Tag Archives | classic

The Aeneid | Virgil

The cover of Virgil's The AeneidJust before Virgil (70-19 BC) died, he left instructions that his epic poem, The Aeneid, should be burned. Caesar Augustus (the one who called the census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem) disagreed with Virgil’s dying wishes and rescued the manuscript at least in part because the story legitimized Roman culture and rule.

The Aeneid is a sequel of sorts to Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad narrates the Trojan war. At the end of the war, Odysseus journeys home (see Homer’s Odyssey) and Aeneid escapes and goes on his own convoluted journey. The good Aeneid begins the book fleeing the ruins of Troy and ends a mature hero who wins a new homeland: Rome.

Most interesting in The Aeneid is the interplay between divine and human agents. The gods are capricious, following up petty insults with life-altering storms. They back various human actors to play out their own squabbles. Eventually Jupiter has to step in with a stern, “Stop it!”

From a Christian perspective The Aeneid is a depressing world where capricious deities and fates tug humans around like puppets. Despite this, many Christian theologians were inspired by the ethics of the good Aeneid. In his Divine Comedy, Dante summoned up Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory!

The Collector’s Library edition features a prose translation by J. W. MacKail. The most difficult part of reading The Aeneid was remembering all the names. SparkNotes does an excellent job summarizing the plot of each book and describing the significance of the narrative. I recommend reading SparkNotes before and after each book of The Aeneid to aid in comprehension.

The Aeneid is a foundational work of literature that deserves its reputation as a classic.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by J. W. MacKail. London: Collector’s Library, 2004.

Dune | Frank Herbert

The cover of Herbert's DuneDune is one of those epic stories that science fiction fans have to read at some point in their life. Like Asimov’s Foundation series and Clarke’s 2001, this story has staying power.

You can approach the story from a variety of angles.

  • It’s a ecological tale (written in 1965!) about the desire to work with a planet’s environment to create a healthy future.
  • It’s a political tale about the endless subterfuge employed by the power-brokers of the world.
  • It’s a religious tale about the results of spirituality on a culture.
  • It’s a philosophical tale about determinism and destiny.
  • It’s an action adventure story (with a dash of mystery) set in a fully realized alternate universe.

It’s simply engaging on every level.

Fortunately, Herbert went on to write a number of follow-up novels. Other authors have continued after him to write in his world. I’ll be able to take plenty of trips back to Arrakis.

—Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Berkley Books, 1965).

Dark Night of the Soul | St. John of the Cross

1573222054.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The significance—cultural, spiritual, national—of Dark Night of the Soul cannot be overstated. The very phrase, “dark night”, although horribly misused, has become common parlance. We owe this to a tortured Spanish mystic from the sixteenth century.

On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing—
O exquisite risk!—
Undetected I slipped away.
My house, at last, grown still. (23)

Thus begins the short eight stanza poem St. John of the Cross wrote while imprisoned and tortured by a group of friars for his work in St. Teresa of Avila’s Carmelite reforms. He escaped his imprisonment and wrote a commentary on his poem. This commentary consists of two parts—the Night of Sense and the Night of Spirit. I chose the 39 chapters that make up this commentary for my Lenten devotions this year.

I have to conclude that I’m too rational to be a mystic—at least in the way St. John of the Cross describes. His vision of God is profound and deep, but his intense introspection and romantic relationship with God don’t connect with me.

That’s not to say that I learned nothing from St. John. His passion is consuming! His desire to leave everything behind (including himself) in the pursuit of his God is a severe challenge to the selfishness of our age.

St. John will challenge you to leave your pet notions of God (which are inevitably wrapped up in your own self-image) behind in the pursuit of the one who (paradoxically) is already pursuing us.

—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, Mirabai Starr, trans. (New York, NY: Riverhead, 2002).

The Empire of the Ants | H. G. Wells

In high school I became infatuated with the fathers of science fiction: Jules Verne & H. G. Wells. After having read many of his famous works (The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Time Machine to name a few), it was a pleasure to find a slim collection of his short stories.

This Scholastic Publication contains five stories:

  1. The Empire of the Ants (1905)
  2. The Country of the Blind (1904)
  3. The Crystal Egg (1897)
  4. The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1898)
  5. The Magic Shop (1903)

Two of the stories really stand out. “The Country of the Blind” explores the old proverb, “In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King”. The unconventional twist (although not entirely unexpected) fires the reader’s imagination. “The Crystal Egg” reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ unfinished The Dark Tower. Come to think of it, the idea of a crystal orb granting vision resonates with Stephen King’s Dark Tower books as well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the stories are at or below average. They might have been titillating in an age where science fiction was novel but they don’t stand up as well today. Unless you’re an H. G. Wells completist, stick to his major works of science fiction.

The Canterbury Tales | Seymour Chwast

After thoroughly enjoying Chwast’s take on Dante, I was excited to snag a review copy of his Cantebury Tales. Unfortunately, expectations exceeded reality.

Chwast’s simple graphic style seemed too simplistic here. That leaves you with the story to carry the book. While The Divine Comedy seemed suited to such drastic reduction, Chaucer’s legendary poetry didn’t fare as well. The 24 tales, each reduced to only a few pages, were not compelling enough to stand on their own.

On the positive side, this is an easy introduction to the structure and substance of Chaucer. When I finally get around to tackling the original, I’ll use Chwast’s book as a map.

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided at no cost through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program.

The Imitation of Christ | Thomas à Kempis

I first read the Imitation when I was feeling especially spiritual in high school. I went to my local Christian book store with a few dollars to spend and found an abridged paperback version of it in the reduced bin. What a disaster! I don’t usually put books down once I’ve started them, but after reading the first few chapters carefully, I skimmed the rest. Now, a couple decades past high school, with a nice hardback Everyman’s Library edition in hand, I decided to give Thomas another try. Rather than reading it like a normal book, I read it one or two chapters per morning during my devotions.

This book challenged me immensely. It has a poetic power that pierces the superficial skin of modern Christendom. I found myself praying Thomas’ prayers and confessing the things he was repenting. The most important message of the entire volume was the call to distrust your emotions. Divine consolations come and go. We often mature more when we don’t ‘feel’ God than when we do.

I do have some difficulties with the work that I think are more than just time-period misunderstandings. For all his insight into the human condition, Thomas has missed a lot of what it means to imitate Christ. Read through the gospels at the same time as the Imitation and you’ll see what I mean. All the talk of mortification can wear you down. A more balanced imitation of Christ would not downplay self-denial, but would also stress the freedom of living eternal life without worry for tomorrow.

The second issue is the individual nature of the work, which is a little odd, coming from the fifteenth century. Imitating Christ should drive us outward to love each other. This book, at times, makes it sound like the only thing that matters is the individual’s heart-condition.

The last issue I have is a bit of a logical inconsistency. The first three quarters of the work go into detail about the need to distrust your feelings and trust God whether or not there are any heavenly consolations. In the last quarter, he practically begs for those worthy feelings that he believes he should have to celebrate the Eucharist aright.

With all that said, this book is still one of the best books on spiritual formation I’ve ever encountered. It offers an almost offensive antidote for those people (like me) who are infected by the spirit of twenty-first century Western-style Christianity. Read it slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully at your own risk.

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