Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer Humidity and Sweet Foxing

I had first been attracted to the volume because it was in French. It was a library cast-off standing forlornly unread on the shelf of a library annex in a Louisiana seminary I had attended in the early 1970’s. A visit to old friends at the seminary some years back and a solitary perusal of dusty tomes up on the third floor of the building brought me in contact with La Prière missionnaire (1936) by Pierre Charles, S.J.

The author’s name had certainly been familiar to me. The seminary's library shelves had been home for a considerable number of English translations of this man’s collections of meditations. As first-year men, however, we had been gently warned off such “pre-digested” reflections. Reading them, we were told, would be no substitute for our sitting in our rooms in the presence of the words of the scriptures themselves, letting anything – or sometimes more importantly, nothing – suggest itself to our conscious reflection.

Some years earlier the soft-cover volume by Pierre Charles had evidently been withdrawn from another seminary library in Mobile, Alabama. The “Date Due” slip glued to the first page was blank; no one must have been enticed to practice his theological French with even a brief borrowing of the book. When I boldly asked whether I might be permitted to take the volume back home with me, the superior of the house graciously – almost eagerly – acquiesced.

Care had obviously been taken long ago with the look of the publication. The title pages of each of the thirty-three reflections in this volume have a distinctive layout with a page header of lines and bars of various thicknesses conveying somehow a flavor of the Thirties.

Opening the book some evenings and haphazardly selecting a reflection to read, I can be reminded of reading – and writing – blog entries.

Pierre Charles seemed always to start with a short Latin phrase, something taken from a scripture passage in his breviary or sometimes a directive clearly lifted from a liturgical text. And then he allowed himself to weave his thoughts into a meditative essay. The essay was not based exclusively on logical conclusions from definitions and distinctions he might have learned years before in theological textbooks; rather, it focused on the concrete realities of a vast world around him that the Belgian theologian was continually reminding himself not to ignore or dismiss or simplify.

There is foxing on most of these seventy-year-old pages – that's the book antiquarian's term for the discolorations that result on paper with the passage of years. Sitting in a summer living room one evening this week, I recognized my characteristic reaction against the humidity that had seeped through my open windows during the day. In a time before airconditioning and other archival protections, such humidity had been a cause for those changes on books' pages, but people had luckily not valued their books the less. With some of us, the evidence of a book's survival through years of exposure to days and nights of weather draws us into reflections that feel close to wisdom.

Some evenings I let my rusty French slow my reading of the words of Pierre Charles. I value those words and the journey they make through the reddish stains of the pages into my conscious reflection. I need at times to hear such a man try to make sense of his world, his life in it and his life for it – no matter the weather.

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