April may be the cruelest month, but February is the longest. The twenty-eight days of February attest to Einstein’s theory of relativity, that time is related to, and not independent of, matter and space. He famously explained that sixty seconds of pressing one’s lips against those of a lover is no time at all, while sixty seconds of pressing one’s fingers on a hot stove is an eternity. February is an eternity.
As I sort, I pay attention to the books I keep. One thing is clear: I want all the stories.
Even in the sunny southwest, February days are likely to be gray. The need is for lightness. This year I plan to lighten my bookshelves. I have collected a lot of church books, and it is discouraging to realize how many I have never finished or will never open again. Transcendence often attracts leaden prose.
I don’t know what I’m doing with a copy of The Jerusalem Diet. It’s based, so the author claims, on weight loss the Jesus way — assuming, and the gospels are blessedly silent on this point, that Jesus worried about his girth — but there is no mention of forty days of fasting in the desert or of drinking water-based wine. Not to mention walking through Samaria and the whole scourging thing, both of which must really take off the pounds.
Indeed, the Jesus of this book sounds suspiciously like the Barefoot Contessa, with just a dash of Mario Batali thrown in. In any event, I think I can remember tomatoes, onions and garlic on my own. The book goes.
In that spirit, I am going to toss anything with phrases like “busy woman” or “sixty second devotion” or “carpool prayers” in the title. They remind me too much of the helpful exercise gurus who recommend various discreet stretches and crunches and tightenings one can perform at the office or on the bus or in the economy class of any airplane. Fitness — and faith — on the run!
I’m also tossing my large and growing collection of catechisms. The catechism is a useful tool, like the dictionary or the atlas, but I never read one for encouragement or sustenance. I still have my copy of A New Catechism, which seemed so, well, new back in the sixties and seventies. The book is filled with my hopeful and enthusiastic underlinings. But I’ve decided holding on to it is like keeping the Amarillo, Texas phone book from the that time period; same town, but the management, as well as many of the addresses, has changed.
I’m not keeping The Passover Plot, though I can recall how dangerous it once felt to wonder if the disciples spun Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection like campaign consultants on a twenty four hour television news network. Nor am I keeping much from the kind of late nineteenth or early twentieth century theologian who just wants us to see how reasonable and forward-thinking Jesus was, and is. Though I am keeping Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Life of St. Paul. I got the book on August 24, 1963, and I like it still for this chapter title, “Paul Invades Europe.” It’s a mental image of which I will never tire.
Bernard Lonergan’s Method in Theology, read once, slowly and with great difficulty, is going in the discard box. Like a cad breaking off a relationship with a perfectly lovely girl, I can honestly say, “It’s not you; it’s me.”
I fear Schillebeeckx and Wittgenstein and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard will meet the same fate. Nothing against these gentlemen, but when it’s a northern European winter in my heart, I don’t also want it in my head.
I rather hate to part with The Humanist Manifesto — self-importantly and hopefully subtitled “I and II” — because I can never quite believe someone wrote this sentence, “Reason and intelligence are the most effective instruments that humankind possesses.” I suppose it depends on how one understands the meaning of the words “effective” and, God help us, “instruments.”
The writers are sure about one thing, and there is something touching, I think, about their certainty, “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”
“Good luck,” as my kids would say, “with that one.”
I’m a writer, too, fully aware that much of what I have written will be tossed in the trash or used to pack china and glassware for shipping. So, as I sort, I pay attention to the books I keep. One thing is clear: I want all the stories. I want to hear the stories again and again: Simeon and Anna waiting and Dietrich Bonhoeffer refusing to wait and Elijah listening and Juan Diego speaking and Thomas Becket opening the doors wide to death and life.
We tell these stories to learn our own. We tell these stories to find our places in the world. “We tell ourselves stories,” Joan Didion writes, “in order to live.”
Not even February is a match for that most evocative phrase, “Tell me a story.”
– Melissa Musick