On Taking Many Books Captive to Christ

September 10th, 2013

Several weeks ago my family moved to Boston, MA.  Boxes and boxes and boxes of books came with us.

We put up some classy bookshelves which are one of my wife’s copious creative industrious brainchildren. (They’re made of cool old boards and iron piping.) And all my books went up on those classy shelves. That is, all my favorite and most-used and most-prized books went up on them – the books I’m most likely to need to grasp on any given week while doing this Theology Ph.D. student thing. All the rest of my books are stacked against the wall underneath them. (It’s no big deal. We put a couch tastefully in front of those.)

And the power! and the sway! those lovely, wise, books have over my eyes and my mind! All organized on the shelf, I’d look at them and be drawn to just stand still and gaze into them, lost in admiring reverie. Not reading, mind you, not contemplating precisely the things the books say, but contemplating the kaleidoscope bouquet of pleasant associations bloomed in me by the books themselves. I would stand there, like Aristotle’s Magnanimous Man (for so gazing on one’s books makes one feel), enjoying those few fine possessions. Ah, the wisdom they represent! Ah, the theological learning! Ah, all the different languages, all the elegant turns of phrase, all the centuries of erudition on display in one place in my living room!

Anyways, I knew that this sort of pleasant self-congratulatory lassitude was unhealthy. I knew it was being “possessed by my possessions,” as my childhood pastor Jim Mayfield would often say. I knew it represented my disordered loves, in Augustine’s idiom. Ontologically speaking, mosquitos, fleas, and algae are all greater than the lifeless paper of those books.

But I didn’t want to replace them with mosquitos, fleas, and algae.

Nor did the wife who built the bookshelves.

At any rate, a week later, after a handful of other sessions of being transfixed for countless successive moments on end gazing at those orderly books, we got around to putting up pictures and things that hang on walls. Which meant me putting up some icons. Which meant the big icon of Jesus Christ going in the center, in the very heart of that bookshelf.

Bam!—The power of the books is broken, and in a dramatic fashion that comes as something of a shock to me.  The books are now but the train of Christ’s robe. My gaze, insofar as it happily lights on the bookshelf, is pulled to gaze into the eyes of Christ. The books are not ends in themselves. They exist because of, and for the sake of, their creator. They are valuable but miniscule tools to help me love God and help others love God. The Lord is worthy to be contemplated endlessly; the books contain knowledge that has the potential to be iconic and help me and others love the Lord, even as the books become idols when my gaze rests on them and is held by them and doesn’t seek in them the Lord giving them their slight being even at this moment.

Today’s gospel lesson (from the Roman Catholic lectionary—see perhaps the free iBreviary app) is Luke 6:12-19. It contains the logic of the way relics of the saints function as means of grace, itself an extension of the logic of the incarnation: as Jesus prepares to preach, “all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all.” As it is with Christ himself supremely, and as it is with his holiness, which is just the Lord’s holiness, as it lights in any holy person, so it is with an icon, a graven image of him: insofar as a material thing is taken captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) it becomes a means of light and grace and truth. In the case of me and my bookshelf, Christ uses his icon to heal and stay my mind from self-consumption.

The epistle lesson for today is Colossians 2:6-15. It contains the words, “See to is that no one captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy according to the tradition of men, according to the elemental powers of the world, and not according to Christ.”

Putting Christ at the center of my studies, even right in the center of my bookshelf, making the effort to pray before and as I read or write, is, for me, the difference between all those books being the broad roads of empty seductive philosophy and the narrow way of Christ.

What about you?

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