Thursday, October 04, 2007

Relishing Antiquity

I like old things. Part of it, I suppose, comes from growing up in a place where old houses (by today's standards) line the roads, clapboard homes from the farming days of my grandparents and great-grandparents. I like the smell of older houses, of hardwood floors that still carry, in every worn shadow and subtle creak, the memory of previous residents. There's an old 1890s house at the Littleton Historical Museum, just a couple miles from the seminary, and it reminds me of the old houses of northern Maine. I like to go there just so I can drink in the smell of it and enjoy its silence. Rachel and I make our current home in a fairly new apartment, complete with more closet space than anyone could possible need (so we turned one into a prayer closet) and a nice carpet that wears holes in my socks. It's a fine little apartment, but I wouldn't want to live there more than a few years. It's too new, too full of me and my generation in a few tiny rooms.

I also like old things because I love stories, and the best stories of all are the ones that really happened. Old things and old places are full of stories--of vanished hopes and possibilities, of the testaments of dreams come true. A few years back, when I was on a tour of Europe with some of my college friends, I savored the old buildings, imagining what they once looked like and who may have lived in them. The ruined buildings of Rome entranced me, spinning my imagination into whirlwinds of a thousand unremembered stories, stories that I will never know until I hear them from the lips of those who walked those vanished streets.

One place in particular caught my fancy, with a breathless wonder that I've never felt since--the little chapel of St. Martin in Canterbury, which sits on a rise above the great cathedral. It was, so the traditions say, one of the first churches in England, converted from an old shrine when Augustine, the missionary ambassador of Pope Gregory the Great, came to preach the gospel to the Angles. It's a tiny place, without any of the grandeur of the nearby cathedral, but the sense of holy history there is heavy and awesome. I wanted to immerse myself in the silence of that place. (My own roots go back to that area--the Burdens, as far as I can tell, trace their descent from Normans who settled in Kent, the county that surrounds Canterbury.) If I could choose one place to return to from all my travels in Europe, it would be to Canterbury, to visit that ancient little chapel again.

I also like old things because Christianity trained me to like them. Ours is a religion of antiquity, a religion of history, and from my earliest days I have understood that some of the richest wells of strength and faith can be found in what is past. (In recent years I've been captivated by the legacy of the Catholic saints of the Middle Ages.) Sadly, a lot of Christians nowadays don't understand the power of tradition, and we have suffered for it. We live in a world that glorifies whatever is new, even if it is intrinsically worse than much of what is old. We have been seduced by the pace of technology, and have forfeited one of our most glorious birthrights--the history of the church. My hope is that we can recapture history in my generation, that we can order our steps once again by the Scriptures, by the examples of the church fathers, by the wisdom of the saints, and by the guidance of the cloud of witnesses who have already run this race.

Old books are one of my greatest delights. The public library here has a never-ending used book sale, and with a little diligent searching one can find copies of the classics for only a dollar or so. Not only are they old in that their authors represent a different age, but the books themselves are old--often a bit worn around the edges, with the rough feel of pages that have been treasured by many readers before myself. I'm stocking enough books to keep myself happily reading for years, and many of these books are so good that I'm longing for seminary to finish, just so I have a chance to read them. I've picked up copies of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, the Venerable Bede, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, John Milton, Homer, and a few anthologies that offer classics from Ancient Greece all the way through the 20th century. The walk to the library leads me along a pathway beside the Littleton cemetery, shaded by a row of crabapple trees, and I can read the names of the old settlers and ponder mortality as I stroll.

All in all, I've come to turn to old books almost exclusively. Unless there's a matter of current thought that I need to research, I seldom touch books that have been printed in the past fifty years--a bit ironic, since I'm a writer of books myself. With new books, it has become a wearying exercise to separate the wheat from the chaff, and many reflect the same tendencies and bents of the age that already affect me. I need to drink from the perspective of another age, to see myself through the ancients' eyes, and in that context I find a much richer store of wisdom, both for the things that all ages have in common, and for the things that our own age is blind to. There are a great many good books being published now (books about history are always a worthwhile read), but the problem is that there are so many books being printed, both good and bad, that it seems better to lean on the old and proven classics than to sort through the endless blitzkrieg of printed folly today. I would give the same advice C. S. Lewis gives: if you are able, read one old book for every new book you read. (See his introduction to St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation:

A great deal of my future posts will touch on the old readings I'm immersed in. What I draw from them will probably be a great deal more profound than anything I could come up with entirely on my own--tradition has the power to make men's thoughts great. At the moment I'm in the midst of an elective seminary course that covers a broad survey of early "spiritual masters"--so far we've covered some of the apostolic fathers, Antony and the desert fathers, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and Cassian and Benedict. Look soon for a post on "Lessons from the Life of Antony."