Monday, February 17, 2014

A Book Well Worth Reading

My wife has been learning the Lord's Prayer in Irish. She picked it up pretty quick. I wasn't the best teacher, as I didn't get it exactly right, despite having regularly recited it in the last few years, and despite having had fourteen years of my schooling through the Irish language.

Listening to her say it, I found myself thinking about a particular book that I feel like reading, but that I can't get a hold of right now.

It's simply called The Lord's Prayer. It was written by an E.A. Somerville, who was an Anglican and a professor of English, writing in the thirties or forties.

The book is about three hundred pages long and looks at the Lord's Prayer from various angles. It begins with a discussion of the textual sources in Luke and Matthew, especially the exact meaning of "supersubstantial bread", and how this was translated by various translators. Another chapter goes into the writings of the Church Fathers on the subject. But the historical stuff isn't laboured, and it's written with a light touch.

Then there is a long chapter analysing the prayer itself, its centrality to Christian life and culture, and the ways in which it both harmonizes and contrasts with pre-Christian ethics and morality.

The later chapters are the cherry. The writer looks at the influence of the Lord's Prayer upon English poetry and fiction, from medieval times to the time of writing. He lets his pen wander through his own experiences and ruminations, most entertainingly. He describes how he heard the prayer recited and drawn upon by schoolchildren in Birmingham (he was a school inspector at one point), by his fellow soldiers in World War One, and by farmers that he drank with in a Somerset pub.

Finally, the book expands to a long and lyrical exploration of the spiritual life and the condition of man in the twentieth century, all seen through the lens of the prayer Jesus gave us.

The edition I have in mind is a rather weathered library copy, bound in blue-grey cloth, with ink stains on the cover and various scribbled notes, highlighted passages and thumb-prints inside. The print is dark and rather large.

The author's style is what makes the book. He is by turns reverent, drily humorous, poetical, scholarly, anedoctal, personal, and mystical. He is a representative of a type that I think belongs especially to the England of that time-- cultured, no-nonsense, whimsical, well-travelled, wearing his scholarship lightly.

This is the book I yearn to read right now. There is only one problem. The book does not exist.

Reader, I swear that this is exactly the book that I suddenly felt a craving to read as I listened to Michelle recite the Lord's Prayer in Irish. It came to me in a flash. I won't claim that every detail was fleshed out in my mind, but it was all latent in the picture that popped into my head-- the same way you might imagine a fictional house, and readily describe every item of furniture within that house, if a friend were to press you. Or you might imagine a particular character and be able to describe their political views, tastes in food and turns of phrase with minute precision, without even having to think about it.

This is the book I want to read. This is the exact book I want to read. Down to the ink stains on the cover.

Why doesn't it exist?

And why do we have such strange cravings?

And why is imagination so very mysterious?


  1. Very nice Maolsheachlann. You had me for a moment there. Maybe you should write a story about it. Or write the book yourself.