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Life Changing Books

Recently a young person studying at an East Coast university wrote me about his interest in becoming a Catholic as a result of having read Thomas Merton's "Seven Storey Mountain." His query got me thinking about life changing books. As a young person I read Bernard Haring's "The Law of Christ" in French (my German was too imperfect to read it in the original) and that reading radically changed my view about how to understand moral theology. That led me to think about other books that set me on a new way of thinking. Then, I began to think of books that I have read and taught many times but to which I can return with pleasure and instruction. Visiting one of my classes a few years ago, Robert Wilken told my students that one reads "The Confessions" quite differently as one grows older. I think that to be the case as I reread it again in preparation for my Fall classes.So, Commonweal Nation , as August dribbles away, here is an easy question: Is there a book or some few books that were life changing in your own journey? Is it a book to which you return eagerly or, as in the case of my reading Haring, has it now been simply a marker on the way? No extra credit for those who mention the bible.

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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This is a rich post which one can go in so many directions with. (But check with Peggy about derailment) Merton seems to have hugely bolstered American Catholicism in so many ways. He is credited with the vocations of so many in America and it seems to continue. Notable that he disavowed some of his views in this landmark book. Today, in a remarkable way, both ends of the Catholic spectrum claim him as their own.But not to derail. Haring was huge for me also. He brought love back into moral theology. Paul VI supported him also until he caved in to the monarchists."Kung in Conflict" by Leonard Swidler was pivotal for me. It showed me how the church of dogma was wrong and how the Spirit had to be brought back into the church. In my mind, there is no greater book than "On Being a Christian" a purposeful title by Kung which stress discipleship over monarchy. It is a long book but one can go to the table of contents to read points of interest which leads one to finally finish the whole book.In my opinion too many liberals know too little theology. A book like this can fill in this gap.Paul Elie's book "The life you save may be your own" is a great book for understanding the Merton and his time and three other Catholic writers of that era.

I confess Summa Contra Gentiles I was pivotal - odd, given the inaccessibility of the writing. I suppose it was half the book and half the teacher that presented it.

Once, frightened in the night, I found the Summa Theologiae's tract on grace to be enormously comforting. A key factor in my "reversion" was William James' essay The Will to Believe. I've tried reading it since, and have no idea why it was convincing, but for some reason it helped me resolve the dichotomy of faith and reason.That's a kind of reading that is like a pivot, or the hinge of a door. There's another kind of reading, like revisiting a familiar city. Then theres 2nd Corinthians.

Hello, Professor,When I was in high school we used a religion textbook that was for an apologetics course. In it there was a picture of a monkey scratching its head as it looked at a typewriter. The text said even if the monkey pecked away randomly at the typewriter for an infinite length of time it would never, ever write a novel by chance. I could see that that was wrong even without Richard Dawkins around, and I argued with old Sr. Vincent about it. Later I argued with her about evolution. (I accepted it.) She snapped at me, "Well, maybe your grandfather was an ape, but MINE wasn't." I persisted, she told me to go read Aristotle, and I tried to read his Metaphysics. It's contradictory in spots, but awesome. It gave me a respect for truth -- for *what is* -- whether scientific, religious, personal or what have you, that I've never lost, not even when I'd prefer not to have such respect for truth and even when I myself am not very truthful. Of course, I've learned that disoveringt *what is* is not as simple as he assumes, that there are highways and byways, cul de sacs and dumb loops along the way to finding it, not to mention learning that many things I'd like to know are simply beyond me. But I'm grateful to him for setting a standard against which all other books, all other thoughts must be measured. Sr. Vincent and I remained friends. She even suggested I become a nun! I respectfully declined the invitation. She was quite an old lady :-)

In recent years, the most the most "life changing" book for me was Eusebius', History of the Church because it introduced me to the richness of patristic theology. Probably a bit obscure for most,but neverthless, a great way to get started.

2008 will mark the 6oth anniversary of "Seven Storey Mountain." Some time during that year I hope to write a longer piece showing why it is still widely read (and influential) and what its shortcomings are. Merton himself never disavowed the book but did think that its very popularity ending up freezing him into a caricature. He also lamented some of his harsh judgments on Protestantism.

Graham Greene : The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair.These drew me from Evangelical Protestant Christianity to Catholic Christianity 52 years ago.

Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" helped save me from my younger, foolish days as a liberal. Hallelujah!

Thanks very much for this question, which has made me realize that in the last week I've spent time with two of my "home base" stories, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and the movie Fiddler on the Roof. Both are childhood favorites that have never fallen far down my list of things to do and see.The Seven Storey Mountain had an impact for me, but not as much as The Sign of Jonas, which referred in a maturing way to the monastic liturgical life. Even more important was Michael Moore's biography The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which I found to be a very well-done biography of a literary man. I'm not sure it succeeded quite as well in portraying the monk.

I found C.S. Lewis's Perelandra trilogy to be hugely important to me a couple of years after I came in from the cold (I had been an athiest), especially the final volume, "That Hideous Strength".But curiously, the book that began to turn my eyes away from athiesm was P.D. Ouspensky's "The Psychology of Mans Possible Evolution".

Timothy Bauman was unable to post a comment so he emailed me to say that two pivotal books for him were Rowan Williams' On Christian Theology and Herbert McCabe's God Matters.***Also, Michael Mott wrote Merton's biography.Also, Lewis said Perelandra is worth 20 Screwtapes.

Multiple choices:A whole lot of Goethe, including a good bit of Dichtung und Wahrheit, read in my early 20's.Peter Brown's Making of Late AntiquityOur Mutual Friend (although various other books by Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot might be mentioned)Rowan Williams' essays on B F Westcott and John A T Robinson in Anglican Identities

"The Selfish Giant" (short story) by Oscar Wilde (I haven't stopped bawling over this one since I read it in the fourth grade), and "In This House of Brede" by Rumer Godden.More recently, "How To Be Good" and "A Long Way Down" by Nick Hornby. I think I've replaced "A Long Way Down" at least three times because I or someone I know seems about ready to "jump."

Oh, and two that are out of print: "A Canticle for Liebowitz" and "The Little World of Don Camillo."

I suppose it's only coincidence that Wilde (after his fashion) and Godden were both converts to Catholicism?

Two books that I discovered at the most open time of my life were:Late Have I Loved Thee, by the English author, Ethel ManinThe White Stone, by Carlo CoccioliBoth were written in the 1950s and, of course, had a pre-V2 theological slant.Sources for The Little World of Don Camillo: for A Canticle for Liebowitz:

Jimmy, thanks for those leads! I have copies of both oop books (thanks to a friend in the trade), but I highly recommend them to others.Just interested if anyone has ever read "Mr. Blue." I picked it up and thought it was absolutely dreadful, but would be be open to hearing someone tell me where i went wrong.

Is Mr. Blue the Myles Connolly book? I think I was encouraged to read it about fifty years ago and couldn't take it -- seemed like a period piece even then.I'm tended to think of Connolly as the Catholic prose Joyce Kilmer. By the way, has anyone read Kilmer's anthology of Catholic poets?

Yes, Myles "It Happened One Night" Connolly. Hey, there IS an anthology of Catholic poets by Joyce Kilmer. I thought you were making that up. BTW, I didn't know Godden was Catholic; I thought they were Anglican nuns. The ones in "Black Narcissus" are Anglicans, anyway. Now I feel stupid.

Great that Peter Brown made someone's list. His "Body and Society" is a true classic. Should be required reading at the CDF. A scholar if there ever was one.Perhaps I used too weak a word in saying that Merton "disavowed" some of the ideas espressed in his classic work. Merton preferred a stronger word. "Demolish."

Any of the works of Barry and Ann Ulanov, written by them either separately or together, like "Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer, Religion and the Unconscious, The Healing Imagination, The Wisdom of the Psyche, Finding Space: Winnicott, God and Psychic Reality."Their focus is the meeting of psyche and soul, bringing toether the understandings of depth psychology and religion.From Barry's NYT obit in 2000: From the mid-1950s on, he was involved along with first wife Joan with the Catholic Church worldwide through his presidency of the Catholic Renascence [sic] Society, whose members included Flannery OConnor. With Joan (his first wife), he translated "The Last Essays of George Bernanos," and created the St. Thomas More Society, an intellectual Catholic discussion and meeting group. With Frank Tauritz, he translated Joy Out of Sorrow, by Mere Marie des Douleurs. He was an active member of Vatican II Council, where he was involved in the translation of the liturgy into vernacular from Latin, and he spoke at the International Eucharistic Congress with Pope John XXIII in Bombay in 1964.Ann is prof of psychiatry and religion at Union.I have given out countless copies of "Primary Speech." Anyone here heard of the Ulanov's?

My favorite writing of Merton's is in his early journals when he's arguing with himself. It's a clear symbol of his manner of making his way forward.The older Merton demolishes the younger Merton. Merton knows his need for his abbot's censure but chafes at him. He makes fun of himself for "being an author" but knows that his vocation is writing. He barely gets his hermitage before he wants to start a new community.Maybe his greatest attraction, the easiest entree into his life, is also his greatest weakness: his perennial ambivalence. I'm actually not sure he ever saw that as a weakness or ever tried to resolve it. Ambivalence was a tool, in Seven Storey Mountain; he argued with himself until one side won out, like that night on the pasture, violently sorting out whether he had a vocation to the Trappists, or whether that was an escape from service in the war.There did seem to be one friendship, with Lax, in which he fully trusted another to ask the questions. Maybe he did the same with God. (I haven't read the later journals to know what they say about his inner experience.) Merton sometimes used the word "clean" in a way that seemed to mean "with a unified purpose."

I rise to defend "Mr. Blue"! I'm looking at my original copy (from 1965) of a book written in 1928. I was "required" to read it in high school seminary and it has had life-long effects on me.My favorite paragraph, from a (supposedly written) paragraph of Mr. Blue:"You cannot understand how hard it is for one to be practical who hopes for tenderness behind every face, how hard it is for one to be severe and profound who believes himself to be living a story that is glorious and true. Others can be impersonal, but not one who believes that he is on an eminently personal adventure. Others can be important, but not one who is so small that he wonders why anyone save the infinitely kind God should be good to him. Others can be sensible, but not one who know in this heart how few things really matter. Others can be sober and restrained, but not one who is mad with the loveliness of life, and almost blind with its beauty. So others can live with wise men and important men, while I must always presume on those who are kind enough to forgive and weak enough to understand."These words have had at least as much influence on my life as words from Scripture.

The writings of Max Weber have long served me as life changing in the negative sense that Ive struggled against them. Ive been simultaneously tempted, attracted and repelled by Webers combination of stoicism and nihilism in his immensely influential diagnosis of a disenchanted modernity. Theres enough nobility in his vision to make it attractive but enough nihilism to make it dangerous.As a counter-weight Ive found the common-sense view of Samuel Johnson especially helpful. When I read and reread his Rasselas I like to think I can not only share his good sense but discern the thoughts of his larger circle, which included Burke, Goldsmith, Gibbon and others. I find Leo Strauss (Natural Right and History) to be another important antidote and Charles Taylors Sources of the Self offers an attractive philosophically grounded alternative to Weber: I anticipate that his Secular Age will prove equally illuminating.But the anti-Weber book Ive read repeatedly is Dantes Divine Comedy. Because of its difficulty it took several readings before I finally felt I had the background in Scripture, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Aquinas and Italian medieval history (as well as astronomy, vernacular poetry, and on and on) and before a mysterious switch was turned on. I dont know if Im a better person for studying and attempting to internalize this work but Im aware of no other book in the last millennium that even comes close to the range of Dantes epic in contending with ultimate questions. (I was lucky enough to take several courses with Robert Hollander who has translated the Inferno, Purgatorio, and just recently the Paradiso. Ive just spent ten highly rewarding days with the latter volume. His translation and notes are magnificent achievements highly recommended).

What does Myles Connolly have to do with It Happened One Night. By the way, the book that's based on (Night Bus) is perhaps the single worst book I've ever tried to read. After all the effort I went to to find a copy.I wouldn't worry about feeling stupid not knowing Godden was (or became) Catholic, since the only thing of hers I've read is Greengage Summer, which makes her seem an even less likely convert than Wilde.Not only is there an anthology of Catholic poets by Kilmer, I actually found a copy in St Vincent de Paul not too long ago, and probably should have bought it. As far as I know Kilmer was actually a more appealing person than poet.I'm interested that Patrick Molloy (hope I'm spelling that right) mentioned Samuel Johnson, surely a key and inspiring figure in what has to be the least known and understood of the twenty centuries of Christianity), since he came into my life a little after Goethe, to much the same beneficent effect. However, I love everything of his (and Boswell's life, and the memoirs of Mrs. Thrale...) except Rasselas, which I find barely readable.Perhaps my judgment of Mr. Blue might be a little different cinquant' anni dopo.

Three books -- or more accurately the works of three authors -- have been the basis for whatever integration I've managed of what I've read and seen.1. Herbert McCabe, LAW, LOVE AND LANGUAGE. Published almost 40 years ago by the late Dominican theologian and recently brought back into print, these lectures purport to be a consideration of three ways of thinking about ethics but manage to present an inclusive vision of Catholicism and politics; the single most important book for me. 2. Noam Chomsky, GOVERNMENT IN THE FUTURE. Almost as old as MCCabe's lectures and recently returned to print, this lecture too concerns ethics and politics, from a different but not contradictory starting-point, by the person I take to be the most important living intellectual.3. Perry Anderson, LINEAGES OF THE ABSOLUTIST STATE. A brilliant work of historical synthesis by the editor of the New Left Review, this volume (and its companion) is in fact a preparation for thinking about the history of the church (as the author recognizes, in an aside), from the emergence of Christianity to Liberation Theology.

Warning, literary spoiler ahead...Almost 25 years ago, in my junior year of high school, I took a course entitled "Great Books" in place of the usual English course. We read writings from a number of European authors: Andre Gide, Emile Zola, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Albert Camus, Gustav Flaubert, Par Lagerkvist, Nikolai Gogol, and others.I would describe the experience as similar to one who has spent a long time walking through a tunnel and who suddenly emerges into the sunlight able to see a magnificent landscape in all directions. For the first time, I understood the power of literature.The book from that year that has stayed with me the most has been Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." When I read it the first time, I was going through a period of adolescent angst and actually identified with the pre-conversion Raskolnikov, who embraced the ideology of the Superman. At the time, I thought his conversion at the end of the novel was a cop out.I re-read the novel in college, sitting in a Montreal cafe garbed in black beret and turtleneck (seriously!). The book was still a thrilling read. This time, I fiercely rejected the ideology that drove Raskolnikov to commit murder. But I could still not embrace his conversion.I read the novel again, a few years ago. I had traveled a long journey since those early years: a "reversion" to the faith of my childhood, marriage, family, other responsibilities. I looked back at the passions of my youth with a more critical eye (but not, I hope, without charity). This time, the whole arc of the story made sense to me, and I found the conclusion fitting and satisfying.Rare, I think, is the book that can accompany one on so many stage of a life journey. I hope to read it again someday!

Two life changing books, both great, but only the first is a great read:James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManAlfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

To Carolyn Disco:I have fond memories of Barry Ulanov: In the early 1950's he wrote about jazz in an obscure and now defunct journal, Metronome (along with the redoubtable Nat Hentoff). In 1950 he authored "A History of Jazz in America", a book I read immediately, and still posess, and I was not aware in those years that he was Catholic or that he was commencing a career in academia. Being 15 at the time, I didn't pick up on his literary depth, other than to note there were things he said about which I had no clue; however, I was aware of the gracefulness and ease with which he wrote.

In my earlier seminary days, I was thrilled by an essay of Etienne Gilson: "The Intelligence in the Service of Christ the King." But by the time I was sent to Rome to study in 1960, I had pretty well given up on the Catholic intellectual life. I had just been through two years of scholastic philosophy and I made the mistake of thinking the text represented the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. For relief I had begun to read the Fathers of the Church and to get into contemporary biblical scholars. I had always admired Newman, but wondered if there were any Catholic thinkers since thenI took two courses from Bernard Lonergan at the Gregorian and discovered another Aquinas, and then one summer I read his great book, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, and that book saved my intellectual soul. It provided foundations and offered an orientation that has marked almost everything I have done since. David Tracy, a classmate, and I agree that Lonergan saved us from the grosser deceptions of post-modernity.

Michael Hovey: Yes, that is a lovely passage from "Mr. Blue," and I appreciate your pulling it out of the rest of the book so it shines better.What bugs me about the book is that the narrator is always nattering on about how he's mysteriously drawn to Mr. Blue, but can't quite put his finger on why. This strikes me as unnecessarily coy. Obviously, Mr. Blue is plugged into a sensibility most people aren't, one that the narrator both admires and fears. But the images of Mr. Blue make him seem (to me) more childish than childlike.Gene O'Grady: Myles Connelly wrote the screenplay (or worked on it) for "It Happened One Night" (Gable/Colbert vehicle).Anyone have a favorite poem--other than Joyce Kilmer :-)?I'd nominate Blake ("How do you know but ev'ry bird that plies the airy way / is not an immense world of delight closed by your senses five?"). Blake would have loved Mr. Blue.I also go back to Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" and Eliot's "Wasteland" a lot.

Blake would TOTALLY have loved Mr. Blue.In Don Quixote, the bizarre title character goes back and forth between two fantasies, his roaming, destructive knighthood and the pastoral fantasy represented by groups of progressively faker shepherds. Not to diss Mr. Blue, whom I know only from the sample pages at Amazon and the very nice passage above, but the free spirit-hood of the Gospel, well, what is it exactly? Please don't tell me it's Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Please.Speaking of escapism, I like Robert Browning's "Meeting at Night," without "Parting at Dawn."For literary theory I like Housman's "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff."For Eliot, I like The Journey of the Magi.All of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung to The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Miscellaneous --Myles Connolly apparently contributed nothing to the screenplay of It Happened One Night except the profession of the hero. I suspect Capra was smart enough to know he was a better friend than writer. And by the way, it's not a vehicle, it's a bus.But the reference reminds me of one of my favorite books, one I bought I on a lark in a store in Pacific Grove because it was marked down to two dollars, Elizabeth Kendall's The Runaway Bride, which I loved because (in addition to a lot of smart comments on movies and a general knowledge of popular culture) it offered a way to talk seriously about the relations between the sexes as reflected in films outside of the box 70's feminism had put us in. Besides, it's dedicated to Clara Bow.For Eliot, I like the Four Quartets, perhaps I first encountered them read aloud memorably by the same high school English teacher who eviscerated Kilmer.Almost anything can be sung to almost anything, notoriously the Iliad in Greek to Stars and Stripes Forever, but I hope the commenter realizes there's rather more to Dikinson than that. After all, she's made fools of those who try to guess her religious beliefs, if any, for more than a hundred years.But for Housman I like the old anthology of his prose by John Carter, with the proviso that the famous insults are almost always both perceptive and justified and can teach a good bit of critical thinking.For poems, I thought first of Shakespeare's sonnet that ends up with "But thy sweet love remembered..." and Donne's Sonne Rising, partly for the strength of the rhetorical voice, which is also why I like the beginning of 1st Corinthians so much.

KING LEAR Prithee, go in thyself: seek thine own ease:This tempest will not give me leave to ponderOn things would hurt me more. But I'll go in.To the FoolIn, boy; go first. You houseless poverty,--Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.Fool goes inPoor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend youFrom seasons such as these? O, I have ta'enToo little care of this! Take physic, pomp;Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,And show the heavens more just.EDGAR [Within] Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!

Thank you, Bob Schwartz.Barry Ulanov, born a Jew, converted with his wife in 1951. He taught Contemporary Catholic Thought at Columbia where his extensive reading list included de Lubac, Gilson, Bernanos, Guardini, von Balthasar, Schillebeckx (sp?), Congar, not that I can remember much after 47 years. I had him as an English prof at Barnard. He spoke half a dozen languages fluently, and could make his way in another ten.He published Merton's first articles in the Columbia literary magazine. As to his extensive writings on jazz, Miles Davis in his autobiography called him the only "white Mother(...) critic" who ever understood him or Charlie Parker. And as the son of a concertmaster, he knew classical music intimately.But to his work in Catholicism, from "Primary Speech" written with his wife, Ann, chapter titles include, Fantasy and Prayer , Prayer and Projection, Fear and Prayer, Prayer and Aggression, Sexuality and Prayer. Sr. Carolyn Osiek of CTU, Chicago calls its "simply the finest, most superb thing on prayer that I have ever read..."From the chapter on Answers to Prayer, speaking of the Triple Way: "In this pivotal stage of illumination, we find our identity in the enlargement of our willingness to be ourselves that we discovered in the purgative experience. We put on no new costumes to replace the old coverings. We adopt no shiny rhetorics to efface the ones which have let us down or permitted us not to know or admit to being ourselves. There is no plastic surgery in the life of the spirit...We know that inner peace that is the identity of illumination. We pray with a movement of the heart, a lifting of the spirit. There are no convulsions, no wild urges, even interiorly. We know the light and we pray the light. We have received the most considerable answer to our prayers: more prayer.This is where union begins. We go through words to get beyond words. Infused with prayerful understanding, we need no longer struggle with any of the grammars or syntaxes of the body, verbal or physical, to reach the spirit. The spirit has reached us."..."We are drawn well beyond the rules of an ethic or a theology that attempts to chart God's actions and to justify suffering and disappointment by the logic of reason. We come to pray more through Jesus and the Spirit than through charted principles or proclaimed precepts. We gain more of the heritage of Christ's passions, knowing the dying and resurrection that defy our explanations yet come to be more appropriate than our efforts to understand. Like Job, we give up our single viewpoint, what Ricoeur calls our "narcissism," even though it is narcissism at its ethical highest, asking why God does not adhere to the best rules of human justice. We give it all up to hear what is truly all, the whole, in order to recognize the great otherness of God..."These and many others are words of life for me from Barry and Ann Ulanov.

This has to be the most inspiring thread ever on this blog. The poetry and striving of the human spirit. Precious and priceless.

Ms. Disco has convinced me to begin reading Ulanov's spiritual writings. It is amazing to me how the seemingly unrelated trajectories of jazz (including Miles Davis' not atypical remark about Ulanov) and Catholicism would intersect on the Commonweal blog! It reminds me of what someone once said about coincidences: That there are no such things...

I'd be interested in hearing from someone who knows them both, whether there is any similarity between the mystical writings of Barry Ulanov and St. John of the Cross. A representative passage from The Dark Night of the Soul:"Contemplation is called "secret" not only because of one's inability to understand but also because of the effects it produces in the soul. The wisdom of love is not secret merely in the darknesses and straits of the soul's purgation (for the soul does not know how to describe it) but also afterward in the illumination, when it is communicated more clearly. Even then it is so secret that it is ineffable. Not only does a person feel unwilling to give expression to this wisdom, but one finds no adequate means or simile to signify so sublime an understanding and delicate a spiritual feeling. Even if the soul should desire to convey this experience in words and think up many similes the wisdom would always remain secret and still to be expressed. Since this interior wisdom is so simple, general, and spiritual that in entering the intellect it is not clothed in any sensory species or image, the imaginative faculty cannot form an idea or picture of it in order to speak of it. This wisdom did not enter through these faculties, nor did they behold any of its apparel or color. Yet the soul is clearly aware that it understands and tastes that delightful and wondrous wisdom. On beholding an object never before seen in itself or in its likeness, one would be unable to describe it or give it a name no matter how much one tried, even though understanding and satisfaction were found in it. And if people find it so difficult to describe what they perceive through the senses, how much more difficult is it to express what does not enter through the senses. The language of God has this trait: Since it is very spiritual and intimate to the soul, transcending everything sensory, it immediately silences the entire ability and harmonious composite of the exterior and interior senses. " (II.17.3)

Okay, heres my list. Mouniers The Spoil of the Violent hit me like a ton of bricks when I read an excerpt from it in Joe Cunneens great journal Cross Currents.In poetry, one of my favorites, Johnsons The Vanity of Human Wishes was always the final text I taught in eighteenth century lit courses, and the students loved it, too. But Id have to include most anything by Hopkins, Book 24 of the Iliad in the Lattimore translation, and Eliots Murder in the Cathedral" which I first read in a course at Fordham with Erwin Geissman, the best teacher I ever had.And then there were the wonderfully humane Dutch Catechism, (A New Catechism by the Dutch Bishops), Noonans rich book on Contraception, and various of Rahners Theological Investigations, especially vol. 20, Concern for the Church.More recently, McCabes God Matters, and God Still Matters. And Browns The Death of the Messiah.And of course over fifty years of Commonweal.

Quck response to Kathy from a quick look as I rush off to a meeting - is this relevant? Barry and Ann speak of John of the Cross, Teresa, Eckhart, Beatrice, Bonaventure, Bernard, Roesbruck (sp?), and many others."Language falters in the attempt to explain the love of the unitive stage. Language is necessarily complex. It is always moving from expressed meaning to unexpressed, from denotation to connotation. In the way we usually talk to each other and to ourselves, we search for resonances, for layers and layers of meaning that will perhaps bring us eventually to truth or some part of truth.But as all of us know who have done the kind of thinking that is closely tied to feeling, words and feelings do not say it all for us. There are underlying thought-feelings, of feeling-thoughts for which there simply are no verbal or syntactical equivalents. We must go beyond words, confiding ourselves to God, letting God help us lift our hearts to him in silence and sometimes even without images."

Thanks, Carolyn, that helps.Jan van Ruysbroeck. Tauler, too, I would think.

Excellent topic. I will have to pursue some of the books mentioned - others I have read and wholeheartedly agree. Certainly Gilson was great as I studied as an undergrad although I gravitate more towards the modern existentialists.Certainly Thomas Merton has always been a font of wisdom for me.Meister Eckhart articulated mystical experiences that resonated with my own experience in a way that has deepened my meditation and 'active' life in more ways that I can mention.I recall reading Tolstoy's 'Resurrection' which introduced me to the entire corpus of Russian literature which has remained. Recently I have discovered the philosopher/theologian Berdyaev and am very impressed.Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest.I have never been able to cultivate a taste for poetry until coming across Emily Dickinson - what a beautiful spirit!!The letters of Flanery O'connor gave me a lot of comfort when I was disillusioned with the Catholic Church and her representatives.Ulanov does sound interesting and I will look that up.First post. Look forward to 'hearing' and reading from everyone in the future.

Michael Hovey brought back some "great" memories from my Aspirant days in the convent. Life changing, however, The Little Prince byAntoine De Saint-Esupe'ry.

Carolyn Disco mentioned The Last Essays of George Bernanos, edited by Barry and Joan Ulanov.It was a very important book for me. I came across it 42 years ago in Iraq, where I was teaching and coaching (as a layman) at a Jesuit high school in Baghdad. One Sunday afternoon I headed across town to the Jesuit university. While browsing in the stacks, I came across The Last Essays. Having read The Diary of a Country Priest, I decided to take a look at it. What I most remember was a quote from an essay titled (I think) Freedom and Conscience. It said (more or less): There is one thing worse than dying: it is to die deceived. It seems to me that I can help you, and that we can help each other, not to be deceived or at least, to be deceived as little as possible. Id say thats one of the things were trying to do on this blog: help each other to be deceived as little as possible.

Several books come to mind, a couple of which have been mentioned in this post (Lonergan's Insight, Dostoevsky).But I must single out one book -- it is a collection of essays by Walker Percy entitled "Signposts in a Strange Land." I have often said that if I were stranded on an island, this would be a book that I would like to have a mixture of reflections on literature, science, semiotics, morality and religion. I find myself revisiting these essays often for a good laugh, for kernels of wisdom, and more profoundly for some suggestions on how to navigate the complexity of 21st Century existence marked as it is by war, consumerism, boredom, technology, sentimentality, etc. Percy has the ability to hold together both a realism about the human condition (with a hint of cynicism and lot of humor) and Christian hope.When I read the follow passage from Ron Hansens A Stay Against Confusion, I thought of Walker Percy: A faith-inspired fiction squarely faces the imponderables of life, and in the fiction writers radical self-confrontation may even confess to desolation and doubt. Such fiction is instinctive rather than conformist, intuitive rather than calculated; it features vital characters rather than comforting types, offers freedom and anomaly rather than foregone conclusions, invites thoughtfulness not through rational argument, but through asking the right questions.

I have loved the cascade of responses; some of them are a walk down memory lane (I had not thought of Myles Connolly for years). When asked what book he would like to take to a desert island, G. K. Chesteron, famously, responded: "Compion's Guide to Practical Shipbuilding." Since I am notoriously lacking in mechanical skills, I would probably opt for the bible (and if that is a given), then Dante's "Divine Comedy" preferaly in Italian.

I'm happy to see so many new names on this post! Randy, thanks for the lead on Percy. I have never been able to slog through much of Percy or Flannery O'Connor. I think my Yankee literalism gets in the way, though "Wise Blood" (O'Connor short story) is a favorite. I recommend the movie version of that story with Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton, two of my favorite character actors.For aging English majors like me trying to keep up with new "important" literature, has a great service where they send you a daily review from one of a wide array of good literary critics each day. Diane Rehm also talks books most Fridays on her radio program.And my husband, whose literary tastes are much more high-brow and nonfiction-oriented than mine, says he finds reading Lawrence Cunningham's reviews in Commonweal as good as the books themselves. The critic as an artist!

This entire sequence of posts has been a micro education fo me. My favorite two nuggets are (thanks to Kathy) St. John of the Cross:"And if people find it so difficult to describe what they perceive through the senses, how much more difficult is it to express what does not enter through the senses."and (thanks to Lawrence Cunningham):""When asked what book he would like to take to a desert island, G. K. Chesteron, famously, responded: "Compion's Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.""Those two quotations alone are priceless, each in its own way.

Two important ones for me were John Lukacs Confessions of an Orignal Sinner and Alasdair Macintyre's Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry. Life preservers, both.

Hello All,Sorry, I am late into the conversation again! (I have been having a lot of computer trouble lately plus I am trying to prepare for a one year move to Boston.)Since one of Alasdair MacIntyre's works has been mentioned I thought I'd mention that after reflecting a good while on Prof. Cunningham's question, I'd have to say my life changing book is Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue". I first studied this book as an undergraduate and MacIntyre's writing was one of the most important influences in my becoming attracted to philosophy both as an activity and a profession. I've studied most of MacIntyre's work and I think "After Virtue" is his best statement of his philosophical project.Participants here may find it of interest that while I owe Prof. MacIntyre a huge intellectual debt, I now disagree with most of his specific philosophical claims and interpretations of other philosophers. And I know I'm not the only one. For example, in "After Virtue" MacIntyre gives Henry Sidgwick's long neglected masterpiece "The Methods of Ethics" rather short shrift. In fact, MacIntyre's discussion of Sidgwick in "After Virtue" is so curt that he unintentionally helped contribute to a belated revival of interest among philosophers in "The Methods of Ethics", because some of his readers got curious about just why MacIntyre gave "The Methods" so little attention in "After Virtue". (In some of MacIntyre's later writings, including the aforementioned "Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry", he gives a more extended and somewhat more sympathetic treatment of Sidgwick.)I regard Prof. MacIntyre as a philosophical pioneer. While many of his readers, including me, disagree with him a great deal he has an amazing learning and an amazing gift for asking unusual questions and making provocative proposals. A number of contributors to this blog have already stated they have profited from him work. I'll add in my own recommendation that philosophically inclined participants take a look at "After Virtue".

Favorite poet: DavidFavorite comedian: Dante

I should also mention two great historical novels. Ivanhoe and Promessi Sposi. Sir Walter Scott seems to have pioneered the historical novel. Ivanhoe is impressive in so many ways. Having read the book decades ago I am not sure whether it was Rowena, Ivanhoe's love, I fell in love with or Rebecca the daughter of the Jewish merchant. Scott seems to have created the abundant interest in the Middle Ages which followed. Here was Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, the Church and the Knights all blended together. Such a great read.I Promess Sposi,(the betrothed) is a classic in Italy but did not quite hit it in the US for so many reasons. The book gives a great description of the Spanish rule in Italy during those years, the intimidation by the nobility, the plague which took place at that time. It is said that the book was inspired by Ivanhoe and some of the themes are the same. A woman promissed to one person while someone else pursues her. The villains are reversed.Great reads with significant insights into those times.

It's heartening to know that someone is still reading Walter Scott. J.C. in the TLS points out that Scott in his day was as big a seller as Ms. Rowling is today, and he was translated into most major Erropean languages very quickly. And, Bill, you will not be surprised to hear that in Spain the censor objected to Ivanhoe on religious grounds!

I've had Walter Scott on my guilt about never had read list for ever and day, until a couple of years ago I managed to get through (actually I read with increasing interest and momentum) The Antiquary, which may or may not be typical Scott, but certainly rang several bells with me. Now the author I'm stuck on never having been able to get through is George Meredith.It's also the last book I read while hiking, since declining visual acuity has foreclosed that pleasure to me.Maybe among my "life-changing books" I should have numbered the one I was reading when I knocked myself unconscious walking into a tree. That actually worked out for the best.

Reading Walker Percy may not have changed my life, but he certainly " invites thoughtfulness not through rational argument, but by asking the right questions."In addition to his novels, may I suggest "Lost in the Cosmos: the Last Self-Help Book"?It is a brillant (even if ever-so-slightly dated) comment on our culture. Parts of it are uproariously funny and it reaffirms Percy's profound Christian belief.

Joanne,I am a big fan of Lost in the Cosmos as well. I have thought about using it in an undergraduate introductory course on Catholicism, but I am worried that it is dated, as you suggested. Any thoughts?Randy

I have a couple of books to mention that I've read as the result of private correspondence with an individual who posts on dotCommonweal. If not life-changing yet, that may be because their impact is still sinking in. At a minimum, they have opened my eyes and mind to new ideas and have strengthened my faith.The dotCommonweal poster recommended that I read some of the writings of the French philosopher and activist Simone Weil. I had a very superficial knowledge of Weil and her work, and I had never read any of her religious writing. Now having read "Waiting on God" and "Gravity and Grace," I am amazed at her originality and the richness of her interior life. Raised in an agnostic home one biographer has called "the genius factory" (Weil herself was certainly a genius, and her brother, Andre Weil, was one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the 20th century), Simone Weil nevertheless became greatly preoccupied with Catholicism. Though she had an insatiable thirst for truth (small "t" and capital "T"), and a great love for the Eucharist and the Cross, she was never baptized a Catholic before her untimely death in 1943 at the age of 34. Still, the unique story of her spiritual evolution makes for enlightening reading. Over the course of about a year, Weil met and corresponded with a French Dominican, J.B. Perrin, who, together with a Catholic layman who had influenced Weil, Gustave Thibon, collected their recollections and thoughts about her in the book "Simone Weil As We Knew Her." Perrin, as her unofficial spiritual master, writes eloquently about Weil's profound inquiries into the nature of evil, creation, suffering, redemption, and the Church as an institution. The English translation of the book can be a bit difficult to find, but it is well worth the effort.

I don't know if Mr. Collier would count it as one of her religious writings, but everyone should read Simone Weil's short essay on the Iliad (originally published in Mary McCarthy's translation in the Partisan Review, of all places, I believe).There's a book that will change the way you think about just about everything (and there are certainly parts of it I'd disagree with).

Gene--Perhaps you are referring to Weil's "The Iliad or the Poem of Force," which I haven't read, but which is cited by the authors of the two Weil biographies I've read as one of Weil's most important works. I know Weil was interested in trying to identify Christian echoes in the writings of the ancient Greeks, and if I remember correctly (and I may not), she believed that the suffering depicted in the Iliad had Christian intimations. I'm sure there is much more to be gleaned from the work itself than the thumbnail sketch I've been exposed to.As brilliant as Weil was, I'm learning that not all of her arguments were sound. For someone who had no religious training, she had some interesting insights into religious questions--for example, that creation was an act of renunciation by God, i.e., that in creating us and giving us the free will to accept or reject Him, God then had to retreat an immense distance from the world to allow His gift of free will to be fully enjoyed by us. On the other hand, she seems to have allowed her distaste for the Judaism of her family heritage (never practiced in her highly-secularized home) to influence her belief that the Old Testament is irrelevant to Christianity. Nevertheless, agree or disagree with her, IMHO hers was a mind on fire with many and varied creative thoughts.

Sigrid Undset made me understand forgiveness in life and religion with her account of Kristin Lavransdatter. Twice it changed my life. (and I am glad there is a new translation, which I look forward to reading someday. I would read it, but I am afraid it would change my life again...)Silence by Shusaku Endo gave depth to my fledgling faith.Now if I can only find shelf space for the many things that have been recommended, I might get to them someday.

Apologies if I'm keeping this thread going too long; Mr. Gallicho knows where to find me if it's time to stop.Mention of Unsted makes me aware of how many of the specifically Catholic writers mentioned have been converts, even counting Weil as only a semi-convert.Yes, I was referring to The Iliad or the Poem of Force. But what she offers there is not a tracing of the echoes of Christian ideas in Greek literature (a subject I believe she dealt with elsewhere) but a challenging and dense reading of the Homer as a tract for the times. It's interesting that what I was referring to as the parts I disagree with have to do with the Romans (the imperial people, not the Pauline epistle), whereas Mr. Collier quite reasonably references her distaste for Judaism which she matches with the Roman Empire in the final (and to me at least less successful) part of the essay.I should note that Mary McCarthy's translation was published not in Partisan Review but in a journal called Politics; I think the association with Dwight MacDonald led me to misremember, but I have a hard time keeping the 40's left straight.

I'll second the motion for "Silence," which was recommended to me on an ancient post in which I asked about writers dealing with the non-European Catholic experience. Thanks to whomever it was who responded to that post!Undset reminds me of another Scandinavian novel, "Paradise Reclaimed," by Haldor Laxness, a very strange but compelling little book about early Mormon missionaries in Iceland. (Yup, they'll knock on doors anywhere!)

Henri de Lubac's Catholicism.Anybody want to play "Life Changing Song?"

How about life-changing opera?

I thought opera was just for fun.But I wonder: why is Don Giovanni so often staged with the statue flinging the unrepentant Giovanni into hell? The libretto is more subtle. The statue vanishes.

I've never seen it staged that way. I am amused, but not surprised, that stage directors can find a way to be less subtle than a character going to hell.Years ago I acquired an English translation of the libretto put out by Covent Garden in the 19th century in which they simply rewrote the libretto to eliminate the final scene (which has my favorite bit of music, quest' e il fin di chi fa mal), and in the first American performance, attended by da Ponte himself, the tenor Manuel Garcia the elder sang the title role. So I guess there is a long tradition of taking liberties.And according to my wife it's Mozart that's for fun, opera can be serious business.

Gene, would you please tell your wife that Bach is for fun. Mozart is for dancing.

Whatever happened to reading Gerald Vann?

One of the most life changing books I was even given the opportunity to proof read for the publisher I work for is called THE TRUTH "The Illumination of Conscience" I think it will be out for public purchase in July 2011 I was given the Author site by my company as It is definatly a must read book in 2011

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