Depth in the Shallows

You Schall Not Pass!

Unless You Read James V. Schall

On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing by James V. Schall

I first encountered the inimitable Father James V. Schall, S.J. in a wee little book called A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning. It is a walk through the greatest books and thinkers with a brilliant and generous guide. Schall is a teacher and reader par excellence. He wants us to read, as he has done, the greatest minds and the greatest books not to be liberal in a political sense, but in the human sense. To be liberal is to broaden one’s humanity beyond the skull size kingdom (as David Foster Wallace called it) we live in. To get outside of ourselves that we may become more fully human. Schall knows that thinking, reading, writing, and other forms of communicative expression give life great meaning and enjoyment. That without them, and without the higher things they strive to impart, we are left with a dark, dark, world.

We have only to look around and see those trapped in the “everything is relative, I’m a victim, and the government isn’t doing enough for me” mentality and know this is true. It is not a political problem. It is one that rests within each of us. Do we want the best? Or do we just want to be comfortable with the least?

Read Schall and you will be driven to know the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

“No one will seek the highest [things] if he believes that there is no truth, that nothing is his fault, and that government will guarantee his wants.”

In Warm Blood

The King Of Kings Arrives

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

If people remember Truman Capote these days, it is almost exclusively for the book In Cold Blood. This has been reinforced by two movies in the last decade or so treating of the Kansas farmhouse murders (Capote and Infamous). And while this book is important in its own right—kicking off a new genre of literature—it is too limited for anyone to come to a full appreciation of Truman Capote. Known more for his antics and parties, his literary feuds (with Norman Mailer and others), and for another book that never came, Capote is, it seems to me, at his best in this story.

A Christmas Memory is a short story, mostly autobiographical, about a young boy and his elderly female cousin. It is about being poor in Alabama in the 1930’s, about a relationship across the canyon of age, and about the richness and mystery of love. It is a charming, heartwarming, and melancholy tale. This is no Hallmark movie. It is the happy, hard, and ultimately holy story of Love. It is a superb Christmas story that calls to mind the Christmas Story born in Bethlehem ages ago. Merry Christmas.

“As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

Living Water In The Desert Sands

Fullness In The Empty Quarter

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), actually Sir Wilfred to be exact, was a British adventurer and writer. Born in Addis Ababa, he spent many years as a participant in African politics and military affairs. Following WWII, he twice trekked across Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter. An enormous ocean of desert, Thesiger sought hardship in the vast emptiness as a means of living in full. He had a special love and reverence for the Bedouin way of life. No Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up for this guy. He didn’t need to read a book to simplify his life, he simply did it.

In Christianity, the practice of going to the desert to battle demons was especially prominent in the first centuries after the death of Jesus. The early Desert Fathers and Mothers wanted to simplify life to its essence. Work and prayer, overcoming temptation, all under the watchful eyes of God, led these early monastics to great feats of privation and endurance. They became known as “athletes of God.” Today, the desert still has figurative meaning. Many of us speak of being in a spiritual desert. Whether from a death, illness, or other loss, we find life clarified by the emptiness. That is, if we are awake. We often fall back asleep, seeking riches but depriving our spirit. It is to the sleeping that Thesiger speaks, echoing the voices in the desert long ago.

“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.”

My Dirda Little Secret

I Wanna Be Like Mike

Books, Essays, & Reviews by Michael Dirda

If you aren’t much of a reader, he will make you want to be. If you are an avid reader, he will make you think a lifespan too short, no matter how long it is. If you think reading is the same as breathing, and you obsess over stacks of unread books, and you keep accumulating books, on Kindle or in stores, even though you know it is mathematically impossible to read them all, doing nothing else, by the time you die, even if you live forever, well…this man will still remind you what you are missing in BookWorld. He is Michael Dirda, reader, author, and guide to all things bookish.

Make no mistake, he is no snooty aesthete who looks down on popular publishing as low brow for the low down. A fan of science fiction, detective stories, and supernatural tales, Dirda offers something for everyone. Even when he writes of classical literature, art, and poetry (provinces of the pretentious, both in readers and critics), he does so as a kind of Everyman Reader. He writes as excitedly about ghost stories as he does about the classics. Many times I have read a column of his in the Washington Post, Barnes & Noble Review, or New York Review of Books, and immediately ordered books he reviewed  or referenced, or started reading the ones I had. And any recommendation Dirda made, has yet to disappoint. For some, reading about books is as pleasurable as reading books, but Michael Dirda makes you want to do both and nothing else. So give yourself a Christmas gift. Not another book, but the time to read it. Then do it.

“For me, the two weeks between Christmas and Twelfth Night have come to be reserved for desultory reading. The pressure of the holiday is over, the weather outside is frightful, there are lots of leftovers to munch on, vacation hours are being used up.”

Quibbles And Bits

Love In The In Between

Two Lives by William Trevor 

William Trevor (1928-2016) was an Irish novelist, playwright and short story writer. Less than two weeks ago, Trevor joined the ranks of the grateful dead. He lived a full life, at least a full writer’s life, in which he won many prizes for his stories. Trevor told tales of life on the margin, and marginal lives, of incomplete people being completely human. A generosity toward his characters gives Trevor a discerning eye for greatness in the smallness of things. In this book, really two novellas, Trevor writes about two women, two messy lives, and love in the bits and pieces. In the end, it is all any of us really have.

“A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.”

Wisdom Of Other


Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon 

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was a poet and translator from Michigan. After taking degrees from the University of Michigan, she moved with with her husband, poet Donald Hall, to a farm in the northeast. At the time of her death at the young age of forty-seven, she was the poet laureate of New Hampshire.

Kenyon wrote about nature, faith, melancholy, and the everyday. She had a profound spiritual vision rooted in simplicity. Kenyon resonates with us still because of her ability to unearth the joy and terror of being human in the most ordinary things on the most ordinary of days. But, even in her darker verse, the rim of light is always on the horizon. She reminds us in this poem, and in much of her other work, that we must live fully in the now. For, as she says, one day it will be otherwise.


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Give A Man A Fish…

Teach A Fish To Sing

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998), an Icelandic writer, produced novels, plays, short stories, and poetry. Back when the Nobel Prize was awarded to people who arguably deserved it, Laxness was the 1955 laureate. His works are dominated by the people and places of his native Iceland. Spare and simple, yet spiritual and majestic as the Icelandic landscape, Laxness’ novels are teeming with human energy. In this book, a kind of coming of age story, Álfgrímur shows us that sometimes leaving and loving are bound up in each other, a necessary coupling that helps us find our singleness of purpose.

“Learn never to look forward to anything. It is the beginning of knowing how to endure everything.”


You’re Fired!


Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015), was a prolific British author largely known for his famed Discworld series of forty-one fantasy novels. Combining quirky characters and wicked wit, Pratchett created a universe of the scientific, the strange and the silly. But always lurking below the surface are zany observations and truths that give his books staying power. In this novel, the twenty-first of the series, Pratchett explores numerous themes, both scientific and social. And as always, he does it with humor.

The quote below is a funny riff on the old “feed a man a fish” bit. But think about it. Many times in our lives, we are warmed by a person, place, or experience. For those who are awake to life, not deadened by routine and technology, who are on fire with wonder, the fire is always burning. And near the end, as our flame diminishes, we still burn hot. In that, we continue to be a source of light and heat for all, even after our death. I must advise, as to Pratchett’s quote, do not try it at home.


“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

Of Arms And The Man

A Man At Arms

European Etchings Of John Taylor Arms

American etcher, John Taylor Arms (1887-1953), studied architecture and law before settling into a career as a graphic artist. Known primarily as an etcher of the Gothic Revival in art and architecture in the early 20th century, Arms reached the height of his power in a series of etchings of Gothic churches in Europe. He began by sketching a cathedral on paper and taking notes. Arms then spent hundreds, often thousands, of hours etching the image onto a copper plate with a fine tip sewing needle. He then made prints in ink (he occasionally used aquatint). Arms captured intricate details in each piece. The best way to view one of his prints is with a magnifying glass. You will have a new appreciation for his work.

Arms believed Gothic art and architecture united both form and faith. Ben Bassham said, “Arms believed art consisted of two elements–spiritual meaning and technique. He never doubted that the spiritual content was the most important…”

The image below is called In Memoriam. It is the north portal of Chartres Cathedral, “the most perfect part of the most perfect church in the world,” according to the artist. Arms etched the image in memory of his mother-in-law. I’d say he liked her very much.





Finding Wonder In A World Bored By Entertainment

The Philosophical Act by Josef Pieper

Ever wonder? I mean truly wonder? To see something, to think something, as if for the first time? To see something in its common strangeness.  To slow down in mind and body, and engage the fullness of your senses in the moment and place? To simply be as you see a thing and wonder that it is? This is a poor attempt to get at wonder. In the Catholic tradition, wonder (and awe) is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But you needn’t be Catholic to wonder. You need only be human (although I reserve the argument that to be the latter truly is to be the former).

Why wonder? It is at the essence of our being. It is what Man is made for, to wonder at all that was made for Man. There are times when I see a tree, I mean really see it. I understand what it is, how it forms, how it interacts with other trees, and how it is fitted into the rest of nature. But the longer I really look, the stranger the tree is. The less any knowledge I have about the tree satisfies. It is the mystery of the thing that satisfies by creating a desire to truly know. Stay with me. This is at the heart of each of us in those quiet, solitary moments when we are not trying to be, we just are. In a world that is pelting us with pictures, streaming ads and movies, noise and a never-ending busyness, we need wonder. But we have gotten lazy. And wonder, though the natural state of Man, does not come without effort. Certainly not when it is buried beneath the debris of a society bent on throwaway entertainments. Our entertainments increase because our boredom increases. Only the desire to know satisfies. And that is wonder. This is not curiosity. It is not just learning about things (and Googling them). These go toward acquiring knowledge. It is the desire to know that gives life to our days, to the things we see, to the mystery of being human. If we have this, the simple things will overwhelm us with wonder.

Josef Pieper, German Catholic Philosopher, was steeped in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was, however, a brilliant thinker in his own right. His discussions of leisure and art are accessible and transformative. If you want to see, truly see, read Josef Pieper.

“If someone needs the ‘unusual’ to be moved to astonishment, that person has lost the ability to respond rightly to the wondrous, the mirandum, of being. The hunger for the sensational, posing, as it may, in ‘bohemian garb,’ is an unmistakable sign of the loss of the true power of wonder, for a bourgeois-ized humanity.”

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