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September 2011

Swimming in the Greatness of the Ordinary: A Review of Michael O'Briens's "Island of the World"

51oysBy0seL._AA115_ Michael O'Brien's over 800 page novel, Island of the World, is daunting in an era of short attention spans, and yet the reader's commitment to it will bear fruit in a renewed sense of God's providence, in the dignity of human life, and in Christian virtue.  As with all great novels, I did not want it to end and continue to carry its protagonist, Josip Lasta, into the day with me, informing my sense of who I am and should be.

The novel is epic in more ways than one.  Set in the unsettled pre-World War II Balkans of 1933, it follows the life of Josip, then 12, as the world around him unwinds.  Yugoslavia is wracked by civil war, as facsists, communists, and nationalists resist German and Italian occupiers.  A hellish scenario unwinds, turning Josip's idyllic village world upside down and wrenching him from the deep Catholic faith of his childhood.  The remainder of the novel, played out in Yugoslavia, Italy, and the United States, is a record of his life-long odyssey to recover that faith, as well as live it, to reckon with the demons of his path and accept the life he is given.

Although the novel has a destination, like any good novel, the journey is what truly matters.  Particularly enjoyable along the way are the poetic and theological insights gained.  For example, when talking with Miriam, his friend's wife, about St. Augustine's teachings about word and sign, Josip is beside himself with excitement:

"Miriam, Miriam," he exclaims, do you understand what this means!?"

"I think I do, Josip."

"It means that the world is radiant with signs.  Heaven is pouring out continual messages, but we can hardly read them, you see, because we are blind and deaf and do not know who we really are.  The signs in th earth, inanimate and organic, living and dead, are not divine in themselves, but they are creations of the divine. . . ."

Josip goes on to lament the fact that much of humanity misses these signs, how "we live and move and have our being within a vast masterpiece" of which we are often unaware.  That sense permeates the book.  As Josip says near the end of his life, his great freedom is that everyday "he can swim in the greatness of the ordinary."  Following his life, you are inspired by his courage, perseverance, honesty, and humility.  For all the tragedy that unfolds in the life of Josip Lasta, the novel imparts great hope, a deep and unsentimental awareness of God's providential ordering of all the details of our lives, even its sufferings bound up with meaning.  Our own sense of what life can and should be is enlarged, and a deep thankfulness settles in.  At least that's what I was left with.

Canadian Catholic Michael O'Brien's narrative brims with poetic sensibility and, indeed, his poetry finds expression in Josip, a mathematician turned poet.  You'll find many full-length poems, rich with natural imagery and theological insight.  Not a word in this word-full book is wasted, and yet the prose is neither dense nor daunting but flows naturally and richly.

After completing the book, I went back and read the short Prologue.  I realize now how little I understood of it then:

"We are born, we eat, we learn, and die.  We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem left behind.  I was here, each of us declare.  I was here."

Josip Lasta says this is ordinary life, life for all of us, and yet in the "island of the world" everything points outside itself to God, to eternity.  Everything means something.  The real foundations of the world are not in brick and mortar but above.

I recommend Island of the World if you have some time.  It just might be one of my favorite books of all time.


Why Old Words Matter

One of the values of old, even archaic words is that their very strangeness helps us hear them.  If, as Pablo Picasso said, "art is the lie that tells the truth," then the indirection of those strange old words has a way of telling the truth even more fully than the ones with which we are so familiar.  In fact, the very familiarity of so-called modern words can render them cliche and render us numb to their meaning.

I noticed this recently when I had opportunity to compare both the updated modern and classic language editions of Oswald Chambers' classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.  In the selection for August 20th in the classic edition, for example, Chambers contrasts the self-conscious life with the Christ-conscious life, noting that "Jesus says 'Come unto Me. . . and I will give you rest,' that is, Christ-consciousness will take the place of self-consciousness."  In the hands of the updater, self-consciousness  turns into "self-awareness," a word that may have a similar denotation but has an unfortunate (and distracting) pop psychology connotation.  For me, to say "Christ-awareness will take the place of self-awareness" doesn't quite carry the full meaning.

Or take the entry from June 2nd.  Chambers repeatedly uses the word "haunted" to refer to a life completely taken up in God, and yet, as the updater renders it, we are merely "obsessed" with God.  First of all, to say we are obsessed with God gets it backwards: What Chambers is saying is that it is God who is obsessed with us.  And to say He haunts us is thrilling, really, as it makes me think of the mystery of His continual presence and the relentless way in which He pursues us, that "hound of Heaven."  Spooky, and good, isn't it?  It's not that old is always better.  But the burden should be on the updater to justify a change.

Older words require more of us.  And yet these elder words are ripe for reflection.  Winston Churchill said that "short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."  He may have been focusing on the simplicity and not the fullsomeness of old words, but I imagine he would agree that an older word is often better than a newer one.

So forget the updated editions.  Stick to classics. Wade in and stop on an old word.  Ponder it until it gives up its full meaning.  Let it speak across time to you.

When All Times Become One Time

On my first grade report card, my teacher, Mrs. Nell Teague, comments that "Stephen is so shy in class that he hardly ever contributes to class discussion." That was first quarter. The next quarter she says "Stephen speaks with less hesitation but almost never volunteers without being asked something specifically. The third quarter there is only this ominous comment: "May we have a conference Friday, April 16th at 2:45?" I suppose they planned some intervention to get me talking. I don't know what transpired, but by the last quarter of first grade she is able to write "I am delighted with Stephen's maturation - he is so much more outgoing and relaxed." I doubt that. I think she was just being hopeful.

I don't think I liked Mrs. Teague very much. But hearing her describe my hesitancy to speak up in class is to be thankful, to be reminded that I am not so much different than I was at the age of six, 47 years ago. I remain reluctant to speak up.  I have no problem being in front of groups of people, with public speaking or leading, but I do not like to speak up when in crowds of people. It's somewhat comforting to know I didn't just get that way overnight, and I'm probably not going to change.  In fact, I don't think I want to change.  What I have long realized is that there are plenty of other people who can articulate my inchoate thoughts (as well as no small number of blowhards), and so, given that it comes so natural for them, I let them.   It is who I am.  The core of who I was then is still the core of who I am now.  I am the same person, and for all the deficiencies I own, I am glad.

To look at my six-year old self, to peer back in time across a million moments good and bad since then, is an odd, sometimes surreal experience.  Reading others' words about me makes me feel close in time to who I was then, almost as if the intervening 47 years are elastic, accordion-like, sometimes stretching so as to feel a gulf impossibly wide and unbridgeable, sometimes collapsing to only inches like moments apart.  Somewhat akin to that odd sense of deja vu that comes upon us unaware, this elasticity of time surprises us, like something otherworldly and outside our day-to-day experience.  I'm not being blasphemous when I say it is God-like, a faint and fleeting shadow of the way God experiences time all the time.

That God is beyond time, even supra-dimensional, perhaps explains why we have such difficulty with apocalyptic literature in Scripture.  As Catholic writer Michael O'Brien recently said about the Book of Revelation:

We are in the final battle, we are in the apocalypse, we are in the book of Revelation, which the Church, beginning with most of the Church Fathers, believes to be a vision of the entire unfolding of salvation history after the Incarnation, culminating in the total victory of Christ over the entire cosmos and its restoration to the Father. The book of Revelation is not a schematic diagram or a flat blueprint or a purely linear time-line. It is a mysterious multi-dimensional vision which surely contains linear-chronological aspects, but that is not the whole thing. Indeed it is not the main thing.

In other words, God's revelation to John was a reflection of his multi-dimensional character, in time (or times) but also outside time.  Given our finitude, it is difficult for us to fully or easily grasp, and we revert to time lines and graphs to show its fulfillment, reducing it to something understandable, trackable, and (sometimes) even manageable.  God is not like that.  He defies neat categories.

And so do we.  We are made in God's image.  As such, impressed upon is is something of God's nature.  Nevertheless, theologians often distinguish between the communicable  and incommunicable attributes of God.  As it goes, the latter belong to God alone --- things like self-existence (asceity) or immutability (unchangeableness) or eternality (transcendence of time) --- as opposed to the former --- things like love, mercy, and goodness, or the fact that we create just as God created.  However, without minimizing that unbridgeable gulf between Creator and creature, I sometimes wonder if if such neat categorizations always hold up.

Take eternality.  Clearly God is everlasting in a sense that we are not and never will be, but is that attribute entirely incommunicable?  Michael Horton, who adopts Augustine's view of eternity, concludes that "eternity transcends temporal categories," and that [w]hile God transcends time, redeemed creatures will experience a regathering of their times in perfect joy and fulfillment."  if we experience this regathering then in whole, why not on occasion, even fleetingly, now?  Is what I experienced at six years of age really so far removed from where I am now?  Sometimes it doesn't feel like it.

So. . . Hello Mrs. Teague, class, Trina Payne, and Jimmy Simms.  It's me, Stephen, now just Steve.  I'm the same kid.  Really.  It's been a long time, I know.  Trina, I hope you found a husband.  Sorry it didn't work out for us no matter how many pennies you saved for it.  Mrs. Teague, what exactly did you talk to my mother about in that conference?  Jimmy, I forgive you for blabbing about me kissing Trina during rest time.  And people, I still don't speak up much, and I don't think I ever will.

 I look forward to Heaven, to the collapsing of all times, to the fulfillment of time, to the time when all times become in some mysterious sense one time.  Until then, I like to think I have just a glimpse of that through something as iconic as a report card, a window into another of my times.

Civilization and Its Contents

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.  (Isaiah 58:12) 

Sometimes I like to ride with the windows down in my car, even on an interstate highway.  Usually the road noise, the wind, and the traffic, all combined with a superficially uninteresting bit of highway, would be plain annoying, and so I screen it out in an air-conditioned, music-filled mobile cocoon. Not today.  Finding myself alone and with a weekday off, I drove to the Cabelands Section of the Eno River State Park, for observation, exercise, and solitude.  Entering my car, I decided to be attentive, to try to notice and experience everything along the way.  It's amazing what you take for granted.

I cannot even leave the subdivision without being thankful for a multi-layered fabric of built environment.  What was once farm and forest is now underlain by a web of water and sewer pipes and power and telephone lines, graded and shaped to accommodate roads, curb and gutter, sidewalks, and signage.  Houses have been built, rebuilt, and improved, lawns put in and maintained, parks laid out and schools built.  Parents walk kids to school and stroll babies on sidewalks.  Dogs walk masters.  Cats prowl and scowl at passersby.  One man has been building a wrap-around porch on his home --- for the last eight years.  A bicycle reclines at the corner of a lawn where it dropped its last passenger.  Life has grown from the dirt up, imperfect and yet communal.  A once undifferentiated landscape of pines has become a human habitation, cultured and full of human life.  I find myself marveling and being thankful for all the people involved in making such a place, for the families represented here, for the community that has developed even if it is not what it could be.

On the highway, it's a sensual assault with the windows down.  Tractor-trailer trucks are incredibly noisy neighbors, and yet I consider what the transport of goods on a modern highway means, as in jobs and fresh produce and other goods.  Even to begin to tell the story of highways and their thousands of miles of concrete and asphalt is to wonder at the investment they have been and yet the freedom they have brought to us.  Even the strip shopping centers are evidence of commerce, of jobs and livelihoods. While the weeds in the median and adult video store may mar the landscape, there is much good in what I see, much to be thankful for.

What I am really celebrating is civilization.  Go to any third-world country and you see the many de-civilizing impacts of war, disease, governmental corruption, and poverty.  Many things work here. Many things don't work there.  Civilization, as bent as it is by sin, still has many contents.

One of the ways in which I begin to appreciate God's provision in community is through this kind of attentiveness, and thankfulness is a way of recognizing that God is the source of communal life, of civilization itself.  James Howard Kunstler says that "[a] community is not something you have, like a pizza.  Nor is it something you can buy, as visitors to Disneyland and Williamsburg discover.  It is a living organism based on a web of interdependencies --- which is to say, a local economy."  I don't know about you, but when I think of economy, I think of money.  And yet Kunstler's point (and the rare attentiveness I had today) remind me that "economy" is about more than economic wealth.  It's about human capital, social investment, and spiritual commitment, about people who pay forward to next generations, about a community that transcends time and yet binds itself intentionally to one place.  It's a neighborhood.  My neighborhood.

Even in a natural area like that surrounding the Eno River, I cannot escape the pull of community.  The 91 acres on which I walked today provided a source of livelihood for John Cabe and his family, remnants of which (a mill) you can still see.  He gave the land to the next generation as a park.  A deepwater pond on the site was actually a early 1960s quarry from which granite was removed to build the nearby Interstate 85.  We move freely through Durham on a road we owe, in one sense, to McCabe. He has both a legacy in the built and natural environment.  He believed in his community.

Jesus said that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt. 6:21).  Civilization --- a local economy --- is dependent on people who are attentive and thankful, postures which cause us to treasure what we have.  And if we treasure the places we inhabit, we'll also find our heart is in them. Even its lost corners, broken sidewalks, and aimless wanderers can be healed by a people who care and by a God who makes all things new.