Thursday, January 13, 2022

Review: Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Re-appropriating Monastic Practice for the Humanities

Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Re-appropriating Monastic Practice for the Humanities Lectio Divina as Contemplative Pedagogy: Re-appropriating Monastic Practice for the Humanities by Mary Keator
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was something of a chance purchase because I bought it pretty much sight unseen while looking around on my online bookstore. It intrigued me because it combined two parts of my life, my vocation as a teacher and interest in Benedictine spirituality. I mean, how could I leave this on the virtual shelf?

This book, of course, has to be understood within the context of the contemplative teaching movement, which has been gaining steam since the 1990s, with the writings, especially, of Parker Palmer, bell hicks and such educational commentators. It is an attempt to recover a spiritual focus on the whole learner by deepening the experience of learning through contemplative techniques. Much of the literature has tended to draw its inspiration from Buddhism or a secularized version of Buddhist thinking around mindfulness. This book caught my eye because it was trying to apply a specifically Christian spiritual discipline to contemplative learning.

The focus of the book is trying to use the spiritual practice of lectio divina, a monastic way of reading texts (especially the Bible) slowly and reflectively. Keator applies the lectio approach to her college literature courses, discusses the background to the practices, how one can reflect them in a modern classroom and what the pedagogical challenges are. She isn't the first to think of this- Maria Lichtmann did it before her- but what I like about this book is that she applies it very practically and gives suggestions about how to do it with a flesh and blood class. It is still a difficult process because it runs counter to so much in our culture- careerism, the speed of technology, the reluctance to dig deep. But Keator makes it feel possible.

A caveat though. This approach works best, I think, when the instructor has more or less total control over the curriculum. That is, it presumes that one person is making the decisions and can structure their course whatever way they like. I'm a high school teacher and, while I teach Latin and have that freedom, I also teach English and that is a little harder to manage. Full independence is difficult to achieve in a high school, which may explain why the contemplative teaching movement seems to be slower to catch on in that context.

However, I still think it is important to consider these insights and, honestly, I think this is going to be a book that I read and re-read several times to see what I can do. I may not be able to structure my whole course like this, but I think that I can take some of the insights and use them to good effect.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Review: Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ran into this book browsing the electronic offerings of my public library. I was searching for Byzantine books and this one, written by one of the more notable Byzantinists of this generation, leaped out at me. Ravenna,that bastion of Byzantine power in Italy, was, it turns out a labour of love for the author, who visited Ravenna when she was younger and was inspired by the fusion of Byzantine, Gothic and Roman art and architecture.

This book looks at the history of this remarkable city. That is not an easy task because, like many cities in the Mediterranean at this time, sources are lacking and there are substantial gaps in the records. Herrin uses written sources such as histories as well as inscriptions and physical evidence to produce a coherent narrative of this city from the fifth century, when it rose to prominence as the capital of the Western Roman Empire into the 9th century, as an outpost of Byzantine control until its fall to the Lombards. The story is complicated and more and more focused on the ecclesiastical politics which characterized the mediaeval era in Italy.

This is a fascinating book, which gives a clear sense of the history of Ravenna, but just as importantly, a real sense of the physical setting of the city and its art. I've never visited Ravenna on my various travels in Italy, but, I admit, this puts it firmly on my list.

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Review: A Bridge Too Far

A Bridge Too Far A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a throwback to my high school days, when I read this book on a rather regular basis. It is an account, heavily based on eyewitnesses and on detailed archive research, of the ill-fated Operation Market-Garden, the British offensive in September of 1944, which sought to drive the German army out of the Netherlands and gain a bridgehead on the Rhine at Arnheim. The strategy to gain that objective was the most massive airborne landing in history, which was designed to capture the bridges along one highway leading to the Rhine bridge at Arnheim. Then, a armoured spearhead would push up that one highway and reach the Rhine within two days, establish a bridgehead and, maybe, even drive for Berlin. Conceived in the heady days of the liberation of France in the summer and fall of 1944, the plan assumed the Germans were close to collapse. Despite the heady optimism, one of the commanders, during the planning, wondered openly whether they might be trying to going one bridge too far.

The book offers a vivid narrative of the planning and execution of this ambitious and, well, rather fool-hardy offensive. It covers the over-confidence of the planners, who missed two battered SS panzer divisions who arrived in the Arnheim area to rest and the chaos as the troops on the ground faced both heavier than expected resistance, but also more difficult weather, logistics and support. Despite everything that went wrong, Ryan conveys an effort which almost, but not quite managed to succeed. His meticulous research gives a clear sense of what was going on at any point on both sides and among the Dutch civilians. It makes for fascinating reading.

Despite its age, this book is a classic in World War Ii battle history. It is so well written that it was even made into a movie, which popularized the story. It is a really worthwhile book to read for those who want to get a sense of what World War II was like on the ground.

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Review: Day by Day with Saint Benedict

Day by Day with Saint Benedict Day by Day with Saint Benedict by Terrence G. Kardong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this up just over a year ago and decided to use it as part of my daily spiritual routine each day for 2021. It is, as one suggests, a setting of readings organized daily throughout the year. The readings, equally obviously, are drawn from the Rule of Benedict, the handbook of monastic life. The excerpts are arranged by Father Terrence Kardong, of Assumption Abbey in North Dakota, who was a noted expert in the Rule of Benedict and Benedictine monk, who passed away recently.

The excerpts are arranged for each day and followed by some commentary on the day's excerpt, written by Father Kardong. The commentary ranges from giving background, connections to the monastic context and sometimes stories involving the principle at the time. They aren't arranged in the sequence they occur in the Rule. In fact, I'm not sure if I quite understand how they are organized. That could get a bit confusing at times, even for someone, like me, who is moderately familiar with the Rule.

I found it a helpful resource most days, but occasionally verging on abstruse or downright unclear. The stories are often amusing, but sometimes not clear about what their point is. There is much that is useful in this book, so it is definitely worth reading, but the organization can sometimes fight the final result.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Review: Augustine of Hippo: A Biography

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter R.L. Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of the classic biographies on Augustine of Hippo by one of the great scholars of the last generation, Peter Brown. It is also a re-read for me because I had to read this book as part of a course on Mediaeval History, which I unofficial termed 'Beginnings Intensive Augustine' because we read the Confessions, City of God and this biography in one term. So, twenty years later, I thought I'd go back and see how Peter Brown has faired.

Well, he faired not badly. Not that that is a surprise. Peter Brown is a superb scholar and will always be worth reading. He , along with others, spearheaded a revival of interest in Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages in the 1970s and 80s. And he's written several classic monographs, this one included. If you're interested in Augustinian studies, you'll probably want to read this one sooner or later.

That said, I have to admit that I also think that this book is showing its age a bit, in much the same way that Ronald Syme's Roman Revolution was in the 90s when I read it. The occasional intrusion of Cold War political categories can be distracting, even when we recognize that, at the time, it was topical. That's a minor point, of course- nothing ages easier than contemporary references. It doesn't invalidate the work.

I also have to admit that I think Brown's views on Augustine shift as Augustine ages. He pretty clearly likes the young Augustine, struggling with philosophy and belief, sympathizes, but is wary of the middle-aged Augustine and positively dislikes the elderly Augustine (especially of the Pelagian controversy). That is a common take on Augustine, so he comes by it honestly, although it is one that I'm wary of. The Pelagians and their talk of personal responsibility and dismissal of primal sin are congenial to our modern and post-modern ears. I do think that that we tend to ignore the dark side of this Pelagian theology, that it is terribly perfectionistic because, if you're sinning, well, you'd better just smarten up and pull up your spiritual bootstraps. That is also a pretty modernist way of thinking of things, but I'm not sure if it is especially helpful to those who may be struggling in their faith. But that is neither here nor there for this review.

Of course, if you're interested in Augustine, you should read this book. It is one of the best treatments of him. So, go, read it.

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Review: Red Moon Rising: How 24-7 Prayer Is Awakening a Generation

Red Moon Rising: How 24-7 Prayer Is Awakening a Generation Red Moon Rising: How 24-7 Prayer Is Awakening a Generation by Pete Greig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book because of an app. The app, Lectio 365, is a wonderful meditation app that I stumbled upon and have made a part of my morning devotions over the last year or so. I've really appreciate its lectio divina style and its commitment to prayer, mission, learning, justice, and creativity. So, I knew this book was one of the essential texts, telling the story of the movement which created the Lection 365 app- 24/7 prayer.

The story goes back to the turn of the millenium (that sounds impressive!), with the creation of a few prayer rooms, committed to praying around the clock. The author, Pete Grieg, stumbled on the idea, rather than planned it, partly as he was seeking new ways to reach young people and partly as a result of encountering the Moravian Church's earliest church, Hernhut in Germany. The movement grew rapidly, especially in Europe, but also throughout the world, so that, within years, a whole movement emerged. The books captures the headiness of the time and the passion of both Grieg and his co-workers. The movement went viral in a way that is a bit more common place now, but was astonishing and a little scary at the time. It is an inspiring story.

But...I found this book a little hard to read. Part of that might be because I'm a pretty introverted person and my own lean in prayer tends to be quiet and contemplative. Part of it is that I'm not sure I always know what to do with intercessory prayer which is a major focus in this book, both doing it and finding answers to those prayers. And I know I struggle with the concept of 'prayer warriors'- those who take on themselves the task of intercessory prayer as a species of spiritual warfare. I found the imagery of the 24/7 prayer movement being a army of young people praying rather worrying, especially because I am so used to the co-opting of Christian spirituality by politicians, so I know this 'prayer warrior' language is so often a part of a conservative expression of Christianity which I really worry about.

This isn't to say that prayer doesn't have an aspect of confronting evil or confronting sin in the world (spiritual warfare, otherwise). I think it does. But I also believe that the battlelines lie within as much as they lie without. And I don't even think Grieg and 24/7 Prayer would disagree with that.
But I admit, I'm still uncomfortable that the imagery because it does suggest that the problem is out there, not in here.

Still, I'm glad to have read this. It is good to see how this group came about and I'm grateful that they came to a place to provide such a grounding and helpful presence in the world. I'm grateful for the grounding influence of the Moravian church and of the neo-monastic Boiler Rooms which grew out of the prayer rooms.

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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Review: Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality

Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality by Cyprian Consiglio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up because I've seen the author, who is the Prior of New Camaldoli Hermitage in California, on several YouTube videos which I have found really helpful. I'm glad I did, although I have to admit that this has not been an easy read by any stretch of the imagination. However, it has been worthwhile, I think.

So, this book's main focus is to set out the case for a non-dualist understanding of the Christian faith- one that sees no division between body and soul, and, for that matter, spirit. The author uses Christian texts, to be sure, but also weaves in his extensive knowledge of Eastern, especially Hindu and Buddhist, thinking, often mediated through the work of Bede Griffiths. If that sounds like a lot, it is. I was drawn to this approach because I'm not especially acquainted with the Eastern sources or Bede Griffiths, but was interested to see how they might intersect. I'm not sure I actually understand all that I've read about these traditions because my lack of a background meant that some of the denser passages were rather heavy going.

I'm not sure that I have especially incisive things to say beyond this. I really struggled with understanding large parts of this book, but I put that down to lack of exposure to many of the ideas and concepts discussed therein. I know I had to go back and re-read chapters to make sure I actually understood that. That was particularly true of the passages dealing with Eastern ideas, but really I found the overall vision enticing. I still would recommend the book because its vision of combined contemplation and action, body, soul and spirit is something that I think Christians need to take head of.

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Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Review: Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals

Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals by Beate Dignas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up in the spring because I was really looking for materials for Rome's interactions with the surrounding civilizations. It is a combination of a short monograph and a selection of sources on the relationship of the Romans and the Sasanian Persians from the foundation of Sasanian rule in the third century to the collapse of Persia in the face of the Islamic invasions. The scholarship is sound and gives a good picture of this relationship from both sides.

The only caveat I have about this book is that I would have liked more Persian sources. There are some, don't get me wrong, but the majority are Roman-Byzantine which tends to imbalance the document section a bit. I should also note here that I'm by no means an expert on Persian sources for this period, so it may be that there aren't many more that are available. However, more, if possible, would work against the prevalent bias towards the Roman point of view.

However, even with that caveat, this is a superb book and worth spending time with. It gives a good view of Persian-Roman relations and many of the important sources for them.

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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Review: Slavery in the Roman World

Slavery in the Roman World Slavery in the Roman World by Sandra R. Joshel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book while trawling for books around Christmas and just got around to reading it. Joshel offers a good overview of Roman slavery, without getting too bogged down in the controversies and other distractions in the topic. She presents a variety of historical, legal and epigraphic texts to tease out what slavery meant in the Roman world, but the strength of the book really is in the attempt to understand how it look at it from the slave point of view. It is an occupational hazard in the study of the ancient Greek and Roman world that most of our sources are elite sources, so it is harder work to tease out what is happening to everyone else. And slaves are among the most invisible of the invisible.

Joshel also considers Roman slavery with other forms. Her point that there really was no 'North' to run to or really any secure place to escape is a good one, and, I think, crucial for the development of Roman slavery. Her discussion on resistance to slavery as shown by elite criticisms of slaves as lazy or dishonest or unreliable is a good one and one I'll be incorporating into my Latin classes in the fall.

This is a slim volume and a good overview. Obviously, there is much more to say about the topic. However, this is an excellent place to start.

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