Codices and Quadragesimas

Time and Eastertide wait for no man, as the saying does not go, and anyone planning a Lenten observance has nearly run out ...

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.* This season of preparation is observed by Christians of many traditions (albeit on slightly different schedules: e.g., for Eastern Orthodoxy, Lent of 2023 will begin next Monday). Like Ramadan in the Muslim faith or the High Holy Days for Jews, Lent is a time of fasting and of special focus upon divine things.

CLT is not religiously affiliated, but a substantial proportion of the great books were composed by devout men and women, and religious devotion—both as a human phenomenon, and as a reflection of, or failure to reflect, its professed Object—is a natural topic of the Great Conversation. We’d therefore like to propose a selection of books from our Author Bank that we think would make edifying reading over the next six weeks. (It is more conventional to give something up for Lent, of course, but there is certainly no rule that one cannot add something in.)

At first we considered naming forty books, since there are forty days in Lent. However, being cognizant that of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh, we chose to cut our total down to a nice round baker’s dozen, hailing from all throughout history.

  • Confucius, The Analects (ca. 300-200 BC?). This compilation of the sayings of Confucius was set down by his disciples. The sage took the religion of ancient China for granted; his attitude toward what he euphemistically calls “Heaven,” and his insistence it demands right conduct, may strike the Christian reader much as Socrates strikes in the Apology, by his choice of non-retaliation and his statement “I shall obey God rather than you.”
  • Origen, On Prayer (232-235). Prayer is one of the most typical activities of any religion; Origen is one of the earliest and most important Biblical theologians in Christian history. He examines and rebuts a number of objections to prayer, sets forth the real aims of prayer, and comments on the text of the Our Father, one of the most famous Christian prayers.
  • St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (ca. 390). Part of the group called the Cappadocian Fathers (fourth-century theologians from what is now central Turkey, renowned for their defense of the doctrine of the Trinity), St. Gregory of Nyssa here interprets the life of Moses as an archetype of the spiritual maturation of every human soul.
  • St. Augustine, Confessions (397-400). This has been called the first autobiography, and is widely hailed as a classic by Christians and non-Christians alike. It relates Augustine’s tumultuous youth, striving to find intellectual, personal, and professional satisfaction, and his eventual conversion to Christianity.
  • St. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care (ca. 590). Composed by one of the most brilliant, generous, and tireless men ever to claim the Papacy, this remarkably sensitive and insightful guide to governing people in a religious institution was one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.
  • The Pearl Poet, “Pearl (ca. 1350-1400). This fourteenth-century poem from central England is a classic example of “vision” literature. A man’s recently-deceased daughter appears to him in a dream, urging him to rejoice in her heavenly bliss rather than grieving his own pain, and resolving questions from him that arise from his earth-bound perspective.
  • St. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (1418-1427). One of the most enduring works of late medieval Catholic mysticism, the Imitation has earned devoted readers not only among Catholics, not only from other denominations, but even from other religions.
  • John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623). Written during a life-threatening illness, this collection of twenty-three meditations on Christ, death, resurrection, and the mutual inter-animation of humanity contains some of the most celebrated prose in the English language.

If you desire ease, forsake learning.

  • Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (1746). Though famous—or infamous—for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and his associated role in the Great Awakening, Edwards’s work on the long-term practice of religion commends serenity, focus, and persistence over repeatedly chasing emotional highs.
  • St. John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons (1834). These were homilies preached by Newman while he was a passionate member of the Oxford Movement (a “High Church” Anglican group founded in the early 1830s), and reflect the love of traditional doctrine and ritual he had long before becoming a Roman Catholic.
  • Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (1843). This classic of early Existentialism opens with a question: do Christians sincerely admire Abraham’s faith in being willing to sacrifice Isaac? If so, what does faith mean to us, and how are we meant to achieve it?
  • Albert Camus, The Plague (1947). Though not himself a Christian, Camus believed it was essential to human nature to defy the meaninglessness of the cosmos; in The Plague, he depicts (among others) a skeptical doctor, an idealistic activist, and a devout priest, all working to care for the sick and struggling with their sense of powerlessness in the midst of it.
  • Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (1955). O’Connor’s second and last novel, this recounts the struggle of an unwilling prophet against his past, his family, and his vocation, and the strange and terrible means by which divine grace falls upon him.

*The English name Lent is a little unusual. The Latin name of this season is Quadragesima, meaning “fortieth” (after the forty days of fasting leading to Easter). Some languages borrowed this word, hence the Spanish Cuaresma, French Carême, and Croatian Korizma. Others named the season from its duty of fasting, giving the German Fastenzeit, Dutch Vasten, and Finnish Paastonaika. The English name comes instead from an Anglo-Saxon word for spring, Lencten, itself derived from the fact that in spring, the days lengthen bit by bit.


Thank you for reading the Journal. If you’d like to learn more about the Classic Learning Test, our Author Bank is a great place to start, along with our seminar series on the writers included on it; you might also enjoy our podcast, Anchored. Happy Mardi Gras!

Published on 21st February, 2023.

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