A breviary is a Catholic priest’s daily companion, the spiritual sourcebook he turns to each day as part of his commitment and vocation. More than just ink and paper and binding, it’s a physical, tangible connection to centuries of learning, devotion and belief, and yet very much something of the present, the now connection he has to God. And as such, it is a very intimate sort of possession.
The breviary in the photograph above belonged to my biographical subject, Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, and I found it in his archives at Friedsam Library, among the belongings he left behind when he departed this earth. There were actually three, but this is the one that caught my attention—and imagination. I believe it’s his first—it’s inscribed with the address of Holy Name College, in Washington, DC, where he completed his priestly training. The other breviaries appear to be newer, with later publishing dates, and strike me as gifts, perhaps, that were never used much.
But this breviary has been used, a lot. The leather cover has been worn down to the thinnest, softest of skin, the original gold lettering almost completely scrubbed away. The pages are dog-earned, and thumb-printed and it’s pretty grimy. And yet, so many days of heavy use went into this little book, which he carried, no doubt, within the folds of his brown habit. This is the clue to, or perhaps the truth of, his own private spirituality: The faith he took very seriously, conscientiously, and rigorously. To me, this worn book is a beautiful little thing.
This breviary has another significance, this one relating to his famous friend, Thomas Merton. Merton—before his Trappist days, when he was simply a lay English instructor at St. Bonaventure—asked Irenaeus to explain the breviary to him, and how it was used. I’m imagining that this is the book Irenaeus used to show him. Maybe not, though: Merton had purchased one on his own, and was baffled by it. Still, it’s a strong token of their friendship, and the prayers and liturgy Merton would have learned in this exercise presaged the strict Liturgy of Hours he would follow in the Trappist order, as a monk. Maybe it was the most important thing Irenaeus did for his friend Tom, explaining the mysteries of the Divine Office in his own inimitable, cheerful, casual way, in a way we know for certain “straightened” Merton out (because he says so). Perhaps this is something more important than the founding of Merton’s first archive (which was an accidental, casual kind of thing he more or less fell into), planting that early seed of contemplation that would later blossom into so many books and articles and poems and letters, that in turn went on to influence and touch so many other people.
I feel privileged to be writing the biography of such a special man. I feel privileged to have known him, and to have worked in his library. When I find myself rebelling against the strictures of writing non-fiction and longing to go back to my novels, I try to remember this. I hope that it will contain a very essential kind of truth.