The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
which a man found and covered up;
then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has
and buys that field (Mt 13.44).
There’s an obscure moment in the Second Book of Kings that many Catholics might not be familiar with. It only shows up once every couple years in the Lectionary, and it’s on a weekday, so it’s possible that it would’ve escaped the notice of even those well catechized.
It’s this: During renovations of the Jerusalem Temple, the high priest Hilkiah discovers a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures and brings it to King Josiah’s notice, which in turn triggers a ruckus. “Go, consult the LORD for me about the stipulations of this book that has been found,” Josiah tells Hilkiah, “for the anger of the LORD has been set furiously ablaze against us, because our fathers did not fulfill our written obligations.”
Among biblical scholars, there’s a bit of controversy over exactly what that lost and recovered scroll contained, but it’s clear that its contents were news to the people of Judah and their king. Weird, huh? These are the ancient People of the Book, and they seemed to have misplaced the Book for some period of time.
In any case, I’ll leave the exegesis and hermeneutics to the experts, for my primary interest is in the surprising textual find – can’t you imagine the exhilaration? Reading a bit between the lines, I picture Hilkiah shoving boxes around in a store room in search of candles or a cushion or something; maybe swiping away cobwebs and blowing off layers of soot; and then – what’s this? A scroll, an ancient scroll – he’d heard of these. Trembling now, the high priest unrolls the dusty parchment and recognizes the script – and the words are familiar! Could this be – could it possibly be? The lost Scriptures are found, and they’ve been right here under the collective nose the entire time!
That image of encountering a life-altering text in unusual circumstances is a romantic notion, and it calls to mind a couple prominent episodes from my own eclectic and rollicking reading history. One took place in Manila (of all places) between my junior and senior years of college. I was still an Evangelical back then and on fire for missions, and after getting revved up at Urbana the previous winter, I’d signed up for a summer internship with Wycliffe Bible Translators in the Philippines. Getting there was pretty rough, both physically and emotionally, and I was starting to have my doubts about the missionary vocation – at least for me – just as the journey was about to commence upcountry. My last day or two in Manila at the Wycliffe HQ, I was dejected and lonely – my fellow interns didn’t seem to be having any doubts at all – so I spent my free time in my room flipping through the books on the shelf.
That’s when I came across Joe David Brown’s Paper Moon – which some missionary left behind, perhaps after his own bout of disillusionment. I think by then I’d already seen the movie starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, so the novel’s title was familiar and I decided to give it a try. Hot and weary, depressed and wondering what the heck I was doing there, Paper Moon became a portable oasis that I carried with me into the boondocks. Originally titled Addie Pray, Brown’s story combines the traveling enchantments of Don Quixote with the Robin Hood-esque swindles of The Sting. It’s a tale of journey, of fatherhood, of sin and salvation, and it packs plenty of raw insight into the human condition. “It’s only when they start flogging themselves to get things they don’t really need – like big cars, and fancy clothes, and a house bigger than the one next door – that they get aggravated and mean,” Addie Pray relates at the beginning of the tale. “At least, that’s the way it appears to me.” It was just the relief valve I needed at the time. Serendipitous.
The other peculiar book encounter that stands out for me took place in Florida many years later and just prior to my marriage to Nancy. Her family was having a reunion with Grandma down there, and I tagged along to mingle with the crowd, especially Tom, Nancy’s dad and my future father-in-law. Tom was a retired AT&T engineer; I was an unemployed graduate student in theology. Hanging out together was awkward in those days, which is why Tom and I chose to routinely direct our attention to the one thing we were both passionate about: used books.
So it was that, when I traveled south to meet up with Nancy’s kin, used bookstores were bound to end up on our agenda. “I’m going to see what they have around here,” Tom tossed out one lazy afternoon. “Want to come along?”
“Sure,” I replied. It was well before the internet and the universal availability of every conceivable printed text. Shopping for used books was – and remains – like a treasure hunt without a map or metal detector. There’s no way of telling what you might stumble across, or what other treasure hunters might’ve passed over in ignorance or oversight. Back then, when used bookstores were plentiful, all you had to do was get out there and dig.
Theology was Tom’s main interest – Biblical scholarship, Christian mysticism, and the Church Fathers. You’d have thought that would’ve been my primary interest as well given my field of study, but I was already spending a great deal of time in such tomes, so I usually drifted off to other areas when we got to rummaging: biographies, for example, along with books about music and movies, and especially fiction. Fiction had been instrumental in my Catholic conversion after all—Graham Greene, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor—so I was partial to stories as vehicles of encounter and delight.
Tom had tracked down an anomaly in the Yellow Pages – a Bible store with a used book section – and he wanted to check it out. It ended up being what you’d expect: a lot of NKJV and NIV, Evangelical commentaries and devotional books. “Not much here for me,” Tom shrugged. “You?”
I was about to concur, until I spotted the “FICTION” sign. “Just a minute,” I said to Tom. “Let me scan this shelf.”(Christian romance, Christian romance, end times novels, more Christian romance, and then…John Irving?) I picked it up: A Prayer for Owen Meany. I didn’t know much about Irving, but I knew enough to be perplexed by his appearance in a Bible bookstore. No doubt, whoever did the used-book buying for that store saw “Prayer” in the title, assumed it was a “how-to,” and threw it on the purchase pile.
“I’ll take a chance on this one,” I said to Tom.
Irving’s evocative tale of fate, faith, and friendship is gripping, and I remember reading it straight through in a couple sittings. The characters are so real, the relationships so rich, and the story so challenging that I’ve recommended it countless times to friends and family over the years. Moreover, Owen Meany was the first time I encountered the potent personality of the Catholic novelist Léon Bloy, whose epigraph launches Irving’s novel and, in a sense, captures its theme: “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.” It was a providential find at the time, and it gave me courage as I waded into the uncharted waters of marriage and family life.
Novels are like wormholes, facilitating movement through time and space and repeatedly accessible. What’s more, sometimes they’re sacramental nexuses of grace – and just as mysterious in their effects. For me, Owen Meany and Paper Moon were just such timely points of contact, and the curious manner of my encountering them only reinforced that distinction. They challenged and provoked; unsettled and enlarged – to what end? “If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love,” John Irving wrote in Owen Meany, “you have to find the courage to live it.”
Maybe I’ll give those novels another go – or perhaps I should rummage around and find something…new. Any suggestions?