Jacket cover of People of the Book

Recently our book club studied the novel, People of the Book, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Geraldine Brooks. In Part One, we met the protagonist, Hannah Heath, a young PhD. conservator of ancient codices as she discovers five anomalies in a fifteenth-century Sarajevo haggadah: the fragment of an insect wing; feathers and a rose; wine stains; salt water; and a thin white hair, one centimeter long. In subsequent Parts, scientific tests by Hannah’s colleagues locate these anomalies in Sarajevo, 1940; in Vienna, 1894; in Venice, 1609; in Tarragona, 1492; and in Seville, 1480, respectively. Intrigue builds as Hannah thus traces the history of the haggadah from its illuminations, its lettering with a turkey quill, its binding, and its protection from marauders over the centuries. Also contributing to this novel’s appeal are Hannah’s relationships with her neurosurgeon Mother, with the Bosnian custos of the haggadah, and with two world-renowned specialists in Hebrew manuscripts.

Thus around this single haggadah, narrating the Exodus miracle story retold at every Passover seder, Geraldine Brooks weaves together diverse peoples, each passionate about it for differing reasons.

These considerations led me to wonder about other books, especially ones that burn with the essential truth of our humanness before the Divine; so called hot books that mirror aspects of these astonishing revelations: the Homeric Hymns from the Greeks, the Upanishads from Hindus, the Mahayana Sutras from Buddhists, the Torah from Jews, the Koran from Muslims, the New Testament from Christians. Each text spawned schools and libraries of interpretations, of rituals performed in temples, synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals around the world. Common threads of instinctual darkness, forgiveness, restitution, and compassion, tempered in prayer and meditation within the Sacred, are interwoven through these texts. Communities of worshippers invariably sprang up around teachers of these practices that are chronicled in the history of religions.

However, with the waning of observance, with warring factions claiming supremacy over others deemed less enlightened, reforms occurred, corrections made, until the next upheaval and need for still more reforms. These subsequent overlays dulled the essential fire, swallowing these revelations in spiritual entropy. Indeed, world leaders preferred their own power-mongering to obedience to the Sacred, however expressed.

Today museums and libraries around the world store remnants of many world religions, including sacred texts under glass display cases, including ruins in marble, bronze, stone, and mosaic in vaulted galleries and gardens. Visitors to such places sigh, “I wonder what it was like then. What happened to all these people?”

Certainly, that was my experience visiting ancient sacred sites of temple ruins and museums in Greece, in Italy, and in Egypt in the 1990s. The emptiness was appalling, aggravated still further by my clinging to a religion that was vapid, soulless.

Synchronistically, I discovered the book Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939, inspired by the experiences of Bill Wilson and the first one hundred drunks who found not only sobriety but a new God or Higher Power to direct their lives –- a Presence hiding out, both in human hearts and in the subsequent fellowship of the practitioners of 12- Step living. This same Presence informs the daily disciplines of owning our transgressions, forgiveness, restitution, prayer– the same disciplines within the major world religions. It is to this simple book I’ve committed my life, the unifying source of millions of adherents, world-wide, thus constituting another People of the Book.

To conclude this essay, let us return to the novel, People of the Book and its surprising ending. Before Dr. Heath concluded her work on the Sarajevo haggadah, she dropped into the binding a Morton Bay fig seed, native to her home in Sydney, Australia — an anomaly for future conservators of this text to puzzle over.

Is there a book that compels you to remain fully awake to the implications of our humanness, our true natures? Perhaps that will contribute to your seeding others?

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