Here is a website with an excerpted version of the article I mentioned in the previous post:http://www.hagiasophiaclassical.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Literature-Culture-and-the-Western-Soul-The-Sisters-of-St.-Xenia-Skete.pdf
by Cheryl Anne Tuggle
When my children were young I received from a friend a copy of an essay written by a nun titled “Forming the Soul”. The essay explained the importance of good quality fiction in the spiritual education of a child. I’ve lost it, unfortunately. Or, I can’t find it temporarily. I do, however, remember the nut of the essay:
As parents we find it important to feed children good food to ensure their bones and brains are forming well and growing strong. We should find it just as important, if not more so, to feed their minds in a way that considers their taste buds and interests their pallets, and yet ensures they are forming strong, healthy souls. We laugh to think of children choosing their own diet. It’s not hard to imagine the empty calories that would be eagerly consumed at every meal. The analogy is clear, I won’t press the point further because this post is about the forming of an adult soul: mine.
In an email discussion the other day, I mentioned to a writer friend that fiction had played (and continues to play) an important role in my spiritual journey. That friend asked if I would share a few titles. Below is the list of books that emerged from our conversation.
When I considered fiction that in some way changed or helped to form my soul, certain books leapt to mind. These are the titles I decided to include, with no other criteria. There aren’t any political or dystopian novels—no Ralph Ellison or Elizabeth Atwood. You might also notice the lack of titles usually found on lists of spiritual novels: no beautifully written sermons by Wendell Berry or Marilynn Robinson or C.S. Lewis, no Walker Percy or Flanner O’Connor or Toni Morrison prodding the darkness to expose the light. This is not because I don’t admire or respect the work of these authors, but when I thought about them I had to admit that they simply had not pierced the tough skin of my soul, however much they challenged my mind and pricked my conscience. So this, again, is a personal list, a sampling not of books that should have, but of books that did. Most are classics. A few are more recent (growth, hopefully, continues). All are novels that have what I call “the gospel spark”, stories (mostly told in traditional style) with characters who through their fictional struggles and triumphs illustrated for me the Resurrection—the joy unspeakable and full of glory that comes only, incomprehensibly, from accepting to shoulder my cross and follow Christ.
I’d love to hear from you. What titles would be on your list? Which stories or authors have helped form your soul?
The Dollmaker by Harriet Simpson Arnow
Nickel Mountain by John Gardner
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein
Tales from a Greek Isle and The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamandis
Wonderful Fool by Shusako Endo
Bleak House and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Sojourner by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Middlemarch and Silas Marner by George Eliot
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Promise by Chaim Potok
The Bell by Iris Murdoch
Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
Crime and Punishment and The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
Laurus by Eugene Vodalazkin
by Cheryl Anne Tuggle
A few weeks ago I discovered an essay, published in 2012 in the New York Times by resident writer Paul Elie. The title asked, ‘Has Fiction Lost its Faith?’
It’s a good question, and sparked another for me: What if? I tried to imagine a world in which literature never had any element of religious faith. Not the world of Fahrenheit 451, mind you, in which books are illegal. No, this world has plenty of literature, just none with the slightest element of religious faith, no God-seeking. It’s a world without Jane Eyre, Monseigneur Myriel and Uncle Tom. There has never been a Binxs Bolling or a Reuven Malter, a Calpurnia, or an Atticus Finch. A world, I argue, less interesting than ours.
In modernist fiction there seems to be an idea that to be serious a novel must be devoid of any element or reference to faith in God, especially in the Judeo-Christian sense, unless the element is pejorative or comical. In other words, serious fiction must be atheistic in all its aspects. With some bright and shining exceptions, such as Eugene Vodalazkin’s ‘Laurus’, or Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Abide With Me’, a new canon of literature is developing out of this assumption, literature that is not only paler and flatter for the most part than its vibrant, multi-faceted predecessor, it has become conscious of itself in a way some readers find frankly juvenile. As one novel-loving friend expressed it to me: modernist fiction is largely dark and depressing, its characters are sullen and sex-obsessed. Hearing this description, I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of the moment in the movie ‘Harvey’, when Veta, Elwood’s sister, feels similarly about her world, and asks, “Why don’t they get out? Take walks!”
Literature, fiction as art, has always been born of the desire to discover, to find out the how and why, to learn by creative means what evil exists in the human heart, and what good. The novelist is a spelunker, an explorer of caves, moving through the labyrinths of the human experience, seeing what can be seen by the light of a headlamp’s beam. I can’t help but see fiction without faith as dishonest discovery, which in my mind is no discovery at all. For the novelist who refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of serious faith, noble faith, in the human experience, is one who trains their gaze on a small corner of the cave and keeps it there. That novelist will never know, or be able to show us, what lies out of reach of the headlamp’s beam. It might be a vein of pure gold. Meanwhile, the reader is left to stare at a wall of stalagmites and wonder, however vaguely, what lies just out of the light. And this is where my writer’s heart begins to hope. For as long as the wondering continues, I believe there will be faith in fiction.
*Thank you to David Haigh and Marianthe Karanikas, fellow members of the Good Seed Literary Society, who so generously and thoughtfully considered this subject and shared their ideas with me.
by Cheryl Anne Tuggle
At times, while thinning out an iris bed or hanging my granddad’s work shirts on the line, my grandma used to get a certain far away look. It put a fence between us, that look, and I wanted a gate. I didn’t know the phrase “penny for your thoughts” or I would have used it, would have taken a hammer to my piggy bank and paid whatever toll it took to follow her into that country behind her blue, blue eyes.
I’ve got my own country, these days, and travel there often. Perhaps too often. Just last week I caught myself driving down a road I couldn’t see because I was on a different one, in a different car at a different time, having a conversation with my son. A high school senior, he had enough credits for early out. His own car was in the shop, so I had picked him up and was driving him to work. After answering with his usual brevity my questions about his own day, he asked how things had gone with his sister, who was on her second week in a new school—a school that was not just new to her, but new to everyone involved. Held in a century-old house belonging to a couple of teacher friends of ours who had been schooling their children at home for years, it was a homeschool cooperative-slash-one room schoolhouse experiment. In answer to my son’s question, I said, “Well, she was pretty excited this morning when I dropped her off. Apparently, yesterday each of the kids got to dig their own bed in the garden. She had a bag of tulip bulbs she couldn’t wait to plant.” For a moment after my reply there was silence, not unexpected. He was a quiet boy (now a quiet man) who rarely spoke without first pondering. At last, when he was good and ready, he said, “Sounds like a real school.”
So, there I was, driving down a road in the present, thinking about that day in the past, remembering those four words, and it struck me that there was a deeper wisdom in them than I’d grasped at the time That day, I’d only been gratified, felt bad for folks who were still languishing, educationally speaking. Because, honestly, that school was a beautiful thing. A sort of greenhouse, if you will, for rooting children in a style of education which makes them curious to know things, turns them into independent learners. Even just two weeks in, I had reason to feel our choice to send her had been the right one.
Real school. Those words, I saw now, weren’t about school at all. Not about a garden bed, soft, dug dirt, waiting to be planted by small, eager hands in tulips. Not about a large old rambling frame house with private corners for curling up to read, big wide rooms for acting out Shakespeare or plays from stories you’ve written yourself. They were about life itself. God-given. Divinely sustained.
If there are times when it seems you’ve been enrolled against your will in an institution of hard knocks, curriculum designed to teach you to take it all on the chin, all the heartbreak, disappointment and loss, you’re not alone. Some of us are the type to endure, complaining only when things seem especially difficult. Others of us find it so unbearable we plot to run away, like children escaping some terrible Dickensian boarding school. Because, as the songwriter says, “it’s better than sittin’ here waitin’ around to die”
This ain’t heaven. There’s no escaping the hard. It will find us, even on the run. But the Lord Jesus Christ, who has suffered all we have and more, is with us, ready to teach us the ways of love. His is not the school of blind endurance. Not the school of escape. His way brings peace. And joy so sweet…well, there aren’t words.
We just can’t drop out.
Sarah Wright over at theorthodoxmama.com runs an amazing blog! She writes about faith, family and frugal living. How wonderful it is to find fellow travelers on the spiritual path who encourage and uplift us! She was gracious enough to include a post I wrote about my conversion story!
by Michele Latham
Social media is full of inspirational tidbits. One that I have always liked was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Life is a journey, not a destination”. Another take, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” is a good one, too. But when it comes to my journey to the Orthodox church, it was all about the destination. Not to say that the journey was unnecessary. Sometimes I mentally trace the steps I’ve taken to arrive at the Church.
I was raised by loving parents in a Southern Baptist Church. I was baptized as a youngster, attended Sunday school class and revivals and learned about Jesus and the Bible. I left home to start my adult life, having not asked many questions. During the next several years, I attended some Protestant churches and met many lovely people. My husband and I loved God and yearned for a spiritual life, but to us, there was something missing at the churches we were visiting. God was definitely present, but it seemed there should be something more to support the reading of scriptures. While I visited different churches observing the services, my husband started researching Christianity. Where was the original, pure form?
Roughly 18 months and numerous books later (this was pre-internet time) we found what we were looking for. The Orthodox Christian Church. Christ’s church. Teachings based on Holy Scripture, complete with ancient traditions, saints and wisdom of the church fathers passed down unchanged for 2000 years. We had found the ancient Church and it was alive in our hometown!
I am so grateful for my particular journey. If I had skipped ahead at some point, I might have missed some important lessons. My parents, and the Baptist church, the pastors whose words inspired me, the youth directors and old folks whose lights shone so brightly: all of these people fed me along the way and kept me safe on my path.
But God could have used any path to direct me to the Church.
I am always interested to meet other converts and hear about their experiences. There are many and varied paths that lead us to Orthodoxy.
And now that I have found my home, I know that the destination, the true Church is the most important part of the journey.
*Want to write a post about your journey? Email a draft to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
by Mary Michal Rogers
My journey from Protestantism to a sort of nameless faith to Orthodox Christianity began really without my knowledge.
My parents’ disillusionment with the church they’d always known started and culminated before I was old enough to know much about what was going on. What I do remember is the search and the fight to keep faith alive even when we didn’t know what to call ourselves. That fight led us to the truth – the True Light.
It also led us to an inherited, non-working dairy farm in a town called Spokane, Missouri. It isn’t what you’d call a particularly progressive part of the state; Branson sits 30 miles to the south and the Bible Belt influence thrives. The farm and my ancestors were well-known in the community, but we ourselves were still outsiders. My sisters and brother and I all had been homeschooled for most of our lives, we knew nothing about farming, and we had no plans to attend any of the local churches. Instead, we drove an hour each way most Sundays to Ash Grove, where Father Moses Berry served Liturgy in a gardening shed in the middle of an historic cemetery.
We didn’t exactly blend.
And then in the fall of 1996, we removed all doubt from the minds of the locals. My parents hosted an Orthodox gathering on the farm (which sat, quite literally, right on a main thoroughfare); Father Alexii (then Father Paisius), Father Moses, Mother Pachomia, Mother Bridget, even Father Herman and a host of other monks, nuns, priests and Orthodox faithful journeyed to our 80 acres and camped out for a weekend. We held services in the hayloft of the old barn, prayed and sang and talked around big bonfires, and were only vaguely aware of the Baptists and Lutherans and Pentecostals slowing down when they saw men and women in black robes and caps sitting around a fire in our front yard. From the perspective of our ancient faith, nothing could have been more normal.
There’s some humor in this account, but the truth of it is that the holiness of that one weekend never went out of that farm. Until the day we left it, it was as if you could hear the Akathist and Typicon still being sung in that hayloft. Just like I see Christ when I look into the eyes of the monastics, the Fathers, the Elders, the holy icons…I knew in my soul that I’d been part of something otherwordly (even where just a few are gathered in My name…). My own rocky, meandering path towards the True Faith began.