Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Well-Read Mom 2014 Journal

In the midst of great World Cup excitement, a lovely package arrived from Marcie at Well-Read Mom! The journal is a gift to the Book Club members and it is filled with good stuff as you can see in the table of contents. I was asked to offer a reflection which I paste below.  Their website also has the list for next year and I'm already excited for a new Book Club Year! Thank you, Marcie! 


Surprised by Homer’s Odyssey

I have been listening to most of these year's The Well-Read Mom Book Club’s selections on audio as I go around my daily chores at home: dishes, laundry, cleaning. I just don't seem to find time otherwise, as my hours are spent with our two youngest girls who are home-schooled. 

Listening to Flannery O'Connor was delightful, but no surprise, as I have loved her for years since meeting her in The Habit of Being, a present from my husband in the beginning of our marriage. The reader's southern twang provided an extra layer in the experience of enjoying her writing and I went on the listen to the entire book, twice, just for the fun of it. One short story, even if it's her best-known one, and widely acknowledged as her masterpiece, just wasn't enough! 

Pearl Buck and her dramatic account of peasant life in China kept me listening for a long while as the book is indeed very long. When I was done, I admit I was happy to be done. As the discussion reflected in both groups I lead afterwards, there is little in her masterwork that elevates the soul to things eternal. No understanding of the spiritual life: that culturally-distant society seemed to dwell in a materialism that was ingrained in all of the book’s characters. This materialism justified their evil actions, bringing no relief to the soul. Where was the satisfying, redemptive qualities of a great Christian novel?

And we went to read a Nebraska pioneer-life account, along with the profound words of Brother Lawrence over Advent and Christmas season, both brief books, neither available in audio. 

So I was ready to put on my headset again as the daily routine re-started after the holidays, even if I came into it armed with prejudice, assuming much of The Odyssey would be boring, male-style, gory stuff of the old classics. Not very lady-like, I thought. 

I would let it grab me, I decided. A good book should be powerful enough to do that. I was challenging Homer to show me why my older kids had enjoyed his work so much. The boys used to come downstairs and delight me with theatrical representations of scenes they had recently read. I used to laugh at their dramatic antics and think to myself, Homer is such a boy-pleaser!

It was no surprise, then, when Homer went on and on via headset as I did my daily chores telling of Odysseus and his men, enduring all sorts of incredulous adventures with plenty of blood, fighting, and the like. And yet, surprisingly to me, sparks of beauty began to creep in the massive ancient work. Here and there, I would have been caught, dish towel in hand, wooden spoon in another, looking out to nowhere, completely grabbed by scenes that conveyed beauty and nobility. Some of the characters, either powerful and wealthy, or poor and simple, began to shine as characters of true interior beauty, integrity, and faithful love. 

Penelope herself shone brightly as a woman who uses all of feminine gifts to undergo and finally conquer a situation that was as complex and delicate as any of us could possibly imagine. Her peaceful, clever, loyal way is a beautiful part of the book. It is no wonder that Penelope is hailed, thousands of years later, as an example of feminine genius and loyal love.

As I approached the end of the book I was already satisfied enough with having understood the magnitude and importance of The Odyssey. With how, through the strength and virtue of its characters, it not only survived but transcended and guided so much of Western culture.

But for me, the best was yet to come. I was tackling a huge pile of laundry upstairs, accumulated by winter's illnesses and a long trip to Central Asia from which my husband had just returned, and listened as I patiently folded each piece: Odysseus, finally reconciled with good Penelope, goes to look for old Laertes, his elderly father. Odysseus is not immediately recognized by the good old man, not even after his disguise is discarded, but only when his childhood scar is revealed. Odysseus names each of the trees given to him by Laertes, planted in his childhood, as father and son roam around the property rejoicing in their re-encounter. The description of the scene enchanted me, their love for each other told in the most beautiful way by the ancient poet.

The pile of laundry next to me was left pretty much untouched as I drank in the words of this re-encounter. Perhaps because I miss my own elderly father, a great man whom I adored in my youth, so many thousands of miles away and whose voice I get to hear so seldom. Perhaps because this description of a love so celestial was unexpected in a tale of one-eyed monsters and jealous, petty-minded, make-believe gods, the re-encounter scene filled the heart. My eyes teared up, the heart swelled, filled in the beauty of the scene, in the beauty of filial love. Homer's words describing their joy in the re-encounter were superb. Poetic. They spoke of true love, a love that dwells somewhere well beyond any attachments of this world. It is this that I expect from a great book, this swelling of the heart, this directing of my heart and mind to higher things.

Over some good cheese and wine before dinner, I smiled and told my husband, a Great Books graduate and voracious reader, that I had finally come to terms with Homer. I had come to understand first-hand why we as a culture have read the ancient great writers like Homer for thousands of years. That they were truly pre-Christian writers, having touched, still blindly if you will, on the greatness and eternal aspects of the Truth. And that it makes perfect sense that so much of Christian thought is based on the words and thoughts of the ancients. 

He responded with a proud, satisfied, loving smile.


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