Cooking the Books

In the introduction to his dream-vision poem, The Parlement of Foules (The Parliament of Fowls), the great medieval author, Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400,) wrote “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”, meaning, of course, that life is short and acquiring proficiency in any craft takes a very long time. In Chaucer’s case, he was reflecting particularly on the craft of writing. Writing IS a craft, and it IS hard work and I mention this because it’s been quite a while since I posted to this blog.

It’s not that I’d stopped writing. In fact, during my absence from the blog, I worked on my latest book, the creative non-fiction The Mystics Who Came to Dinner, and was thrilled to have it published by Orbis Books in April this year. And it’s that book that showed me exactly what Chaucer was talking about in his aphorism about the time required to attain competency in writing, or in any craft really.  For although I completed the book in under six months, I had wanted to write a generally accessible book on the medieval mystics for quite a long time. In fact, I had been asked to write such a book very soon after the completion of my PhD on medieval mystical texts back in 2001. There was no way, at that time, that I could envisage conveying the deep experiences of these mystics in more transparent terms without diminishing their messages. I tried but just couldn’t come up with something that seemed convincing to me, let alone anyone else.

Still, I did manage to produce an academic book on the subject in 2008, and I was content with that … for a while. But almost every time I gave a public talk or interview about the mystics someone would ask, “Is there an accessible book on the topic, not too heavy?” And, though there were, and are, many wonderful books, I knew that what the audience members were asking for was a book that delivered the deep insights of the mystics but in a lighter form, a form that encompassed their humanity, personalities, tribulations and triumphs, as well as honouring the deep spiritual experiences that had been theirs. A book that was more like a conversation than a lecture. And I knew that the books I would recommend in answer, though excellent, were not quite what they were asking for. So I continued to turn over in my mind the hope that, somehow, someday, I might write a more widely readable, more widely relatable book about the mystics.

And then Covid came along and I had time to turn over that hope even more concertedly. And one night I awoke at 3am with the ‘conversational’ component of my wonderings pushing itself to the fore and I suddenly knew that I’d invite six of my favourite mystics to dinner for an evening of conversation about their lives, loves and lessons. I would let them speak for themselves, basing their words on their own writings but updating and creatively elaborating their interactions, and reimagining their personalities, to highlight their relevance to 21st century readers.

How did Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, The Cloud of Unknowing author, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe communicate with each other, and with Annie, their host, you might ask, especially considering that their birth dates range from 1098 to 1373 (and those dates are a long way from 2022), and their places of birth (and, therefore, native languages) vary considerably. Perhaps I’ll answer by offering some extracts from the book in subsequent posts. But, for now, I’m thinking of Chaucer and his point that “the craft [is] so long to lerne”. Yes, The Mystics Who Came to Dinner took me less than six months to write, but it was really over 20 years in the reading, learning and planning stage, percolating in my imagination without me consciously realising it. I could not have written that book twenty years ago. Like bread, I had to mix and knead the idea, give it time to rise and bake before taking it from the oven to share with others.

Perhaps many of you are cooking the books, too, at this moment, even if you don’t know it.  

New York: Orbis Books, 2022
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