Prayers and Fables: Meditating on Aesop's Wisdom
. Sheed & Ward . Kansas City
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Here is a second extra copy of this book. This is one of the most fascinating books of fables I have seen in a long time. Each of the forty chapters here has six elements: a title, an illustration, a verse fable text, a moral, a prayer, and a psalm. I have some things to say about each element. The illustrations are pleasantly suggestive accompaniment to the more important word-presentations. Thus The Canny Dog Out-Smarts the Thief is illustrated by a picture showing the only the feet and mask of the thief (34). Among the best are those for A Farmer Kills the Goose Who Lays Golden Eggs (60), A Gluttonous Mouse Gets Trapped in a Box (68), The Lion and the Mouse Exchange Favors (94), and The Deer Misjudges His Talents (132). One can see from the titles I just presented that the helpful titles give the gist of the plot. The verse texts are generally well done. Thus, though SW is told in the poorer version (15), The Wise Wasp Uncovers the Truth (23) is told pointedly in eight lines. Cleary wisely makes the crow's pitcher half-full with water (31), and he has the crow consider breaking it (but he would lose all the water) and tipping it over (it is too substantial for him to tip it). The reed announces and even lays out his whole strategy to the foolish oak floating down the river (91). I do not find that it helps the story of the lioness' offspring to make her the judge in an argument among other animals (103). On the other hand, The Tricky Donkey Gets Tricked (123) is very well told. The bane of verse versions of fables is poetic filler, and I find Cleary offending seldom. Both the morals and the prayers are surprising. The morals are creative and insightful. Thus the moral to GGE is Don't let the perfect destroy the good (61). The moral to OR is It's better to bend the rules a little when they begin to stifle life (91). After The Deer Misjudges His Talents we read Embarrassing things about ourselves may be our greatest strength (133). After The Pigeons Choose a King Cleary writes Some solutions are worse than the original problem (145). I believe that the prayers are the heart of this book. They are fresh, personal, and whimsical. In them Cleary can laugh at himself. These are prayers for today. Thus after reading about the bald knight who laughed over losing his wig, we find a Prayer to Take One's Self Lightly (8). Other prayers are prayers Not to Be Narrow-Minded (36), to Win the Lottery (62), Not to Shame Others (82), and to Fear God Less (92). There is a Prayer in Defeat (54), a Prayer Before Dancing (96), and a Prayer for People I Dislike (142). Those who find these prayers moving away from the fable may want to compare the most classic of English fable texts, Croxall's, to see the distance which his homily-like applications travel from the starting-point of the simple fable narrative. These prayers are not frivolous. As the culmination of considering what it would be like to be another Mother Teresa, Cleary asks God if God observes How much fun it would be to have a mountain of spectacular accomplishments in my resume? He then prays with remarkable honesty: No, don't answer these unspoken prayers/from my false heart./Instead, Holy Wisdom, keep doing what you're doing:/creating me,/caring about me,/enjoying me./Amen. The last prayer typifies the spirituality of this profound little book: Grant me a lightheartedness that defeats vanity,/loving compassion based in healthy self-esteem,/and an honest humility without pretense (166). This is material I can pray with. For me, the psalms are the least successful and important part of the book. Often I have trouble seeing their pertinence, but that may be the effect of seeing plenty of pertinence in the preceding morals and prayers. The book is divided into four sections of ten fables each. The second of them has a fine title: The Heart Makes More Decisions Than the Head (43). This book is light-hearted from its beginning. In the introduction, Cleary prays Grant, Holy Wisdom, that it be as much fun and as useful to the reader as writing it has been to its author (ix). Cleary asks then for an Amen, and this reader has no trouble supplying it. One can hope that the editors will catch the typos on 25, 83, 96, 115, and 146 before the next printing.