Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith
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Letter to a Godchild: Concerning Faith

by Reynolds Price, Harper Peck Voll

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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.…  See more details below


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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Price may be the best living religious writer . . ." -- The Boston Globe

"It is good to have an outlaw storyteller like Reynolds Price turn up from time to time to help us reimagine gospel truth." -- The Christian Century

"Provocative and insightful." -- The Dallas Morning News

"The results of his work are certain to provoke debate. They are also . . . lucid, intelligent, never self-serving." -- Booklist

"Full of big questions and persuasive answers." -- Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Novelist Price (The Good Priest's Son) began setting down this lyrical letter on the occasion of the baptism of his godchild, Harper Peck Voll, in 2000. In it, he gently offers Harper wise and insightful nuggets on matters religious. It's one of the most revealing glimpses of Price's own religious journey we've had the privilege of seeing. Price recalls his own early religious vision of the circle of life: "In a single moment, I was allowed to see how intricately the vast contraption of nature... was bound into a single vast ongoing wheel by one immense power that had willed us into being." He also retells the story (found in full in A Whole New Life) of his vision of Jesus and the powerful healing that followed it. Price offers practical advice for when Harper seeks to whet his religious curiosity: Harper should read the sacred texts of his native culture and immerse himself in the lives and works of the great believing composers and painters. Price encourages his godchild to work with the poor and hungry, to attend some regular religious ceremony and to search ardently for the truth. Although his novels, poetry and essays provide glimpses of Price's vision of religious experience, this marvelous little missive comes closest to being a spiritual autobiography. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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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.

RP Copyright ©2006 by Reynolds Price

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Meet the Author

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

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