Collecting Quotes – On Keeping a Commonplace Book

For the last few years, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system with my notebooks to organize tasks, keep my calendar, take sermon notes, write down interesting things, jot down books to find and music to listen to, etc. In every notebook I always reserve ten pages or so in the back as a commonplace book where I can collect striking quotes, phrases, and ideas. Sometimes those quotes turn into a blog post. Sometimes they make their way into sermons or other writing. But sometimes they simply sit there, waiting for me find them, to be struck again by their beauty, to ponder their strangeness, to be challenged, or to wonder what possessed me to write it down in the first place!

As I’ve written before, a commonplace book is a great way to collect and capture quotations in one place. It also provides a snapshot of recurring themes and preoccupations over the lifespan of the notebook. If you look at the tags for this blog, you will not be surprised to see that the quotes are often about contemplation, beauty, the vocation of theology, and the necessity of Christian holiness.

This is what this looks like in my notebook. Good luck reading it! I like to write with nice pens, but that doesn’t mean that my handwriting is worthy of the pens I use!

Here is a picture of my commonplace book from my latest bullet journal.

(In case you are interested, I typically use the Leuchtturm 1917 notebook with the dot grid. These notebooks are especially suited for strict users of the Bullet Journal system, because the pages are numbered and there is a table of contents in the front where you can “index” your entries. But I have not been very diligent about keeping an index, and I like writing with fountain pens, so I am switching to this Rhodia notebook. The Leuchtturm works well with fountain pens, but Rhodia paper offers a completely other level of quality. If you want a great starter fountain pen, I especially like the Kaweco Sport. If I’m going to take the time to write things in my commonplace book, I want a good writing experience.)

When I finish each notebook, I like to also capture some of the best quotes here on the blog. Here are a few highlights from the notebook I just finished:

First, some obligatory Balthasar quotes:

“Let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty.” HUvB, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 3

“I have to say that for me the only truly interesting theologians are the saints: from Irenaeus through Augustine to Anselm to Bonaventure or figures that allow the radiation of holiness to show forth, such as Dante or Newman; one could also mention Kierkegaard or Soloyvov. I have actually never written because I wanted to achieve results, but in order to show individuals something that I think must be seen.” HUvB, from the interview “Spirit and Fire”

“Only an eye serenely at rest sees eternal patterns and intimations in earth’s passing forms, and only such an artistic eye can show in symbol what the world is capable of revealing to the gaze of contemplation.” HUvB, “On the Christian’s Capacity to See”

Other quotes on theology:

“A theologian is most highly honored and most ably put to use when named as a doctor of the sacred page.” Katherine Sonderegger, Doctrine of God

“Not all is Christology!” Katherine Sonderegger, Doctrine of God

“If writing is a mode of exposure to truth, then even failure can be exemplary.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger

“God is the grammar of holy lives, their dark and dazzling intelligibility.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger

“Only if there is…astonishment…can there be serious, fruitful, and edifying Christian thought and utterance.” Barth, CD IV/3

Style and Truth – What Self-Expression Really Means

Some of my doctoral research concerns the question of style, specifically what Hans Urs von Balthasar means by the idea of theological style. So I was stuck by Sertillanges’s thoughts on the subject of style as it relates to the intellectual life and to the quest for truth. (See previous posts on The Intellectual Life here)

As always Sertillanges relates the question of style to the broader themes of the book, namely that style must serve truth and express truth truly. But style also must express the self: “My style, my pen, is the intellectual instrument which I use to express myself and to tell others what I understand of eternal truth. This instrument is a quality of my being, an interior bent, a disposition of the living brain, that is, it is a particular evolution of my style” (201). I find this fascinating because clearly style is more than self expression, but it is for Sertillanges nothing less than self expression either. Style at its best expresses both truth and the self, because within the vocation of the intellectual life the ultimate desire is that the self would conform to truth. So his version of “express yourself” is not the trope that launched a thousand self-help books because he is not saying that if I have expressed myself then I have expressed truth. Self-expression as an end in itself is at best a minimal standard for truth, namely the ideal of “my truth”, and at worst it is an imposter for the kind of truth Sertillanges commends. Rather he is saying that there is a possible harmony and correspondence between self and truth, and style is meant to express this correspondence.

One interesting implication: as long as there are selves seeking to express truth, there will always be interesting, creative, and original things to read and to wrestle with because, one, no self is the same, and, two, no one, not even Thomas Aquinas himself, can comprehensively express truth. In this regard, he says something about originality akin to C.S. Lewis, namely that aiming at originality is a fool’s errand and that originality emerges in the midst of seeking to represent truth truly.

Honestly, the best way to get a sense of what he means by style is to read the book. It is truly a pleasure to read and exemplifies many of the things he commends. For example, reading this description of style made me think of his own book: “Style excludes everything useless; it is strict economy in the midst of riches; it spends whatever is necessary, saves in one place by skillful arrangement, and lavishes its resources elsewhere for the glory of truth. Its role is not to shine, but to set off the matter; it must efface itself, and it is then that its own glory appears.” Style is about what to say and what not say, what to leave in and what to take out. It is about patience. Like music, it is about dynamics, and requires listening. Listening first to the material, listening to that which we desire to express, and listening too at the level of language, to the ways words sound against each other and how they sound in the whole sequence of words.

A couple of other things to note. First, he commends taking up the pen earlier rather than later because it is through writing itself that thoughts are expressed and are sharpened. It is through the practice of writing that one develops certain habits of thinking, and it is in thinking that one pursues truth. There is an iterative circle, thinking produces writing, which in turn produces thinking, which in turn, one hopes, moves one closer and closer to truth. Second, I don’t take this as a prescription for all kinds of writing. Remember he is considering everything under the heading of the intellectual life, which he sees as a particular vocation, so he is discussing writing in these vocational terms. On the other hand though, it is not bad advice for poets, novelists, or even, dare I say, bloggers.