The (Christmas) Tree of Knowledge

Bishop Payne Library, 2014

Once upon a time, I built a Christmas tree out of books.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. I used to work (at least part of the time) in a library.

Deeply rooted in theological knowledge, I built my tree out of old National Union Catalogues, Anchor Bible Commentaries, and dusty volumes of Luther’s Works. A novel here, a dictionary there, a little liturgics, a little pastoral care, some lights, and voila! – a veritable Christmas tree of wisdom!

It took about 300 books. Hardbacks work best. And literally every branch of the tree sprouted from someone else’s library: thoroughly “read, marked, inwardly digested,” and discarded from, or donated to Bishop Payne Library.

When clergy retire, downsize, or go to their greater glory, their books often are bequeathed to the seminary. Sorting through boxes of old musty books might seem like a pain in the ass, but for me it was a rare privilege. It was a labor of love.

As I pulled books out of boxes, it was like pulling up a chair in the retired pastor’s study. Running my fingers along the spines, I inventoried their interests and took note of their passions. Numbering the volumes, I calculated the year of their graduation and the years of their career.  Dating the collection, I witnessed their ministry both rise and fall.

It was deeply personal.

Handling the books one by one, sometimes a little ephemera would fall to the floor: a letter, a photograph, a Christmas card — a little intimate window into the mind of another.

A personal library speaks volumes about the state of one’s soul.

So what does my library say about me?

My library occupies every room in my house – except the bathrooms! Even my hallways are lined with bookshelves. (I have a Kindle too, but that really doesn’t count.)

A few years ago, my daughter Colleen asked me to choose my seven favorite books. She said to take pictures of the spines and send them to her. It had something to do with my Christmas present that year, but I was not allowed to ask.😊

How could I possibly choose just seven? And OMG how long was this going to take? Well, somehow the Spirit moved and within fifteen minutes, I had selected them all.

Seven books are listed below. Each one represents approximately a seventh of my brain: its moods, its appetites; its insatiable curiosities.

So, here we go.

The Book of Common Prayer

You saw this one coming, right? Lex orendi, lex credendi. We pray what we believe. We believe what we pray. For 500 years, these prayers have been shared across both time and space. Even when I believe in nothing, I continue to pray.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I first read this childhood classic in college.  There I fell in love with John Tenniel’s inky drawings and Lewis Carroll’s marvelous play on words. It became something of an obsession, which became my Alice Collection. Visit my house and you will see, it still obsesses me.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

A no brainer (pun intended!). This is Kay Redfield Jamison’s eloquent and elegiac story of her own bipolar life – both personal and professional. She is my manic-depressive hero.

Carmina Gadelica

Literally translated, it means Gaelic Songs. This is Alexander Carmichael’s 19th century compendium of Celtic charms, prayers, and invocations. A civil servant, he collected them in the Outer Hebrides while auditing books in the local towns. Divine music to soothe my pagan soul.

Joan of Arc, a History

Helen Castor’s masterful book tells the tale of the Maid of Orleans – my saintly namesake, Joan. Like her, I do confess that I have heard voices from time to time.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

My nerdiest passion is reading books about books. There is nothing more delicious than reading a book about books – the kind you find in the “Z” section of the library. This one is a particular favorite. Be still my heart, Nicholas Basbanes!

Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

In the beginning was the Big Bang. In the beginning was the Word. Science is this theology student’s final frontier. Thanks to great translators, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, reading science-for-non-scientists has become my Lectio Divina.

Seven is a very revelatory number, don’t you think? Seven little books to reveal my soul.  Possibly they say more than could be said in seven years of therapy – bibliographically speaking!

(Thank you, Colleen!)

This little spiritual exercise proved to be healing, hopeful, fruitful and fun — all very good things at this time of the year.

So go ahead and choose your seven!

Select seven books that speak your mind and sing to your soul. Run your fingers along their spines, recall their pages, and hold them close. Take them and with them build a little tree of wisdom – a Christmas tree of knowledge.🎄

Inhale their aroma as incense rising to the heavens.

And may The Word that resides in the words of your seven — bless you seventy-times-seven this blessed Chrismastide!


Books Christmas Libraries Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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