“Again, I thank you very much for sending me yet more writings of our friend … If, after this valley of tears, I am to save my soul, I know she will have had a significant part in my success. Not all the learning in the world—not the inductions, the syllogisms, the mastering of arguments, the analyses, the syntheses, or the reading of great books will do any of us a bit of good unless we, in our own way, rise, if ever so little, toward the wisdom one finds bursting out from all her writings.”
—Ronald P. McArthur, founding president, Thomas Aquinas College
I have a habit of giving things away, books especially. My mentor in this art of dispossession—leagues above me but presenting an ideal to which I aspire—is Maurice Baring, that forgotten third who converted, played, lived and wrote beside Chesterton and Belloc. His cousin Lady Lovat wrote in Maurice Baring, a postscript, “It is almost impossible to exaggerate Maurice’s generosity to friends, and, sometimes almost disconcertingly so, to total strangers…A hat, a cheque, a first edition of great value, a sewing machine, a love poem, a racing debt would be pressed at any and all times into the hands of those he loved. My children and grandchildren, before entering his room, were carefully warned to admire nothing, lest it should be given them. To a sick friend he writes ‘Only tell me of the books which don’t arrive.’”
I’m not entirely sure what motivated Maurice, but for me, Our Lord’s words when He sent out the Apostles—“Freely have you received, freely shall you give”—have a lot to do with it. That and limited shelf space. Our Lord also said, “Give, and gifts will be yours; good measure, pressed down and shaken up and running over, will be poured into your lap…” He wasn’t exaggerating and I find it hard to stay ahead of the curve of His generosity.
What I’ve discovered over the years of my great book-distribution project (not my great-book distribution project, although perhaps it depends on your definition of “great book”) is that there is no faster way to friendship than sharing the books you love.
Take, for instance, my friendship with the late Dr. Ronald P. McArthur. This friendship started, as so many of his friendships did, with his sharing the Great Books that had such a profound effect on his life—the official ones, the serious ones, the ones with capital letters at the front and the irrepressible Mortimer Adler behind them. Ron McArthur had helped found a college; I needed to go to one. It was that simple, a match made in heaven through the medium of books.
A friendship founded upon excellent books is bound to thrive, and so ours did. After Dr. McArthur gave me Strunk and White’s Elements of Style my senior year (with the command, “Read this and rewrite your thesis—the content is good, but your writing is just awful!”), I was inspired to respond in kind. The summer after graduation, I gave him a book about one of his heroes. A small return for all he’d given me, but he wrote in reply, “Thank you very much for the book. I read our library copy here, which is where I learned a lot about Merry del Val. I’m glad to have the book—to read again and to have others read it. I knew it was out of print so I didn’t think I’d ever get one, but thought always I’d like to have it.” Although I’d hoped he’d enjoy the book, I hadn’t expected this grateful response; receiving his letter confirmed my suspicion that nothing nourishes a friendship like a feast of shared books.
Over the years our friendship and our book exchange continued, the two closely intertwined. We had and made mutual friends among saints and seculars—James Thurber comes to mind as an instance of the latter, and I don’t think we ever found anyone that made us laugh harder. We shared titles, recommended authors, and in short surrounded ourselves with a cloud of witnesses, the most spectacular among them being, no surprise, the saints.
Possibly surprising, though, was the love this large man had for the littlest of them: among his favorites were St. Thérèse, St. Faustina, and another young nun who changed his life—Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, who died at age 26 on November 9, 1906, and whose feast the Carmelite Order celebrates on November 8. It was about her that he wrote, “If, after this valley of tears, I am to save my soul, I know she will have had a significant part in my success.”
When I say she changed his life, I don’t mean she was the cause of his turning from sin to sanctity. As long as I knew him (thirty years) and for decades before that, Ron McArthur was a serious Catholic and a good man. But what he, a Great Bookie if ever there was one, found in Elizabeth, as he found in Thérèse and Faustina and another of his favorites, the illiterate Jacinta of Fatima, was that Wisdom which has no need of books.
There is a double paradox here. Dr. McArthur helped found a Catholic college which boasts that the books are its teachers. Blessed Elizabeth, in particular, was so dear to him precisely because she exhorted him to treasure the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity who has no need of books to teach us. But finally, her exhortations came through her writings (which his friend John Nieto first shared with him) collected in books which vividly illuminated this ineffable mystery.
My last encounters with my friend Dr. McArthur revolved around a book he’d wanted to have for nearly the whole thirty years we’d known each other. And since God is mercy beyond measure, I had the pleasure of giving him that book—a book you might say he gave to me first.
We’d both known (he, much longer than I) a wonderful Jesuit, Father Thomas Aquinas McGovern, who taught at Thomas Aquinas College for thirteen years, from the second semester of its founding to the second semester of my sophomore year. Father died suddenly of a heart attack in February of 1985. One day he was teaching my favorite class, the next morning he prayed at Mass “for all those who will die today,” and that evening, he became one for whom he had enjoined us to pray.
He left behind what amounted to three binders full of typed sermons, carefully polished gems of Catholic doctrine, pastoral guidance, and the love of Christ. From the time these were discovered, shortly after his death, Dr. McArthur hoped they could be made into a book.
Twenty-nine years later, I had the privilege of bringing that book into being. It was certainly not a solo effort—many people helped bring that book into the world—but mine was the sweet joy of editing, the sincere joy of asking Dr. McArthur to write the foreword, the poignant joy of receiving that foreword from his family after he died (it was the last work he did and finished two days before his death).
A friendship based on books may seem a paltry thing if compared to a friendship based on Christ, but when the books that friends share are based on Christ, there is no comparison to be made, no disappointment or shadow of death hovering over the enterprise. St. Thomas Aquinas often said, quoting authorities on whose shoulders he stood, “All truth, by whomever spoken, comes from the Holy Spirit.” And so, while books themselves may not be eternal, the Word which forms their content, the Wisdom that bursts out from their pages, the Spirit of Love that uses the truth therein to set us free—these are the most eternal of all, Eternity Itself, even.
As the so-called holiday season approaches—the season of thanksgiving for family, friends, and all good things, followed soon after by the season of gifts inspired by God’s gift of His beloved Son—don’t let the shiny things of this world distract you from the best we have to offer each other. Give a favorite book (or two or five or ten) and watch your friendships grow. Your own shelves, the local thrift store, the sale table at the library: treasure is hiding in plain sight everywhere, waiting to be discovered, and best of all, shared.