Thursday, 25 June 2020

Circulation at the Library: Request and Collect

We enter July living with a state of emergency in Victoria. Circulation by the system of Request and Collect is available to members of the Library. You are invited to borrow the books you need. Here is the procedure.


We at the Carmelite Library are sensitive to the needs of our borrowers at this time. The Library is closed to the public. However, in line with library practice elsewhere in the world, the Library is offering ‘request and collect’ circulation for the period of the pandemic.

This is an invitation to ‘request and collect’ books from the Carmelite Library. Simply find the books you wish to borrow on the Library’s online catalogue, list author, title, and call number, then send your request via email to the Librarian at Limit: ten books.

Books for contactless pickup are placed every Wednesday on a table in the side entrance foyer of the Carmelite Hall (pictured) where you can come and collect them. Books will have been wiped and parcelled up. Each parcel will be clearly marked with the borrower’s name. As usual, loans may be extended.

Books are returned in the Returns Box positioned in the same space. All returns are quarantined at least 72 hours.

I am here to receive requests from today. Please do not hesitate to send me your list.

Philip Harvey
The Carmelite Library

Friday, 19 June 2020

Rare books 21: The 20th of September, 1665

A work recalling certain events twelve years after they occurred. It is an account of the intercession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel during a naval encounter on this day (Lucca, 1677). Notes: Readers of Samuel Pepys will know that this week was the height of the Plague in London. 7,165 people had died in the city during the previous week, a figure recorded by a shocked Pepys after his visit to the Duke of Albemarle, who had been with the Mayor of London the night before. Pepys records visiting a barber for the first time in twelve months (sound familiar?) and laments the state of the streets, with grass growing in Whitehall. In other news, today is three days after the death of King Philip IV of Spain (1605-1665). To believe the cover of this rare book, it is also the date of a naval conflict, probably in the Mediterranean, though between whom and on what account is thus far unclear. Visits to several online sites for sea battles has not yielded anything definite for September, 1665. The Venetians are fighting the Turks. Google Books displays pages in Italian books reporting that something is going on with Naples, but exactly what is lost in the fine print. Neapolitans populate the pamphlet’s pages, all arguing for the intercession. It is more than sobering to know that these men had survived the plague of 1656, the one that almost eradicated the population of Naples. The item in hand has been used as an ink blotter. Someone has unhelpfully added text in ink that he thinks adds something. Tears and burn marks are visible. The Italian is resistant to immediate elucidation. As for author authority, it is not certain if those testifying to the miracle are the authors, or simply signatories to a legal document. There is no record for this document in any major Italian state library, including the Bibliotheca Statale di Lucca, the town where it was printed.

The pamphlet is positioned on a page of ‘Decorative Floors of Venice’ by Tudy Sammartini, with photographs by Gabriele Crozzoli. (London, Merrell, 1999), here details of the floor of Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-fifth: Reverence for the Conversation

At library school we found out about national, state, public, private, research, business, university and school libraries. Then there was the category: special libraries. They are special because they collect in a specific subject area. The conversations of those engaged in that special subject have grown so large and complex that it is necessary to collect all of their works in their own library. Such a library is the Carmelite Library.

A special library collects in its own main subject area, in this case Carmelite literature, mysticism, and spirituality, and then everything that in turn is talking to that literature, that is engaged in a conversation with all of those people. In fact, you cannot have one without the other. The library collection is having a huge conversation with itself, each book responding or connecting with a book in another part of the collection.

The more years that are spent adding to this special collection, are years spent increasing the inestimable value of that conversation. Indeed, each new book added to the collection sparks fresh thought and discussion, thought and discussion that would not be happening if those books had not been brought together under one roof. Reverence for the conversation is an unwritten guideline behind all ordering in a special library.

Conversation is fairly much how most books are made, even for the solipsistic philosopher or self-referential poet or searching mystic. At some stage in the process, conversation happened to make the thoughts begin. At some stage the esteemed and anonymous author had to talk to someone else about all of their thoughts, or nothing would have happened. That which was hidden had to come into the light. That which was unspoken, turned into a conversation.

Sometimes a person is talking to someone long in the past, or the future. The languages can be different. The conversation with the future is especially pertinent here because it is the future reader who will listen and understand. They may be the only person who really understands. Having a place where those two people can meet is sacred, and it will be most of the time, a library. One conversation leads to another through time and the way to trace them is here.

I certainly don’t want to wear you out with this awareness of the library as an immense conversation. It is a perfectly obvious idea once it is expressed. That we are having this conversation at all is due to libraries. It must be satisfying sometimes to know that our words may start up whole new conversations in the future. It is an honour to be part of the conversations that we have each day that are substantially inspired and supported by a special library.

The point about a conversation is to make it happen, not to stop it from happening, or interrupt it by removing one or another of the speakers. We are told when young that one of the rudest things we can do is interrupt someone else’s story while it is in flow. The story is much more important than our interruption, which anyway can wait until the end, when it can become the next part of the conversation. Hearing the story can be a form of grace.   

Removal or downsizing of a library is another way of stopping the conversation. The way that one author spoke to another, and continues to speak to the living authors in the library, is stopped. The potential for new conversations to start up is unavailable, there is no interlocutor, no host or listener, no friend from another time who can prompt the conversation you have been having with yourself all these years. Books in a library await their ideal listener.

During the day, when the library is available, librarians observe these conversations going on, as they loan out more books to readers. Sometimes hardly a word passes between borrower and librarian. But sometime soon the librarian will catalogue the book written by the borrower, or must order similar books for borrowers engaged in what is plainly a long and intense conversation with the relevant authors.  

And at night, when the lights are turned out, the generations of pages rest again. The conversation continues even in the silence and in the dark. It is you and I who are the ideal reader. Next morning it is we who will walk into the library to encounter, in an aisle or at a reading desk, the conversation we never knew we were going to have, the conversation we have been meaning to have for a very long time. The book is responding and connecting us to other human books nearby.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Karen Armstrong and the Lost Art of Scripture JENNY RAPER

This June, Jenny Raper was to give an introductory paper on Karen Armstrong and her work on Scripture for the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library. World events have caused the cancellation, or at least the postponement, of our monthly meeting, but Jenny has kindly provided us with her paper, which is reproduced here.

I have been reading Karen Armstrong's new book ‘The Lost Art of Scripture – Rescuing the Sacred Texts’.  Her premise is that all the written texts (scriptures) of the world's religions were actually founded as art – as “performative arts”.   Ancient peoples could only express their ideas, emotions and profound yearning for certainty in speech and in drawing, engraving and sculpture.  The way of handing down these ideas and beliefs was through the spoken word – stories and poetry and through song.  The inheritors of these oral traditions were trained to listen and recall in the substance of the ideas, in the exact words passed down to them. Reading her book, I have sought to uncover how and when writing down of the songs, poems and stories began in five of the great traditions.

Civilisations are estimated to have emerged around 5,000 years ago in what we call Mesopotamia (even though evidence exists of earlier civilizations in the Ganges Delta around 7,000 years ago).  With the increasing complications of people settling in large communities (cities) came new ways of communicating, especially writing.  This skill became used, gradually, as a means of communicating social rules, ideas and eventually the way religious rites should be performed and why.

Karen Armstrong writes, “Traditionally, the sacred was experienced as a presence that permeates the whole of reality....”.  Ritual was the key to formalising these experiences and eventually rules were developed as to how the ritual should be performed, as well as when and by whom.  Rituals were thus 'carefully crafted' (page 7) and increasingly became an activity of the Right Hemisphere of the brain.  The beliefs and rules surrounding the rituals were handed down orally through repetition and song, especially chanting – activities which engaged the Left Hemisphere of the brain – creating an emotional experience. 

Likewise the stories – the myths as we call them – were also passed down in what we call poetry and ritual 'telling' of these visions of worlds we cannot experience, but which had 'meaning' in some psychological way. 

When people started committing sacred words to written texts, (the Hebrew texts are estimated to be 10th century BCE in the reign of King David) the world was different.  Certainly, the elite or aristocrats could now read rather than learn the religious texts and Karen Armstrong believes that the writing of them became an art form.  These texts could then be sung or chanted from the written text. “Scripture was, therefore, essentially a performative art and until the modern period, it was nearly always acted out in the drama of ritual and belonged to the world of myth.” (page 8)

The writing down of the texts of the Hebrew Bible was started around the 7th century BCE – evidence exists of the book of Deuteronomy instructing the people to read and treasure the prayers and place them on the doorways of their homes.  Until 594 BCE when the temple was destroyed and the ruling elites exiled to Babylon, rituals lead by priests were the most sacred symbol for the Hebrews.  However, in Babylon, the most sacred items were the scrolls of the temple. The priests and scholars developed a method of study of the writings and ways of reciting and learning the texts.  These texts became central to their sacred rituals and all boys and men were trained in the oral transmission from one generation to the other.  Great strictness developed in the meaning and nuance of the words.  Chanting and singing were taught to the young men so the sacred would be the mainstay of their daily life.  Certain parts of the texts were to be learnt in particular ways – the love poetry of The Song of Songs, the undeserved suffering of Lot and the search for the meaning of life by the prophets.  Each of these parts developed different cadences and cantillations for the students to learn – based on the style of the text.

In Jewish worship the Sacred Texts in the Torah are the sacred centre of ritual.  The text, written on one long scroll, is rich in decoration and fabric and is carried into the synagogue with great ceremony and chanting or singing.  Young men attend special schools where they learn to recite the texts from memory and how to chant with exact emphasis on the vowels and consonants as tradition requires for the ritual.

Buddha (circa 563 BCE)– the Enlightened One – searched for meaning in his Hindu culture in the forests of the mountains around his homeland.  Gathering men around him, he taught them what he had discovered about the elimination of suffering in this life and how to practise that.  He taught by speaking and they learnt by recitation of the stories and lessons which they knew 'by heart'.  There were three parts to the holy books – first the teachings, then the rules of living for the monks and thirdly the teachings of the most learned monks.   It was not until the 1st century BCE that the texts were written down.  This happened in Sri Lanka during a terrible time of war and famine when the monks decided to commit the oral texts to writing, which had only just been developed there, and save them.

Today, there are thousands upon thousands of Buddhist texts all of which are considered sacred.  The monks study them and learn to recite, committing them to memory and use chanting which echoes the words and which can be handed down to the next generation.

Referring to Islam, the same story about the written Scripture emerges.  Around 580 CE, in Mecca, the Prophet Mohammad received teachings from Allah (God) through the Angel Gibriel (Gabriel) and taught them to his followers aurally for them to learn and pass on to others.  For these sacred teachings it was imperative that each word (even the difference between the consonants and the vowels) was recited exactly.  Indeed the word Qu'ran means recitation. Arabic culture, at that time used poetry, learned by rote, to preserve their ancient stories, rituals and beliefs. The text itself is sacred to followers of Mohammad and not a syllable can be altered or uttered in any other way.  In itself, the Qu'ran is more than texts, it has an esoteric meaning “like the soul which gives life to the body.” (Henry Corbin. History of Islamic Philosophy, 1993)

Men and boys still spend much time in the Mosque learning the words and techniques of reciting the texts from memory and only in Arabic.  Like Hebrew, each vowel and consonant needs to be emphasised in the same voice which needs to be chanted in precisely the same way each time. That is, the pronunciation, pauses and melodic features – using one rhyme for study and practice and another melodic modulation seeking to involve the listener. 

Like the Hebrew texts, the origins are said to be the words of the Prophets (19 of them, including Jesus) “These are the ones to whom we have given the Scripture, wisdom and prophethood, writes Karen Armstrong.

When the first Jewish followers of Jesus moved out from Jerusalem to teach this revised version of Judaism, few were literate.  The first writing about this new form of Judaism was Paul.  He was a Roman citizen and a Pharisee.  He wrote the first letters to the Jesus communities in Koine Greek – a 'common' version of Greek. Scholars agree that the other 'testaments' were also written in Greek – the lingua franca of Palestine. These testaments – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written after the destruction of the second Temple in CE 70 – as well as were others which were not included in the canon.  The entire canon of the Christian “Bible”, a collection of written sacred texts from the Hebrew Torah and other books and the selection of Testaments, letters and other writing from the new Christian Church, was not finalized until 382 CE.  In many respects the teachings of the New Testament were passed on orally, just as the teachings of the so-called, 'Old' Testament were still handed down orally.  The early Christian Church continued the Jewish Temple traditions in the new 'Churches' where the ritual was conducted by the priest for the people, who were largely illiterate. The priests and deacons and bishops were literate and they gave the readings from a lectern; prayers were recited by the priest and followed by the people who learnt the prayers and responses orally. Psalms from the Old Testament were chanted by leaders and the people learned to sing them. The ritual movements were followed by the people who learned them by practising them throughout the seasons of the church year.
It was not really until the sacred texts could be read by the mass of the people that attitudes towards the words of the texts began to change.  I have read that once the people could read the Bible in their own language it was as though the words were set in concrete!  Until then, the words themselves were of a sacred nature – they brought the world of the sacred into the daily lives of people.  They could recite and sing, bringing joy, solace and meaning.
The words in the sacred texts of all the world’s religions have come down to us from millennia ago – they are not the words of everyday things, they are poetic, they are imaginative, using metaphor and symbols which are core to ritual.  The use of rhythm, cadence and cantillation helps the people remember the words of incantations and songs. Actually, singing predates poetry and poetry predates literacy – so singing the poetry actually helps us to reconstruct the words from memory, according to a Montenegrin reciter, Milman Parry. This is art – a creative process which is flexible as we well know when we listen to a bard rather than read the words of the poetry.
This understanding is in stark contrast to the use of sacred scriptures in modern times, especially since the 18th century and the rise and rise of science and technology.  As 'moderns' we are people of the Logos/Reason, no longer people of the Myth.  Karen Armstrong writes that a medical scientist can perhaps cure an illness not previously curable, but can he cure his own depression which comes upon him unexpectedly? Our sacred texts are sacred because they are not “Reasonable”, they cannot be approached with a rational expectation.  Many people today dismiss them as being incredible and patently “untrue” - yet they do not apply the same criteria to a poem or a novel which also yield profound insights by means of fiction.  Our imagination does not live in the rational, it lives in the part of our brain that feels emotions, is amazed by beauty, soars with music, inspired by poetry and brought down by tragedy and grief.
“Like most art forms – painting, sculpture, poetry, we must read according to the laws of its genre, and like any artwork, scripture requires the disciplined cultivation of an appropriate mode of consciousness. This mode has been hard won and can provide a means of living in harmony with the transcendent. Another part of the process of approaching these texts is to let go of our ego - emptying ourselves (a Greek idea) and developing lives of benevolence, empathy and compassion.  Most religions have a tradition whereby the newcomer is in need of a teacher.  An ancient Chinese scholar said that without that person scripture is impenetrable.
Karen Armstrong points out that scripture was always a 'work in progress' – a very short scrutiny of their history will assure us of that!  She points out that modern fundamentalists in the Christian tradition seem to believe they can revive the Bronze Age version of the Bible, some Muslims are trying to revive the mores of 7th century Arabia.  This is not possible and in the New Testament stories we read over and over again that we must walk on into the future or become like Lot's wife – pillars of salt, locked in the past.
She quotes a bunch of scientists attending a Global Form Conference in 1990 at which they challenged religious leaders to reconsider the relationship of humanity to the earth:
As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the Universe.  We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect.  Our planetary home should be so regarded.  Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred.
She concludes that we all have to find a way to re-sacralise each human and re-sacralise our world.  One way would be to explore the sacred texts for meaning rather than ‘truth' or 'facts' – then we may learn to live together – doing only to others what we would have done to ourselves.  This is the ancient commandment found in all the great sacred texts from the ancient places before humans learnt to write them down and read them.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Rare books 20: Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec, Carmelite and Calvinist

Here is Bolsec’s “scurrilous but highly entertaining” life of John Calvin of 1577. That is Alister McGrath’s judgement in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 June 2002. Bolsec is reprinted here with information about one of Calvin’s successors in Geneva, Jean de Labadie (Lyons, 1664). Notes: Bolsec was a Carmelite who, according to his wiki, preached a sermon in Paris that “aroused misgivings in Catholic circles”. He became favourably disposed towards Protestants, we are told, settling in Geneva about 1550. There he got into a raging row with John Calvin “whose doctrine of predestination he deemed an absurdity” and was soon banished from that city. Wherever he goes he is found not to be orthodox enough, whether in the Reformed Church or the Catholic Church. He eventually recants, returns to Rome, though the wiki doesn’t say what happens to Bolsec’s wife. He died circa 1584. His book is a character assassination of Calvin rather than a biography. McGrath reports, “[Calvin], according to Bolsec, was irredeemably tedious and malicious, bloodthirsty and frustrated. He treated his own words as if they were the word of God, and allowed himself to be worshipped by his followers. In addition to frequently engaging in homosexual activity, he had an undiscriminating habit of indulging himself sexually with any female within walking distance.” It is for these reasons, according to Bolsec, that Calvin resigned his benefices at Noyon. McGrath observes drily that his biography “makes much more interesting reading than the more deferential biographies” of Calvin by other contemporaries like Theodore Beza and Nicolas Colladon. The record at the Bibliothèque nationale de France discloses that one François Mauduict has some authorial influence, which is useful as his name appears nowhere in the book in hand. Perhaps he wrote on Labadie (1610-1674), a Jesuit who became the founder of a Protestant religious community named after him, the Labadists. Labadie exited Geneva for the Netherlands two years after publication of this book, leaving the cataloguer with the strange feeling he is holding a piece of dynamite. Research continues on Antoine Offray, as sometimes it is the publisher and who he represents that offers the ultimate clue as to why the book was ever printed in the first place.       

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Rare books 19: Threads to the Past

The theological readings of the ‘Resolute Doctor’ John Baconthorpe (died 1346 on the eve of the Black Death) by Bertholdus Crassous, still awaiting a binder in 2020 (Rome, 1710). Notes: Johannes Anglicus, also known as Johannes de Baconthorpe, was an English Carmelite and important theologian, who entered the order at Snitterley in Norfolk, studied at Oxford and Paris, and was later English Provincial. The most arresting sentence in Benedict Zimmerman’s entry for him in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-12) reads: “His writings comprised more than one hundred and twenty volumes, but are for the greater part lost.” This is where Crassous becomes vital, as he supplies insight and leads to the thought of Baconthorpe, otherwise not available. This erudite wodge of best cloth paper is very rare indeed. It has suffered damp over time but the pages have not jammed together and still open cleanly. Records online are also rare and my descriptive efforts were the result of visits for information to multiple sites on several continents, all from the comfort of my coronavirus solitude. The work must be retied to keep the signatures in order and, ideally, stored in a customised rare books box. To give an idea of the range of John Baconthorpe’s ‘mens’ I here quote Zimmerman, without further comment: “He possessed a penetrating mind, and wrote on all the subjects belonging to the ordinary course of studies. The most celebrated among them were those on the Gospels, especially St. Matthew, on St. Paul, and the commentary on the "Sentences", which was printed in 1510 at Milan, and for a time became the textbook in the Carmelite Order. Bacon follows Averroes in preference to St. Thomas [Aquinas] with whom he disagrees on many points. He adopted a system of Realism according to which the universals do not follow but precede the act of the intellect. Truth is materially and causally in the external object, formally in the intellect; in the order of generation and perfection the first subject is the individual substance; although the external object is in itself intelligible, the active intellect is required to render it ultimately intelligible; the conformity of the thing thought with the external object constitutes truth. The final cause of all things is God; but although the first object of our knowledge be the Divine essence Bacon does not admit that this knowledge comes to us by the light of our natural reason; it is, in his opinion, a supernatural gift of grace.”

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Rare books 18: Cardinal Mezzofanti

Documents for the canonisation of Romeo of Lucca (d. 1380) and beatification of Aloysius Rabatà (1443-1490), presented by the Carmelite postulator Joseph Maria Palma to the relator, Cardinal Mezzofanti (Rome, 1841-42). Notes: Interest is rivetted here not on the respective prospectives so much as on the Relator. The Relator is defined as “a person appointed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to assemble the historic documentation of the candidate for canonization. This is not the main feather in the cap of Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849), who is one of the most awesome figures of early 19th century Rome. Awesome because he was a hyperpolyglot, one of the most famous, able to speak about thirty languages “with rare excellence” and several more fluently. Trying to explain Mezzofanti is like trying to explain Mozart. Ni hao is my response to reading statements of fact like “he mastered Chinese in four months and … found Chinese to be one of the most difficult languages he ever tried to learn. Such is his fame in linguistic circles that James Joyce puns on his name in Finnegans Wake, that novel composed of every language under the sun, plus some other invented ones. It is not surprising to learn that, as a priest, one of his jobs was confessor to foreigners. The Library holds the biography by Charles William Russell (1858), five hundred pages of stunning claims that still do not explain the mystery of memory. With Cardinal Mezzofanti in the room, who needs Google Translate? His job as Relator seems to be one of those extra-things-to-do in his twilight years.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Rare books 17: Persian Dictionary

The main title page
The separate, ornate dedication title page

A dictionary or, to use a much more impressive synonym, a gazophylacium of the Persian language, with matching terms in Italian, Latin, and French (Amsterdam, 1684). Notes: The Carmelite mission to Persia, initiated in 1604 by Pope Clement VIII with the support of Sigismund III Vasa of Poland, resulted in many cultural exchanges, significant among them linguistic works on a two-way street. Thesauri, grammars, dictionaries, translations into and from Persian, were produced, including the first Persian version of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa contra Gentiles (ms. Vaticano persiano 59). The Carmelites set up the first printing press in Persia. The Discalced Carmelite Ange de Saint-Joseph (1636-1697) would probably have trained in Rome before travelling East. A found record of a Teheran reprint of 2013 provided me with the name of his collaborator-editor, Muḥammad Ḥusayn Mar’ashi, whose name appears at the head-of-title in his own language. This record also supplied me with the transliterated Persian not to be found on the first record I uncovered, at the Carmelite Library in Boxmeer in the Netherlands. As the pictures show, ‘Gazophylacium linguae Persarum’ is arranged alphabetically in Italian, with cross indexes from the Latin and French. A fascinating short history of the Carmelites in Persia in the 17th century can be read in the Encyclopaedia Iranica here:

Blessing in Italian, Latin, French, and Persian

The Index that leads readers to the Latin equivalents in the main text

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Edith Stein: Transformation through the world of relationship BERNADETTE MICALLEF

Edith (front row, with light-colored coat) on an outing with family and friends, 1911 (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union. Edith Stein collection, GTU 2002-9-02. Graduate Theological Union Archives, Berkeley, CA.)

This article considers Edith Stein’s world of relationships as the milieu for her development in the years prior to her conversion to Catholicism. It focuses on what she herself says about her own attitudes and her emerging self-awareness in relation to others, and gleans the underlying disposition that fostered her gradual transformation. In this it hopes to find encouragement for our own spiritual journey and uncover a potential message from Edith Stein for today’s world.
Individuals in Community: a World of Relationship
Images of saints most often depict each of them as a solitary figure, perhaps holding symbols representing what they have come to mean to us, perhaps with divine inspiration and influence represented in some form. But no saint, and indeed no individual, is a solitary figure. We are all individuals in community: a world of relationship. It is within this world, through life experiences and natural maturation, that we are progressively transformed more fully into the unique person God has created each of us to be.
Family Life: First Community
Like many of us, Edith began her spiritual journey in the setting of a loving family. Writing during 1933, in her early forties, she says of her mother, “Even on bitterly cold winter days she would come home with hands so warm that with them she could take the chill from mine. This always symbolized for me that all life and warmth in our home came from her.” (59) [1]
The network of family relationships in which Edith grew to adulthood, and the various influences that shaped her development, included some that permeated from generations past. She recalls that portraits of her maternal grandparents hung in the living room of her Breslau home. Over the years she had pondered her grandmother’s “very serious” face and concluded that it “shows traces of much suffering” and writes that, “She died long before I was born so all I know of her is derived from stories I have heard. Still, I do believe I understand her intuitively and can sense who among her daughters and granddaughters most closely resembles her and which of her characteristics I myself may have inherited….” (31-32)
Observation and self-reflection
Edith’s thoughts, on which of her grandmother’s characteristics are present in herself and in her relatives, reveal her natural habit of closely observing those around her, and her natural capacity for self-reflection. The interrelatedness of these two qualities – observation of others and self-reflection – is an integral part of how she came to know those in her world and, over the years, how she came to know herself.
The knowledge gained through observation of others, however, was not always put to good use. She relates a number of incidents involving her cousins where her capacity to observe them closely prompted her to tease them. (67) However, along with this childhood behaviour, she realized at an early age that others had a perspective that differed from her own. What she describes as the “first great transformation [that] took place in me when I was about seven years old” was when she recognized that her mother and oldest sister Else “had a better knowledge of what was good for me than I had; and because of this confidence, I readily obeyed them.” (75) Although she did not know what their knowledge was, she respected them and so respected their perspective. We will come back to this.
Student Life and Intellectual Pursuits
As a young adult, immersed in intellectual pursuits, she recognized only in hindsight the detriment to family relationships caused by this all-absorbing immersion. She writes,
I had scarcely any time left for my family. My relatives hardly saw me except at mealtimes, and sometimes not even then. When I did come to table, my thoughts were usually still on my work; and I had little to say. … Not infrequently my mother caught no glimpse of me for a day or two at a time. (214)
She admits that at that time,
I was totally unaware of the extent to which I had withdrawn from my family and of the pain this caused. I lived only for my studies and the aspirations they had awakened in me. I perceived them as my duty and felt in no way guilty of any injustice. ... I saw myself as a richly endowed and highly privileged creature. (215)
This self-image also impacted on the way she related to others outside the family. She describes one friend and fellow student, Paul Berg, as “exaggeratedly polite and obsequious” and writes, “His presence always provoked me to shock him by particularly unrestrained expressions.” (127) However, her unrestrained outspokenness was soon to be challenged.
Edith relates a conversation, toward the end of her years at Breslau University, with Hugo Hermsen, the founder and inspiration of the pedagogical group to which she belonged. Prior to her departure he said to her, “Well, I wish you the good fortune of finding in Göttingen people who will satisfy your taste. Here you seem to have become far too critical.” She was stunned by these words, unaccustomed, as she says, “to any form of censure. At home hardly anyone dared to criticize me; my friends showed me only affection and admiration. So I had been living in the naive conviction that I was perfect.” She writes,
I had always considered it my privilege to make remarks about everything I found negative, inexorably pointing out other person’s weaknesses, mistakes, or faults of which I became aware, often using a ridiculing or sarcastic tone of voice. There were persons who found me ‘enchantingly malicious’. (195-6)
Despite these youthful character traits, she takes this criticism “from a man I esteemed and loved” as “a first alert to which I gave much reflection.” (196) Her response reveals her underlying attitude of openness to a perspective which differed from her own.
New worlds and new relationships
Her years at Göttingen University introduced Edith into new worlds and new relationships. She recalls her first meeting with Adolf Reinach, and writes,
After this first meeting, I was very happy and filled with deep gratitude. It seemed to me no one had ever received me with such genuine goodness of heart. That close relatives, or friends one had known for years, should be affectionate in their attitude was self-evident to me. But this was something entirely different. It was like a first glimpse into a completely new world. (249)
This new world included a whole community of students and teachers, many of whom had Jewish ancestry and converted to Christianity during the time she knew them. She was particularly influenced by Max Scheler, a recent convert, who “employed all the brilliance of his spirit and his eloquence” to plead Catholic ideas. She writes,
This was my first encounter with this hitherto totally unknown world. It did not lead me as yet to the Faith. But it did open for me a region of ‘phenomena’ which I could then no longer bypass blindly. … The barriers of rationalistic prejudices with which I had unwittingly grown up fell, and the world of faith unfolded before me. (260)
She realized too that this, ‘world of faith’ was more than an intellectual world of ideas and concepts requiring “systematic investigations” but that people “with whom I associated daily, whom I esteemed and admired, lived in it.” Edith’s on-going relationship with these people who lived in this world of faith, and her own attitude of openness to their perspective, affected her to the extent that “almost without noticing it,” she “became gradually transformed.” (260-261)
Living in the world of faith
She relates a number of specific incidents where what she observed made a deep impression on her and promoted much reflection about others who ‘lived in’ the world of faith. I’ll mention only a few here:
·        In 1912, she visited Sister Frieda’s home where “children from broken homes were cared for in the light and cheerful rooms. ... In one of the workrooms, Sister Frieda showed us a sewing machine. ‘We were desperately in need of one,’ she told us with natural simplicity, ‘so we prayed for one, and before long it came as a gift.’ Those to whom she said this were probably all free-thinkers, but not one of us smiled in derision. Respectfully, we deferred to such childlike faith.” (193)
·        In July 1916, while on a hiking excursion in the Black Forest, they stayed overnight with a farmer. “.. it made a deep impression on us when this Catholic master said his prayers with his men in the morning and shook hands with each of them before they went out haying.”[2]

·        In late 1916, she observed a woman who came into the Frankfurt Cathedral, “and knelt down in one of the pews to pray briefly. ... here was someone interrupting her everyday shopping errands to come into this church, although no other person was in it, as though she were here for an intimate conversation. I could never forget that.” (401)
·        In early 1918, she experienced the way her friend Anna responded to the death of her husband Adolf Reinach. Edith spoke about this episode to Fr Johannes Hirschmann who wrote, “The decisive reason for [Edith’s] conversion to Christianity was, she told me, the way in which her friend Frau Reinach, in the power of the mystery of the Cross, made the sacrifice that was imposed on her by the death of her husband at the front in the First World War. In this sacrifice [Edith] experience a proof of the truth of the Christian religion and became open to it.” [3]
In these examples, by observing the people in her life, and at the same time not understanding what motivated their behaviour, she was able to appreciate that from their perspective the experience of these events differed from her own. Again, through such an attitude of openness she was gradually transformed.
Attitude of openness: closer to home
Edith’s attitude of openness also permeated beyond her student life and friendships into family dynamics and relationships. She describes the effect on the household of the presence of Hans Biberstein, the future husband of her sister Erna, and Hans’ mother.
She writes of Hans and his mother, “Both were excessively sensitive and suspected that an intent to offend lurked behind the most harmless remark made to them; they were likely to take offense instantaneously and obviously.” (119-120) After an incident in which her sister Rosa had caused “unintentional offense” Edith encouraged her to apologize “in order to restore peace,” and writes, “One has to take persons as one found them.” (234)
Edith recognizes that this has not always been her own way of relating to others and in particular to Hans. She reflects on the changes in herself over the years and her new attitude towards others and writes,
We never again had a falling-out such as we sometimes had during our student years. This was because I had completely changed my attitude towards others as well as toward myself. Being right and getting the better of my opponent under any circumstances were no longer essential for me. Also, though I still had as keen an eye for the human weaknesses of others, I no longer made it an instrument for striking them at their most vulnerable point, but, rather, for protecting them. Even my tendency to correct others did not affect my new attitude. I had learned that one seldom reformed persons by “telling them the truth”. That could benefit them only if they themselves had an earnest desire to improve, and if they accorded one the right to be critical. Therefore, in these conversations with my brother-in-law, my prime concern again was to get to know him and his mother better since their ways differed so much from ours. This enabled me later to support Erna on many an occasion. (234-235)
Edith’s support for Erna was particularly needed in the year prior to her wedding in December 1920. Edith, now in her late 20’s, was the one to whom Erna confided her struggles. Edith wrote,
Her engagement had been a protracted torment. … in the morning, … she would come in to tell me what had transpired the evening before. … Frequently her first words were, ‘I don’t know what to do; I’m desperate!’ … I would have Erna tell me everything, giving her whatever advice I could. My guiding principle was always: give in, in all that is not unjust. [4] (235-236)
Edith’s advice to Rosa to “take persons as one found them” and her advice to Erna to “give in, in all that is not unjust” displays a fundamental attitude of respect for the perspective of the other. This respectful attitude bears little resemblance to the ‘enchantingly malicious’ youthful Edith.

Open to the unknown
As Edith says of the Bibersteins, “my prime concern again was to get to know him and his mother better since their ways differed so much from ours.” Seeking to get to know another acknowledges that there is more to know than what is currently known. To be open to this more, open to what is currently not known is essentially to be open to the unknown.
Being open to the unknown reduces the compelling need to be “right” and get “the better of my opponent under any circumstances.” Rather than a static, oppositional relationship, the relationship can have an ongoing dynamic which is always open to change as more becomes known about the other. With such an attitude to relationships, those whose ‘ways differ so much from ours’ are no longer the ‘opponent’ but rather an ‘other’ whose perspective deserves as much respect as our own.
As a child, Edith was open to the unknown perspective of her mother and eldest sister; as a student, open to the unknown perspective of those who lived in the world of faith; as a young adult, open to the unknown perspective of her future brother-in-law and his mother. This disposition of being open to the unknown may or may not have changed the other, but it allowed for her gradual transformation that happened “almost without noticing it” over the years prior to her conversion to Catholicism.
Message for today’s world
For me, an important issue for our world today is the issue of how we respond to diversity; how we respond to those whose “ways differ so much from ours”. Our responses to those who are ‘not like us’ in our families, communities, churches, and wider organizations, reveal underlying critical attitudes, the consequences of which are largely shaping our world today.
Edith’s attitude to those who are ‘not like us’ is to respectfully acknowledge their perspective and reflectively seek to understand. Being always open to further understanding is consistent with a Christian/Carmelite way of life. We do not already have the fullness of what we are attempting to grasp about the other – whether that other is another human being or the God in whom we profess to believe.
In fostering an attitude of openness to the other, and the Other, we will become open people who recognize there is always more to know than what is currently known. If we are open people, our day-to-day dealings with all others, regardless of their views and values, are likely to reflect a deep seated fundamental attitude of respect. The ground of this respect for others is, in fact, respect for the unknown, and the Unknown.
Taking Edith Stein as our guide, being Christians/Carmelites in our world today invites an underlying open disposition: open to further understanding, especially in relationship with those whose ways differ from our own. Through being open people, in our world of relationships, we can be transformed and together we can contribute to transforming the world.

Written by Bernadette Micallef
April 2019 (revised April 2020)

[1]     All page references taken from Life in a Jewish Family, ICS, 1986 edition.
[2]     Teresia Renata Posselt, Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite. Edited by Susanne M. Batzdorff. Josephine Koeppel and John Sullivan, ICS, 2005, page 58
[3]     Letter of 13 May 1950 to Sr Teresia Posselt, quoted in Gibbs, ‘My long search for the true faith’ The Conversion of Edith Stein.  page 21
[4]     These reflections are recorded in Chapter VI, Life in a Jewish Family which is titled 1913 although Erna was married in 1920. (17) This time frame is important regarding Edith’s statement, “At that time my health was very poor, probably as a result of the spiritual conflicts I then endured in complete secrecy and without any human support.” (237) The time she refers to here was 1920, the year before her conversion, not 1913.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Rare books 16: Sanskrit Lexicon

Amarasimha, here Amarasinha (5th-6th c. CE, though even that is narrowing down his possible dates) the first part of his ancient Sanskrit dictionary Amarakosha, translated into Latin, with commentary. (Rome, 1798). Notes: This superb book is one of the earliest translations of what is thought to be the oldest thesaurus of Sanskrit terms. West meets East. The Latin of Paulinus a S. Bartolomaeo (1748-1806) reveals how ‘De Caelo’ moves from synonyms for the heavens to names of Indian deities, each with their own special powers or virtues. The thesaurus worked as a rhyming mnemonic, leaving us marvelling at the added levels of sophistication of the original. The title page presents a bio-line of the Carmelite at time of printing, which can be picked out even by someone with no formal Latin: “Carmelita Discalceato, Linguarum Orientalium Praelectore, Missionum Asiaticarum Syndico, & Academiae Velieternae ae Neapolitanae Socio.” Similar strings of achievements in other records I found disclose that he worked with the Malabar Mission in India, when not sifting manuscripts at San Pancrazio in Rome. He is typical, in this regard, of the brilliant linguists who gravitate to la Città Eterna in every century, busy about it in the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana and other babbling booknooks. WorldCat led me to a very good record at the University of California Berkeley which contains a wealth of information ‘outside the book’ to describe this very rare one.    


Saturday, 9 May 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-fourth: Handwriting Conversion

Sometime in the fifteenth century handwriting lost its grip. The day started well. It nearly always does. The precise day is hard to calculate. But on that day the perfection of alphabet blocks took its first steps towards child’s play for compositors everywhere.

This was by no means the end of handwriting, which continues to this day in one shape or another. Just as the lost art of letter-writing keeps being rediscovered by those with pluck and something to say, so its concomitant enabler curves across a fresh page, happier than any emailer in their own personal hell or twitterer of witless brevity. Handwriting centres thought and lets it dash to the edge of the page. Handwriting is in no hurry but can gather pace, quicker than a keyboardist. Handwriting flexes its muscle, waving through silence as if the world had stood still. We can almost hear its music in isolation.

But on that day medieval took a turn towards modern: typeface commenced its sweeping replacement of the written word. Did handwriting take a wrong turn to end up excluded from its own natural home? Or has it simply traced the road more taken, wandering where it will at immense speed?

Trying to imagine the handwriting beneath an author’s published pages, the frantic scribble-de-hop that stands Times New Roman in their book, is an impossible ask. Publication has erased the hand that wrote the typeset finale. The moving finger’s letters are now a figment of the forgotten. Libraries are full of it.

That is to say, behind the print books with their shelf life of one year or a hundred, their pages of uniform types conveying every thought under the sun, lie ghostly the lost handwriting of their authors. The entire emotional import of handwriting itself has been phased out of the reading equation. We can only guess in what state they wrote down their ecstatic vision, their cool scientific theory, or rampaging historical knowledge fresh from eye witnesses. That the author fractured her writing hand and wrote her greatest work with the other is a diagnosis lost in a fog of Baskerville. The library is a great suburb of conformed versions, shelves of addresses all the same, with respectable presentation and eye-catching normality. Any idea with half a spine is found there.

Display cabinets of writers’ original manuscripts deepen this awareness of loss. The unforgiving novelist’s letter to her companion, written without aid of ruled lines, causes titters and knowing harumphs in the hallway of a great library. The enflamed poet’s unending flame rages across a romantic sheaf. The tremendous homilist enlists kindly if sadly the visitors’ stepping stone attention, who little think that all literature was once done like this.

This vast tabula rasa debacle deepened when, sometime in the twenty-first century, handwriting underwent conversion. ‘Under went’ is a way of saying it. A person’s handwriting on screen can, with a touch of the same moving finger, convert that screed into script, the very best font that computer compositors can muster. Remarkable is one dropdown way of putting it as our markings are remade with a flick of the switch. Simply by shaking the sandbox we can save our manic half-legible excitement or dedicated secretarial application to the power of the micro-batteries and magnetic accessories. Secretary is a word of the past.

This is by no means the end of handwriting, which continues to this day in quiet undetected corners of the room, far from the eyes of zoom and instagram. Converting notes into text will still have to develop ways of crossing troublesome t’s or dotting idiosyncratic i’s. Whether technology thus improves the lot of human existence, or just makes us lazier, is the topic of our next essay, due this Friday and remember to follow the authorised style layout. Handwriting belongs to its owner and explains more than simple grammar. Handwriting hurries along to the next engagement but blanks when the slideshow’s too fast. Handwriting is permanently available, jotting down the phone number, collecting the shopping list.

Yet backward in time there is still not the invention that converts type into handwriting. How remarkable would it be if our samey texts, our keyboard-written notes were converted back into one’s personal handwriting. Or there could be options. Victorian copperplate conversion at a trice, Elizabethan Bardic straggle conversion, Chinese ideogram conversion: possibilities flourish forth beyond the hard looks of Silicon Valley. 

And what if, say, print books with their shelf lives and uniform types could be converted back into the original handwriting. Ranges of outward activity would meet the inward eye, the vibrant cursives of the lost novelist, smouldering rampage of the poet, and yet unknown revelations of the preacher. Emotional import would phase in fresh readerly understandings. Left and right would resume their dialogue. We could intuit anew their states of ecstatic vision, cold practical demand, raging historical fury, perhaps better than many of the eye witnesses. Instead, we must do with the conformist versions in predictable verticals, horizontals and bends, all of that same old eye-catching normality. For further insights, follow the footnotes.