Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
One of the seminarians whom I teach came to me recently and said, half-joking, “I think I will scream if you write one more book list for the Register!”
Yes, I realize that I have done a healthy amount of book recommendations in the past few articles, and I have to admit that I have been very edified by the kind response of the readers to these lists. They were designed to introduce readers to some really interesting books which have helped me grow as a Catholic, as a priest, and as a professor of theology. I promise that this will be my last book list for a while (and yes, this list will be in two parts!) and that after we finish these “top tens,” I will go back and write more explicitly on theology, Church history and spirituality!
This is a list of 10 books or works of fiction that I believe can and will benefit every single person in the world, most especially Catholics. The origins of this list come from a conversation that I had here at the seminary where I minister, the Pontifical North American College, with my friend and colleague, Fr. John Geary McDonald, who serves as the Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics. Fr. McDonald and I were speaking about the literary, historical, and artistic references that our seminarians would make in general conversation at the lunch table and even in homily practica. It struck both of us that, as highly intelligent as our seminarians are (and they really are), many of them come from a background where the classics of Western Civilization was not deeply explored. I was asked what 10 works of fiction, all from the Western tradition would I recommend that our seminarians be familiar with in order to become not only an engaging preacher, but also a well-rounded man. I think that, like the monks in the time of the Dark Ages, one of the roles of the priest is to help preserve learning. In our technological age, where more and more information is available, and less and less people have an interest in the classics, and more and more interest in the sound-bite, the priest (and indeed the Catholic Christian) needs to help preserve culture and learning.
These choices again are mine and, as such, are subjective. These are classics (and by definition of classic, I refer to the description offered by Friedrich Schlegel’s “A classic is a writing that is never fully understood. But those that are educated and educate themselves must always want to learn more from it.” as well as the definition offered of Fr. David Tracy, who defines a classic as “those texts, events, images, persons, rituals and symbols which are assumed to disclose permanent possibilities of meaning and truth…” [The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1981), 68.]) and they are works that profoundly affected my understanding of the world.
Please note that I am deliberately not including works of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the Church’s Magisterium, the Catholic spiritual tradition, or any specifically Catholic novels. I grew up with a book in my hand. My sister, Eileen, taught me to read when I was three and I am forever indebted to her. Truly, I love books and learning, and I do not think that this love is in any way contradictory to the vocation to priesthood.
With no further ado, here are (and in no particular order) my suggestions of works from the Western literary tradition from which I believe all will benefit:
1. Homer’s The Odyssey (from the end of the eighth century BC) is a profound work of journey and truly an excellent adventure story. An epic poem and a sequel to his work, the Iliad, it is believed to be the second most ancient work of Western literature. I had the joy this summer of listening to this journey again on audiobook, which led me to really think again about how important this work, which I first read in high school, actually is. It is the hero’s journey, and one might have knowledge of this work in one of its many adaptations, whether it be the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) or Tim Burton’s 2003 adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s work, Big Fish. All Odysseus wants to do is go home to his wife, Penelope and his son, Telemachus, having been wandering due to the fates after the Trojan War, but he cannot. In his absence, suitors have lined up to woo his wife and take away his son’s inheritance. Odysseus and his crew encounter Circe, the enchantress, the Cyclops, and escape from the land of the Lotus eaters. With Greek gods influencing his fate, both positively and negatively, this is an epic poem which speaks of flawed heroes, homecoming, father-son relationships, loyalty and friendship.
2. Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, an epic poem completed around 1320, is one of the greatest and most profound works of world literature. Broken down into three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, the Divine Comedy tells the tale of Dante, a middle-aged man, who, with the aid of the aide of the Roman poet Virgil, seeks to rescue his muse, the lovely and elusive Beatrice. This journey takes Dante from the cold pit of hell, staring down a fat, bloated, pathetic Satan to the heights of Heaven. Deeply influenced by the Catholic philosophy and theology of his day, Dante’s work has been described as “the Summa in verse.”
3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky has been described as the greatest novel ever written. Completed in 1880, it is the tale of a Russian family that goes far beyond a “soap opera.” Issues of faith and reason, doubt in the existence and providence of God, free will, and family are all part of this magnificent novel. Sadly, most of the adaptations of this work into films have not been all that good! So, do yourself a favor and read the book!
4. No list of classic literature would be complete without William Shakespeare. The noted American thinker, Harold Bloom, states that Shakespeare “invented the human” in the modern world. It is very difficult to pick one play that William Shakespeare had written and to say that it is the one to read. I love so many of them for so many different reasons, from The Tempest to Julius Caesar to Much Ado About Nothing. However, most people consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet (thought to be written around 1599-1601) to be his best work. It is the tale of a son. Prince Hamlet of Denmark, mourning the death of his father, the King, while his uncle Claudius has married his mother, Gertrude. To all of this add the imminent attack by Prince Fortinbras of Norway and the love of Ophelia and we can clearly see why Hamlet is so moody and indecisive! And the good thing is that this play has been performed well with so many different actors in so many different productions from Laurence Olivier to more recently Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and even television’s Doctor Who leads David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston
5. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a collection of four poems, all of which are deeply longing for the transcendent. In fact, George Orwell, author of the dystopian novel, 1984, gave Four Quartets a bad review because he felt it was too religious! The four sections, “Burnt Norton,”, “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding,” are deeply beautiful reflections on life, death and time. Although my favorite work of T.S. Eliot is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I would suggest that the reader unfamiliar with the poet to begin with this work. Interested listeners can go to YouTube and hear Eliot read his “Four Quartets.”
In my next piece, I will offer five more pieces of literature from which any cultured person, particularly a Christian, can benefit. These will include works by Tolstoy, Milton, Cervantes, Doyle and Austen. Please feel free to let me know your picks and why!