Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Two books: Rowan Williams & Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Two holiday reading recommendations from Philip Harvey published in The Melbourne Anglican, December 2019

Biography, selective by nature, may reveal as much about the biographer as its subject. The twenty lives attended to in ‘Luminaries’ (SPCK, 2019) are written by Rowan Williams to “illuminate the Christian way.” They also sparkle with his original insights and present preoccupations. “We can’t plan to be difficult and unique saints,’ he says of Florence Nightingale, “We manage normally to be rather average sinners.” Or of the modern Carmelite saint and philosopher, Edith Stein: “Go far enough with the disciplines of this world in honesty and integrity, and God is waiting for you.” His account of Meister Eckhart’s sermon style could be self-descriptive: “An unusual mixture – both very colloquial and relaxed and extremely intricate and technical.” These brief lives are models of concise meaning.  

“As love is union, it knows no extremes of distance.” A favourite poetry discovery this year is the Mexican Phoenix, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Like other 17th century poets, say John Donne, she moves confidently between sacred and profane. Such was her love of learning from an early age, Sor Juana finally went to one of the few places where this passion could be met for a woman of her time: she entered the convent. “I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less.” The church was uncomfortable with this feminist and controversialist, even conducting an inquisition. She acquitted herself, according to one observer, as “a royal galleon might fend off the attacks of a few kayaks.” Edith Grossman’s translations (Norton, 2014) deliver lively poetic access to her varied thought. Once met, hard to forget.

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