Recently on Amazon Prime’s series “Three Pines” I was surprised to find myself in a former Benedictine monastery I knew well. Three Pines as you may know is based on the Inspector Gamache series of novels by Canadian author Louise Penny. One of the series, The Beautiful Mystery, is in fact set in a remote abbey, but this is not the one I saw in the TV show. Long-term readers of my blog may in fact remember a couple of entries about the Benedictine Priory of Montreal, and how, once it had closed, on occasion the former monastery served as a site to film movies or TV episodes. This was the case in episodes 5 and 6 of the first season of Three Pines where a family member is murdered in the family-owned hotel. The former mansion, which later became a real monastery, now serves as a fictional hotel where Armand Gamache will seek for the killer. It was extraordinary for me to stream through those rooms and hallways once again.
You can see in the two photos at the top of the page the former priory’s oratory where Christian meditation was practiced and a still from the Prime series of the Morrow family meeting in one of the hotel’s rooms. Yes the two rooms are the same!
Meacham is a good author, but this is not his best book for table reading. He is friendly to a religious perspective however. Given that he makes many references to American scripture in light of civil religion, I hope a reference to his concluding portrait of Lyndon Johnson as hagiography is apt. His portraits of other Americans representing the better angels of our nature (Teddy R, US Grant, Eleanor R, etc.) are more nuanced, but his chapter on LBJ and civil rights is simply glowing. Surely LBJ could use a little shade as well.
In the mid 1980’s I took a course entitled The Shape of Catholicism. In that course we read a then recently published journal article by John W. O’Malley, “Developments, Reforms, and Two Great Reformations: Towards a Historical Assessment of Vatican II,” Theological Studies (1983). At the time I was especially struck by one sentence describing what happened at the council: “… a rhetoric of reproach is replaced by a rhetoric of congratulation.” It is a marvelous formulation.
Recently, we finished O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II, published in 2008. I was curious to see if the phrase about the ‘rhetoric of congratulation’ would recur. As far as I could tell it did not, but the theme of rhetoric at the council was a major theme both at the beginning of the book and in its conclusion. I would say the strongest part of the book was the session by session narrative describing the politics of the interaction amongst the many bishops and the various drafts of the key documents. One striking feature of the Council was the intellectual firepower of the theologians present, not only the great French theologians, but also Rahner, Ratzinger, and Schillebeeckx. What extraordinary conversations those must have been amongst them all!
The book worked well for table-reading, and I look forward someday to delving into his other conciliar books on Trent (2013) and Vatican I (2018).
We always read a more spiritual book for the Lenten season. This year we read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s retreat talks at the Vatican in the presence of the then pope, John Paul II. The book is currently published under Ratzinger’s papal name, Benedict XVI, and titled Journey towards Easter. The papal saint, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, had himself given retreat talks in the presence of a pope, Paul VI, also a saint. Those talks were collected as Sign of Contradiction.
Fr. Heft has interesting yet surprising opening chapters on Jesus and Mary, as well as considerable material on St. John Henry Cardinal Newman andEx Corde Ecclesiae. Newman is no surprise but there is also a chapter-long consideration of the philosopher Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age and Sources of the Self. He also devotes a chapter to the mandatum, which caused quite a stir when first implemented by the American bishops, but gets a lot less press recently.
Well, we’ve just finished earlier today the longest book we have ever read for table reading, Ron Chernow’s biography of U.S. Grant, simply titled Grant. Actually, “ever” is too strong, but certainly in the last 30 years. The book clocks in at 970 pages, and we began reading it in August.
I confess that the biography is certainly worthy of a long read at table, and the monks enjoyed it, despite the fact of returning to the same personage day after day for five months. The first part covers his unexceptional pre-Civil War career, where there were no glimmers of the general’s future greatness. The Civil War not surprisingly receives the most attention, and whether it be Vicksburg or Appomattox, remains fascinating. The greatest revelation is his post-war two terms as President of the United States, where he did his best to implement reconstruction and put down the Ku Klux Klan. Even his post presidency held considerable interest as he and his wife engaged in a round-the-world tour. And the book concludes with his funeral, the largest in New York City history.
Highly recommended, but does require some stamina.
For the first time that I recall from 30 years of table reading at the abbey, we actually reread a book. The Cluny book was first read in 2007, as you may recall if you are a very assiduous reader of this blog!
We finished Cluny: In Search of God’s Lost Empire by Edwin Mullins a few weeks back. Even though I remembered reading the book, most if not all the material seemed new to me. Mullins certainly sides with the Benedictines at Cluny over their reforming cousins at Citeaux, and remains sympathetic to Abbot Peter the Venerable over the great saint of the age, Bernard of Clairvaux.
We just finished reading one of the best table reading books in my career at Saint Anselm Abbey, Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast, about Napoleon’s theft from a Benedictine Monastery in Venice of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana. The author is Cynthia Saltzman.
It has three subject areas that I am interested in, woven into one narrative: Napoleon, renaissance art, and monks (though the Benedictines are only a small part of the story). I am both a francophone and francophile, so while I am especially keen on this book, one problem with it is the number of French and Italian proper names that come up, certainly more challenging for some table readers than others, even in this part of New England. Also, you can’t actually see a print of the Veronese during the narration, so you need to provide a copy outside of meals (e.g. coffee table book).
With that linguistic caveat, the book is highly recommended. Anyone who has seen the Mona Lisa in person at the Louvre will know this Veronese as it is the painting immediately opposite it there. It is the largest painting at the Louvre, and was never returned to Venice, even though other plundered art work was returned to Italy and other locales after Napoleon’s defeat.