What we’ve been reading

What we’ve been reading

The student brothers comment on some of their literary pursuits in the last few months.

Adolf Erman, L’Egypte et sa religion

By Br Vincent-Antony Löning OP

I was looking for materials to read about Ancient Israel in our library, when I came across this book. Leafing through it I realised how little I knew about the wider historical context of the Ancient Near East, so I decided to give it a go. I have always found Egyptian civilization fascinating, and in particular, visiting the collection at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford made me want to know more.

The book is designed as a general introduction to Ancient Egypt, while being scholarly and rigorous. It is structured chronologically and covers not only history but also other aspects of the culture such as literature, religion, hieroglyphics, languages. Of particular interest are the numerous tales it includes from ancient Egyptian sources. Folklore is one of the best insights into a culture’s world. The sections about Egyptian religion are also notable – one wonders about the parallels between the polytheistic system that historians have been able to reconstruct and the Old Testament stories where Moses continually warns Israel against idolatry. Although a full-blown monotheism never emerged in Egypt, some movements in that direction can certainly be identified: as the civilization grows, some deities are syncretised and local cults unified. Nevertheless, the backlash these developments encountered with later Pharaohs show the polytheism was still strong.

I found it interesting to consider that 1000 years mediate between Tutankhamun and the Great Pyramids, as is often true of so many well-known textual and archaeological monuments in Ancient Egypt. This is particularly striking if you think how much Western culture has changed over the last 1000 years… the Order of Preachers was not even around! Egypt, on the other hand, shows a remarkable continuity in its cultural and political history until the Persian conquest – precisely the same civilization that allowed the Israelites to return from the exile.

I have enjoyed this reading as an opportunity to explore topics somewhat different from my current courses in Philosophy. They also provide a good background for the Old Testament studies I shall be starting next year. It is, on the whole, important for every Dominican to cultivate this kind of interests. As a student you have a set timetable of lectures to attend and essays to write, but in the long run one should try to maintain a life of study and prayer beyond the merely academic. That openness to spiritual reading and other intellectual interests is key in the life of a Dominican friar and also beneficial for later pastoral work. The main challenges, of course, revolve around finding the right balance between prayer, study and personal interests. It is important to do things that you enjoy, because you enjoy them. Trying to have an artificial balance where everything is carefully fitted in, with so many hours of study, prayer and recreation is probably not going to work. Sometimes you need to favour one over the other. Some days study requires a great deal of our attention and energy; others you have more time to pray, and it is important to make good use of those too. This is one sense in which we are slightly different from Benedictines, who have a proportionate amount of time devoted to lectio divina, manual work, and similar practices built into their daily routine. But we try to have our study feed our prayer life and vice versa. We study so we can preach the Gospel; at the same time, when study is difficult or we struggle to finish an essay, we bring it to our prayer and ask for clarity of mind and inspiration. So sometimes you realise that when a particular aspect of our life is not running smoothly, it is because we are not paying sufficient attention to all the other components, and thus study and prayer, apostolate and contemplation, in true Dominican fashion, necessitate one another.

Dante’s Inferno

By Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá OP

I read the Inferno in a recent bilingual edition of the Divine Comedy published by Acantilado, which breaks from traditional translations with an innovative Spanish version giving preference to accuracy of meaning and metric structure over rhyme. The similarity between Spanish and Italian makes this possible, whereas the loss of rhyme is compensated by greater fidelity to the original text, perhaps an astute manoeuvre safeguarding the translator from any temptations to outmatch Dante’s poetic acumen. The book I received last Christmas as a gift. I originally intended to follow Dante and Vergil on the sombre way through Inferno and Purgatory for the weeks of Lent, to culminate at Eastertide with the glorious visions of Paradiso, but, alas, by the start of Trinity term I was still trudging through depths of Inferno (a not wholly unfitting metaphor of what Oxford terms can feel like).

The Inferno’s XXXIII cantos are a catalogue of grotesque vignettes. Each circle of Hell presents the reader with its own ingenious punishments. Diviners, for instance, are condemned to walk with their necks twisted backward: for trying to see too much ahead, they spend eternity walking in reverse (Inferno XX). Among the most challenging scenes is probably Dante’s encounter with those guilty of suicide (Inferno XIII). After leading him into a murky wood, Vergil plucks a branch from a tree, which suddenly screams with a terrible cry. To our horror we discover that the lot of those who took their own lives is to be turned into trees and bushes: for doing violence to themselves, they are transformed into a lesser, vegetable form of life, though in substance still human, a metamorphosis whereby Dante means to insist on the inseparability of body and soul, the reality that selfhood cannot be undone. The scene concludes with a pack of demonic hounds chasing a group of runaway damned men. As they cut across the forest, tearing twigs and branches, a great cacophony arises.

Admittedly, passages like this challenge our modern sensibilities. We may invoke the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reminds us that “we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives, [since] by ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance” (2283). Yet we should not disregard that in Dante’s time the memory of the Cathars was still recent: those who wilfully starved themselves to death, on the conviction that the material world is evil and thus sundering one’s own body-soul nexus will bring about their salvation. Though such forms of dualism are far from extinct in modern times, Dante is confronting his own world, addressing something other than the tragic instances of suicide we are accustomed to. The book’s historical context surfaces time and again as we encounter the long parade of corrupt noblemen, bishops, cardinals, friars, who Dante meticulously identifies by name, kin and city, in his partisan denunciation of the powerful of the age. Or indeed again, when we reach the Inferno’s peak (or rather, bottom?) of excitement: Dante’s encounter with Satan on the lowest circle of Hell, a gigantic winged demon, the beating of whose wings has driven away all heat and created a frozen waste. Vergil and Dante escape by climbing down Satan’s legs, and after crossing a long tunnel they find themselves, nota bene, on the other side of Earth, contemplating the stars. One is led to consider each generation’s need to adapt their knowledge of the cosmos to the permanent truths of the faith; and so after Inferno we may profitably read, for instance, Benedict XVI’s (then cardinal Ratzinger) reflections on the nature of Hell in his 1968 Introduction to Christianity.

Nevertheless, the Inferno leaves us with the perennial reminder that damnation is a real possibility, and sin a threat to our integrity that truly contorts and disfigures our being. There can be no question about this masterpiece’s quality as devotional reading, besides, of course, its literary and historical value. The cathartic effect of its pages leads us into a sort of examination of conscience, as we see ourselves in the place of other sinners and feel compassion for them. And not all in it is gloom: Dante occasionally provides us with moments of comic (if somewhat grotesque) relief, as in the closing of canto XXI, when the devils signal to their leader that they have understood his instructions by pressing their tongues between their teeth, and he in turn signals them to depart on their mission with a trumpet blast from his behind:

Per l’argine sinistro volta dienno ;

ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta

coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;

ed egli avea del cul fatto trombetta.  

They wheeled, and moved along the left bank then;

but not till each, as signal toward their leader,

had first thrust out his tongue between his teeth,

and he had of his rump a trumpet made.

(Inferno XXI.137-39)

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium

By Br Marc Pitson OP

I first saw this book recommended on a ‘discerning your vocation’ kind of website. It appeared as one of the top five books people thinking about the priesthood should read. I had read some of the others on the list, so I looked up this one and saw we had a copy in the library.

The book is made up of twenty-four conferences Cardinal Dolan gave when he was head of the North American College in Rome. The conferences are split into two sections, one on living as a Christian and the other on priestly life, and they deal with aspects such as faith, hope, charity, obedience, courtesy, integrity, stewardship of the spirit, patience, joy, etc., followed by more specific sections on the Eucharist, priestly identity, celibacy, being a parish priest, and concluding with a chapter on devotion to Our Lady. Since they were originally delivered as spiritual conferences, each chapter begins with a selected passage from Scripture and ends with some kind of prayer. They are very short (around ten pages) so they can also be used for personal meditation.

What makes this book really relatable is that it contains a number of anecdotes from Cardinal Dolan’s personal experience and is directly addressed to seminarians, people in the position we find ourselves in now, considering the same things and asking the same questions. Cardinal Dolan is also a very humble man: he tells stories from his time as a newly-ordained priest and is not afraid to tackle problems directly, although he does so always in a charitable way. His way of dealing with delicate formation issues like pride, sexuality, careerism, etc., shows a really tactful and loving spirit. Many vocational books offer a flowery view of the priesthood, but he is not afraid of telling you what the more difficult bits will be, when you find yourself in the usual challenges that all priests face.

It is also a book that I would recommend to lay people who wish to understand better the life of a priest. Newly-ordained priests especially need also help from those they minister to, but overall, relationships between clergy and lay people could be improved if there was greater mutual understanding. I believe priests should be more open with their parishioners, and vice versa. I think of the TV series Broken, with Sean Bean, who embodies a brave priest that loves his people, but more importantly, allows them to love him back, even in his own failings. We need priests to be vulnerable with their congregations, to avoid the sense that the human side of the priesthood must be hidden. At the end of the day, we are priests of God, but we are also human, and we get upset when people shout at us or tell us that our homilies are terrible. We become lonely, annoyed, sad. At the same time, nothing is more important for a priest than to stand at the back of the church at the end of Mass on a Sunday and shake hands, to go to the parish centre and have tea with the people, since it is there where those relationships are built.

To those thinking about the priesthood, I would say the following: it sounds clichéd but the only way is to try it. St Thomas is right when he says that you will only know if you are called when you actually live this life. Be brave, but also know that you don’t have to be perfect: most priests aren’t, let alone seminarians. Standing up to your struggles is important, but you also have to let God act. Nothing will be lost in trying; if anything, you will have the confidence that this is not for you when you leave. So step out of the boat and get in the water. Even if you start drowning, Jesus will be there, stretching out a hand to help you.


The Godzdogz team consists of student brothers studying at Blackfriars Studium in Oxford.