This time of widespread “social isolation” is a good time to recall the warnings of Our Lord to fear those that destroy the soul, not the body (Matthew 10:28). It is still Lent, and the last thing we want to do is be home from work or what have you and binge out on media or coronavirus conspiracy theories, as fun as they are. So here are some ideas for reading in the genre of “things that are really making us sick,” with a special eye toward social isolation, a thing we were experience long before any virus:
1. Two books on acedia
There are two excellent books on a temptation called acedia that are worth a read, most especially because, as many have noted, it seems to be the preeminent temptation we moderns face. Those books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire by R.J. Snell and The Noonday Devil: The Unnamed Evil of Our Time by Benedictine Abbot Dom Jean-Charles Nault. Evagrius, an ancient Christian writer who wrote extensively on acedia, went so far as to claim that after this temptation is conquered, there will be no others! Seems like one we would want to fight.
Acedia – identified as the “noonday devil” of Psalm 91 – is a temptation that afflicts us not in the cover of darkness, but in the broad daylight, tempting us to despair over our vocations and calls to greatness. It is a sort of sadness that life has so much meaning and weight behind it, and a desire that it could be lighter and more carefree. Like the prodigal son, we want our inheritance of abundance without staying in the household with its duties and such. For monks, the temptation is to “step outside of your [monastic] cell” in order to see if anyone is coming to visit or if the sun is moving along at a decent pace (i.e., that the day of prayer and work is almost over). In other words, it’s a temptation to take your eyes off the prize because you are tired of the effort it takes to be holy — just take a little peak out of the window of your cell! For laymen and priests, it is different, but not by much. If monks are tempted to leave their monastic cells, we’re tempted to check our cell phones. Forced into isolation or quarantined, I imagine the noonday devil will tempt us to waste the time away instead of advance in learning, prayer or time devoted to our vocations.
If you’re choosing between the two, Snell’s approach is much more literary and cultural while Nault is an organized theological yet practical presentation. Nault might be a little more accessible, but Snell’s is a bit shorter.
2. A novel about belonging
I don’t read enough novels, but Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is one that I’ll pick up over and over. Berry is known for various reasons – poetry, essays, novels – but if he is known he it is known he writes from a quintessentially agrarian point of view. He watched firsthand his own farm-based community unravel in the wake of economic and technological changes, and he has painfully shown us in books like The Unsettling of America what we really lost when we lost our local cultures.
Some dismiss such views with a sort of flippancy (“What, you don’t like cheap tomatoes available whenever you want some?”), but anyone familiar with Berry’s work knows his penetrating and realistic observations are anything but romanticism. With the loss of local cultures, we lost more than our agrarian backbones and strong hands, because by becoming unbound in the name of freedom we’ve become divorced from all sorts of things — most notably, each other.
Jayber Crow follows Jayber (not his real name), an essentially orphaned boy, move from belonging to disorientation, from the pseudo-freedom a young man thinks he wants to re-finding home, place and people. As I’ve written elsewhere, we can think of Jayber as a sort of priest, since he eventually makes an offering of himself for love that even results in a voluntary celibacy. He cleans the local church and even digs the graves for the dead. His main work of barbering, as one of his customers puts it, is not really a “line of work” but more of a position held, a vocation. In a time when belonging and place are things we simply don’t possess, and work is a means of paying wills but void of meaning, Jayber Crow is a potent read. In a time of social distancing, this novel will remind us how important the people near us really are. (If you wanted a Berry novel that is a bit shorter, however, you can grab Hannah Coulter, which writes of the same community but from a different lens, and it’s a bit shorter.)
3. Some new magazines!
I’m deep into this article on the presumption you’re interested in reading some books. In my experience with Fraternus, which trains men to come together in brotherhood and mentor the next generation of men, many men know they should read and know that things like screens are addicting and often unfruitful, but they don’t really know the way out and don’t have the habits to combat it. So, we started a magazine called Sword&Spade, which was created to help just these types of men — those who are “in the trenches” but also need some more help in the fight. The sword is meant to symbolize that we are soldiers in a battle, but the spade is meant to illustrate that we don’t just fight for fighting’s sake, but we also cultivate the soil around us (i.e., help to grow and nourish Catholic culture). It’s been surprising to see how well-received the magazine has been. We’ve opened up the readership well beyond its original audience and now it is being sent all over the country and even internationally.
The great thing about magazines is that you can go more in-depth than a screen, and because it is on a written page the ideas tend to be presented more completely and absorbed more readily. I mean, really, how many articles did you read last week and how many of them do you remember? When we read something on a page, with that element of the tactile, something different happens within us and we are able to engage the mind more truly and fully. We can also touch a variety of topics and point to longer treatments in books, giving a bit of a taste of something you didn’t know would be so fruitful or desired.
I was already a printed-periodical kind of guy, but the work and response of Sword&Spade has made me appreciate it all the more. Interestingly, other efforts that began digital have also moved to the printed page, perhaps in some sort of rebellion or just recognition of the power of pages. Some notable examples are the Word on Fire Journal and Local Culture of The Front Porch Republic website. (I admit this is another Wendell Berry inspired thing, but their second issue is on distributism and there are many Catholic authors and readers there.) I also remind the reader that this National Catholic Register website is an extension of a newspaper, and I highly recommend that you consider the power and effect of having that paper on your side tables instead of a device.
4. Some books on community
I’ve heard it said that you only talk a lot about things when they’re sick or dead. Masculinity, for example, gets a lot of attention these days, obviously because something has “snapped” in our understanding and practice of “being a man.” Community is another example – it gets a lot more talk than it did when we had community as a fact so firm is was like the air outside. The modern world has been the rise of the individual. And, in many ways, this has been a good thing – recognizing the dignity of each person – but it has significant downsides. Instead of understanding ourselves as belonging to a whole (like being a member of the Body of Christ), we tend to see ourselves as absolute individuals, which helps things like relativism and loneliness thrive. Only God exists totally complete within himself. We are relational creatures and we need each other.
Two great reads in this genre are The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher and The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet. Rod and Rob’s books are both great, but in very different ways. The Benedict Option, if you somehow missed it a few years ago when debates about it swirled (mostly from people that didn’t seem to have read it), was often billed as a call to live in some agrarian conclave and start society over in some sort of mix of back-to-the-landism and prepper-meets-monk mindset. The book is not that. It is, rather, a relatively tame call to recognize the de-communitarian tendencies of modern society and a call to consider ways to live an actual culture, which means having a shared way of life. Since this is obviously not happening unintentionally today, it does require some intentionality. That scares people away because they then consider that to mean joining an “intentional community,” which must be steps away from a cult or an un-evangelizing commune closed in on itself. Again, it’s not that. The Benedict Option is a simple call more to community, culture and education than anything else.
The Quest for Community is a much broader study on the topic of the community, what it is, how it was lost, and the fact that, as Nisbet says, “the quest for community will not be denied.” This book is a bit of a tome and was written much longer ago as community was visibly slipping away (1953), but I promise it is one of those books that, if you have it on your shelf, you can grab and flip open at any time and to any chapter and be edified. Nisbet is of an older sort of conservatism that was more interested in conserving that which is worth conservation, and not just defending absolute economic liberty (because that doesn’t conserve community).
Well, that’s my list. My only other thought would be some “read a’louds” that you could do with kids at home. Little Britches by Ralph Moody comes to mind. And, depending on how long this all lasts, maybe some of Tolkien’s series. Feel free to leave some more ideas in the comments!