January 2003

The Inner Search.  By Dom Hubert van Zeller. Roman Catholic Books. 230 pages. $19.95.

This comprehensive book on the Christian’s search for God — newly reissued — was first published in 1956. Because of its timeless quality, it could be important for many today. Its strength lies in the way the author anchors the soul’s search for God in the Gospels and Epistles, in Catholic theology, and in the testimony of the saints and the Fathers of the Church.

At the outset we are reminded that the purpose in life of every Christian is union with Christ — to become as much like Christ as possible. The author’s counsel to actively collect scriptural material for our spiritual journey is unusual in books of this sort.

One of this book’s themes is the need for Christians to think, sift, and probe; to look into things, not at them. Another theme might seem to contradict this, but does not: As our minds acquire spiritual understanding, we become more intuitive and the door to the mystical life is opened. Every Christian should aspire to mysticism, and van Zeller expects that most may be expected to reach it to some degree.

But before we can attain any mystical state, we must be ascetical. Although corporal works of mercy are often advised in books of spiritual direction, seldom is a case so positively made for them. Moreover, van Zeller urges fasting on at least one set day a week. He anticipates our opposition with this answer: “The Fathers, evidently, did not shrink from the idea of voluntary corporal penance. They knew that the call of worldly prudence which urged a greater caution was all too often the call to come down from the Cross.”

Here is a sampling from van Zeller’s description of the mystical life: One has intimate knowledge of God and an intense love, which originate in God and which the soul cannot attain on its own. There is a heightened intuition, infused through prayer. One sees the relationships between inward and outward things, and one’s past as having had some design after all. Scripture comes alive. It is as if the graced disposition of the soul upon receiving the Holy Eucharist were to extend to all of life.

This appears to be a high point in the mystical life, but people continue to be subject to temptations. Here again, the author holds saintly aspirations up to the light of theology and Scripture: “If a Christian’s mysticism is to be safe from error and pleasing to the Father, it must derive from the Mystical Body of Christ and intend to contribute to the fuller stature of that Mystical Body.” Van Zeller uses the experience of the apostles to describe the dark night of the soul in the mystical life. Such darkness enveloped the Apostles after the crucifixion, before Pentecost when they received the Holy Spirit. The dark night is necessary for any soul’s union with God. Even though spiritual understanding and sanctity appear to be thriving, the soul must be stripped of all its security. Just as the Apostles knew Christ too humanly and their knowledge needed to be raised to another plane, so the natural intellect needs to be transcended to make way for an intense faith. “To the scattered apostles who looked, from their safe distance, at the tomb, there was no light on the future whatsoever. And the light on the past had gone out…. Yet all the time this was light, light burning into their souls and not to be recognized as such until the work of purification had been brought about.” Are we not the same as these?

Readers may be interested to know that Msgr. Ronald Knox, who translated the Vulgate in the 1940s, sought out van Zeller for advice during a personal crisis, calling him a “most severe monk,” only to find that van Zeller was anything but severe in his spiritual direction. Van Zeller dedicated this book to Knox.

- Rosemary Lunardini



The Confessions of St. Augustine.  Extracts selected and translated by Carolinne White. Eerdmans. 93 pages. $20.

Any well-educated Catholic should probably commit himself to reading the Confessions of St. Augustine in its entirety, even if it takes a lifetime. Written out of profound love and gratitude, the story of his conversion is constructed as a discourse with God. It opens up for us a soul and mind to rival any, always filled with deep recognition of God’s omnipotence and unmerited mercy. Whether writing on Divine attributes, human folly, the nature of truth, or the value of a sacrament, Augustine offers more than enough to savor.

Alas, most of us won’t even begin such an undertaking. Our distractions, our resistance, and, yes, our sloth help us, like Augustine in his youth, put off finding the time to seek out wisdom. These human foibles are one reason why this small volume of extracts should have wide appeal (it would make a fine gift for young adults).

The author’s translation uses everyday language that does not always match the lushness of the accompanying manuscript illuminations from the British Library. The interpretation is true in spirit, however, and might be, for some, preferable to the older and more ornate renderings of, say, Frank Sheed or the Fathers of the Church Series from the Catholic University of America Press.

Each short excerpt, from 10 of the 13 books, could easily be used for Lenten or Advent contemplation. Their brevity does not detract from the richness of thought that characterizes this favorite Doctor of the Church, most especially the understanding that true happiness in life comes only through God. With this brief but satisfying exposure, perhaps more readers will be inclined to pursue the full work.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink



You're a Better Parent Than You Think! A Guide to Common Sense Parenting.  By Raymond N. Guarendi, Ph.D. Catholic Answers (888-291-8000). Adio and CD.. $39.95.

Guarendi’s premise is that we shouldn’t listen to the child-rearing “experts.” But what is he? A clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting and childhood problems. So why is he different from all of the others like him peddling their method of parenting? Well, because he’s not trying to teach us a new, improved, kinder, gentler method of parenting. He says that our parents and grandparents had it right and this generation of parents has been misled into thinking that they have to do it differently and somehow better. Guarendi is working to disabuse us of the errors of “psychological correctness.”

I have tried never to buy into today’s pop-psychology regarding the raising of my three children — however, it is impossible to escape. Many of my friends and acquaintances are well versed in it. “Spanking is child abuse.” “Never use the word ‘No’ with your child because it stifles development and creativity.” “Encourage your son to play with Barbie dolls, and let him dress up in girls’ clothes if he wants to.” “Never punish your child by having him write repetitive sentences — he’ll develop an aversion to school and education.” I’ve been told all of this and more.

Guarendi maintains that the “experts” are leading parents into over-thinking parenthood. It really only requires common sense, consistency, and discipline. We’ve all surely witnessed parents who are at the mercy of their children, who allow their children to dictate terms, who cater to their every whim, who after a bit of whining give in to every demand, who seem to let the children essentially become the head of the household. These parents are failing their children, are doing their children no favors, for if the parents don’t discipline the children, Guarendi predicts, it will be the teacher, principal, employer, police officer, or judge who ultimately disciplines the child.

No amount of talk — lecturing, reasoning, threatening, debating, or bargaining — can replace good old-fashioned discipline, which is, by definition, a consequence for misbehavior. “Let your actions do your talking,” Guarendi advises, and he gives many great examples: sitting in a corner, composing a letter of apology, a monetary fine, an extra chore or job around the house, or writing an essay on the topic related to the transgression.

But what about spanking? It is a contentious topic among “parenting experts” today, and most vehemently assert that not only is it ineffective but it is a form of abuse. It also provokes self-doubt, guilt, and uncertainty in well-meaning parents. Guarendi tackles this subject by stating the arguments against spanking and exposing their flaws. “Spanking is ineffective and only breeds resentment”? It is ineffective only insofar as it is used when the parent acts out of frustration and rage. No discipline is 100 percent effective, maintains Guarendi, and even the most mild discipline can leave a child resentful. “Spanking teaches aggression”? A child raised by loving, moral parents will no more learn aggression from being spanked than he will learn immorality from hearing his father curse occasionally, Guarendi fires back. “Spanking sends mixed messages” — i.e., a child is not permitted to hit, but his parent is? When a child hits, Guarendi explains, it is ill-intentioned and malicious, but when a parent spanks it is well-intentioned and instructive. “Spanking is child abuse”? Abuse is cruelty, but spanking, Guarendi explains, is marked by judgment, love, and edification. Guarendi is not promoting spanking; rather, he says that it is fine to use as discipline if it is effective with a particular child, that is, it must be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Put into practice, Guarendi’s suggestions have produced unmistakably positive results. Yes, children misbehave — that is a given. But to yell and scream, to get frustrated and frazzled doesn’t help the child or the parent. Instead, Guarendi asserts that this loss of composure gives the child power over the parent. The essential foundation for effective parenting is maintaining control. Once I realized that I shouldn’t take my son’s misbehavior personally, I was better able to rationally evaluate the steps I needed to take in order to appropriately discipline him.

This multi-media set of one video cassette, four audio cassettes, and a short book answers every parenting question imaginable from birth to the teenage years. In fact, it has quite a lot of information to digest, and to fully utilize the information effectively, one must go back and reread certain sections as the issues arise in daily life. Therein lies the only drawback: It is quite difficult to go back and listen to the cassettes or watch the video when the need arises. I would rather have a piece of paper I can refer back to.

Guarendi’s aim is to make us more confident parents, to get us to stop second-guessing ourselves, and not to look to an “expert” for instructions on how to raise our own children. The primary error of this new generation of parents has been to abandon common wisdom and traditional, effective discipline in favor of something — anything — that promises to be better. While we are reading the latest “self-help parenting” book, our children are becoming spoiled, willful, and whiny brats. Rather, what our children need is the common sense of structure, boundaries, and consequences. Good discipline is consistent and predictable; it is not fancy, not complicated, not a secret, and most certainly nothing new.

- Maria Briggs





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