Books and Book Reviews: November 2005 Archives

God's Choice George Weigel

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A few days ago, I obtained (via the kindness of a stranger) a copy of God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church by George Weigel (this on the advice and review of Mr. Blosser at Against the Grain). While I sometimes admire the prose of Mr. Weigel, I have to admit that I do not share his reservations about Pope John Paul II theology. However, despite their obvious disagreements, Mr. Weigel obviously has enormous respect for the late great Pontiff.

The first part of this books is a recounting of the Papacy of John Paul II, on of the longest in history. In this recounting Mr. Weigel analyzes both the person and the writings of John Paul II and what effect they have had and may have on the Church. The analysis is insightful and helpful without being particularly detailed or prolix. Mr. Weigel knew the work and perhaps the person of John Paul II well and it shows in his exposition and analysis.

The book is oddly constructed, starting with the illness, decline, and death of John Paul II and then seguing back into the career and concluding this portion with a view of the great pontiff's funeral. This material comprises about forty percent of the book and sets the backdrop against which he will spell out the reign of Benedict XVI.

Now, I suppose I should start by saying that while I believe the title of this book--that is, Pope Benedict XVI is God's choice-- I can't claim to be overwhelmed with the present pontiff. I bear him no ill will, and I accept the judgment of others (including Mr. Weigel) that our present Pope is in every way suited for the position and conducting himself magnificently. Let's face it, John Paul the Great would be a hard act to follow no matter who took the position. So I start with some reservations about the present pontiff that are sometimes only exacerbated by news reportage. Mr. Weigel starts with no such onus. The portion of the book about the conclave is utterly fascinating--giving a diary of the events surrounding the conclave itself. I was a little uneasy about this material as the conclave is supposed to be absolutely secret and the publishing of this kind of diary, which while not an insiders look, still exploits the rumors and leakages that occurred seems a little problematic. Set that aside for the moment, the account is very interesting. Our present Pope went in with a sizable majority and eventually emerged as Pontiff. Looked at one way, this speaks well for the state of the Church--if those who voted for him did so out of the vision they had of the Church, this bodes well. If they voted out of mundane political reasons, it says nothing whatsoever about the state of the Church (because this has been involved since the beginning) but much about the guidance of the Spirit. We cannot presume to judge the motives of those voting, so either way, it was a manner of leading by the Holy Spirit.

After the tale of the conclave, we get a brief biography and précis of Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's career. Again, Mr. Weigel handles this with some aplomb--it is insightful without being boring and it touches nicely on the points where our present pope might be deemed "controversial." These include his opinions on such matters as liberation theology and the Boff case.

Finally, Mr. Weigel stares into his crystal ball and gives us a view of the agenda and the possible futures of the Church. His guess is as good as any, and far better than my own. This section plays nicely off the section that discusses the state in which John Paul the Great left the church for good and ill.

The book is deftly constructed, mostly well written. (Although I must confess to being taken aback but an absurdly ugly neologism--civilizational. This is the kind of thing that happens when editors dare not touch the work any more because you have become too popular.) While not particularly a Ratzinger partisan, this book helped me to better understand the man and the issues surrounding him and to dispell some of my concerns about our present pontiff. In short, it is an excellent introduction to the new pontificate, supplying background on both the late Pontiff and our present Vicar of Christ, deftly comparing and constrasting the two. (Were I to guess I would say that Mr. Weigel falls at least a little on the "Ratzinger" side of the Wotyla/Ratzinger continuum; whereas I am squarely in the Wotyla side of that continuum.)

For fans and detractors alike, this book may add fuel to the fire. What it does an exemplary job of is showing the state of the Church in the transition between these two pontificates. Pope Benedict XVI has a hard act to follow, and unless God grants him extraordinary longevity, a relatively shorter pontificate in which to exercise his influence. May the Holy Spirit guide and bless him (and us) all along the way.

Highly recommended for all readers.

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Review: Journey to Carith

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I've posted some exerpts from this book as I have been reading. What I can say is that it is a very nice history of the Discalced Carmelites from the beginning of the Carmelite order up until about 1966 (when the book was first published). As such it misses some things such as Teresa and Therese declared Doctors of the Church and the Beatification of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity. But that's all right.

What is most interesting about this seeming history is the depth of spirituality that is exposed. One of the things Rohrback does very well is introduce the people who effected the order for good and for ill. Also he introduces little historical highlights that add to depth of understanding of the history of religion in Europe.

The book is not for everyone as it has a very narrow focus on the development of the Carmelite Order. But if you are a Carmelite or you wish to understand more about the order, there are a great many insights to be gained from reading the book. The emphasis on solitude, for example, is demonstrated by the successive falls that Carmel experienced when solitude was at a minimum.

Another fascinating thing to see unfold is the delicate balance between contemplation and action that defines the Carmelite Order. In Carmelite Spirituality contemplation always feeds action--the desire to spread God's kingdom flows naturally from participating intimately in that kingdom. It makes sense, but it also makes for paradox when you realize how difficult it can be to tread the line between contemplation and action.

In the rule of the Third Order it is explicitly stated that Lay Carmelites are in the world, not cloistered, and so they have a special responsibility to bring the Gospel Good News of hope and salvation. They are called to ministry to save souls, not solely to contemplation. But it is in contemplation that the Carmelite receives the light to bring the good news. Carmelites are called to spread the good news through one-on-one interactions. We are not called to reason people to acceptance of God, but to love people to acceptance of God. Again, in the recently revised rule for Third Order Carmelites, we are likened to sparks of love blown out into the forest to set it ablaze--not with the fire the destroys and consumes, but with the fire that transforms and renews. We more often do this not through force of reason, but through the force of an unforced smile, a welcoming heart.

For the Carmelite, those beautiful "rules of amiability" are the perfect complement to our mission. Time and again we meet Carmelites who achieved heroic sanctity, not through some laborious and arduous trials, but rather through heroic and arduous patience and love. These can only be engendered through contemplation and being in touch with the source of all love.

Sorry--back to the book. If you want to know about the order, the major figures in the order and the major movements in the order, Journey to Carith is an excellent introduction. The author points out that we are in a new era of reform--one that stems from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the second Vatican council. Our own part of the order has recently undergone revision of the rule and a progressive strengthening and tightening of requirements. It is glorious to behold, but difficult for those who were used to Carmel in another way. Journey to Carith shows that an Order is either in reform or in decay--there is no in between. I'd prefer to be in a tide of change rather than a tidepool of comfort. I am grateful to be a Carmelite at this point in time. God has been very, very good to me.

For the book--highly recommended/required reading for all Carmelites, recommended without reservation for those merely interested in understanding the nature of the order. Although I suspect, from outside, it may not be nearly so clear as it is from within.

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Loyola Press Catholic Classics


Welcome to Loyola Press

Mama T alerted me to this list of reissues of classic Catholic fiction. I went to see what was on the list, and joy of joys, there was Francois Mauriac's Viper's Tangle.

I can't recommend this title enough. When I was in college french class we were forced to read what I thought then a dismal little novel titled Therese Desqueyroux (I wonder what I would think now?); I shied away from Mauriac for a long time. What a shame. I picked up a second-hand copy of Knot of Vipers or, as it is translated here Viper's Tangle and I was bowled over by the power of the story. It is one of those I've read some years ago now and the story sticks with. A wealthy, avaricious, completely self-centered old man makes the end of his life miserable for himself and for his family until Grace intrudes and transforms his life and that of several family members. In this sketchy description, it sounds like nothing at all--but it is a powerful, powerful book. Wonderful reading.

My only request would be that Loyola Press would start up a mailing list to alert us to new titles as they become available. I was unaware that such marvelous works as The Devil's Advocate and Kazantzakis's Saint Francis were once again available. Of course everyone is aware of Helena. But what about Brian Moore's Catholics or Costain's The Silver Chalice. This series along with the publisher devoted exclusively to Robert Hugh Benson and the Ignatius Louis de Wohl series constitutes a marvelous stream of fiction. Support Loyola Press any way you can--but if you read fiction, this is an impressive place to start. As time allows, perhaps I'll delve into some of the other titles they offer. Right now, do yourself a favor and get Tangle of Vipers. I can only hope that a reprinting of Woman of the Pharisees is not far behind. (And some Muriel Spark, please, the lesser known, completely obscure works?)

Oh what a treasure. Another thing to thank God for this thanksgiving day. Daily the blessings He showers on me ar nearly overwhelming.

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We Have Lost a Great and Quirky Writer

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from November 2005.

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