayer were regular, fixed, and unwavering aspects of the daily grind in this novel. Now, I know it was a novel, but the book certainly doesn’t smack of overly romantic views of Norwegian life.
So why was this aspect so intriguing to me? My life as a seminarian is structured around prayer. Priests and deacons make promises to pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully at their ordination; to fail to do so is a serious matter. The Liturgy of the Hours is a structured set of psalms and readings designed for various hours in the day. My ordination date is approaching, and therefore the moment when I will declare unfailing allegiance to my little black book is looming. I have been praying these prayers since I started seminary. Over time, it has become easier and more fluid, but it still has not taken a place in my life analogous to Kristin’s.
In Kristin’s world, structured prayer was so much a part of her upbringing that a failure in fidelity to these moments with God was simply unthinkable. It would have been like forgetting to breathe. No matter what was happening in her life, Kristin always recited her prayers. I did not have that sort of childhood, and I’m not sure many seminarians do. Prayer for me was rare, and it was about asking for things. Structured prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours is not really about requests as much as it is about praise. I suspect that most folks’ personal prayer does not often reach the level of praise. In the world of Kristin Lavransdatter, however, praise was part of the structure of every single day for everyone.
This brings me to the second book that has really given me pause: God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel. The book concerns Jewish religious philosophy, and I must say, the Jews had mastered praise a thousand years or more before Jesus Christ ever set foot on Earth.
Heschel devotes an entire chapter of the book to “wonder,” which he describes as a spiritual legacy of the faith of Israel. The psalms are filled with this mode of seeing the world: remaining in awe and allowing oneself to be constantly surprised by the normal things we encounter every day. The Hebrew view of God’s intervention in the world is that his act of creation at the beginning of time did not finish with him sitting back in an easy chair and just watching things unfold (this is not the Christian view either). The Old Testament is filled with examples of wonder and awe at normal events. The growth of a flower to many philosophers is the work of natural processes which were set in motion by God but thereafter occurs according to a set of natural laws. The Jewish mindset, as Heschel describes, is that the flower was created by God, and is continually created by him, so that even the daily mundane growth of the flower is evidence of God’s action in the world.
If we see God’s action and intervention in the world in the smallest of things, we cannot help but be filled with wonder. Frankly, I think that if I were more filled with wonder, it would be easier for my prayer to be more like praise and less like a visit to Santa Claus and telling him what I want for Christmas. I really have to be on guard against allowing my life to become so complicated that I fail to approach the truly magnificent things in this world with wonder.
Perhaps this is a bit of advice for us all.