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In the year 2000 acclaimed author Reynolds Price became honorary godfather to Harper Peck Voll. As a christening gift, Price composed a letter to the child, one intended as a brief guide for Harper's spiritual future. The letter sketched the crucial roles which faith had played in Price's own life and whittled down those lessons the author felt were most valuable. Later, Price realized that in a rapidly complicating world, his thoughts might also be useful for other children and their parents. Here, then, is an expanded version of the original letter -- an eloquent, thoughtful, and inspiring look at faith from one of the most revered American writers and most respected students of religion.
In Letter to a Godchild, Price recounts how his life has been shaped by numerous and varied spiritual influences -- from the Bible-story books his parents bought him before he could read, to the childhood days spent exploring dense woods near his home (woods where he searched for arrowheads and spied on numerous wild animals), to Sundays at church with his father and mother, his travels around the world to magisterial structures as various as St. Peter's and the old Penn Station, and years of study both in and out of the classroom. With no trace of self-pity, he explains how his faith grew and deepened when in 1984 -- after a life of robust health -- he suffered a cancer that eventually led to paralysis of his lower body.
Letter to a Godchild includes striking pictures of the buildings, objects, places, and events that have deepened the author's religious sensibility. He has also compiled a comprehensive section on further reading, looking, and listening that provides suggestions for books, art, and music that will entertain as well as enhance this volume. A profoundly intelligent and moving explication of religion and spirituality, Letter to a Godchild is an exhilarating experience for readers of all faiths.
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May 09, 2006
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Excerpt from Letter to a Godchild by Reynolds Price
This book is the text of an actual letter addressed to the son of longtime dear friends. It was first intended as a brief gift at the time of Harper Peck Voll's baptism in the year 2000 in the church of Saint-Ferdinand des Ternes in Paris. I was not present at that baptism and am not a Roman Catholic, but Harper's parents were kind enough to let me assume the title of honorary godfather. For years now the child has lived some three thousand miles away; and while we've had occasional moments of telephone conversation -- when Harper takes the phone from one of his parents -- I've had to imagine from photographs what sort of person he's becoming.
From the sound of his growing voice and from my first actual memory of seeing him, I've proceeded to expand the initial letter. The first memory is simple but imposing. On the working theory that people are born, to a large extent, ready-formed in personality and character, I've leaned expectantly on the act Harper performed when -- in my wheelchair (which he'd never seen) -- I visited him and his parents in New York. He was only some eighteen months old; but when he glimpsed my rolling chair, he trotted across the large room and employed all his strength in pushing a long coffee table completely out of my way. No one had asked him to do it. From the start, I took that to be a hopeful sign -- his clearing a space for me and the fact that, some months earlier, his first words had been book and soap. At widely separated intervals since the child's baptism, then, I've rethought the gift with slow enthusiasm and have continued to develop it in the intention of arriving at a document that would be genuinely helpful to a friend in his early adult years.
It has seemed feasible to me that, by describing succinctly, and as honestly as I could manage, the advancing line of my own religious life, I might provide a useful sense of how one person's existence shaped itself round an early inexplicable event and moved onward from there till now, the start of my eighth decade. The letter was not intended to be a child's book or even something an adult could read to a child, but I haven't convinced myself that such a gift was pointless.
When I myself was a pre-schoolboy, I received as holiday presents from my father's sisters a few volumes that at first proved incomprehensible to me -- as words on a page, in any case; their illustrations were another story. I stood the books on my parents' bookshelf, though, and mostly thought of them as secrets waiting to unfold before me when I'd earned full access -- that is, when I could read English sentences of some complexity. In its final form here then, Letter to a Godchild is a substantial communication from a family friend to a child who may someday wish, or need, to read it -- perhaps in adolescence or whenever after (few things are more unpredictable than the age at which a particular text may communicate with another human being).
I hope also that numerous other growing children will find it of interest, and even good help, when they're ready to turn to something on this order. Parents themselves, hoping to rear strongly grounded children, might possibly read this account of one person's childhood and youth, and the faith that grew in those years, and gain further awareness of the conditions of environment and training which helped to sustain that man's faith through long decades with their inevitable devastations -- physical, psychic, and intellectual.
Not at all incidentally, it's meant to be of potential use to young men and women who are not Christian and were not reared in such families. Christianity happens to be the tradition in which I first encountered the notion of a creating power in the universe -- an awesome overarching power which appears to witness some of our lives, perhaps all our lives, steadily. But the same creative power which impels my own faith says in various other traditions -- some of them far more ancient than Christianity -- that it has not only certain expectations of human life but that it also offers perhaps bottomless wells of patience and compassion. The Christian tradition is the one in which I continue to acknowledge and negotiate with that Creator, though since my early twenties I've done so outside the walls of an organized church and in ways that might seem heretical to many.
This book, however, is not an attempt to convert anyone to the Christian faith. Far from it. In fact, I'm among the least evangelical souls alive. Thus I hope that Letter to a Godchild may find a place in the thoughts of persons who approach maturity in families that have reared them as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians -- or otherwise, or perhaps without religion altogether. The reality of a single Creator is literally beyond the scope of human description, in words at least.
Yet for those of us accustomed to Western traditions of contemplating ultimate mysteries, the greatest composers of music have offered extended glimpses in the spans of sublimity granted to Bach, Handel, Mozart, the late Beethoven, and the dying young Schubert -- among several others (there is gorgeous earlier Christian music; and while I'm sadly deficient in my knowledge of Asian music, I've heard ragas from India that approach a comparable state of ecstasy; and I assume that there are other such moments of over-reach in the traditions of cultures unknown to me).
Despite the towering limitations on any verbal effort to communicate both the transcendence and the unpredictable approachability of the Creator, I hope that the assertions and questions offered here may prove helpful -- not only to my friend Harper but to any number of readers, especially those who find themselves riding atop baffling conventions (or their own private curiosities) and who hope to clear for themselves a navigable path through the endless and darkening thicket our lives so often seem to be.