Twice this week, an interesting question came up.
A few nights ago my wife had a nightmare. In it there was an unspecified terrorist attack on Atlanta, and we were forced to evacuate. We only had a few minutes to decide what to take with us. She shared the dream with me the following morning, and we talked about what would be important enough to grab: Rhiannon’s meds? My laptop? Family photos? My eyes gazed over the literally thousands of books that fill our house. I wondered, which books would I take?
Then yesterday, I read a Cistercian pamphlet called “The Tragic Story of the Lives of Our Jewish Brothers and Sisters.” It’s part of a series called Cistercian Witnesses of Our Time, about Cistercian monks and nuns of the last century or so who have been martyred or otherwise lived lives of heroic faith and virtue. This particular pamphlet tells the tale of a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism in the Netherlands during the early years of the twentieth century, with six (!) of the children eventually becoming Trappists. When the Nazis conquered Holland and experienced resistance from the bishops, they targeted Jews who had become Catholic, and five of these brothers and sisters were forcibly removed from the monasteries (in the middle of the night, of course) and eventually dispatched to Auschwitz, where they all perished.
Part of the drama of this story lies in the fact that these Jewish converts knew they were targets even before they were taken into custody. One of the sisters had previously written “I’ve put everything in order. I’m ready to leave. I only want to take these books with me (breviary, missal, New Testament, The Imitation of Christ). That’s enough for me.”
So for the second time in less than a week I was faced with this question: what books would I take with me if a crisis forced me to leave my home, possibly forever?
To answer this question, I have to begin with the assumption that such a move could only be taken under duress, and I would be limited in the number of books I could carry. Thank God for paperbacks, especially the old mass-market kind that are both lightweight and small. Because most of them are paperback, I think I could get away with taking ten books, all of which would easily fit in a knapsack with a combined weight of less than ten pounds:
- The Bible
- The Liturgy of the Hours (one-volume edition)
- The Rule of St. Benedict
- Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love
- John Ruusbroec’s The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works
- A Thomas Merton Reader
- Evelyn Underhill’s An Anthology of the Love of God
- The Cloud of Unknowing
- Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart
- C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Of course, this is a painful choice, for even with the luxury of ten books, look at all I’d be leaving behind: no John of the Cross, no Teresa of Avila, no Walter Hilton or Pseudo-Dionysius or the Desert Fathers. My list only includes Christian titles, which means no Celtic mythology, no Ken Wilber, no Buddhist wisdom. Sigh. With the necessity borne of duress, each book would have to matter. Of course, for Christians (and students of Christian mysticism), the Bible naturally goes first, and thankfully it can be a tool for recalling the wisdom of so many others: to read the life of Moses would bring to mind the theology of Gregory of Nyssa; the Song of Songs would remind me of Bernard of Clairvaux; the letters of Paul would recall the work of N.T. Wright or George Maloney. Meanwhile, the Liturgy would be the lifeline to my continued daily spiritual practice (I didn’t include a missal simply because I’m not a priest, and so “my” daily prayer naturally flows out of the breviary). As a Lay-Cistercian, it would be natural for me also to keep my rule close to my heart, which is why the Rule of Benedict — smallest of my ten books — would be essential. These three books form a trinity of titles that, even if all the others would have to be left behind, I would most want to carry with me.
To round out my ten books, it makes the most sense to select titles that I believe would reward continued reflection: so naturally, the two greatest western mystics (in my humble opinion), Julian of Norwich and John Ruusbroec, would head the list. Next would come two anthologies featuring the work of my two favorite twentieth century spiritual authors (and the writers who most directly inspire me), Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Since these four books all are filled with insight and imagery that would nurture me in a theoretical, kataphatic way, my next two titles would help me in a more apophatic, practical way: The Cloud of Unknowing from the west, and the Philokalia anthology from the east. These books are basically manuals for the ongoing practice of silent prayer of the heart, and as such would be (pardon the pun) beneficial beyond words.
For my final book, I’ve chosen something that might surprise a lot of folks: a children’s book, and one of the lesser acclaimed Narnia titles at that. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is from a strictly literary perspective a rather unexciting book — it is merely an episodic tale of a marvelous sea voyage. But I’ve chosen it partially because, since the Christian life is all about becoming like a child (Matthew 18:3), at least one children’s book ought to be in my knapsack. And so I chose this particular one simply because it is my favorite of the Narnia tales, one that I believe encapsulates in symbolic form the life of Christian deification — the mystical journey. For the narrative structure of Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis used a folkloric idiom borrowed from the ancient Celts: the immram, or mystical sea-voyage to the otherworld, which had its origin in pagan myth and was eventually Christianised as the legendary voyage of Brendan. Those of you who have been reading my blog and other writings for more than three years will understand why this would be so important to me.
So there you have it: my “desert island books.” God forbid that any of us will ever have to be refugees, but just for the sake of self-knowledge: which books would you take?