Books and Book Reviews: February 2007 Archives

This collection compiled by Raymond Arroyo is a delight from start to finish. You may not learn much about Catholicism, but then this is a book compiled by a disciple. It is, in essence an ana revealing a great deal about Mother Angelica in her short, pithy sayings.

Mother Angelica, to her great credit, has nothing new to say to us. Indeed, she should not have. After all, what we know we have known for at least two thousand years, and some of the truths we reflect on today stretch back to the dawn of time. What Mother Angelica adds to them is a way of viewing them--a pithiness and punch that will help some readers internalize them.

For example, take this succinct restatement of Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard's famous dictum:

If you're not a thorn in somebody's side, you're not doing Christianity right.

Mother Angelica takes the abstract, but still clear message of Kierkegaard and applies it to our evangelical life. Kierkegaard: "Those who are comfortable with Christ do not know Him." It's this subtle turn and practical bent that adds the gloss and highlights to what Mother Angelica tells us.

Later she speaks words of comfort:

Suffering in itself does not make us holy. It is only when we unite it, out of love, to the suffering of Christ that it has meaning. Suffering without love is wasted pain.

Once again, we hear the old adage that suffering has meaning. But Mother Angelica, in her straight-to-the-bone manner tells us exactly how it can have meaning.

Once again, a bit later:

The Father judges no one until He calls them home. Did you ever think of that? He doesn't judge you at all in this life, so why should we?


This is a book of a disciple and admirer, an attempt to catch the spirit of the woman while sharing with us some insights that may help, or which may give us a slightly different way of viewing something we have always known. The stories are engaging, the voice even more so.

I don't watch much of EWTN, but in the few times that I whirl by it in my race for the Food Network and I see Mother Angelica, I pause to hear that thick voice and see that lovely face as she reels out another story or shares with us some insight. In this book I can hear the voice and see the face and so the editor, Mr. Arroyo does his subject justice--he captures her spirit on paper for the benefit of all who wish to receive.

Best of all, for busy people, these are short snippets--a book to be dipped into, sampled and savored as needed. A resource for helping us to break out of our own patterns of thought and to look at the same design and see something utterly new.

In short, I cannot recommend the book enough to those who like Mother Angelica or who would like a little lift in the middle of a day--a morsel to chew on and to perhaps to be transformed by.

Highly Recommended to all.

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from The Listening Heart
A.J. Conyers

Of course the obverse side of that question also comes into view. What happens when a society loses this idea of its existence and of what shapes its existence? The sentiment of "being called," of experiencing life as a pilgrimage, is not, of course, altogether missing from modern life, but it is a much diminished idea without the attractive and compelling presence it once had. It has been reduced to philosophies about "work" or "occupation," or confined to the church "professions." Rightly understood, however, it is a view in which human life is drawn toward some purpose that is greater than the individual, one that stands above national interests, that invests life with nobility and beauty, and creates "room" for the common life. More than "work" and more than a "religious identity" or membership in a religious community, it is the notion that being human means one is drawn toward a destiny--and not simply as a worker or as a religionist, but as a soul that properly belongs to that which is yet dimly seen, but which already lays claim to one's very existence.

This is a powerful statement of what "vocation" actually means. We talk of "having a vocation," but it is a misunderstanding, a limitation of vocation that does injustice to the ordinary individual. Each one of us has a vocation, a specific calling. We are needed at a certain place, performing a certain function within the body of Christ. The vast majority of us are called to the vocation of married life. And within that vocation to stand as God would have us stand. St. Therese of Lisieux noted that her vocation was not merely to be a Carmelite, although that was the first step on her way to realization. Her call was to be "love at the heart of the Church." And while she may have stated it most clearly, all of us share some part in the vocation for those around us. For the homeless, those without friends, those who are despised, we are called to be love at the heart of the Church. But beyond that there is a unique identity for each of us--a place we must find and accept among God's people and it is unique. There is no jostling for position. James and John misunderstood this when they asked who would sit at His right hand--they turned vocation into competition. But for our own true vocations there is no competition because no one else can do what we are specifically called to do. And if we fail to do it, it will be left undone. That is the meaning of vocation. The call to our place--and that call takes in all that we are--it is as unique as we are, while at the same time all vocations share commonalities. At once unique and universal, our vocation once found is our opportunity to imitate the Blessed Mother and say with all that we are, "Yes."

That is the meaning and the power of vocation--living completely allied to God as God would have us be, doing what serves Him in the way He needs us to serve.

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A People Without a Home

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from The Listening Heart
A. J. Conyers

This book is written for those who suspect that this modern western world, even with its wealth and its productivity, lacks something essential to the human spirit. They see with their own eyes the army of "homeless" in the cities and along the highways in a and of unimagined wealth. At the same time, they sense an even deeper displacement that is more than geographic and deeper than material poverty, though it is a related phenomenon. There are, as it were, refugees of the spirit in a wealthy but spiritually impoverished part of the world. Too many people are refugees in their own land, some outwardly wandering from place to place, some inwardly. They are displaced people, wanderers who do not really know what to call home. What is often referred to as "home" is merely a convenient place to rest between days of work. The majority of people they work with, and too often even the ones they live with, are little more than strangers. Deep abiding relationships are not altogether missing in this world, but they are all too rare. Acquaintances are referred to as friends; strangers are called by their first name; but friendship and even the kind of kinship that was built on long years of life together, mutual trust, and sympathetic spirit, are so rare in some places that they seem to be altogether missing from common public conversation. The experience of community is one that is much discussed because there is a deep hunger for it; but it is this very thing that is so elusive.

Peer groups, so-called, or really age-groups, become more significant than family in the socializing of the young and increasingly in the social life of middle-aged and elderly. A market oriented society, of course, finds this more commodious. Families naturally impose a hierarchy of moral judgments, based upon the interdependency of generations and the availability of experience. Markets often find this inconvenient. Families are frustratingly resistant to the persuasions of commerce. . .

In some sense this is what we seek in blogging as well. It is interesting that blogging gives rise to small communities--St. Blogs, for instance--and increases the influence of "web-rings" and other chains that link together people with similar interests.

The truth is that outside of small communities, it is very difficult to find people who want to discuss the important things in life, the things many in St. Blogs tend to focus on. For example, outside my Carmelite community, and indeed, inside it much of the time, people don't really want to talk about the possibility of union with God or intimacy with God in prayer. I'm sure that there is a relatively small number of people who are really interested in Thomistic analysis of issues of the day--but being here on the web, that small number can find any number of places to visit and to listen to and try to absorb some of that learning and erudition that visit us so infrequently in the ordinary world.

Community is essential, where there is none, one will be built. Analysts blame the internet for making people less socially aware and hence less community oriented. But the truth of the matter is that a transient society in which forming close bonds that are too-often sundered does not lend itself well to the formation of strong local communities. We know that and so we don't often aggregate in the communities our parents and grandparents may have known. The internet is not necessarily perpetrator, but salve for those who have witnessed the limited opportunity for community.

Community is also built on shared ideas, values, and ways of doing things. Within a community the ideas of courtesy and the ordinary boundaries of what is polite are clearly defined. However, in a diverse mix of people these notions are hard to agree upon and lead to weaker bonds between people who, while not wanting to offend are just too tired to learn all the ins and outs of what is acceptable.

The idea of community is slowly dying, and as it does so we are losing any sense of self. Self is often defined against the backdrop of community.

And so it is my hope that this book does not merely analyze the problem, but suggests concrete things that can be done to help foster community--intentional community. And there is good reason to hope:

This book, therefore, attempts to answer some basic questions for those who would like to know if their sense have failed them, or if, in fact, something significant is palpably missing from life in the midst of such a world. Walker Percy spoke of the plethora of life-affirming books in our culture; and where there is such a flood of materials affirming life, one can be sure there is a lot of death around. Is there a reason for some of this widely shared sense of alienation? Are there concepts that help us to understand what is missing and what need to be recovered? Is there a model for life that would help the recovery of real fellowship, of genuine life together? Can it be that the church is such a model when she has not, herself, succumbed to the prevailing anti-culture of late modernity?

Is there a reason that the community with the most far-reaching common vision, an ecumenical vision, began with a Man who claimed nothing of himself, bur answered a call that ultimately meant his death?

The chapters ahead trace the meaning of the religious experience of vocation, in terms of a Christian theology of vocation. Here we find an alternative to the centrality of "choice." For it is precisely "choice," when it is the first word in our ethical vocabulary, that pulls us apart, and likewise "vocation" that calls us together.

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As proposed by Fr. John Dear, nonviolence is the single, monolithic impulse of the entire Christian message:

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

The cross then is the way forward for Jesus and for anyone who wishes to pursue his vision of love and peace. None of us can sit by idly while the world consumes itself with violence and war. Each one of us--if we want to pursue the morality and sanctity of Christ, if we want to plumb the depths of the spiritual life--must engage in some public nonviolent action for justice and disarmament. Sooner or later, we too will turn toward our own modern-day Jerusalem and confront the culture of war and injustice. We too will have to speak out against killings, executions, racism, poverty, war, nuclear weapons, corporate globalization, and environmental destruction through public, nonviolent action. We too will have to face our culture's preference for violence, and suffer the consequence of social noncoooperation with systemic injustice.

So then, it seems, we are not "many parts and all one body," but rather we are all to be a single part directed toward a single set of actions. If we are to achieve a spiritual life, we can't dedicate our lives to prayer within a monastery or to quietly raising a family to love and honor God. No, it seems that the only way to true spirituality are public acts of nonviolent resistance to injustice. So a great many of the Saints of prior times are not really so much saints as spiritual self-aggrandizers. Those who did not speak out against the injustices of their times--those who lived quiet lives behind solid walls, they did not achieve the heights of spiritual awareness.

People who quietly donate food to the pantries or who stock those pantries, or who counsel one-on-one with unfortunate women contemplating abortion--these people don't know the heights of spirituality.

It is this blinkered insistence on a single strain of the Gospel message that constantly weakens the real truth behind Fr. Dear's argumentation. My quiet avoidance of establishments that mistreat their employees and exploit migrant workers is not sufficient. I must get out with my signs of protest and make the whole world know what not to do. But the reality is that the informed person already knows what to do--all I do by carrying a sign is bring attention to myself as a holier-than-thou protester and rabble-rouser.

Jesus did not tell us that we all were to do exactly the same thing. We must work for justice in the social sphere, but it need not be public protest or public admonition of sinners or public anything. Our quiet charities and our continued prayers for those less fortunate than ourselves are actions that have every bit the validity of what Fr. Dear suggests. They are every bit the source of spiritual life and grace and they are the appropriate venues for most people. We are not called to be a people of constant outrage and in the public eye constantly. We are not called to be thrown into jail at every turn, regardless of Fr. Dear's contention that our actions must be public.

Indeed, the greatest nonviolent resistance to evil takes place when we participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, when we pray with the Church Militant, when we spend time with Jesus in contemplation and prayer. There our souls are refined and strengthened to our real work in the world--be that nonviolent resistance to social injustice or wiping away a child's tear. Both are productive, socially responsible, Christian acts that stem from the theological virtue of Charity.

We are not all called to the nonviolence of Father Dear--a monotonous, grey, wan, etiolated vision of the whole of the Gospel message. Many of us are called to some part in this as a portion of living a full-Gospel life. We stand holding hands to form a a chain of life on Roe v. Wade day. We serve in many ways. But those who cannot so serve may find other ways to strengthen the kingdom of God here on earth. We are MANY PARTS, each of which performs a function that maintains the health of the body of Christ. We cannot all be the part that spends our entire lives in public protest. Someone must feed those poor for whom others are demonstrating.

And, to be fair, perhaps Fr. John includes this in his vision of nonviolent resistance. But honestly, it does not seem so. If our service does not include an element of the public--in the sense of advertised or blatant--it seems that it does not suffice to bring us to the heart of spirituality.

Somehow, I find this message too restrictive, too small a vision of what Christianity is all about. Redemption and salvation seem to have little or no place in this vision of the Gospel--the only salvation appears to be social salvation--the only redemption public. Prayer's only purpose is to fuel this activist action. So we have, ultimately, Christianity as activism, the Gospel as manifesto.

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Forever Odd


This, the second of the Odd Thomas books by Dean Koontz, is somewhat more low key. The first dealt with an amazing array of evil brought to an near-apocalyptic climax. The evil Odd Thomas fought was so great that it attracted shadows, harbingers of the blood to come.

In this second book there are shadows, but not of the same type. And while we explored evil in the first book, more as a phenomenon than as a personal reality, in this book we meet evil as a personal choice: it's avatar, compared frequently to Kali is Datura, perhaps the single most evil person in modern literature. Her evil is both wicked and malicious.

The story is more intimate, quiet and subdued. A friend of Thomas's, a friend since childhood, a friend with osteogenesis imperfecta is kidnapped by Datura and her merry men and taken a long, tortuous, and circuitous route to an abandoned Casino in the desert near the town where Thomas lives. He is called and challenged to find them. He does and the story transpires.

Koontz is able to use this slower story to show us personal evil in considerable detail. As a result, he is also able to build up his theme of good and evil and the choices we make that construct that path. Moreover, he is relentless in his insistence upon the lack of mitigating factors when we choose evil. As we brood upon Datura, we discover more and more that whatever her past, it is her choices that form her and make her what she is.

Because of these big thematic reflections, certain imperfections in the story are of less moment than they would otherwise be. What happens to Datura and her two Chevals, in a novel of lesser thematic depth, would be a bit disappointing. But in this novel, they are sufficient to the moment because the story is about more than mere event.

I'm not going to pretend that this is come terribly deep philosophical rumination on the nature of evil. But the thematic material in the book far exceeds that normally found in light fiction. The tone remains light throughout, but some of the ideas that Koontz trots out are not light at all--nevertheless they are made palatable by the superb craftsmanship of the story.

I can only hope that Brother Odd lives up to the standard set in the first two books. These represent for me the first readable Koontz in years, and it is indeed quite readable, and nevertheless filled with a certain seriousness.


Now I'm on to another Westbow publication from an author whose first book was written so execrably that I was unable to force myself through half of it, but whose talent seems to have soared rapidly. The book--Obsession by Ted Dekker and so far we have a nasty ex-nazi and a fantastical treasure called The Stones of David. Promising.

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Two More Bon Mots


Another couple of amusing moments from the light-read. No spoilers here, but amusing.

from Forever Odd
Dean Koontz

Having by now eaten in excess of five thousand bananas, she might understandably have lost her taste for them--particularly if she had done the math relating to her remaining obligation. With 974 years to live (as a serpent, small s), she had approximately 710,000 more bananas in her future.

I find it so much easier being a Catholic. Especially one who does get to church every week.

When she returned, she smiled and said, "We were at the movies once, and this dork took two phone calls during the film. Later we followed him, and Andre broke both his legs with a baseball bat."

This proved that even the most evil people could occasionally have a socially responsible impulse.

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Notwithstanding any of my previous commentary on the book , we then have passages like these:

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

I can think of no greater life than radical discipleship to Jesus. Companionship and friendship with Jesus, and the Gospel work of justice and peace that this life entails, may sound quaint, pious, and naive, if not idealistic or surreal, but I submit, as the saints and martyrs testified, that it is the most authentic and rewarding life. Each one of us can choose to live our days in the company of Jesus, to walk in his footsteps, enter his story,a nd become his friend and companion.

Other than the very narrow focus on what the "Gospel work" entails, this is one of many passages in which Father Dear encourages and expatiates upon the beauty, integrity, and meaning of a life lived for, with, and through Jesus Christ. There are some wonderful passages that describe this life and even give details about how to move from our present lives into this close companionship with Jesus.

Fr. Dear's contention is that this close companionship with Christ will foster a thirst for justice and peace, and that is, without question true.

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

Reliance on Jesus is the heart of the Christian life. The saints testify that the key to their lives was not their great accomplishments, their terrible sufferings, their bold prophecies, or even their astonishing miracles. It was Jesus. Somehow, he had touched them, invited them to follow him, and managed to walk by their side. Through his grace they remained faithful to him, rooting everything they did in their intimate relationship with him. Their lives made sense and bore good fruit because they were centered on Jesus.

All the outstanding figures of the past century exemplify this devotion to Jesus. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, wrote shortly before her death in 1980 that she was grateful and luck because "Jesus has been on my mind nearly every day of my life."

He goes on to list Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Mahatma Gandhi, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Philip Berrigan, all of whom he calls "modern-day Saints." And I suppose that is true enough, and yet it reads like a litany of "the usual suspects" in a certain way of thinking. Where is Padre Pio, Fr. Solanus, and other figures of that type in this list of prominent persons of the 20th Century? He does list Mother Teresa, but it seems that his list is rather heavily weighted toward the social activist side of the spectrum.

But then, one must grant another's preferences and biases. No list of outstanding figures of the 20th century will include everyone. But one must wonder at such a list that excludes Pope John Paul II among others.

Oh well, I guess I've shown my hand.

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Comes a Horseman

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I apologize to you, my weary audience, for I've already pushed out a great mass of stuff, but before the heat dies on the burner of memory, I thought I'd post just one more--a book review.

Westbow, an imprint of Thomas Nelson publishers--renowned largely for their gigantic Bible-publishing enterprise--is a smart, savvy press that seems to "get it." In recent days I've read a number of books that have been issued by this press, and they have been uniformly well-written and at the core Christian. However, none of them bear the traditional marks of some Christian publications. That is, Christian publishers are catching on and finding out that you need engaging characters, a plot, and good writing to lure readers. The Christian message will out in the course of things if you keep the reader reading.

So, we have Comes a Horseman by Robert Liparulo--an unlikely entry in the Evangelical publisher's catalog--Pagan Norse serial killers with wolf-dog hybrid assistances working for the would be Antichrist on his way up. We have two FBI CSI-like investigators who start with the serial killings and then are well on their way to becoming victims themselves. The book is an intricate, complicated thriller that centers around the rise of a pretender to the position of Antichrist with the assistance of a group of watchers. There are several separate strands that are finally brought together in a satisfying if somewhat protracted conclusion.

The book is long and there's a bit more explanation toward the very end than seems plausible given the circumstances. However, these are the same problems that show up in nearly any book of the genre. What is here moves quickly and carries the reader along. Faith is an ordinary part of the lives of the characters and is portrayed as such. When a character prays it makes sense and seems real in the context. One of the main characters is an agnostic who does not miraculously by the end of the book "come to Jesus."

In all, we have smart fiction for the Christian or, I suspect, the non-Christian reader. The non-Christian approaching this book will not be alienated by overly pious characters suddenly falling on their knees just before the villains are about to descend upon them. Indeed, as with Tolkien, the religious message is there and is probably more effective for its stealth treatment and its permeation throughout the text rather than for preaching directly.

A good read for those into the serial-killer/apocalyptic thriller genre. A big beach book--so buy it for summer reading and leave it where someone who may not be Christian can find it. Evangelism through art--sweet!

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The optic through which Fr. John Dear chooses to view the life of Jesus seems to have a curious flaw, or perhaps merely blinders:

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, an act that would lead the authorities to arrest and execute him. On the mountain, in that place of solitude and beauty, God transformed him and gave him a taste of the resurrected life to come. He became the Christ he would become.

I found the first sentence provocative and the second mildly disturbing. Did Jesus "become the Christ" or was He born as the Christ? I didn't know that Jesus was not the Savior from the time of His birth, that this title was only conferred upon Him as He "earned" it or merited it. Perhaps what Fr. John meant to say here is that He was revealed to some of his disciples as the Christ. But that is not my sense of this passage. I won't go on because my Christology is not exemplary, but it just struck me as a very wrong-headed way to go about looking at Jesus.

More than that, was it "nonviolent civil disobedience" that led the authorities to arrest and execute Him? Or was it something more? Certainly one could argue that Jesus did often commit "nonviolent civil disobedience" and it caused enormous discomfort among those in charge of things. But to reduce the cause of Jesus' death to this strikes me as reducing the cause of World War I to the single event of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.

Tom at Disputations pointed out currents in the book that worked to reduce the Gospel message to one of nonviolent civil disobedience, and this seems an overt instance of it. However, I'm still in the act of synthesizing and thinking about the argument, rereading and trying to understand the focus and the fullness of what is here.

One thing I can say is that the book is worth reading for the points it brings up and for the argument that surfaces. Agree or disagree, it will get you thinking about Jesus and His life and teachings, and that in itself, regardless of whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with Fr. Dear's arguments, is a worthwhile pursuit.

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Pacifism and Nonviolence

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from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

May you be blessed as you journey up the mountain to meet the transfigured Jesus and follow him down the mountain as his disciple into the world of war, injustice, and violence on the Gospel mission of peace, love, and nonviolence.

Pacifism and nonviolence are related but not identical ideological stances. One might say that Pacifism is a subset of nonviolence. It is possible to be an aggressive pacifist; however, it is not possible to be an aggressive proponent of nonviolence. Nonviolence often incorporates the idea of nonresistance as well--that is that true nonviolence at its core proposes that anything that is "in opposition to" is in fact in violence toward. The nonresistant faction of the nonviolent tends to be very small and in my experience confined to community situations such as the Mennonites. I won't pretend to understand the fullness of nonresistance or its underpinnings, but I think that their use of the word violence does violence toward it.

Nonviolence sees violence in all sorts of situations that most of us would pass over without comment. A true practitioner of nonviolence would see violence in compulsory education laws. Violence (the force of law) is used to compel students who may or may not wish to participate to be educated.

I don't know if Fr. John Dear would fall into this group of extremes; however, it is evident that wherever he perceives injustice (whether or not it is truly there) he perceives a violence against nature, people, or God's law. His interest is not merely pacifism but nonviolence.

Now, were it not for original sin and the imperfectiblity of humankind in this realm, there would be nothing really wrong with the idea of nonviolence in its largest sense. However, nonviolence pretends that humankind can live in some kind of Edenic peace and joy--that through our works and prayers we can bring about the New Jerusalem ourselves. But the New Jerusalem is not a human state--it is a divine gift that comes from grace and God alone.

This does not mean we should not strive to come as close to that Edenic possibility as we can. However, stern-eyed realism demands of us that we recognize that the only time we truly live in peace is when there are strictures outside of ourselves that keep us in check. Self-regulation is not part of the built-in human apparatus--anyone who has dealt with a two-year old knows this. And the reality is that most of us carry around that two-year-old child within us throughout our lifetimes. The job is to encourage that child to mature--and the great Saints managed this, living a life of self-restraint and contemplation. They are our examples and the direction we should all go. But to propose that all people will in the same degree and at the same pace suggests a grossly deformed theo-anthropological system.

Nonviolence is an individual choice. To force it upon others is, in some sense, perpetrating violence. To force it upon others by saying that it is divine decree uses a different system of violence. The only way to encourage nonviolence is not upon pain of sin, but rather upon the firm understanding that we are meant to become like God and move toward His peace and love for all. Some people seem to think that pacifists and those in favor of nonviolence think that all who do not agree with them are dreadful sinners headed straight for Hell. That may be true for some inclined to pacifism, but it is not true for me. Pacifism and nonviolence are akin to private revelations--they are binding upon those to whom they have been revealed, but they are not necessarily incumbent upon all of humanity. Jesus himself was not nonviolent. He overthrew the money-changers' tables and scourged them out of the temple. He called the Pharisees "whitewashed sepulchers"--an extreme of verbal violence. So the call to nonviolence would radically distort the story of Jesus in order to make its point. Those in favor of nonviolence (myself among them) must start by acknowledging that the path we tread isn't the path everyone is called to--although there are aspects of that journey that are universal.

Don't know why I'm maundering on about this. But I will probably do so more later when there is time to clarify and refine what I'm trying to get at.

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A Slow Sort of Review


from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

When I first met the great Jesuit peacemaker and poet Father Daniel Berrigan, I wanted his advice about the life that lay ahead for me, but I didn't know exactly what to say. "What's the point of all this?" I finally asked him.

Dan took my awkward question seriously. "All we have to do is make our lives fit into the story of Jesus," he said. "We have to get our lives to make sense in light of the Gospel."

What a helpful answer! I never forgot it. The Christian life, I was learning, is fashioned after the life of Jesus. As his followers, we have t know his story, enter his story, and make our story part of his story. The Gospel, in other words, is the measure of our lives. . . .

If we dare listen to Jesus and follow him closely on the road to peace, I am learning we too are transformed, and at some point, if only for a moment, even transfigured. Our lives are changed into light and love, we realize that we are God's beloved sons and daughters , and we shed Christ light for others, guiding them through this world of darkness. . . .

Encouraged by the transfigured Christ , by our own modern-day Moseses and Elijahs, we take another step on the Gospel journey of nonviolence into the world's violence. We listen closely to the words of Jesus and put them into practice. We even find strength to carry the cross of nonviolent resistance to injustice and welcome the risen Christ's gift of peace in our hearts and in the world.

Fr. Dear goes on to say that this book-length mediation on the transfiguration comes out of his discipleship journey with Jesus. In a word, this is a personal story with a very narrow focus, not a bad thing at all, but a thing which must be borne in mind as one enters the book. Otherwise paragraphps like the last one above tend to curdle and sour perception (after all, is the entire gospel message about nonviolence?). It isn't that the Risen Christ does not give the gift of the peace (shalom) to His followers, but rather that the gift is not coextensive with peace--there is a great deal more to than the peace of nonviolence and nonaggression. Indeed, there is more to it that peace alone. Peace is, in a sense, a side-effect of the reconciliation with God effected by the sacrifice. It is a side-effect of inestimable value, but the real gift remains even if an individual never experiences the peace of Christ in any life-transforming way.

Enough with the quibbles. What is notable above is the resonance of the first couple of paragraphs. Fr. Dear's story has obviously brought him deeply into the story of Jesus and from his experiences, he chooses to extract a small portion and share with us the vision that he has from them. Taken at this level, the book promises a certain richness, a richness that often comes with the very limitation of focus. In general one can be a mile wide and an inch deep or an inch wide and a mile deep. Few written works approach both expansiveness and depth. (One I can think of is The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, but how many have even attempted that tome?)

So, if one accepts the premise of a laser-thin focus and meets the author on his own ground, so to speak, it would seem that both the differences and similarities of one's thought to that of the author would be accentuated. Where one agrees, agreement is likely to be profound, and disagreement and suspicion of conclusion is also likely to be deep.

I've only dipped into the book here and there and just started the reading. The prose is light and lively and the subject promises to be provocative. Hope to finish by Ash Wednesday and let you know more. In the meantime check out Transfiguration.

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The Social Gospel

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I've always been a little suspicious of social-gospelers--those who would have it that Jesus came to Earth primarily as politician.

from "Foreword" by Archbishop Desmond TuTu
in Transfiguration
Fr. John Deaf

Traditionally the account of Our Lord's transfiguration and its sequel in the healing of the boy possessed by a demon has been interpreted as providing a paradigm of the encounter with God leading to engagement with the world, with evil, that the spiritual experience is not meant to insulate us against the rigors of life as experienced by most of God's children in a hostile world out there.

The encounter with God would constrain us to work for a new ordering of society, where we would beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, and we would study war no more. . . . It is to see a fulfillment of God's dream, a new heaven and a new earth, when God will wipe away all tears and the wolf and the lamb will feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox--"For they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord" (Isaiah 65:25).

This book is a clarion call for us to be engaged in the project for world peace. We ignore it at our peril.

There is nothing in these words that is particularly provocative. It has long been central to the Carmelite tradition that contemplative prayer and union with God was not for the sake of the individual but for the sake of all the world. The plan of life of a lay Carmelite is to practice our faith and pray so that ultimately we might bring the fruits of contemplation to a world desperate for the smallest hint of the presence of God. The cloistered bring to the world the power of prayer and the presence amongst us of those who are God's intimate friends--to use a not-exactly correlative eastern term, Boddhisatvas--those who have attained enlightenment (in our case presence and Union with God) and remained behind to help others along the way--not necessarily by DOING anything, but simply by being a shining example to all.

However, my problem with the social gospel comes when Jesus is reduced to a political emissary from God whose sole purpose is to make things better on Earth for the majority of people. While this is certainly a part of His mission, it is, by no means, the full scope of what He came to do.

I approach this book, written by a disciple of the Berrigan brothers with some trepidation. While I strongly desire to agree with the central premise, I must admit to some prejudice against the case on the superficial evidence.

So, reading the book to record reactions will be an exercise in reining in those straining hounds that want to rip the premise to shreds on the basis of the fact that it appears at surface not to conform with the fullness of the Gospel message.

This is all said before the fact. I haven't read the book nor given the author the opportunity to argue his case. But I do myself and my audience no good if I do not start my undertaking with a sharp sense of my own suspicion and doubt. I want what is said here to be true, and I want to find elements of the truth, but I fear I may be overwhelmed by the tide of incidentals that while having nothing to do with the central argument, nevertheless inundate the central point. Tom, at Disputations, already noted one that I had observed in previewing the book--the constant dunning, drumming reference to the oppressive male hierarchy of the Church and how that is an instance of this same violence toward people. He speaks constantly of a male-dominated Church, while my experience is that it is one of the only Churches to hold up the supreme place of Our Lady, Mother of the Church and in a very real sense Mother of our Faith.

But already, I'm arguing, and I haven't even given my guest a cup of coffee and asked him to sit down. So, I must put myself and my misgivings aside and try to assess the worth of what is said.

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from Teaching a Stone to Talk
Annie Dillard, cited in The Language of God
Francis S. Collins.

We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism. . . is is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall t our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. . . . And yet, it could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the small, still voice, God's speaking from the whirlwind, nature's old song and dance, the show we drove from town. . . . What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn't us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Aren't they both saying: Hello?

We explore the unknown to find something that is not us while we ignore what has been made known that plainly, unequivocally shows it. We are an amazingly perverse people.

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I don't much care for many of the works of Joyce Carol Oates, although some stand out brilliantly against her vast opus; however, I have always liked the sense of the person I received when reading Joyce Carol Oates. An example:

from The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

What advice can an older writer presume to offer a younger? Only what he or she might wish to have been told years ago. Don't be discouraged! Don't cast sidelong glances and compare yourself to others among your peers! (Writing is not a race. No one really "wins." The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.) And again, write your heart out.

Read widely and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read. (As Hamlet remarks, "I know not 'should.' ") Immerse yourself in a writer you love, and read everything he or she has written, including the very earliest work. Especially the very earliest work. Before the great writer became great, or even good, he/she was groping for a way, fumbling to acquire a voice, perhaps just like you.

What good common-sense. What profound human sympathy. It is this strain and these things that I love when I find them in Oates's writing. They lift me up as I read them and set me down gently, renewed and ready to go on again.

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Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature in 1988. He was stabbed by Islamic extremists after a casual remark about his "blasphemous novel" being the stimulus to Salman Rushdie for his deplorable Satanic Verses. He die in August of last year.

Miramar is a simple story of a small group of people who live in the Pension Miramar in Alexandria. It is a theme in four voices--each one a resident at the pension. The story centers around the attractions, distractions, or interest provided by a young serving girl working at the pension who has left her home and property after she had been threatened with being married off to a man four times her age.

I haven't processed the entire novel--there is much in it about Egyptian politics--subtleties I'm sure I don't understand at all. But the heart of the story is painfully human--lust and desire and how these shape lives, opinions and viewpoints.

Short, perhaps melodramatic, the novel has overtones of John Forsyth and others of his ilk in its attempt to portray the people of a time and place as accurately as possible. Mahfouz has a deft hand with characterization and he has an ability to move quickly into the heart of a character or situation.

Miramar probably isn't a great book, but it is a good enough book to encourage me to read more. And I suppose that's the finest recommendation an author can receive.

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I was reminded yesterday by Tom at Disputations that it is never too early to begin thinking about Lent. Since I've been thinking about Lent since the day after Easter last year, I would heartily concur with that opinion. I love Lent. I love the spirit of penitence that never seems like penitence because it is such a calm and peaceful sea in which to swim. So many things to give up and then never notice their absence because the faculties are ordered to paying attention to God. For me, the season is a small miracle each year.

I have not yet decided how I will be celebrating the season this year, however, I picked up a book of essays by Ruth Burrows, who must be one of my favorite spiritual writers of recent time.

from Essence of Prayer
Sr. Ruth Burrows, OCD

Prayer. We take the word for granted but ought we to do so? What does the word mean in the Christian context? Almost always when we talk about prayer we are think of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, illusions multiply. For me, it is of fundamental importance to correct this view. Our Christian knowledge assures us that prayers is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God, but what God is doing for us. And what God is doing for us is giving the divine self in love.

When I think of prayer in the common way, prayer itself becomes a form of work. As a form of work, its interest palls as we see no forward motion, feel no sense of accomplishment. But prayer is not a work, it is a relationship. People of our time tend to regard relationships in this same sense of accomplishment and moving forward--a strange malady of the times. "This relationship is going nowhere." Well, of course it isn't, that isn't the nature of relationships. So too with prayer--it is putting aside time so that God may bestow Himself upon us. It isn't a work, it is a way of being with All Being.

Why do we find this concept so difficult to grasp? I think there is something in the modern mindset that is always seeking to get "something out of" whatever is done. But this is a fundamentally flawed way of approaching God and prayer. We aren't looking to "get something out of God" (or at least, we shouldn't be), but rather to be transformed by His Love for us. Our effort is not entirely our own because it is not possible without grace. Moreover, if we look upon it as an effort, we expect a return. Prayer is a time and a place to be--it is no more effort than sitting on our back porch and looking at the sunset.

And yet, we make it a mountain of method and of style, a pound of words and a recipes of all kinds of things that must be done just so. Because Catholicism is so imbued with structured rite and ritual, we have come to ritualize, rubricize and methodize prayer. For example, we confuse the rhythms of the Rosary, the rhythms of a mother singing to a child, with our own feeble efforts at prayer. The Rosary is spoken by us, but it is prayer precisely because it brings us into His presence to receive the love endlessly revealed in each mystery.

Each prayer we say, each action we take, each motion, each method, all of this is about preparing ourselves for Love. We are such awkward creatures. Surely we do similar things for each other, going out of our way to deceive ourselves and the one we love, to make them think we are lovable. But that is something we do not need with God. We are lovable because He loves us. That is a fundamental truth we need to accept at the start and we have to put behind us all the awkwardness and difficulty of pretending to be something we are not. God knows. He knows already. Every fiber of our being is sustained by His Will at every moment. Do we really think we can hide from Him?

So all this effort at prayer is simply a play at telling ourselves that we are really more determined and better than we are. But we are little more than children dressing up in adult clothing and after a while the entertainment palls.

So what must I do? Attend to payer, be there, ready and waiting to receive love in whatever form it may appear. Spend time with His Word, spend time with Him. Don't allow method to intrude upon Being. Be aware of who He is who who I am not. As Saint Catherine of Siena so wisely tells us, "He is He who is, I am she who is not." We do well to remember that. Our reality is grounded in He who is and without Whom all is not.

There is no method to being. We are. We are because He is and in looking at Him we are looking at being. There may be things we can do that will dispose our minds, hearts, and souls to better receive this reality. However, the end is being. And that is also the beginning.

(interesting side note. I composed much of this in my palm and tried to synch it this morning to my computer. For some reason I couldn't get the blue-tooth connection to work. As a result, I had to retype it from the palm screen. Normally my palm is set to go off after a minute or so of inactivity. But in this case it did not go off during the entire typing episode. It suggests to me that the Holy Spirit, perhaps, really wanted this message to get out there. Or, I'm sure, there are other more mechanical explanations. But I'll go with the first.)

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from February 2007.

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