Bread of Angels

/ 29 June 2010

I’m just back from a wonderful week with the Wabash Center pre-tenure group. I always bring along with me, on flights to and from such events, some kind of novel or other book that can be “brain candy” for me as I fly, or relax in the evenings. This week I brought along a book called The Bread of Angels. Technically speaking it’s not a novel — actually more of a memoir with liberties — but it reads like one. And it is a wonderful book! How to describe what it’s about? I don’t know. On some basic level it’s about a young woman who’s spent a good portion of her young adulthood traveling throughout the Middle East, who decides to settle down for a bit and do a theology degree at Harvard. A Fullbright scholarship takes her to Damascus, Syria to study Arabic — and there she also does the Ignatian exercises at a very ancient monastery.</p>

But even that description doesn't really "capture" what the book is.

Maybe if I said it's a book in the genre of Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk, Nancy Mairs' Ordinary Time and Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions? At least, it struck similar chords for me. But deeper ones. Or maybe it's just that I was in the middle of this incredibly rich week of learning, and I needed something that could accompany that learning, but also stretch it? I don't know. I just recommend that you run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and find Stephanie Saldaña's book.

I have wanted to share some excerpts, but there are so many wonderful pieces, it's is very difficult to choose! Maybe this one will give you a taste:

The Sheikha has memorized every single word of the Quran, so that I sometimes feel she contains it. Often when she discovers a new meaning of a word in the Quran, I have a sense that her entire interior self is slightly shifting, like a plate moving beneath the ocean of her being. For her, reading is not just about who she is, but is also about who she will become. I know that as I am a Christian, she has elevated me above her students, because I am also her teacher, just as she is mine. I know different ways of seeing words. We are each teaching the other a new way of reading.

Every time I confront two different versions of a story, in the end I ask myself, What is the story that I want to contain? For the early monks believed that there is no such thing as a story -- we each meet the text, and who we are and the text together create a unique event. We change for it and it changes for us, the act of reading becoming an essential way of transforming ourselves. We can only bring to he text what is inside of ourselves -- even if the story is a story of death, if we contain life, we will find life.