Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Signs and Mysteries

Okay, I admit it. When I saw this book on the list of possible books for review from Catholic Company I just about jumped out of my seat. I haven't met a book by Mike Aquilina yet that I haven't found both intellectually and spiritually stimulating. This one was no different.

It's a fairly slim volume, tipping the scales at 188 pages including references. A good number of these pages are accented by beautiful artwork by Lea Marie Ravotti; a book on symbols cannot survive without good artwork and this work does not disappoint. I've seen a couple of quibbles over the use of a relatively fine font combined with a medium brown ink. When I first opened the book I said, "oh yeah, I see what they're talking about". Then I started to read it. In the end analysis I'll say this: it may take a couple of pages to get used to it, but as long as you're not trying to read it by candle light by the time you're out of the Introduction you won't even notice it. And that's from someone who is destroying his eyesight by staring at a computer screen for eight to twelve hours a day for a living.

As important as the aesthetic of the book may be, without content it would be a niche intellectual object. Content, however, is not a problem for this book. In fact, I am in complete agreement with the author's plaintive cry in Chapter 1:

Few of us today, however, can even begin to understand the messages left for us by our ancestors. We have lost our Christian mother tongue - the code of the martyrs - and we are impoverished by the loss. They have become like hieroglyphics, a language that only academic specialists understand. What is worse is that we have forgotten how to think the way these distant ancestors thought, and this has rendered them even more remote from us. Their symbols seem incomprehensible now.

Yet delivering the message was, for them, clearly an urgent matter, a matter of ultimate consequence. To carve or paint or scratch these symbols, they burrowed into the ground and breathed foul air while laboring in dim lamplight. Our ancestors did this so that their message might reach us. We owe them at least the effort of a sympathetic study.

We do indeed, and this volume is an excellent start. By turns intellectual, historical, philosophical, academic and spiritual it lays out for us a world all together too many of us take for granted when we even acknowledge its existence at all. We have, by and large, lost the use of this language and that is only to our detriment.

I can say that within only a page or so of the first symbol explored in this book I was thinking "now there is something I can use with our RCIA class". The book is not so simple as to be redundant for all but the true patrologists out there, nor is it so complicated as to be over the heads of those with a thinner Christian formation. It is clear that Aquilina is not only comfortable with his subject matter but fluent in it. There is a point at which one becomes sufficiently steeped in a topic that conversing about it no longer requires complex explanations and stiff wording. No, in this topic the author is closer to conversational in tone which makes for a very comfortable reading even as the reader works his way from the author's words to a quote from a Church Father to a quote from the Bible and back again. It is a rare treat to read a book this informative that is simultaneously this fluid.

In my last review I said I was going to buy a copy of the book for myself since I had received an unbound galley copy; this copy was "the real thing". This time, though, I'm going one better than before. I'm not buying another copy for myself, I'm buying one for our RCIA director. If you know me, you know it's a rare thing indeed for me to buy a book for someone else; the last time I did that it was Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth so Mike Aquilina is in good company here. Does this mean I'd recommend this book to someone else? Absolutely, and for this price it's an absolute steal given how much you will learn. Buy it, read it, learn something about your faith. Then read it again and learn something else. Yeah, it's that kind of a book.

This review was written as part of The Catholic Company product reviewer program. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Signs and Mysteries-Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols .