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Reading In Place: Field Notes from the Seminary
Friday Dec 9th--End of Semester Banquet

When I began this All Seasons blog four years ago, I was leading local book discussion groups and working as a solo librarian at the Town and Country Club in San Francisco.

T&C--as it is fondly called by members--is a women's club that was founded in 1893 by Bay area society women. 

I read and recommended a lot of historical fiction, California history, political nonfiction, science and nature books, mysteries and biographies about French and English society  and royalty. 

Edith Wharton,  the Mitford sisters, The Other Boleyn girls and Coco Chanel kept me company for eight years--as did intrepid explorers like Gertrude Bell (Iraq) and Dame Shirley(California Gold Country) and our U.S. Secretary of States Clinton, Rice, and Albright.

Now, as I write this blog from my office in the library at the Roman Catholic St Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, California (www.stpatricksseminary.org)--many of the people that I am reading about hail from ancient times. They  and the readers I now serve lead lives of prayer and have fewer fashion choices.

I am six months into my  assignment, managing the library --at a workplace which also includes a chapel,  classrooms, a dining hall,  and housing for the seminarians and the priests of the Sulpician order, who teach here.  

I work in a place both religious and academic, where people live and work and pray and study together.  It is also a place where the 19th century plumbing can threaten to flood out 21st century technology--and the scent of incense meets wafts of air freshener in the hallways. 

Where at T&C my fish out of water challenge was being a middle class girl from Queens, thrust into high society,  at SPSU, (St Patrick's Seminary and University) I am  a Jewish woman working in an organization run by the men of the Catholic Church.

Thus far, the level of tolerance and acceptance and respect here  at St. Patrick's has been encouraging. I feel very much at home--and am comfortable with the liturgy. I imagine that there will be some debates when we get into discussions about the separation of church and state--but right now I am still learning how to pronounce the names of the Saints and the still omnipresent Latin phrases that are a sign of learning and knowledge here. At Town and Country Club -- it helped to know French.

My biggest challenge is that of losing track of time--both chronologically and organizationally.

For one thing, the campus built in 1898, looks like little else in Silicon Valley and the building and rooms are stately.  The workday begins with Morning Mass (attendance for me is optional) and ends with Evening Prayer. Bells announce the noon lunch hour.



Let me tell you about the December morning that I arrived early at work--and found myself in the midst of a celebration of the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  I was carrying my Coach satchel in one hand and the New York Times wrapped in blue plastic in the other. As I walked through the front door at 7:30 a.m., priests and seminarians, some faculty, and women religious (Oblate Sisters from Mexico) were lined up outside the darkened chapel holding lit candles--preparing to walk in and  sing morning songs in Spanish, honoring and celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe.

One of the seminarians handed me a lit candle.

All I could think about was not setting the New York Times on fire.

Then I was aggravated because I realized that it was going to be at least an hour until I could get any coffee.

And then the music and singing and praying in the magnificent chapel in the candelight began and, once again, I lost track of time. I also lost the caffeine headache. Ah-the healing power of prayer!

Since the All Seasons Book Blog has from its start stressed the importance of physical location, emotional temperment and time of year on book group choices,  there is going to be a transition in this blog.

Of course, if you have been reading this blog this far down the page, I guess you saw it coming.

Behold, from this day forth, I will be discussing more spiritual, philosophical and religious books because that's what I am reading right now in order to catch up with 2,000 years of history, philosophy--and a whole lot of other people, places and concepts with names that I am still learning to pronounce.

Right now, I  want you to literally see why it is easy to lose track of time and century.

Here is a picture of the main reading room of the library:


October 2011  Photo credit: Peter Nguyen

Here is the chapel:

 So what am I reading these days?

Well right now its more about learning the content--rather than reading specific works.

Note that I say works--not books!

There are the works of the Early Fathers of the Church (a study I now know to call Patristics), the thoughts of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and more contemporary ones like Kirkegaard, the writings of Pope Benedict, (I am auditing a class next semester)  and Mariology--the theological study of Mary, mother of Jesus.  There are also the reading lists for classes in moral theology, systematic theology and church history, and did I mention the Old and New Testaments? 

One book which has become a fascinating and trusted reference source, is Butler's Lives of the Saints--with excerpts from their writing--the 1954 John J. Crawley & Co. edition.

There are more modern, inclusive,multicultural versions of the Lives of the Saints, including  but I like this one because it includes some of their writings.

The Crawley version also lists the saints in historical order--which makes it easier for me to follow church history.

The first entry in my version of Saints is for St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop, Martyr c . 117  (February 1).  The first date is the year that he died. The second date is the Feast Day that is celebrated for him.

The Feast Days are indexed so that you can see, for example, which Saint Days line up with your birthday. (Mine is St. Nicholas).

But there is no index which tells you the causes or professions that the Saints represent. You have to read the text to find out.

Alban Butler (1710-1773)  wrote the original Lives of Saints which appeared in four volumes published in London between 1756 and 1759.  Butler was an ordained priest who became the chaplain to the family of the Duke of Norfolk. He also taught philosophy and theology to other priests.

 I am not sure if any original volumes still exist.

But, if you have $350 to spend on a Christmas present for someone saintly or someone you would like to inspire to become saintly, The Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minnesota has published a twelve volume version corresponding to the months of the year; each volume contains entries on saints with feast days in that month--and the final volume, December, includes an index to the series, as well as a supplement of recent beatifications through the year 2003, and an ecumenical calendar. 

Ordering information is here:


If you are looking for a more contemporary novel, raising issues of faith and faithlessness in the heart of suburbia, I suggest Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers.  It describes what happens in a small present day New Jersey town, where hundreds of people start vaporizing, in what is believed to be  The Rapture. Some call it satire, some call it dystopian--whatever you call it, there's much clearly material to discuss in religious and secular book groups.

Question #1: How do those left behind, known at "The Guilty Remnant" cope with their new reality?

Question #2: What would you do if you were the one left behind? And why do you think that you might or might not be chosen to ascend?

(This is why I am not currently leading any book groups) 

Here's an quote from author Tom Perrotta, in a National Public Radio Report:

"I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity, and obviously the rapture kept coming up," he says. "My first impulse was ... to laugh it off — it's sort of a funny idea, people just floating away. But I kept thinking: What if it did happen? ... I thought, I'm such a skeptic that even if it did happen, I would resist the implications of it, and I also thought that three years later, everyone would have forgotten about it. No matter what horrible thing happens in the world, the culture seems to move on."


Not sure I am moving on these days--time is standing still and moving backwards.

I even know that we are in Advent season.

In my next blogpost--more book selections and less musing.

I promise.

Happy Holidays