Posted by: Peadar Ban | July 31, 2012

A Book Review and Recommendation: Dayspring, by Harry Sylvester

Sometimes we find it easy to accept the “standard” opinions, the ones we’ve received from the qualified scholars and the learned sources of our information. We accept as a given what they have, well, given us, especially as concerns matters of culture. The culture of primitive people is a case in point. “Dayspring” is a novel of one such culture, the Penitentes among the poor folk of New Mexico and the scholar who sets out to learn of it. During the course of his work among them, he experiences his own conversion. The Penitentes, he comes to understand, have a deeper and different wisdom than he does. This religious awakening, his conversion, comes to mean far more to him than what it was in the beginning; simply a tool for his work, another thing to be used. It illustrates, among many other things, the mistakes we can often make about the wisdom of others, and the damage we can often do to ourselves and others in our selfish desires for “success’, whatever that may be.

“Dayspring” is the story of Spencer Bain a modern man of science, a university anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small New Mexican town. Used to long separations from his wife, a UCLA professor equally dedicated to her career, he is mostly untroubled by his infidelities, and hers; that is, until now. During the course of his field work he experiences what can only be called an awakening, a call to conversion from his selfishly secular life. As this ‘call” nags at him, and almost in spite of it he does something deeply dishonest. In order to study the religious practices of the Penitentes, a brotherhood of local men who engage in severe, medieval penances, Bain feigns a conversion to Catholicism and participates in their Lenten observances, including their dramatic public procession on Good Friday.

Nothing in Bain’s skeptical academic training has prepared him for the profound remorse that he begins to experience. Though no sentimentalist with respect to the poor and ignorant who surround him, he cannot help but contrast the simple yet solid lives of the men and women he studies with his own fruitless relationships and those of the jaded, over-sexed sophisticates — the self-proclaimed artists and intellectuals — he considers his peers. Spencer Bain is a modern man of science, a university anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small New Mexican town. Used to long separations from his wife, a UCLA professor equally dedicated to her career, he is mostly untroubled by his infidelities, and hers; that is, until now.

This is a beautifully written book which should rightly be called a spiritual classic.  In the tradition of Greene and Mauriac, Sylvester takes us into the soul of a man learning the truth about himself, all of it, and being set free.

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