I was recently asked to look through several boxes of books which came from a house being cleared. If there was anything there I wanted just feel free to take it!
That's a hard ask then, isn't it?
Could I make an appointment to come and browse them?
Yes - how about this evening I said.
Now the problem with browsing several boxes of books, any one or any hundred of which you are free to take, is that you begin to have daft ideas that you have enough time in life to read everything. Or if that unreasonable rationalisation isn't convincing, you begin to see each book as a possible masterpiece you have just overlooked so far for lack of opportunity - no matter that it is brown, cracked, smells musty and dusty and looks rusty. So there's a need for the fruit of the spirit which is self control, and a reminder that greed and acquisitiveness, possessiveness and an all embracing yes to intellectual appetite is indeed a work of the flesh.
So from those five boxes I only took half a dozen, and three of those were novels which will find their way soon to one of the far too many charity bags now coming through the letter box. Another was one I knew someone else would like, Wild Swans, (in bookseller speak, ' nice fresh copy, hardback, binding solid, dustcover very good and unclipped). The other two I have kept. C S Lewis once said the sign of the well read person is one who looks over the gathered miscellanea on the second hand book barrows in the market (O for such events and literary adventures to return alongside the book chains and Amazon) - anyway to look and find something you haven't read and now want to. And though you don't know the book you now have an instinct for that which is mentally nutritious, emotionally satisfying, and promisingly interesting - and this previously non-existent book now presents itself and demands to be read.
The Hound and the Falcon, by Antonia White answers all three criteria, and I'm nearly finished it. Not a novel, but the letters she wrote to someone called Peter in 1940,41 during the London Blitz. The letters are intense, regular accounts of a woman struggling to return to and hold on to her Catholic faith. At times searingly honest, she is both a profound critic of her Church and a conscientious practising Catholic. But for her practice is more important than dogma, and what she does and who she is matters more than the specific articulations of what she believes. In mind and conscience, in her spirit and emotions she collides with much popular piety and official dogma, and the result is a glimpse into the inner life of one who genuinely loves God and struggles with the institutions which claim to represent God on earth.
Amongst her heroes (of whom she is also critical) is Baron Friedrich Von Hugel, whose letters are a strange mixture of teutonic reasoning and spiritual insight, stern doctrine and compassionate understanding of spiritual struggle. I've only read a few other books in which the authentic and costly struggle for integrity in spiritual life is so movingly recorded, so convincingly honest, and articulated in such penetrating yet personal prose to a friend she clearly had come to love and trust.
They only ever met twice. The correspondence is one sided as Peter's letters are not extant. But she responds so fully and frankly that it's possible to piece together some of the content of the letters she answers. But it is her own search and struggle that is of interest here. Reading these letters from a woman impatient with metaphysics but who reads Aquinas, highly intelligent and likely to tear a strip off me for pointing that out as if that were unusual, devoted to the Gospel but sharply critical of the Church, Catholic to the core without buying into much she saw as superfluous or unnecessarily obstructive to faith, I have come away once again aware of two things.
First, the letter is a magnificent lens into a person's heart and mind. The combination of personal relationship and inner journey is ideal for the articulation of faith. An exchange of letters is a thoughtful, considered dialogue. Some of the finest theological and spiritual writing is woven into correspondence. Second, the journey of the soul towards God, the longing for intimacy and belonging, the search for truth that can be lived, the love of beauty that can be adored, the yearning for goodness in ourselves and in others, the desire for God and the love of learning, - these are the signs of a soul alive, the evidence of spiritual awareness, the result of life received as gift so not taken for granted, but taken as granted, from God. Over the years I have met many in the communion of saints, which has absolutely no denominational barriers, who have so enriched my own faith and helped my own life, by the honest telling of their story.
Books come into our lives by accident, by providence, by chance - who knows? And what does it matter? The Hound and the Falconis one of a number of special books on my shelves which could be labelled 'serendipity'. I choose to believe that the Holy Spirit is the bringer of possibility, the Divine opportunist whose nudges and pushes are as far as divine coercion will go, but whose wisdom is unsearchable yet searches us to the core of our being, and speaks truth. Maybe that's what Jesus meant when he spoke of the Paraclete who leads into the truth, but taking the things of Jesus and explaining them to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the pure in heart, the meek, the person for whom Beatitude is to be found in God.