Karl Persson holds an MA in Early Modern literature from the University of Regina, and a Doctorate in Old English literature from the University of British Columbia; he currently works as a preceptor and lecturer for Signum University. His scholarly work focuses on the intersection of literary and Biblical/theological material, with a particular interest in commentary on Job and Ecclesiastes and its role in shaping the literary reception of wisdom cultures. He has published on the final riddle in the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book, and is a regular and active participant in the Early Proverb Society. In addition to formal scholarly writing, he also publishes poetry and reflections on spirituality in a variety of venues, including Patheos Catholic’s The Inner Room, and he is currently contracted through Wipf and Stock to write a book introducing contemporary Christians to the beauty and depth of Old English spirituality. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada with his wife and eight-year-old son.
This is the third guest blog in my fall Signum Series.
It started with hunger. I was a hungry teenager. Hungry for God. And hungry to find myself. Not in a superficial way, but in the way Socrates means when he talks about the examined life. I knew instinctively there had to be more to these matters than what I found around me, me the odd child with undiagnosed OCD and prone to melancholy that would eventually become depression.
I didn’t see much in modern culture that answered my hunger. And although I deeply wanted my spiritual hunger to be answered by my faith, there was often a disconnect between the deep magic I longed for – the layered kind I encountered in the Inklings and their compatriots – and the more insistently immediate kind I encountered in the Evangelical context I grew up in. I was ripe for guidance. And that guidance came in the form of C. S. Lewis’s Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, often published separately under the title “On the Reading of Old Books.”
Almost without thinking I absorbed it as part of my practice. Perhaps the self I was looking for, the layered conception of God I was looking for, could be found in old books. Not in the sense that I could simply open an old book and there discover a single overarching answer. But rather in the sense that the encounter with old books allowed me to imagine in ways I couldn’t before.
The critical imagination I developed from reading old books kept Christ and Scripture from collapsing into the one-dimensional uselessness so often found in modern interpretive contexts. And in the pages of those books – brought deep into dialogue with my own experiences and thoughts – I began to discover fragments and pieces of myself.
However, if this was a good thing, it was also difficult. Not because of anything inherent in my search, but rather because I had positioned myself as an incomplete human caught between an active present and an inherited past. This critical posture was exhausting, and left no place for recovery from the radical suspension of selfhood; if one is always going to be looking for the self in the ruins of history, there is no “reserved” self-understanding left to rest in. Bits and pieces here and there certainly. But nothing whole. And this led me to discover the genius of the premodern monastic educational system, particularly that practiced among the Benedictines.
It is a Benedictine spirituality that suffuses the primary material I work with, Anglo-Saxon poetry. As I drew close to this spirituality through my scholarship, I realized that these monastic scholars had both anticipated and responded to the hungry restlessness that characterized my ongoing grapple with old books.
The monastic scribes’ intimacy with spiritual restlessness is redolent in the poetry they transcribed: a hafeþ longunge, se þe on lagu fundað (“he always has longing who strives on waves,” line 47) says the speaker of The Seafarer,” typically using the trope of the sea as a way of concretizing discussion of psychological turmoil; similarly, the speaker of The Wanderer laments that he sendan sceal swiþe geneahhe ofer waþema gebind werigne sefan (“must send very often the weary spirit over the bind of waves,” lines 56-7), presumably hunting for his identity.
But what kept the monk from losing his spirit altogether as it went out figurally over the waves, or roved the pages of the literature he was tasked with synthesizing and transcribing, was prayer – the ora (prayer) set as a counter over against the potential dangers of the labora (labour). Knowing the dangers of a too deep attachment to one’s work and the accompanying potential of getting lost in it, the Benedictines established prayer as their grounds of self to protect against the lostness that the ruins of history can evoke. Or perhaps put in a more Benedictine way, prayer was central, and the stability it provided for that still elusive self hidden with Christ in God was precisely the anchor that allowed them to rappel into the void of history and so acutely observe its matter. The thing I was missing, apparently, was a life of prayerful listening.
To understand what such prayerful listening might look like, it is helpful to turn to the work of theologian Anne Carpenter, who has been working out of a methodology she calls dialectical traditionalism, which resembles a more sophisticated outworking of Lewis’s notes on old books. As a professor of theology, she regularly encounters the collision of the different worlds of traditionally inflected theology and contemporary students, and last year a campus protest evoked her to write both a public note for her institution and an explication of the methodology behind it. In these pieces, two aspects she highlights as important on all sides of the conversation are the recognition of one’s own poverty and the patience necessary to listen to all the others. Of the blessed poverty of both past and present perspectives, she writes:
“Theology is a double-writing of sorts. It writes simultaneously with the past and the present – at least in this form – and neither are unaffected by the other. They press upon each other. It is an incomplete theology that refuses to look into the past for help; it is incomplete as well to think that old answers are enough for new questions. We only have this moment before God, which is double-written with the poverty of the past and of the present.
“And blessed are the poor.”
This poverty in turn leads us to a stance of deep, expectant listening for the very heartbeat of the other, whomever he or she may be. Referring to the Benedictine rule’s advice to the disciple to “incline the ear of your heart,” and noting further on this that “to listen to someone” is “to be in some way listening to God,” she continues with an astute reflection on what this means for her in practice:
“And who is my neighbor? Christ says that I must love even my enemy. That means that I must love absolutely everyone, without exception, especially the people nearest to me. I do not mean nearest to my heart; I mean before my very eyes. How much I have not seen that is in the people before my very eyes, in the classrooms filled with students, walking down the halls of St. Mary’s. God has been speaking, and I did not listen; I saw God, but I did not really see. As the scales fall from my eyes, I see suffering that all of us—even those who point it out—can barely name.”
The world hurts – and before any attempt can be made to bring this pain into conversation with the fullness of Christ or even simply with one’s mere self, some very, very deep listening must happen.
Evocatively, Carpenter’s observations are reminiscent above all of a time when learning was monastic, grounded in the love of learning and the desire for God. It is easier to listen and focus when your time is kept sanctified by the liturgical Hours rather than the frantic world of academic professionalism – the structure opens particular silent spaces for the practice of listening. Similarly, Carpenter’s call to maintain holy poverty through hope and trust is far more achievable in religious communities that help sustain such poverty.
These practices are of a piece with our need to anchor our selves in the mystery of prayer lest we, like Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, bind ourselves up too tightly in the catastrophe of the mysteries we study. Such prayer is not, to be sure, a mere removal from the material, as though our understanding of ourselves and God is not bound up in it. Rather, prayer is the diaphanous point of stability that stands firmly in the historically rooted camp of our work, yet somehow also contains the Holy of Holies and keeps us from dependence on mere material. We are no less for that invested in the material battles when they come, but likewise we know the victory is in the hands of the Lord.
I speak here out of my own Christian tradition, but by all means invite others of you from other faith and secular traditions to contribute to this conversation. Whether we are discussing the rise of a particular interest in reading old books or our movement into the collapsed remnants of post-theoretical disciplines, a marked confusion of students is increasing as they attempt to navigate the ruins. I fear that if we do not provide the kind of holistic support needed to navigate these ruins with sanity, we will be forced to settle for simplistic versions of our fields adapted to those unprepared to face the radical uncertainties deep scholarship entails.
Whatever our stance on old books or theoretical paradigms, one of the “new directions” we love to talk about must include establishing a culture of personalist holism beyond the diversity offices and buzzwords so often louder than they are useful, signifying our deep need on campuses for compassion and psychological safety, as well as our failure thus far to offer satisfactory responses to this need. Prayer and old books have their place, but indispensable as well is the support of academic communities, so whomever you are and whatever you bring, I am ready to enter into deep listening and discussion regarding the ways we together can keep our fields healthy, kind, rigorous, and human.