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My heart sank when I heard the Pope’s holiday reading advice

I’m not sure I can sit on the beach, surrounded by grandchildren, and read the Book of Job

By on Friday, 5 August 2011

Benedict XVI told pilgrims this week that some books in the Bible could be read in an hour (CNS photo)

Benedict XVI told pilgrims this week that some books in the Bible could be read in an hour (CNS photo)

I have very great respect and affection for Pope Benedict – this is quite different from “papolatry”, I might add – but I confess that my heart sank when I read his suggested reading for the summer holidays. His Holiness, speaking to an outside audience at Castel Gandolfo, says why not read something from the Old Testament, such as the Book of Tobit (high ideas on marriage), Esther (example of faith), Ecclesiastes (because of its “unsettling modernity”) or the Book of Job (problem of innocent people suffering).

I do get his drift. We Catholics don’t do enough spiritual reading and the Bible is the best place to start. The Pope tries to be encouraging, saying some of these Books can be read in an hour. But could I seriously sit on the beach at Barmouth, surrounded by grandchildren, with the Book of Job? I don’t say the Old Testament is a closed book to me, but it is not familiar territory. The Pope also suggests the New Testament, where I am on more familiar ground – but I always associate it with Lent, when I read it straight through.

Mind you, I would still rather follow the Pope’s advice than eg David Cameron or Ed Miliband. The former is taking a novel called Skippy Dies with him, a comic account of life at a Dublin public school. I don’t care how funny it is; at 661 pages it is far too long. He is also reading Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore, starting at the back. I sympathise with this bad reading habit as I often do it myself; I like to know if the ending is going to be happy.

Ed Miliband has to win the nerd’s prize for holiday reading: a self-help book on how to be a leader and two unreadable volumes on the global economy. He has also taken a book about Robert F Kennedy called The Last Campaign; I can tell it’s going to have an unhappy ending. He would be better off trying something from the Old Testament; it was written by his forbears, after all.

It strikes me what intellectual pygmies our political masters are these days, compared with someone like Gladstone. On holidays at Hawarden Castle, the Grand Old Man would spend his time tutoring his daughters in Greek, chopping down trees, building a library to house his vast collection of books and in his leisure intervals enjoying Dante (which he knew by heart), Virgil and Spurgeon’s sermons. Even Macmillan, with his passion for Trollope, had better taste than today’s politicians.

So what will I take with me to the beach at Barmouth? My quixotic rule is to pack what lies under my feet, ie what has been thrown under my desk to be read at a later date. A little foraging unearths the following:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird. I have to teach this as a GCSE text in the autumn; it seems to have a cult status and I enjoyed the film starring Gregory Peck.

2. Beloved by Toni Morrison. I have to read this for my next book club and the blurb tells me it is about suffering, slavery and the Deep South. I am already worrying about the ending.

3. The Trial of Marshal Ney by Harold Kurtz. My father gave me this for my 15th birthday half a century ago and I haven’t yet read it. Starting at the end, like David Cameron, I read: “Ney, now in full view of the assembled troops and a small group of bystanders, handed the Abbe a golden snuff-box and some money; the Abbe embraced him and fell on his knees in prayer. The troops had formed a square and the firing squad was in position…” Not a happy ending, then; filial duty will make me now read the whole.

4. Memory and Identity by John Paul II. I rescued this book recently from a charity shop; opening it at random, I read, “There is no freedom without truth. Freedom is an ethical category. Aristotle teaches this principally in his Nicomachean Ethics… This natural ethic was adopted in its entirety by St Thomas in his Summa Theologica.” I view this book strictly as an intellectual challenge; I am not yet sure I can rise to it.

5. Deadlock by Sean Black. I managed by mistake to click a button on my computer to say I would review this thriller, so got sent a free copy. I am not recommending it; the opening sentence goes, “Ken Prager woke to blood at the back of his throat and the barrel of a shotgun pressing hard into his right eye.” Even my mother, who has never read a book in her life, asked, “What are you reading this rubbish for?” when she accidentally picked it up in the car.

Still, I like the idea of “unsettling modernity”, as the Pope describes the Book of Ecclesiasticus. I open it gingerly at random to read, “Sin begins with a woman and thanks to her we must all die.” Pithy, powerful and true – and very unsettling. It passes the Barmouth Beach Test. Where’s my rucksack?

  • Tim Robertson

    How lovely, to be on the beach at Barmouth surrounded by grandchildren ! Does one need a book in these circumstances ? What about taking yourself back to childhood and reading some of their books,  The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, or Hilarie Belloc’s wonderfully humorous Cautionary Verses for Children ? The last should get you chuckling, and they will love the drawings.

  • http://mundabor.wordpress.com/ Mundabor

    Ed Milliband certainly has desperate need for the book about leadership.
    One doubts whether he will get any benefit out of it, though…


  • http://mundabor.wordpress.com/ Mundabor

    Mr Phillips,

    the summer has many quiet hours away from the beach, and without children around. The Holy Father’s suggestions are certainly very fitting.


  • Aquinitatis

    It is good to hear that the Holy Father encouraged the reading of the Old Testament books.

    These books and figures are important, and it is rather sad that we do not have as much familiarity with them as the New Testament books. What a wealth is to be found in the Old Testament for bible stories for children. Jonah and the Whale, Noah and the Ark, Joseph and his coat of many colours, etc.

    As for adults, these stories have much to teach us today and further, if we read them in the light of the New Testament, of Christ, of typology, they really come alive. (See here for example: http://www.catholicfidelity.com/apologetics-topics/mary/mary-ark-of-the-new-covenant-by-steve-ray/ )

    Forget about summer reading: open the pages of the Old Testament as many days of the year as you can!

  • Brendan Marshall

    If one is at the beach at Barmouth, Bournemouth or Brighton during the British summer, the chances are rather good that a significant percentage of one’s time will not be spent lazing on the sand (assuming the beach has some) in bright sunshine, but rather, inside sheltering from the rain. In those circumstances, I think a dip into the Old Testament would be quite appropriate.

    Indeed, even after a day on the beach having one’s eyes assaulted by what passes for bathing costumes these days, I think I’d be tempted to seek refuge in the Word of God.

  • Siobhan

    If I may make a suggestion for a good read I would recommend Killed by a Passing Snowflake. It is written by an Irish author (T.C.Mulvihill) and although some of the language is indeed very strong there is no denying the truly authentic Catholic voice behind it.

  • Pcament

    Unfortunately this sort of piece reinforces the (probably true) stereotype that Catholics by and large are just not comfortable with the Bible, and that the Bible is a Protestant book.  My Protestant father has taken the Bible with him on every holiday trip he’s ever taken.

  • Asbr

    The Pope said Ecclesiastes not Ecclesiasticus.

  • Davidfsavage

    there  are great things to read in the Bible, epic adventures and moving poetry, I always  read one or two books of the Bible whilst on holiday.  I am currently re reading the book of Revelation… more exciting and moving than Star Wars.  Francis Phillips is being a bit light weight on this.  I think we should take the Popes advice rather than Francis’ – and Job is a fantastic book  Has he really read it?

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    You must mean evangelicals.

    I’ve had many run-ins with mainline protestants and most of them don’t seem to want to have anything to do with the Bible although they’ll still claim to be Christians.

  • Kennyinliverpool

    Not being pinickity but the Book of Job cannot be read in an hour

  • guest

    I think the best way to read the whole bible is praying the Divine Office.  You get a first reading from scripture and then a second that helps explain it from the fathers of the Church.  Reading the O.T on your own without a homliy can be a bit strange.   Ecclesiates and Job are well covered in Divine Office III

  • Parasum

    Gladstone was Britain’s last Christian statesman. Not many Christian politicians are equipped to write books on Church and State, or defences of Scripture: He wrote the one in 1838, & “The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture” 60 years later.

    How is that for a combination of Christian faith, Classical culture, & political & theological ability ? Politicians now  are Yahoos & pygmies by comparison :( 

  • Parasum

    A lot of the OT would not be out of place in the pages of “The Sun” – an awful lot of it is very “raunchy” (what’s happened to that word ?). It would make a brilliant soap.  

    Despite the names, it’s not clear that a murdering thug like Joshua is a good “type” of Jesus. Of Hitler, by all means – of Jesus, not at all.

  • Anonymous

    Your heart sank?

    With the deepest of respect: Not as much as us when we read your articles ma’am.

  • Anonymous

    Rotflol !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Pleeeze your holiness! Not “JOB!!”

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think Mrs Phillips will get much time without children around!

  • http://twitter.com/mjw0212 Matthew J Wright

    I also read the Holy Father’s advice on holiday reading material prior to my wife and I going away recently.  I thought about how I could incorporate this idea into our holiday.

    When taking a vacation do many of us unwittingly take a holiday from God and the Church?  If we’re away on a Sunday, do we excuse not going to Mass on the basis that it’s a bit tricky finding a Catholic Church in foreign climes? Will taking time out to go to Mass get in the way of our holiday schedule?

    As it happened I took a work of fiction with me to read during our backpacking trip around the Black Sea;  The Power and The Glory, by Graham Greene.  An excellent read, which lead to me to question how I lead my Christian life and to think about many of the issues raised in the book.

    Incidentally, while on holiday we were fortunate to go to Sunday Mass in both Turkey and Ukraine.  With the exception of going to Mass in France, I have had little previous opportunity to experience a Mass which did not come with a soupcon of Anglo-saxon cultural ingredient. However, the Mass in Istanbul (at Saint Anthony’s of Padua), was celebrated by an African priest, a large proportion of the congregation were Filipino, which influenced the musical style and the rest of the congregation, sweltering in the heat, were tourists from around the world.  In Ukraine, my wife and I went to Sunday Mass celebrated in Polish. It highlighted my reliance on the reading Missal, when I couldn’t quite keep up with all parts of the Mass.  The Priest was very gracious and saw the humour, when afterwards, in my best Russian and hand gesticulations, I pointed out that the service times noticeboard translated into English outside the Church was titled “Holy Mess” and that Mess in English did not quite translate in the way the Priest might have thought.

    My wife and I took the time to visit Mosques and Synagogues during our trip   The first time either of us had been in either. In addition to taking enjoyment from the historical and cultural sightseeing we both reflected on how we all worshiped the same God but in different ways. 

    Far from being an obstacle or an hindrance to our holiday and much like life in general, taking the time to include God enhanced the whole journey experience.

  • brockbabe

    “I like the idea of “unsettling modernity”, as the Pope describes the Book of Ecclesiasticus. I open it gingerly at random to read, “Sin begins with a woman and thanks to her we must all die.” Pithy, powerful and true – and very unsettling”. True? True? What kind of a self serving sexist limited individual writes this stuff?