Be Not Afraid (of Virginia Woolf)

The Rev. Becky Zartman, Christ Church Cathedral’s Canon for Evangelism and Formation, invites us to spend the summer contemplating a literary masterpiece and bringing fresh perspective into our own lives.

Thought lingers, love plays

I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing, when I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I didn’t quite understand what was happening at first, because it was clear that although Mrs Dalloway was about preparing for a party, this book was actually not at all about preparing for a party. Somehow, I was invited into a world of different perspectives, illuminations, and striking observations of human existence. I read the entire book in one sitting. 

I didn’t understand Woolf (or Mrs Dalloway, for that matter) but I knew that I loved her. She came at the truth sideways, which is perhaps the only way to tell these sort of truths (perhaps this explains Jesus’ fondness for parable?) What I learned was to let myself be in each moment as Woolf presented it; and in doing that, I learned how to better let myself be in each moment of my own life. She gave me license to see, really see, right now, how the light drifts through the live oak, revealing the dust mites in the air, a moment in time. Woolf showed me that even when the right now is hard-edged, it is only the right now that holds wonder and joy.

So this summer, I am inviting you to your own summer, to your own life. To experience a book (one does not exactly read Virginia Woolf) as practice for experiencing the wonder and joy of the present. Our theme is “Thought lingers, and love plays.” This is my hope for you, that you might linger with your thoughts, and experience the love in your life. 

I know this isn’t an easy book, and I know it generates deep and meaningful questions and discussion. So we’ve created a “you can do the thing!” Cathedral Reads this summer.

We will have two lectures with Emma Ridder, a twentieth-century literature scholar. Emma is  passionate about helping non-academics interact with “challenging fictions.” She will introduce us to the modernist movement, talking us through why these works are written as they are. For instance, if you’ve ever tried to read T.S. Eliot’s The Wastelandyou were probably left disoriented… which means, that piece of art worked the way it was supposed to. Emma will orient us to To the Lighthouse so that we can be with the work fully. She will be with us on Zoom on June 12th at 2:00pm and June 23rd and 6:30pm. 

We will be hosting online small groups, a weekly “Loose Canons” discussion, and of course Dean Thompson’s Cathedral Reads Dean’s Hour on August 7th. One other thing worth noting – since the book is so experiential, we’ve planned a “Lily Briscoe Painting Party” at the Art Cellar in River Oaks; we will be painting a piece inspired by Woolf and To the Lighthouse. That event will be July 21st at 7:00pm

I very much hope you can join me and others in talking about this extraordinary book. You can do the thing! we can do the thing! and more than that, we can experience the thing.

~The Rev. Becky Zartman

For more information on programs and small group discussions, click here.

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
~Virginia Woolf

Owen, We Hardly Knew Ye

I’m already missing Owen Meany and my Cathedral Reads group, but the Dean’s Book Club has a line up that promises to provide the next great read.

If Owen Meany is the reason that John Wheelright believes in God, I have to say that Owen is also the reason I got through the pandemic summer. My Cathedral Reads small group was a delightful collection of women, great readers all, who generously shared their insights and wisdom about A Prayer for Owen Meany, and life in general, each week. Some had read the book several times, and others were experiencing its richness chapter by chapter. We talked over an hour about each chapter, and I always came away thinking that many hours more would be necessary to really grasp all the details Irving packed into this dark, funny, moving and layered novel. 

No matter what was happening in the news or at my house, I could count on this group and their perspective. I discovered many more layers of the book and of myself because of their conversation. Religion, sex, politics—we covered the waterfront in our discussions as Owen led us there with his full-frontal capitals. It was refreshing, sustaining, and enlightening conversation, providing just what a book club should. 

Now it’s over, and I’m sad. I will miss my group and our routine. I will miss talking about Owen, and John, and Harriet and Hester. All summer I’ve been looking for armadillos, and I wonder if I’ll see them as frequently now. And there is the question of what to read next.

Yes, I have groaning stacks of books at home, and many more at the Bookstore should I ever run out. I’ve already started some of them, and they are commendable. But reading with others—others with different experiences and ideas and perspectives—seems so much more important now than just reading alone. Zooming for pleasure with the loose agenda of a great book is so different than a Zoom meeting. Anticipating a stimulating hour of good fellowship and conversation held back the dread of the sameness of the days all summer long.

Thank goodness the Dean’s Book Club is starting up again for Fall. If you, too, are looking for your next great read and a group to share it, look no further. September will provide a last deep dive into Owen Meany. October’s choice is S.C. Gwynne’s Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War; November, the Cathedral’s own Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters; and December the venerable Catherine Meeks’ Living Into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America.  All this non-fiction will be particularly interesting after having been steeped in Irving’s perspective on America all summer. I’m looking forward not only to gleaning new insights from these books, but also to sharing them with good readers.

To encourage you to support the Cathedral with your book-buying habits, The Cathedral Bookstore is offering a 10% discount on all the Dean’s Book Club titles from now until the meeting when the book is featured. However you choose to procure these titles, I hope we’ll get the chance to discuss them at some point this fall. As Owen so wisely told John “READING IS A GIFT,” and reading with friends is an even sweeter pleasure.

Love of books is the best of all.
~Jacqueline Kennedy