Epigraphs: Theirs and Ours
My dictionary defines an “epigraph” thus: “a quotation placed at the beginning of a book or chapter to indicate the leading idea or theme.”
For the past few years, I’ve asked my undergraduates to affix an epigraph on the title page of the book review they are doing for class. For the most part they choose something from the book itself. But often enough it will be taken from a favorite song or poem. Always it provides a valuable affective insight into what has moved them.
I recall the first time, as a teenager, that the weight of an epigraph struck me. My first reading of The Brothers Karamazov was guided by the epigraph Dostoevsky affixed to his masterpiece: “Amen, amen, I say to you. Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24).
Years later, in graduate school, my reading of Jonathan Edwards’ great Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections was similarly illuminated by the epigraph he placed at its beginning: “Without having seen Jesus Messiah you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith, you obtain the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8&9).
When I am sometimes asked: when did you first sense a vocation to priesthood?, my affections always return to St. Roch’s parish in the South Bronx (then an Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhood) and the old onionskin missal containing, as a prayer after communion, Psalm 84. The twelve year old I was then somehow thrilled to the opening verse: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of Hosts! My soul yearns and faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
As we begin Holy Week, a salutary exercise is to remember the epigraph that serves as “leading idea or theme” for the book of our own spiritual journey. To unite our anamnesis with that of the Church remembering/reliving the great events that give it being.
Should any care to share their “epigraph” in this space, I’m sure we will all be enriched.
A blessed Week!