July-August 1998

Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness.  By Johann Christoph Arnold. Plough (1-800-521-8011). 169 pages. $13.

Shortly after I was asked to review Seventy Times Seven, I took part in a series of talks focusing on the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio. During one of those talks, the priest who was speaking blessed the group with a relic of St. Maria Goretti, a model of chastity. The blessing was special for me for two reasons. First, I have been fond of St. Maria Goretti since my childhood. (She was an Italian peasant girl murdered as she defended herself from a would-be rapist. During the brutal attack, the young man stabbed Maria; on her deathbed she forgave him; with the knowledge of her forgiveness, he repented of his sin and crime, completed his prison sentence, and entered a monastery where he remained for the rest of his life.) Second, in my work as a lawyer prosecuting sex offenders, St. Maria Goretti has become a source of strength for me as well as a heroine.

After the blessing I approached the priest, told him about my job, and asked if I could see the relic. I took it into my hands and silently asked for St. Maria’s intercessory prayer. When I tried to return the relic to the priest, he held up his hand and told me to keep it. He said that with a job like mine, I needed it a lot more than he did. He was so unequivocal that I could not even make the obligatory protestations. I thanked him and kept the relic, which I always carry with me.

The convergence of the assignment to review Seventy Times Seven and the gift of the relic forced me to examine whether Providence had a hand in all of this, and the answer seems to be yes. The book is a confrontation with forgiveness, and so is the relic. Despite my admiration for St. Maria as a model of forgiveness, I found myself wanting to dismiss much of Arnold’s book as unrealistic. It was perturbing. Most troubling to me was my recognition that the words and examples I was finding so hard to take are the words and examples of Jesus.

I was reminded of another teaching of Jesus that people found — and find — hard to take, the Discourse on the Bread of Life. Remember those grumbling listeners? After hearing Jesus speak on the Bread of Life, on the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, “many of His disciples remarked, ‘This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously?’” (Jn. 6:60). Reading Arnold’s treatment of Jesus’ call to forgiveness, I found myself, surprisingly, uneasily, among the grumblers, hoping to soften or discard His teaching.

What of the demands of justice?, I thought. After all, I am a prosecutor. I am in the business of calling people to account — of accusing, proving guilt, and demanding punishment. Was my life’s work being called into question here? Arnold provides account after account of heroic acts of forgiveness, often with the victim seeking out the victimizer and offering forgiveness without being asked. The stories recount horrendous deeds of torture, murder, child molestation, incest, deliberate cruelty (both mental and physical), genocide, adultery, and abandonment.

The natural response to any of the above is retaliation — a demand for revenge. But then, with the grace of God, are we not as Christians called to a supernatural response? The victims portrayed in this book sought out their abusers, not to condemn, but to forgive. They were truly living out their call to do what Christ did. Christ forgave His executioners in the midst of the crucifixion even as they mocked Him and cast lots for His garments. Like Christ, these people, while still suffering the effects of the crimes committed against them, forgave.

Should criminals be routinely pardoned and left to wander the streets? Clearly, the answer is no. But this book is not about the administration of criminal justice. It is about personal victories, victories over anger and hatred, victories that heal by preventing the wrongdoer from inflicting even more damage on his victim by embittering him. Arnold’s book challenges the reader to follow the example of the Lamb, the Innocent Victim, Our Lord and Savior. Those we encounter on the journey through its pages are ordinary people who have done an extraordinary thing. This is how saints — like Maria Goretti — are made.

Seventy Times Seven should carry a warning label. Caution: Upon reading these pages you will be forced to examine whether you believe Christ’s words as you say you do. Jesus meant what He said about forgiveness — and everything else.

- Nancy E. Smith



I Tell You a Mystery: Life, Death, and Eternity.  By Johann Christoph Arnold. Plough (1-800-521-8011). 153 pages. $12.

There is no denying that death can be ennobling. Recently, after a good friend of mine died of pancreatic cancer, I found a small paper on which she had written, “I have to understand — finally! — that the real treasure I have is my poverty and my weakness!” These she had offered to God, along with her life, which she gave over to His will. Johann Christoph Arnold, having worked with the handicapped and the dying, has gathered together many stories of this kind, wherein the afflicted soul discovers that weakness becomes spiritual strength.

Arnold, an Elder of the Bruderhof communities (Anabaptist), writes of ordinary people who have been called upon to undergo extraordinary suffering, and he demonstrates the many ways in which souls have not only found comfort but have also given comfort. The most memorable of these stories of courage is that of Miriam, who was born with “brittle bone disease.” For this child, “tripping over a rug or bumping into a doorframe could mean a series of fractures in her arms or legs or both, often followed by hospitalization and surgery, and always accompanied by much pain.” By age eight, “Miriam had broken her legs sixteen times. In her short life of twenty-eight years, she was hospitalized more than forty times, had hundreds of fractures, and underwent at least fifteen operations.” Yet the girl was an inspiration to all who knew her: “Hopping around on her little crutches, weighed down by heavy metal leg braces, she reminded more than one person of a sparrow: small, spunky, cheerful.” Her father said to her, “there are many people who have a strong body and a dull soul. You have a weak body but a living soul.”

Arnold’s insights are sound. Readers should be warned, however, that in Arnold they will be meeting an unskilled writer whose prose rarely soars. The most compelling moments come when the sufferers speak for themselves — there is an immediacy in such voices, and it is wise of Arnold to let us hear them.

Still, Arnold’s writing, if not gifted, is honest and compassionate, and his observations are derived from extensive pastoral experience. These stories of courage and faith, offered as models for others facing similar trials, may prove helpful to their intended audience — ordinary folk who are afraid of dying or who are facing illness or death and who are not yet sufficiently acquainted with God to realize that “in Him there is comfort and strength for even the most anxious soul.”

- Elaine Hallett



Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work.  By Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell. Catholic University of America Press. 407 pages. $25.95.

Fr. Torrell’s goal is to show through historical analysis that the philosopher, theologian, and saint known as Thomas Aquinas is also a spiritual master. His analysis examines both the works of the Angelic Doctor and the works of his biographers. In a volume that rivals Weisheipl’s Friar Thomas D’Aquino, Torrell lays down a precise chronology of the major events in Thomas’s life as well as a full description of the saint’s writings. But Torrell does not leave his work at that. Rather, he skillfully fleshes out the chronology and bibliography by showing us the daily duties, habits, and practices of St. Thomas.

Torrell shows that, in addition to fulfilling his myriad other duties, Thomas ordered his life around the 13th-century theologian’s tasks of Legere, Disputare, et Praedicare (commenting on Scripture, disputing questions, and pastoral preaching). This entailed, in St. Thomas’s case, an incredible dedication to study and contemplation. Torrell mentions the extraordinary fact that, in order to share the fruits of his contemplation, St. Thomas “dictated at the same time on diverse subjects to three secretaries and sometimes four.” Thomas also found time to teach his fellow Dominicans moral theology, defend the mendicant life, and preach.

Within this context we see the person of St. Thomas emerge. Torrell portrays a man who was not only a theologian capable of writing a five-thousand-page commentary on the Sentences in a little over four academic years but also a man of profound sanctity. St. Thomas’s biographers mention his daily confession, attendance at two Masses daily (at one he would offer the Sacrifice, at the other he would assist), and his hours before the Blessed Sacrament and the Crucifix. Indeed, St. Thomas’s words on the Crucifix are striking: “Whoever wishes to lead a perfect life has nothing other to do than scorn what Christ scorned on the Cross and to desire what he desired. There is not in fact a single example of virtue that the Cross does not give to us. You seek an example of charity? There is no greater love than to give up his life for his friends, and Christ did it on the Cross.… Are you looking for an example of patience? The most perfect patience is found on the Cross.… Are you seeking an example of humility?… Look at the Crucified One.… An example of obedience?… Begin following the one who was obedient even unto death.… An example of scorn for earthly things? Follow behind Him who is the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and who, nevertheless, on the Cross, appears naked, the object of mockery, spat on, beaten, crowned with thorns, given gall and vinegar to drink, and put to death.”

The chief achievement of Torrell’s work, nonetheless, is a searching historical analysis of the saint’s person and work. His treatment of St. Thomas is not so philosophical as Fr. Copleston’s Aquinas nor so lively as Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox. But this is not a criticism; for Torrell’s purpose is rigorously historical. The reader should be ready to grapple with argumentation that frequently presupposes some grasp of primary documents. If one has had no previous exposure to such documents, the detailed footnotes and extensive bibliography provide an occasion to begin one’s own investigation of the Angelic Doctor.

- David Arias Jr.



Sarah’s Seasons: An Amish Diary and Conversation.  By Martha Moore Davis. University of Iowa Press. 179 pages. $22.95.

Davis herself best describes the serendipitous evolution of this volume: “What began as a carefully designed, formal postdoctoral study of mainstream and Amish schools…became, instead, a story of the emerging friendship of two kindred spirits.”

The Catholic Davis asks Sarah Fisher, a member of an Old Order Amish community in rural Iowa whether she has a diary; any such record might offer valuable background information for the study. Yes, the Amish woman kept a diary in 1976 and 1977, when she was in her mid-30s and after she was married to farmer Eli and the mother of an infant daughter. Davis, an English person — as all non-Amish are called in that community — is initially disappointed: The entries seem so spare and workaday. But she eventually comes to value their plainness, and augments what she learns from them by engaging in conversations with Fisher and other Amish while quilting, cooking, and attending auctions and church services.

The result is a volume that chronicles the days of a family truly in touch with the human condition and the rhythms of nature and bears witness to the author’s growing realization that her crammed, fast-paced, technologically advanced existence is impoverished in many ways compared to Sarah’s simple but immeasurably rich moments and hours.

Consider these diary entries, which show the intertwining of family, community, work, and recreation for the Amish: “Sunday, January 11, 1976. Went to Jonah, Clara & girls 4 a good dinner. Elmer Ks, Larry Bs, & Jerry Ys attended too. Ate popcorn in evening and drank cider. Eli read from Martyrs Mirror [a book containing stories of the martyrs, common reading among the Amish]. I wrote letter & played with baby.” And: “Saturday, July 9, 1977. Eli helped me cut up & can applesauce. Now wasn’t that nice of him. He let the first batch of apples cook too long. They got very brown. We both learned.” We also see Fisher’s circle letters (which are not, thank goodness, the infuriating newsletters that some people mail as a lame excuse for Christmas cards) sketches, poems, and recipes.

Davis has worked hard to produce Sarah’s Seasons, transcribing and providing brief explanatory interpolations for the diary entries (tellingly, the Amish woman is so trusting that she didn’t read the transcriptions) and pulling back to reflect on the meaning of Amish life for her own. Readers may occasionally wish for more exegesis: When Fisher’s diary mentions her husband’s “check for last week” and his “2 weeks of paid vacation” (which he seems to work through!), we want to know how the Amish apportion jobs and money and who supervises. But what Davis does offer is priceless: photographs of quilt patterns, song lyrics, and evocative nuggets such as cherries bartered for tractor repair and the rotation of pies in the oven for the baking business — “Fisher Kitchens” — that Sarah began, now run with the help of her husband and children (the offspring finally totaling seven).

In addition, the author shows how the Amish are not totally insulated from the contemporary world: Mentioned here, for example, are Frisbees, occasional telephone use and car rides (for long trips), DPT shots, Etch-a-Sketches. And there are tribulations in Amish days — pests in the garden, sizing errors while making clothing, physical illnesses — but such infelicities seem manageable because of the many gifts in Fisher’s life, as documented in this diary entry: “Sunday, February 8, 1976. Beautiful sunset. Praise God for his loving kindness. He is so good.”

The one false note is the patronizing (matronizing?) foreword by Maxine Greene of Columbia University’s Teachers College, who perhaps has spent too much time studying educational theory and not enough time communicating with flesh-and-blood human beings. Her tone indicates that the reader is about to begin a tale of one woman’s deprivation in a suffocating society of backward people, but everything Davis writes negates that perception, instead informing us how creative and expansive Sarah Fisher is, and how Davis has adjusted her own life in an effort to capture some of the wonder she finds in the Old Order Amish community.

Following Fisher’s example, and in answer to the Amish woman’s rhetorical question, “What could be more important than teaching our children?,” Davis decides to offer instruction for the sacraments of Reconciliation and First Eucharist to young Catholics. How profoundly indebted to this rural Amish woman is this New York City-educated college professor! As Davis comments: “I cannot relate in a clever, twenty-second sound bite what Sarah has taught me about how to live within a community that places priority on people.”

And this reviewer cannot tell you in a few lit-crit paragraphs what a gem of a book has evolved from the friendship of an Amish baker/homemaker and a Catholic educator/researcher.

- Patty O’Connell



The Politically Correct Guide to the Bible.  By Edward P. Moser. Crown. 126 pages. $12.

I began this book from the perspective of someone who hates what Political Correctness has done to our culture and whenever possible fights the inroads it is making into our houses of worship. So my first reaction to Moser’s satirical book was one of resistance: “This is not funny! This outrageous version of the Bible would only be funny if it weren’t so close to what the PC storm troopers are actually pushing for!” Later, however, I warmed up to Moser, finding his book truly hilarious. To read this book is to come to the realization of just how wonderfully politically incorrect the Bible is. Consider just one of Moser’s “corrected” Proverbs: “Withhold correction from the child, for if thou slappest him he’ll sue.”

Many modern political issues are dealt with in Moser’s Guide — for example, women in combat. In Joshua’s Shebrew (that’s right, He-brew is sexist and oppressively patriarchal) army, the women are allowed to fight in combat. When this turns out to be a controversial policy for him, Joshua institutes an enlightened “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy in which women were allowed to serve — as long as they didn’t tell anyone they were women.” Moser has a good time with the story of David and Goliath, giving it a quasi-pacifist twist. David uses a “non-lethal sling” and “cloth-wrapped” stones that merely stun and do not kill the adversary.

As the reader romps through Moser’s Guide, the stories, while funny, get a bit tiresome if too many are read in a single sitting. This is not Moser’s fault, though. Truly politically correct texts cannot help but be tedious and oppressive, and Moser’s parodies are so deft that they read like the real thing. So there may be people who read this book and nod their heads, saying to themselves, “You know, I never thought of it, but I’ll bet ‘Hebrew’ is pretty offensive to those poor downtrodden women out there.” So if you get this book, please don’t show it to your PC friends. It will just give them ideas. Thanks.

- Paul Koenen





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