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.”