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On Canons and Saints

Tom Sturch

Untitled It happened during the Q&A portion of Dr. Cairns' poetry reading. When a man at the workshop posed his question, Dr. Scott Cairns prefaced the answer by asking him if he had read The Brothers Karamazov. No, he replied. Suddenly, the bright, amiable room we sat in shuddered and darkened like a rift valley in a quake and descended into an animated, if not fiery, lecture on the essential nature of that book.

“Wow! Was that Socratics?” asked a panicky voice.

“Rhetoric, I think,” said another, catching her breath in the aftershocks.

“No,” said the voices of those who'd read the book. “He was finding the right ground for his answer.”

Of course, nobody outside my silly mind said those things and the ground falling away is a figure. But the initial incident was true and left the man's question, along with its answer, lost in a canonical chasm. And we who were exposed with poorer footing made an orderly bee line for the bookstore.

My habit is to read rather slowly for an hour a day in the early morning. So Brothers, a thick book, will take a while. (Another thick book I read, Centennial, took about a hundred years!) But someone once said that a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies so the amount of time is really no concern. What is, is the quality of choices for the lives and times I read. Dr. Cairns, knowing this, cared enough to risk his Q&A on the seismic question, Have you read...?

As Dostoevsky begins telling the story of Alyosha, the book's protagonist who would come to study under an elder, the narrator offers this picture:

What, then, is an elder? An elder is one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and with total self-renunciation. A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life's obedience, attain to perfect freedom that is, freedom from himself and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves.

* * * * * * * *

All Saints Day has just come. It sits on the liturgical calendar like an outpost in Ordinary Time and readies our journey into Christmastide. The Saints, like great teachers, point the direction, supply the need, and walk a distance alongside. They become fellow travelers from a different time that we do not see except by the light of words and imagination, and yet are there. In this relationship words become light and light becomes time. How small the leap, then, that word might become flesh when we see it so in the courses of other lives?

Thus, I embark on Brothers, which I should finish around Epiphany. I do it so I might ask questions grounded in the prospect of better insight, and as an act of trusting my teachers' admonitions that time spent in good reading is time being redeemed.

What time, by what light, do you read?