Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

For more than a year, I tried and tried, but it couldn’t be done: I couldn’t find a copy of Jean Daniélou’s Prayer as a Political Problem.

The 1967 book, as First Things readers may know, has massively influenced my thinking about Christian politics. Yet for some time, I had to rely on a PDF from a bibliophilic friend that contained only about 20 percent of the text. Later, I found a copy at the Queens Public Library, requiring this Manhattanite to schlepp up to Queens. But not even the largest online rare-books dealer could locate a copy that I could keep for myself.

Then, in early November, the editor of a small, Rhode Island-based Catholic imprint got in touch to say that he had just republished Prayer as a Political Problem, and would I like a copy? Seventy-two hours later, I was holding a brand-new paperback edition, handsomely bound and crisply printed. The cover, appropriately enough, featured a detail from Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus (a true city, Daniélou argued, must create the conditions necessary for the ordinary believer to render worship to the one God).

The book was for me. To keep. And it was bound to spark and ease conversations about political Christianity. The book’s republication, after all, meant I would no longer constantly refer my readers to a text most hadn’t read and couldn’t obtain. This was a small miracle, and it was made possible by Cluny Media, a family-owned imprint that has made it its business to republish rare and hard-to-find classics of Catholic letters. 

Cluny was founded in 2015 by Leo and Kathleen Clarke, a Seattle lawyer and homemaker, respectively, and their friend Gellert Dornay. It began as a hobby with a grave purpose: to combat the aggressive secularization they saw around them in the Emerald City. Soon, the Clarke’s son John, a former Heritage Foundation staffer, took over the business full-time, with his friend Scott Thompson. The pair moved operations to Rhode Island (both had attended Providence College).

“We’re almost 99 percent republications,” John Clarke tells me. “We thought, let’s really go for the stuff that’s been forgotten or neglected.”

Hence the name and company logo, which features a monk transcribing a text (alongside a contemplative cat). The Benedictine monks of Cluny Abbey transcribed and preserved the pagan classics, as well as Islamic texts. At a time when “there was an active movement in Christendom to jettison pagan wisdom as an impediment to progress,” Clarke says, “their work was preservational, it was to recover the pagan classics.”  

Nearly a millennium later, according to Clarke, “we’re looking at a neo-pagan era.” Ironically, it’s the neo-pagans of our time who wish to discard Christianity. As Clarke puts it, the neo-pagans see these texts as “an impediment to progress.” The books Cluny publishes “call for integration of Christianity in the arts or in political order,” when liberal order prefers the opposite: dis-integration.

“Benedict XVI,” Clarke says, “spoke of the Benedictine tradition and dedicated an essay to the monks of Cluny, as men who combatted the civilization of forgetfulness. There was social unrest and political strife and rampant abuses of clerical power in the Cluny monks’ time. And amid all that, these men were transcribing texts and preserving them, and that’s what we’re trying to do.” Although Cluny Media not only transcribes, but also circulates.

The firm’s first republished title was Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (1920). The book was a required text for three of his courses at Providence, Clarke recalls, yet “I could never find it, either because it couldn’t be found, or if it was found, it was too expensive. You had to Xerox the professors’ versions.” 

Art and Scholasticism was an appropriate title for another reason, according to Clarke. In it, Maritain explains what art has to do with reality, and what reality has to do with divine order. A well-crafted book can help connect the reader to reality, over and beyond the substantive text contained in its pages. Book-making, then, has to be done just right.

Cluny’s dedication to this idea is evident in the cover designs. Bad taste is sadly a hallmark of too much Catholic publishing in the United States. But not so with Clarke and his colleagues. He and his mother create the covers using one consistent template. “The front is a full image with no bordering,” Clarke says. They select pre-existing artwork to “coincide” with the text, but not in a way that is too obvious or on-the-nose.

For example, the cover for Critics of the Enlightenment, Christopher Blum’s marvelous anthology of French counterrevolutionary thought, is a detail from Hubert Robert’s The Demolition of the Church of Saint-Jean-en-Grève, from 1800—that is, right around the time of the events decried by the featured authors (Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, etc.). 

Because 99 percent of Cluny’s titles are republications, Clarke spends most of his time tracking down and securing the rights to old books. This fascinating work involves sleuthing in copyright archives and poring over obituaries to find out who inherited the rights to this or that book after the author’s niece died. And the vast expanse of the Catholic republic of letters means there are always more forgotten books to hunt down; Cluny prints about 50 to 60 titles a year. Next year, Clarke plans to publish Josef Pieper’s Hope and History, Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, and a collection of Gabriel Marcel’s dramas.

It’s an impressive list already, and I wonder: Would Clarke be willing to sell off the imprint to a Big Five publisher, if one made an offer? “Oh, hell no,” comes the swift reply. “Absolutely not.”  

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of the forthcoming book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles