Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian

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The (Christmas) Tree of Knowledge


Me and my tree, Bishop Payne Library, 2015.

I built a Christmas tree out of books.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. I work (at least part of the time) in a library.

Deeply rooted in theological knowledge, I built my tree out of old National Union Catalogues, Anchor Bible Commentaries, and dusty volumes of Luther’s Works. A novel here, a dictionary there, a little liturgics, a little pastoral care, some lights, and voila – a veritable tree of wisdom!

It took about 300 books. Hardbacks work best. And literally every branch of the tree sprouted from someone else’s library: read, marked, inwardly digested, discarded from or donated to Bishop Payne Library.

When clergy retire, downsize, or go to their greater glory, their books often are bequeathed to the seminary. Sorting through boxes of old musty books might seem like a pain in the ass, but for me it is a rare privilege. It is a labor of love.

As I pull books out of boxes, it’s like pulling up a chair in the pastor’s study. Running my fingers across the spines, I inventory their interests and note their passions. Counting the volumes, I calculate the year of their graduation and the years of their career.  Dating the collection, I witness their ministry both rise and fall.

It is deeply personal.

Handling the books one by one, sometimes a little something will fall out: a letter, a photograph, a Christmas card — a little intimate window into the mind of another.

A library speaks volumes on the state of one’s soul.

So what does my library say about me?

My library occupies every room in my house – except the bathrooms! Even my hallways are lined with bookshelves. (I have a Kindle too, but that really doesn’t count.)

Just this past week, my daughter Colleen asked me to choose my seven favorite books. She said to take pictures of the spines and send them to her. It has something to do with my Christmas present, I think, but I am not allowed to ask.:)

How can I possibly choose just seven? And OMG how long is this going to take? Well, somehow the Spirit moved and within fifteen minutes, I had selected them all.

Seven books are listed below. Each one represents approximately a seventh of my brain: its moods, its appetites; its insatiable curiosities.

So here we go.

The Book of Common Prayer

You saw this one coming, right? Lex orendi, lex credendi. We pray what we believe. For 500 years, these prayers have been shared  across both time and space. Even when I believe in nothing, I continue to pray.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I read this childhood classic in college.  There I fell in love with John Tenniel’s inky drawings and Lewis Carroll’s marvelous play on words. It became something of an obsession, which became my “Alice collection”. Visit my house and you will see, it obsesses me still.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

A no brainer (pun intended!) This is Kay Redfield Jamison’s eloquent and elegiac story of her own bipolar life – both personal and professional. She is my manic-depressive hero.

Carmina Gadelica

Literally translated, it means Gaelic Songs. This is Alexander Carmichael’s 19th century compendium of Celtic charms, prayers, and invocations. A civil servant, he collected them in the Outer Hebrides while auditing books. Divine music to soothe my pagan soul.

Joan of Arc, a History

Helen Castor’s masterful book tells the tale of the Maid of Orleans – my saintly namesake, Joan. Like her, I do confess that I have heard voices from time to time.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books

My nerdiest passion is reading books about books. There is nothing more delicious and decadent than reading a book about books – this one in particular. Be still my heart, Nicholas Basbanes!

 Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

In the beginning was the Big Bang. In the beginning was the Word. Science is this theology student’s final frontier. Thanks to great translators, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, reading science has become my Lectio Divina.

Seven is a very revelatory number. Seven little books to reveal my soul.  Possibly they say more than could be said in ten years of therapy – bibliographically speaking!

(Thank you, Colleen!)

This little spiritual exercise  has been healing, hopeful, fruitful and fun — all very good things at this time of the year.

So go ahead and choose your seven!

Select seven books that speak your mind and sing to your soul. Mix them and match them. Run your fingers along their spines, recall their pages, and hold them close. Take them and build a little tree of wisdom – a Christmas tree of knowledge.

Inhale their aroma as incense rising to the heavens.

And may The Word that resides in the words of your seven — bless you seventy-times-seven  this Holy Yuletide!



“Alice in Wonderland”, a Bipolar BookGroup Discussion Guide

"Tenniel's Alice, the colorized version"

“Tenniel’s Alice, the colorized version”

Once upon a time long, long ago at Catholic University — I become a devoted devotee of Lewis Carroll. Never having read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass as a child, I became a huge fan when I enrolled in a course called “The Literature of Fantasy”. We read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein. We read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Narnia books, and the Out of the Silent Planet series by CS Lewis. And I loved each of these authors and each of their books. But by far my favorite writer in this genre was the shy Anglican deacon and mathematician, Charles Dodgson — pen-named Lewis Carroll.

Post college, I became something of a fanatic. Lewis Carroll has pride of place in my library and “Alice” has her very own shelf on my bookcases. I have reproduction copies of the first editions. I have the Annotated Alice as well as The Arthur Rackham Illustrated Alice. I even have a copy of the original story Lewis Carroll first wrote down for little Alice Liddell – Alice’s Adventures Underground. And over the years I have collected little “Alice things” along the way. Christmas tree ornaments, postcards, and china figurines. And just a few months ago, when my youngest was launched for the second time (I have launched all three of my children twice. Two times seems to be the magic number!), I have finally turned “the kids’ room” into a real guest room. And it is now my little Alice in Wonderland room.

But not of the Disney variety. The Disney variety is saccharine and sweet and an abomination. The Alice books are of course delightful but they are also dark and disturbing and disorienting. The titles themselves – “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” are both deep and delicious metaphors for one’s bipolar moods. The prints on the walls of my little Alice room are John Tenniel’s pen and ink, Arthur Rackham’s Victorian earth tones, and Salvador Dali’s wild watercolors. No, no Disney cartoons here.

So friends, if you dare — follow me now into Wonderland. Here, chapter-by-chapter, and verse-by-verse, are excerpts for you to “read, mark, and inwardly digest” – from a decidedly bipolar point of view. And don’t worry if you get a little lost or can’t find your way or some things make no sense.  Just “Go ask Alice. I think she’ll know.”

Down the Rabbit Hole  The rabbit hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well. Either the well was very deep or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her…She tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything… Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen. And after a fall such as this I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs’.”

Discussion Question: Just how long and deep was the last hole you fell into?  Did your feet touch bottom? Or are you falling still?

The Pool of Tears “’Curiouser and Curiouser!” cried Alice; “Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!'” Alice’s head struck against the roof of the hall: in fact she was now rather more than nine feet high. Poor Alice! She sat down and began to cry. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a great girl like you to go on crying in this way. Stop this moment I tell you!” But she went on all the same shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool around her, about four inches deep and reaching half way down the hall.

Discussion Question: When have you felt so stretched to your limit that all you could do was sit down and cry?

A Caucus Race So out of the Pool of Tears, the Dodo says,  in an offended tone, that the best thing to get us dry is a Caucus-race. “And what is a Caucus-race?” said Alice?”; not so much that she really wanted to know. ”Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.” First it marked out the race-course in a sort of circle (“the exact shape doesn’t matter” it said) and then all the party were placed along here and there. There was no “one, two, three and away”, but they began running when they liked and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.

Discussion Question: What rat race have you been running in? What did you win and what did you lose?

Advice from a Caterpillar Now a tiny Alice stretches herself up on tiptoe and peers over the edge of a mushroom and looks into the eyes of a large blue caterpillar. They look at each other for some time in silence; at last the caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and in a languid and sleepy voice he asks her, “Who are you?” Alice replied rather shyly “I – I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I have been changed several times since then.” “What do you mean by that?”, said the caterpillar, “Explain yourself!” “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir.” said Alice, “because I’m not myself you see.”

Discussion Question: Who were you when you got up this morning? Who were you when you went to bed? Try to explain the difference.

The Cheshire Cat’s Directions “What sort of people live around here?”, Alice asks the grinning cat. “In that direction” the Cat said, waving its right paw round “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like. They’re both mad.” But I don’t want to go round among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat; we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “ or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Discussion Question: Look to the person on your left. Look to the person on your right. Look at the person in front of you in line at the grocery store or behind you at the bank. Take a look at your neighbor across the street. Take a good look at your coworkers. Discuss how everybody and everyone is mad.

The Queen’s Croquet Ground Alice thought she had never seen such a curious croquet-ground in her life; it was all ridges and furrows; the croquet balls were live hedgehogs and the mallets were live flamingoes, and the soldiers had to double themselves up and stand on their heads and feet, to make the arches. The players all played at once without waiting for turns, quarrelling all the while. In a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about and shouting, “Off with his head!” or “Off with her head!” Alice began to feel very uneasy. ”What will become of me?” she thought. “They’re dreadfully fond of beheading people here.”

Discussion Question: Share a crazy-making situation where you thought you might lose your head. How did you manage to keep it? Or did you lose your head after all?

The Lobster Quadrille

“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.

See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle – will you come and join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?

Discussion Question:  Is it better to dance with the lobster you do know or the turtle you don’t?

So friends, want to join this crazy book club? The coffee is brewing in the kitchen. Come exactly as you are. Come and join the dance.

The Divine Fool leads. It ‘s up to us to follow.

Dance, dance, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the dance  said he. And I lead you all wherever you may be. And I lead you all in the dance, said he.”


Note:  It’s National Mental Health Awareness Week, October 5 – 11. This post is “synchro blogged” with the release of Sarah Griffith Lund’s book, “Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence Around Mental Illness, Family, and Church.” Check it out!