Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 14, 2008

It Takes a Library… or The Trouble with Books (Part 1)

There was a Hitchcock movie, “The Trouble with Harry.” The trouble was that Harry was dead, lying in a field, and no one knew what to do with him. Kind of like what seems to happen when a convert (me) finally reaches the “Full” level on the “OrthoBooks” meter, goes to church and falls down ding dong in the middle of the congregation.

“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know….”
“Wait…. we got a couple of slip covers, a bookmark, and some… Oh… not….”
“Yeah… another Ortholibremax!”
“Ah… 9-1-1? Would you send the usual crew?”
“Heard they lost one like that over at St. Marks!”
“Wasn’t that the Smith Family…?”
“Two months ago…”
“Hey… slide the Brain defilibrator over here, willya?”

The thing is when so many of us come to the matter of becoming Orthodox from “the outside”, it’s almost worse than going to graduate school or getting a professional certification. You thought you were doing something pretty normal… maybe even learning to pray….But noooooooo! You suddenly discover there’s a whole sub-industry out there convinced you can’t get by without…. You guessed it! Putting an addition to your house just to have the space for your new collection of books, CD’s, prayer ropes, icons, crosses, incense, censers, writing blogs, spare priests… the works!

“Man, I NEED this stuff!”
“So you’ll take the St. Nektarios Special?”
“That’d be his list of 100 books…. y’know… stuff he read before becoming a Saint.”
“Make it a three-fer…”
“Ah… then you’ll take the Complete Works of the Fathers in Five Languages?”
“Does that include the Power Point version?”
“But of course!”
“Go for it, man!”
“Yeah… ‘cause you’re a hard case, right?”
“Ah… sure.”
“Been ‘round the block… 20 years in this trade. An’ you guys… well… ”
“So maybe I’ll be all right, huh?”
“I wouldn’t get THAT crazy….”
“You guys ship next-day?”
“Is the Pope Orthodox?”
“Oooh…. ahhh….. well…..”
“Don’t stroke out … you’ll be fine. Read book one hundred thirty-three, page 75….”

Now don’t misunderstand me… I love these things (and especially these folks) very much… it’s just that like with cows, there comes a tipping point…. and I for one seem to run way past it. And it’s not just lay folks, but priests. Stories of priests converting into the Orthodox Church seem to center on “how many books did it take…?” One high profile case had well over 1,000 books; another penning the story of his conversion (and it is a G-R-E-A-T story by the way) was asked to “add the list of books read” to flesh it out.

Lest you get the wrong idea, my own book collection…. well, let’s just say it’s expanding at a clip slowed only by efforts to unload… er… I mean donate/lend out… the “non-keepers” to the “parish library” or some other unsuspecting… I mean inquiring mind. My point is that if I had a penny for everyone who said they’d “read their way into the Orthodox Church…” I might not be a rich man, but I’d sure have a stack of pennies.

I’m just not certain this is the way to go… that it puts our most compelling foot forward. Yes, it’s not a bad way… it’s how many of us got here…at least “it worked for me”, and you could do worse. And yes… it’s great as I said that all the pieces fit together… but surely there’s gotta be a better way….surely there’s more than books. And I gotta think it could be simpler somehow. And yes, I know every little bit helps; we need these books… I NEED these books…

But I think about three things:

First, there was once this very powerful and well-intended woman who wrote a book called “It Takes a Village”. She caught some flack for countering the notion that “It Takes a Tax Cut” and has since found herself a little challenged elsewhere… but she had a point… or at least a some of folks thought so (er…. I didn’t read the book… so I don’t know whether I’m one of them or not). Anyway… by contrast, I just wonder whether our idea that somehow when it comes to Orthodoxy, “It Takes a Library”…. well, maybe we might want to re-think it too. Yeah… we could start wearing lumber jack shirts, start a Focus Group somewhere to study it….. probably someplace sunny…. y’know… the usual.

Secondly, seems to me the Lord knew what He was about in looking for just plain old ordinary folks going about their business. People of action… some fishermen, some myrrh bearers, and some others. I love that part where one day He found them all hanging out down at the local library…. drinking their Starbucks over by the card catalog…. and He walks over and says… hey, wait…. did I get that wrong? I don’t mean to take anything away from these folks, or these books ‘cause they have indeed added a lot… and I’m not going to quit the habit either!… but it’s just that really…. it does seem that if this Body is gonna get up and walk anywhere these books are gonna have to start sporting more legs.

Thirdly, Archimandrite Zacharias in his book “Enlargening the Heart” speaks of Fr. Sophrony’s account of a typical three-fold structure to the Christian life as it begins in earnest with a baptism in quickening of the heart in the Holy Spirit, followed by a sojourn through the dessert, and then a blessing of renewed sweetness at the end. I think he’s on to something…. and there are parallels to this in the structure of our everyday conversion… but more on that next time.

In the meantime, I’ve gotta get back to my catalogs and webpages. Saw where Fr. Pat Reardon’s Book of Job looks like just the thing to follow-up Fr. Sophrony’s account of Job I mentioned the other day. I can probably get it here by…. And hey… ain’t life grand? While I was out-of-town, my last order just came in!!


  1. Don’t by Reardon’s “Job”. I’ll mail it to ya. I bought and haven’t cracked it. LOL! I’m sure you can figure out why.

  2. Great post, James. And I love the way you tie in to “The Trouble with Harry.” This is a favorite movie of mine–quirky but gentle. I try to watch it once a year.

    I have gone through the same process you describe, but as they say down here in the Southland, I “take it by spells.” For example, right now I have not bought any Orthobooks since early February–that is, if you don’t count my new prayer book. Quel restraint!

    Intellectual inquiry was not what first led me to Orthodoxy. I visited an Orthodox monastery and observed the church at prayer while overseas. Something clicked in my subconscious. Later, I read from St. Ignatius and ordered an Orthodox Study Bible, and then the floodgates of book-buying burst open.

    But as you well know, becoming Orthodox involves so much more than just intellectual assent. To those I know who are in this inquiry process, my advise to lay the books down from time to time, and seek out the Church at worship. This was the wise advise given me very early on.

    But the books seem to be part of it for us ex-Prots. The good thing in all this, as I see it, is that Orthodox converts are “readers.” Believe me, such was not the case where I was before.

    Again, thanks for the post. Your observations are spot on.

  3. John:

    Spells is right! I have “spacer books”… like Jasper Fforde and others.

    I’d agree with your advice: those seeking the Church… should visit it rather than just read about it. Those rejecting her claims or practices or faith as… well.. “out there”… should maybe visit a book before they write it off. Sort of like we get one without the other when it doesn’t work… and we need both.

  4. I think if you’ve read Sophrony’s book on Job you wouldn’t want to read Reardon’s. Not that I’m saying Reardon’s is bad, its just kinda backwards. Like the time I read Praying with Icon’s after I had read Theology of the Icon for an Icon painting class. One was milk the other was meat.

    Anyway, I loved this post… great fun! I agree, but to a point. In our American Christian society this is the way to meet most people. They want knowledge… but I know full well that it will only take you so far and sometimes it can be very bad (see Anastasia’s blog entry for today). Part of the problem, for me, is that its just so hard to actually get someone to “come and see”. They have decided they know what Orthodoxy is about… sometimes a book (or webpage) is just the thing to crack their hearts a bit.

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