The morning mail brought me a pleasant surprise in the form of a book I had ordered from a used book supplier in the USA and then forgotten. But here it emerged from its packing, “TImes Alone, Selected Poems of Antonio Machado translated by Robert Bly.” Machado is one of my favourite writers, whom I can just about read in Spanish provided I have a translation nearby when I’m stuck. So this was a pleasure indeed! I have also to admit to a particular additional pleasure that the book is second hand. In this case there is no inscription to give me any glimpse of the original owner, nor any marks in the text to tell me which poems he or she especially enjoyed or was puzzled by. But I do know from the condition of the book that the unknown owner was careful of it and that he/she read it with clean hands. I like to think of this person in the USA somewhere, perhaps with a better knowledge of Spanish than I, reading Machado’s poems, looking through the volume for favourites, as I have already done, pleased at the fact that there are so many that are new. I can fantasise that this original reader, probably now dead -since surely they wouldn’t have given the book away – would have approved of it finding a new life with me. Like all great literature this book will change me as it also changed the life of of its first possessor.
Very seldom nowadays am I desperate as I used to be to get my hands on the latest stunning novel, or political diatribe, or scientific report. More often I am conscious of the masterpieces I’ve lost, given away or never read in the first place. “Abe Books” has become one of my favourite suppliers because it has a vast collection of used books in good condition of all kinds on all subjects. I can recommend it with a good conscience. Using their books reminds you that you are part of a great tradition of reading and of course, writing – for where would the writers be without their readers?- a tradition that values knowledge and the special pleasure of gaining it through a book.
This love of what is handed on to me applies even more definitely to the Christian tradition. There was a time when I didn’t like that expression, because it seemed to make my faith into a second hand commodity rather than a personal commitment. Now I am at ease with it. My faith is something handed on. As I read the bible or plan a service of worship, or visit parishioners, I happily sense my ancestors in faith doing the same in different times and places, some of them, like my maternal grandfather, Rev. Victor Caldwell, possessed of scholarly expertise beyond mine, because he studied the Greek classics; and others, like my paternal grandfather, Rev. Alexander Mair, possessed of commitment beyond mine as a missionary in China. Or I can think of the memorial stone built into the wall of the Kirk of Auchterhouse, (one of the churches I serve) recording the life of a woman who cleaned the church buildings, with the quotation from Jesus, “I am amongst ye as one that serves.” She and those who erected the memorial, sang the same psalms, followed the same Jesus, and lived in the same kind of unequal society as I do.
This happiness in tradition does not in any way diminish the contemporary personal commitment required for faith, for it is as a living commitment of particular people that the material of faith is handed on. Yes, there are scriptures, doctrines, sacraments, prayers and hymns, to which I have access in books and online, but they are only of value as the expression of individual and communal experience. It’s like the book I got this morning; it’s in my hands, blessed by the experience of its original reader. In that case I can only imagine that experience, whereas in the case of my ancestors in faith, I have been more directly blessed in knowing some of them, and in having specific knowledge of the experience of others whom I have not known. Recently I read the diaries of George Fox the Quaker leader with astonishment at their vivid representation of a revolutionary practice of faith. I was reminded only the other day of the record of the Desert Fathers and Mothers which communicates their sharp and sober wisdom.
I’ve chosen to spend much of my time these days working through the chunk of tradition we call The Bible, in the hope that I can pass on the practice of faithful, critical reading of the Bible to some of my descendants in faith. In an era when the fundamentalist distortion of Christian tradition appeals to those who want to be sure they are right, I want to set an example of how to receive the gift of Scripture as being, like its Lord, divine only in humanity, weakness, fallibility, and unbelievable liveliness. If I can hand on a little of that to a new generation, I’ll be happy.