Books and Book Reviews: December 2006 Archives



I haven't written in my Dom Columba book yet because I wanted to get a sense of how much I would be likely to write. I look at the first section of the book and see now dozens of little post-it tags--each representing a passage I would otherwise mark. When I page through there are, perhaps, three or four passages I have not marked. My conclusion--this is a book that is fit for lectio in the same way as Imitation of Christ makes fine fodder for hours of prayer. So I think this would as well.

For example, this word for those of us prone to taking on tomorrow and next week:

from Union with God
Dom Columba Marmion

If circumstances happen to change, then and not before, we can consider how you would have to adapt your life to that new position you set before me. For the moment, live in the actual present, and not in a future which perhaps will never be an actuality for you.

This passage echoes St. Therese who said (I paraphrase), "All of our sorrows lie in the past and in tomorrow, but we live only in this moment."

And this piece of scary, but cogent advice:

[source as above]

Let yourself be led by God's hand without looking too much where He is leading you, provided that you remain quite submissive and in His Hands. One is a thousand times more united to God in the midst of a crowd where one is by obedience than hidden away in one's cell by self-love.

Once again the ancient dual, humility and obedience, make their appearance. These two things are so difficult for me because I tend to be spiritually tone-deaf, often assuming that what I want to do or what I have read about doing are what God actually wants me to do--and all the while secretly reveling in a kind of spiritual pride in what it is I am doing--pride not that I am announcing it to the world, but that I am "making my own way." Only the foolish believe that they can make their own ways in the spiritual world. The only way is God's way and so I end up tramping through the brush and getting scratched up by briars, rather than walking the cleared path that God has made for me. In my own mind I am a great explorer and investigator, but in reality, I am merely a disobedient child--subjecting myself to wear and tear and stress that will ultimately pull me away from God rather than toward him. While I could be sampling berries by the side of the path, I am instead tangling with the poison ivy, poison oak, and brambles of my own making and my own choosing. How is this so much different from Milton's Satan who said, "Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven?"

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The Catholic Church of the Future


Elliot, at Claw of the Conciliator, reviews an e-book of short fiction dedicated to the future of the Catholic Church. Sounds good.

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"When you feel invited. . ."


from Union with God
Dom Columba Marmion

When you feel invited to remain in silence at Our Lord's feet like Magdalen just looking at Him with your heart without saying anything, don't cast about for any thoughts or reasonings, but just remain in loving adoration. Follow the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. If He invites you to beg, beg; if to be silent, remain silent; if to show you misery to God, just do so. Let Him play on the fibers of your heart like a harpist, and draw forth the melody He wishes for the Divine Spouse.

Souls like your, called to interior prayer, are often greatly tempted in all ways, by the sense; to blasphemy, pride, etc. Don't be afraid. You can't do anything more glorious to God or more useful to souls than to give yourself to Him. . .

In prayer, don't cast about for useful things to do, or things to occupy the mind while the prayer time continues. Do as God invites you to do; heed the Holy Spirit and you cannot go awry.

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Union with God


Before another moment passes, race over to Disputations and put your name in the lottery for this magnificent book.

This brief notice will not do it justice. I write in the fever of a quick review and hope to draw out from the book over the coming days and weeks some evidence of my enthusiasm.

Dom Columba Marmion's book, a publication of the really superlative Zaccheus Press, is a magnificent companion to and continuation of Jean Pierre de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence. In saying that, I don't wish to diminish its unique qualities--they are many--the gentleness of the voice of Dom Columba, his erudition, and his careful tailoring of his teaching to the individual student, while never compromising the truth. Truly, this is an inspiring, hope-giving work. For those of us in the trenches, who seem like we never move forward, Dom Columba raises the battle cry that will jolt us out of complacency and send us forward.

A couple of examples at random:

from Union with God
Dom Columba Marmion

For you, it is not good to scrutinize the lowest depths of your soul. If during prayer, God throws His light into your soul and in this light reveals to you, your misery and baseness, it is a signal grace. But your are not in a state to examine and analyze your soul in a natural light.

You must be persuaded that your sinful past is in no way an obstacle to very close union with God. God forgives, and His forgiveness is Divine. With the Angels, God was not merciful because they had no miseries. With us, who are full of miseries, God is infinitely merciful. "The earth is full of the mercy of the Lord."

And what might appear astonishing, but is however very true, is that our miseries entitle us to God's mercy.

The little Infant Who is in our heart is gazing on the Face of His FAther. "In the presence of God for us." He sees in His Father's Eternal love the place you occupy, God's plan for you, a plan so minute that "not a hair of your head falls without Him." Give yourself up to Jesus, the Eternal Wisdom in order that He may lead you and guide you to the fulfillment of that ideal.

Each small section provides food for long and fruitful meditation. Magnificent and beautiful.

This year give the Christmas, New Year's, or Lenten gift of hope, love, and Eternal mercy. If you know someone who needs a good source of spiritual reading, this is the book for them. And while you're at it, drop a line to Mr. O'Leary to thank him for bringing these wonderful works back into print. We are truly blessed with our small Catholic Publishers. Let's support them.

Also, look here to see Vultus Christi's much more coherent, cogent review of the same work.

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Open Book


For people who love books and reading and who remember well their own first encounters with books, Michael Dirda's memoir/autobiography serves up some delicious moments. Perhaps the most satisfying moments in the book come when we realize that Mr. Dirda simply isn't all-encompassing (as it sometimes appears he must be) but that he has some limits. For example, he reveals that he doesn't much care for Agatha Christie. But don't hold that against him, it's one of the very few weaknesses in his armor of a catholic embrace of literature.

Mr. Dirda's life has some fascinating parallels with my own, and I'm certain that any person who grew up loving books will find moments that reflect their own lives. His discovery of the sonorities of H.P. Lovecraft; his intentional baiting of teachers who were not quite so eclectic in their readings and tastes; the constant pressure from parents to get your nose out of a book and go outside and do something (though I must admit that I didn't get too much of this).

There are enormous pleasures in reading Mr. Dirda's life in books, and some regrets as well. There are the roads untaken and the paths unexplored that one can see more clearly when reflecting on someone else's life and path. And then, there are the books unread--numberless streams and rivers of them--too many to ever even begin to number, and we're counting only the very best. What is one to do in facing the tide.

Well, it appears that Mr. Dirda, like the Chinese brother of fame, faces them with mouth wide open, ready to take in the entire sea of them and more. We know it isn't true, but those of us in the book-reading competitive world know that we have our work cut out for us when we face a man who read War and Peace by age 16, and kept lists of what he was reading as early as 14.

Next time the wife complains about the seventy or so volumes of journal that litter odd corners of our house, I'll just direct her to Mr. Dirda.

Highly enjoyable, highly recommended. In fact, can't be recommended highly enough.

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(and she had already done the excruciating work of typing it) that I thought I'd repeat it here with a twist. (Just as Disputations has already done.) My twist? The books in bold are ones that I have read and recommend to all. The books in ital are ones I have read and DON'T recommend, usually with a substitute suggested. The ones with no type treatment are ones that I haven't read.

The Book of Genesis

The Book of Job: Where were you when I made the universe?!

The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel by Robert Alter

The Gospel of Luke: "For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord."

The Gospel of John:The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

The Confession by St. Augustine:Difficult to read but worth it at last.

Inferno by Dante Alighieri: Don't stop there. Read the other two parts of the poem--Purgatorio is strong, Paradiso, is well. . . I hope it turns out better than Dante describes it.
Butler's Lives of the Saints by Michael Walsh: I have the four volume set and read the saints for the day each day. Worthwhile for some of the strange lore you'll be likely to come up with.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis: Not just a "book to read" but rather a book to continue reading. More than a devotional, it is a handy and simple guide.

The Idea of a University by Ven. John Henry Newman Yawn! Probably important ideas at the time, probably even important now, but I think Apologia pro vita sua is more personally interesting and captivating.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau: Yawn, self-important twaddle with a few bits here and there of unmitigated arrogance and misanthropy.

The Second Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln: . . . oh, don't get me started.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Even though I'm recommending it, it suffers from the temporal lobe epileptic syndrome--way, way, way too long for where it finally arrives. On the other hand, some gems, some brilliant moments, and some of the best theological writing in fiction you're likely ever to see.

The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux: Avoid every translation Beevers, Knox, whoever and stick with the Institute of Carmelite Studies Fr. John Clarke translation or possibly the new study edition that features Fr. Clarke's translations. I found a few places where I would have translated a line or two somewhat differently, but overall, excellent and more importantly COMPLETE with an explanation of the composition and the history of bowdlerization and saccharinization that occurred over time. Although there are still moments that are nearly emetic.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams: Then try the superb novel, Democracy, still strong even today.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: ho-hum, and the same for Heretics and The Everlasting Man. A journalist spelling out lay thoughts in prose that rise above the level of Robert Schuller, but still aphoristic to the point of disjointedness. I like Chesterton's nonfiction best in the small doses that other people quote on their blogsites. My choice, The Man Who Was Thursday.

Dubliners by James Joyce: Every piece of fiction by Joyce was a masterpiece, and this is his most accessible. Memorable points: "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," "Araby," "Clay," and , of course, "The Dead."

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset: Brilliantly done--make certain to read the entire trilogy. But beware, there are older, heavy-handed, extremely difficult to bear translations out there. Undset deserves better.

Therese by Francois Mauriac: This gets both marks because I read it and it took me twenty years to get back to Mauriac. I suspect a reread is in order. However because of my initial experience I always recommend either Tangle of Vipers or Woman of the Pharisees.

Death Comes for the Archbishop: My very favorite book of the earlier Twentieth Century--but very quiet, very sedate. In a word, lovely.

Mr. Blue by Myles Connolly

Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography by Albert Schweitzer: Haven't read it, but I think I'll give a pass to "Mr. Historical Jesus."

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos: Tried half a dozen times to get through it. Thought the movie was better.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Can't recommend it highly enough. Part of the "problematic series with Heart of the Matter and A Burnt Out Case

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West:

Brideshead Revisisted by Evelyn Waugh: While I enjoyed this, it is atypical Waugh. For a better, stronger, bitter brew try Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, Black Mischief, or The Loved One. For a completely uncharacteristic view try Helena supposedly Waugh's own favorite of his works.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alex Paton: Brilliant, beautifully told. Also Too Late, the Phalarope.

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton: Ho-hum. I love Merton's work, but I couldn't get through this. I suspect that it may be because of the rather heavy censoring it took just after composition, I don't know. But I would suggest Sign of Jonas or Waters of Siloe if you are interested in Merton, or New Seeds of Contemplation if you are interested in his thoughts.

Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Read after I became a Catholic and I tired of the sidelong slams of The Cost of Discipleship. Perhaps I should give this one another try?

The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

The Family of Man by Edward Steichen:

Divine Milieu by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.: Erik said it best at Julie's place. Although I will note that de Chardin was probably only a dupe in the Piltdown scandal thing, not a conspirator. What overblown folderol. Think Loren Eisley with Jesuit training so a really dull and tedious vocabulary.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.: One of my very favorite SF books--the first one I read more than once.

Morte D'Urban by J. F. Powers:

The Other America by Michael Harrington: t

The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis: Brilliant, largely literary study of the classic system of looking at Love.

The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life by Christopher Dawson

The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O'Connor:

Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.: Short enough and frequently enough referred to that I'd say everyone should have a passing acquaintance (Suppose the same might be said of Lincoln's inaugural address. . . but let's not go there.)

Everything That Rises Must Converge, "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor: If I were recommending only one O'Connor story, it probably wouldn't be this one, having a special place in my heart for "Good Country People." But with Flannery there's no way to go wrong.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley:

Silence by Shusaku Endo: Brilliant, frightening, overwhelming. The The Samurai and The Sea and Poison then. . . . His Life of Christ was a rather odd piece of work that is probably the most interesting exposition of a certain variety of Japanese Christianity you're ever likely to run across.

A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation by Gustavo Gutierrez: Have no interest whatsoever.

The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell: If you really want to read about the end of the world, pickup David Raup's The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science

The Love of Jesus and the Love of Neighbor by Karl Rahner, S.J.: Puh-leeze, four germanic syllables into it and I suspect that I'd never wake again. Tried reading a really short, really thin book on prayer by Rahner. May be the most wonderful treatise ever devised, couldn't prove it by me. Nope, won't be reading this one.

In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Chrsitian Origins by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza: (I'll just let Julie speak for me here) the title alone gives me the creeps, much less after reading the description - I don't think so. I'm open to suggestions for substitutions, preferably fiction. (Back again) If you want stuff in this vein just pick up The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Black Robe by Brian Moore: Reviewed below--it wouldn't be my first choice--that would be The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, and Catholics, reviewed on Julie's site sounds very appealing.

Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States by Helen Prejean: Book/movie, both a little too preachy for me.

The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd: The Best thing since More's son-in-law.

All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg: I'm not great at this kind of book because it invites "devotional reading," which I don't really do. But it is good stuff.

Some things left off the list that I would HIGHLY recommend:

Muriel Spark: Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means or A Far Cry from Kensington

Thomas Kelly: (this one will make Erik sick up)A Testament of Devotion--Brilliant, modern Quaker reflections.

Richard J. Foster: Simplicity, reflections on modern materialism and its discontents.

Dallas Willard: The Divine Conspiracy

Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin

Louis de Wohl: Anything--it's all "light reading" but pretty well constructed historical novels mostly about Saints.

C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce

Walker Percy Love in the Ruins. The Moviegoer won a Pulitzer prize, but left me largely cold. This one and its sequel The Thanatos Syndrome comprise a very high degree of weirdness in literature.

Rohinton Mistry--Family Matters--everything you could ever possibly want to know about being a Parsee.

Yann Martel--Life of Pi--weird beyond words, but notable for the ambition of the hero to combine the best of Hindu, Islam, Jewish, and Christian worlds in order to have four Holy days a week.

Hermann Hesse--Siddhartha gives you all the reasons a Hindu will tell you that they don't much care for Buddhism.

Pascal--Pensees--worth reading one at a time, slowly and thinking about, a long time.

John Howard Yoder--The Politics of Jesus--love it or hate it, it is a force to be reckoned with in modern thought about Jesus and his teaching.

Gerard Manley Hopkins--Why compose a list with no poetry? (One can't count Dante because that's far beyond mere poetry.) And particularly poetry of this power and caliber? I'm also very partial to the poetry of Sr. Jessica Powers.

And the list could go on forever. Jean Pierre de Caussade, St. Francis de Sales, etc. But let this be enough for now.

And real thanks to Julie and Tom who both inspired me to record some thoughts.

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All the Pope's Men

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The most unfortunate thing about this very interesting book by John Allen is the title. With a title reminiscent of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men and Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men one expect a book brimming with gossip, scandal, and revelations of evil intent.

While there is a considerable section devoted to discussion of the pedophilia scandal and to the Vatican's position on Iraq, there is nothing scandal-mongering about it.

The book is a guide to the Vatican, its structures, its institutions, its functions, the people who fill the offices and the general "culture" of the Vatican. For those, like me, who are ignorant of Vatican structure, who wouldn't know a dicastery from a congregation and have no idea what the difference between the Pope, the Holy See, and the Vatican are, this is a wonderful, informative guidebook.

John Allen is a correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter--and that will immediately influence some people one way or the other. But he states up-front that his intent as a reporter is to try to make the functioning of the Vatican, its offices and personnel, as transparent as possible so that it becomes feasible to understand some of the decrees and rulings that issue forth.

In the course of the book, he recounts the overlapping of offices; how one office dictates liturgy, but another actually puts together the liturgies for the Pope and how the two may be at loggerheads depending upon who is leading them. Thus, those who were particularly annoyed by the Liturgies for the Canonization of Juan Diego and others will be relieved to know that those are one office while the official liturgy of the Church is dictated by another.

John Allen dispels the myths of Vatican wealth, secrecy, and even what "The Vatican" is. I know that it gave me a completely different notion of how the Vatican functions and what the interrelationships of the various offices are.

One small problem with the book is that it was originally published in 1995 and so the names of some of the office-holders have likely changed since that time. But that is a minor quibble. The wealth of information and insight offered by the book are well worth your time and effort to seek it out. If you are as Vatican-illiterate as I am, you will likely profit from reading about it from one who appears to be fairly sympathetic to it as an institution and as a central authority and power.

Because of his reportorial venue and rumors I had heard kicked around the blogs, I had avoided reading John Allen. It's a shame. I must learn to filter out the scuttlebutt and make a decision based solely on the facts. (In this case, even if I had, I would not have picked up the book because of the unfortunate implications of the title.) In the future, books by John Allen will get a good deal more of my attention.

Highly recommended.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from December 2006.

Books and Book Reviews: November 2006 is the previous archive.

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