A Wardrobe in Kansas, Portal to Mystery
When Comment editor Jamie Smith visited the Eighth Day Institute last year, he was astonished by a hidden gem tucked away in Wichita. Like a metaphysical wardrobe in the heart of “flyover” country, the Eighth Day Institute is a portal to another world—a place where remembrance is at the heart of cultural renewal. His experience at EDI gave him hope for the future of faith. So we asked Erin Doom, executive director, to give us a tour.
JKAS: Why “Eighth Day”? And why Wichita?
Warren Farha opened the store here in Wichita back in 1988. Located in this three-story, Victorian-style house, it now stocks over forty thousand books—both used and new. Although Warren’s focus is on classics in religion, philosophy, literature, and history, his stock is quite eclectic. Let’s peek inside.
As you can see, those forty thousand books are in all sorts of places. The children’s books are in the basement, which Warren named the Hobbit Hole, based on the Tolkien quote on this sign: “It was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” There are books in every room and nook and cranny and on every floor of the house. He even has books in the upstairs bathroom.
But the heart of the store, in my estimation, is right here. This wall of shelves covers what used to be the original home’s fireplace. It holds writings and studies of the early Church Fathers and monasticism. I’ll come back to the Fathers in a bit.
In 2002, I helped Warren move the bookstore from its original location about eight blocks up the street. It looked and felt very similar to this new location. It also had a decorative placard with a famous quote by Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” This gives you a sense of the kind of place Eighth Day Books is.
As a sort of paradise, it’s named appropriately. Warren had encountered the term “eighth day” somewhere in his Orthodox upbringing. But when he read Jean Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy, he discovered how important and prevalent the expression was in the writings of the early Church Fathers.
So why the Eighth Day? The resurrection took place on Sunday, the first day of the week. But that Sunday was also the day after the seventh day of the previous week, hence the eighth day. So Sunday is the day of the resurrection, the Sunday of all Sundays, which represents eternity breaking into time. And by the way, that’s why we go to church on Sundays: to celebrate the Eighth Day Resurrection.
So that’s a little glimpse into the bookstore that set me on an unexpected journey that would become Eighth Day Institute.
JKAS: Tell me briefly how EDI came to be.
ED: Sure. Let’s do that as we head next door to EDI’s headquarters.
I began making regular rounds to used bookstores in Wichita as a teenager. My favorite was always Eighth Day Books. In 1997, after spending three years in Latin America as a Protestant trying to convert Catholics, I returned home to Wichita with a passion for unity in the body of Christ and an idea to develop a gap-year program. I also returned unemployed, so I applied for a job at Eighth Day Books.
Over the next eight years, Warren and his books educated me. They shaped me intellectually, spiritually, and vocationally. The Church Fathers were especially important. And the ecumenical nature of the bookstore was infectious. I discovered life-changing books that I would have never found in a typical Christian bookstore. And I made real life-long friendships with Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants.
Of all those friends, Warren was the most important. He has been my teacher and mentor. He’s also a colleague and dear friend. And he’s been my godfather since I joined the Orthodox Church in 2001. So those eight years at the bookstore were extremely formative. They enlarged that initial idea for a gap-year program, and they shaped my stance on ecumenism. And they eventually led to this.
So here we are at our official headquarters. We call it The Ladder. That’s why you see this line drawing of a famous twelfth-century icon called the Ladder of Divine Ascent. It’s based on a seventh-century monastic text by the same title, written by St. John of the Ladder. In the Orthodox tradition, that book is so important that monks read it every year during Lent. So I chose this name and this icon because I think it communicates our mission of renewing culture through faith and learning. I frequently adapt a quote from Romano Guardini to make this connection clearer: We have to ascend to the heavenly realm where the great things of time are decided so we may descend into earthly time where the great things of culture are created. That’s really what we are promoting. And we do it mostly right here in this building.
So let’s go in.
JKAS: Tell me about this table.
ED: Yes, the table. Such a common object, but so central to our story.
I left Eighth Day Books in 2005 for a high-school teaching position at Northfield School of the Liberal Arts. While teaching Greek, Medieval History, Great Books, and Western Civ., that initial idea finally began to come together. It’s also where I met George Elder.
After graduating from Northfield in 2003, George took off for Clemson University. Instead of partying and bar hopping, from the moment he arrived he set to work building a table and a kegerator. He also began brewing beer. And then he invited the young men of Clemson to join him in his garage for dinner, home-brewed beer, and a lecture on a hero. He called it the Hall of Men.
After graduating from Clemson, George returned home with that table. But it was a large table—twelve feet long, to be exact—and he didn’t have a place for it. He also wanted to continue the Hall of Men tradition.
I first met George while he was visiting Northfield, shortly after his return from Clemson in 2007. In that initial conversation, he explained the Hall of Men format to me. I was intrigued by the idea. But when he told me that he mounted an image of the hero being presented to his garage wall—which sounds like the Orthodox practice of commemorating saints through story and icon—the deal was sealed.
At that point we were incorporated as the St. John of Damascus Institute. We also had a long space—this hall. And George had a long table—this table. So we partnered and launched the Hall of Men in November of that same year. With a few exceptions, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant men have been gathering here twice a month ever since.
We still basically follow George’s original format. We eat dinner together, we drink beer, and we celebrate a hero through lecture and image. But we have developed an Eighth Day Convocation that precedes the lecture. It includes a hymn (usually Protestant), an evening prayer called “O Gladsome Light” (the earliest Christian hymn outside of the Bible still in use today), a reading from the Fathers, a Gospel reading, Christ’s prayer for union in John 17, the Nicene Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.
If you look around at these walls, you can see the heroes we’ve presented. They make that passage in Hebrews about the great cloud of witnesses come alive. And really, that’s the point of the Hall of Men: to surround men with heroes of the faith who spur us on in our own faith. But it’s also meant to push us back out into our community to renew culture. In fact, that’s the only requirement for presenters: to imagine their hero has arrived from heaven to tell us how to renew our culture.
JKAS: What else happens here in the Hall?
ED: Actually, quite a bit. And more and more is happening.
We have a reading group called the Society of Simple Souls. But they aren’t your typical book group. In addition to libations, they also enjoy locally made cheese by their leader, Tony Jacobs. Then they read a great piece of literature together. They’ve read the Inklings, the Apostolic Fathers, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, George Herbert, Jorge Luis Borges, and much more. They recently read Dante’s Inferno and are currently reading Virgil’s Aeneid. What sets them apart, however, is that they read these texts aloud. Their focus is not on discussion, but rather the communal experience of oral reading. I recently asked Tony to defend their format. You can read his apology here.
We also organize a fall and spring lecture series called Table Talks. We meet on Saturdays and discuss the lecture over lunch. Past series include topics such as “The Divine Comedy: A Directed Reading” and “The Architecture of Poetics and the Poetics of Architecture.” This fall, I’m presenting my dissertation in a nutshell: “For the Life of a Secular Age.”
And then there are the feasts. They developed out of the Hall of Men, which is itself essentially a feast. Our culture is expert at entertainment, but clueless about feasting. I think we need to revive this ancient church practice. It’s a key to cultural renewal.
So we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick each year. We eat, we recite a portion of the Testimony of St. Patrick, which sounds surprisingly similar to the Nicene Creed, and then we have a lecture on an Irish hero. We’ve covered St. Patrick several times. But we’ve also presented St. Brigit of Kildare and Arthur Guinness. Guinness actually has a fascinating story. But you’ll have to visit us some March to learn about him.
We also host an annual Christmas Feast. This one is a bit more formal with music and poetry and readings and prayers. I’ve made several guest appearances, arriving in full costume as St. Nicholas and St. John of Damascus to defend the incarnation.
And then we have two new projects.
This fall we’re hosting our first “Great Conversations: Rescuing Discourse from Political Parties.” My friend Mike Witherspoon started this under a different name two years ago in a local home. We recently decided to take it public through EDI by hosting it here at The Ladder. Those who submit a three-hundred-word abstract on a preselected topic are given a seat at the table for a moderated dialogue. Our first topic is the impact of sports on families, schools, and churches. In February, we’ll discuss who the best candidate for president is. And then in April, we’re inviting pastors to discuss their interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis.
Our second new endeavor has been a long time coming. Ever since the Hall of Men began, ladies have been clamoring for their own meeting. I’ve been telling them for years, “Organize it and ladies will come.” But nobody ever took the initiative. And the female rumblings never stopped. That finally changed this past month with the inaugural meeting of the Sisters of Sophia. They served a meal, drank wine, and Nyleen Lenk presented “Sophia, the Wisdom of God.” That’s why you see this icon of Sophia here on the fireplace mantle, which serves as a sort of iconostasis. And it was a huge success—thirty-seven women came.
Before we head to our final destination, let me quickly show you upstairs. Forgive the mess. I store things wherever I can. Those boxes on the stairs hold the five issues of A Word from the Fathers that we’ve published thus far. These are short, accessible writings from the early Christian Fathers. I’m convinced that cultural renewal hinges on our return to the Fathers. We must immerse ourselves in their writings to acquire their scriptural, christological, ecumenical, and missional mind. This is the key, I believe, to overcoming our divisions and to effectively respond to the questions posed by our secular age. That’s also why I spend a good deal of time up in this office selecting and posting three-hundred- to nine-hundred-word passages from the Fathers on our blog The Daily Word.
So this is my office, where most of EDI’s work happens. This is where all the ideas behind our attempts to renew culture begin to take flesh.
JKAS: Your annual symposiums have become the stuff of legend. Where does that happen? What goes on? Who’s there?
ED: Yes, that’s our largest event. It draws people from all over the United States. I’ll tell you about it on our way to my church, where it’s held.
By the way, on your way out, look across the sidewalk into the bookstore. We hope to eventually convert that window into a door so we can add a connecting patio here. And we’d like to eventually convert The Ladder into a public coffee shop and pub.
JKAS: That would be fantastic. I fondly remember the convivial hospitality after last year’s symposium. It’s a remarkable sort of event. How long have you been doing it?
ED: The symposium is actually the brainchild of Fr. Paul O’Callaghan, my priest at St. George Orthodox Cathedral. He started an annual event called Orthodoxy Alive back in 1994. His goal was actually similar to one of Warren’s motivations to open the bookstore: to place Orthodoxy on the conversation table with Catholics and Protestants. Back then, many people had never heard of the Orthodox Church. People still ask me if we are Christians.
JKAS: That’s funny. When one of my former students was received into the Orthodox Church and we attended his chrismation, our kids thought he was becoming Jewish!
ED: So you can see why Fr. Paul thought this was a good idea!
But by the 2000s, Orthodoxy Alive had evolved into a parish event. It was organized by St. George parishioners, and it was mostly attended by parishioners. So it was no longer fulfilling Fr. Paul’s intent. In 2010, he suggested a name change and invited EDI to lead it back to his original vision.
As you know from your experience with us, we are intentional about bringing Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant speakers together for what I’ve been calling a “dialogue of love.” That expression actually dates back to a dialogue initiated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. It’s also the title of a book that tells that story, and it’s edited by Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, the assistant to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Chryssavgis is our headliner this coming January, along with Hans Boersma (evangelical), Mike Aquilina (Catholic), and others.
In addition to the lectures on Friday and Saturday, we also organize a Friday-evening banquet as part of the symposium. I’m pretty sure it’s unlike any other banquet.
We open the doors for a cocktail hour with the St. Petersburg String Quartet. They’re performance is magnificent, and the evening would be worth it just to hear them. Then we commence the evening’s “program,” if you can call it that.
Like our other feasts, we celebrate the life of a different saint each year. And of course, we prominently display an image of that saint. So far, we’ve celebrated St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Anthony the Great, and St. Athanasius. We’ll be celebrating St. Cyril of Alexandria this coming symposium.
The rest of the evening is divided into three movements. Each movement begins with a call to silence that commences with a hymn sung by the St. George Cathedral choir, which happens to be directed by Chris Farha, Warren’s wife. After the hymn, I introduce the saint. Then, one of the symposium speakers offers a five-to-six minute reflection that draws out a practical application from the saint’s life. In other words, the task is to tell us what the saint would say to us about cultural renewal. Then the silence is broken and it’s time for the first course of conversation and food, prepared by Chris Farha and her crew of volunteers. Warren’s wife really is something! We do this three times: listen to an ancient hymn, work our way through the life of the celebrated saint, and learn how we can renew culture. You really do just have to be there to taste and see how glorious an evening it is.
JKAS: How do you see all of these pieces serving the goal of cultural renewal?
ED: I think about that all the time. First, the church has to get over its divisions and stand as one beautiful body. Christ prayed for the church to have the same kind of unity he has with the Father. Why? So that the world might believe. So cultural renewal depends on our unity. And that’s why all of our work promotes an “Eighth Day Ecumenism” by bringing Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants together for a dialogue of love.
But I also think our ability to get over our divisions depends on a retrieval of our common heritage. The church has handed down particular ways of birthing and dying, of marrying and remaining single, of fasting and feasting, of praying and worshipping. These holy practices have proved effective in the past. And we have to implement them in our families. We have to make our homes into little churches.
Ross Douthat says we’ve become a nation of heretics. He’s right, and I think it’s because we’ve forgotten our heritage. So all of our work at EDI promotes the unity of the church through a retrieval of our common heritage.