October 2005

Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium.  By Pope John Paul II. Rizzoli International Publications. 172 pages. $19.95.

"Ecuador," as school-day travelogues once informed us, "is a land of contrasts." Ditto for lots of other lands. Surely, the U.S. is such a land.

Here's a case in point. In this, John Paul II's last book, he recalls that the Nazis came to power "by democratic means," and he then turns directly to today's "legal extermination of human beings conceived but unborn," sanctioned by "democratically elected" leaders. Ominous, too, he continues, is the campaign (citing the European Parliament, though Massachusetts serves as well) to treat homosexual unions as "an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children." In both examples there's a lesson that we don't much like being taught: Unless we order our freedom to the good, we soon enough become tyrants.

Tyranny, of course, stands in contempt of authentic patriotism. Such patriotism, John Paul teaches, looks to one's patria as a source and guarantor of civic life. Here he points to the unity of the virtues. As Aquinas classically argues, religion, patriotism, and piety are alike in that they are special forms of justice. They are matters of justice in that each calls on us to give to another what is truly his. But they are special forms of justice in that we can never repay to God, to our homeland, or to our parents what we owe to each as a source of life. John Paul makes the connection in this way: "Our parents…share in the mystery of creation and therefore deserve a veneration related to that which we give to God the Creator. Patriotism includes this sentiment inasmuch as the patria truly resembles a mother."

The world of Realpolitik in which we find ourselves -- and in some measure help fashion -- is lethally at odds with the unity of the virtues. Yet John Paul II, who concludes his reflections as one about to cross the threshold of death, affirms his faith that Christ's intervention in history puts a limit to evil. His saving grace is a Divine Mercy -- and it was on the eve of the feast of Divine Mercy that, we pray, the great John Paul came face to face with his Savior.

- James G. Hanink



Swimming With Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic.  By Matthew Lickona. Loyola Press. 278 pages. $19.95.

Just maybe we're all subject to silent sins much like Matthew Lickona's. But most of us haven't thought of writing a book about them, right?

Maybe we're ashamed. Perhaps we've at one point faced similar sins and secrets, but wouldn't dare to write a book about them. No matter: Matthew Lickona provides his "true confessions." Doing so, he suggests our own buried truths, painfully revealing them in his chronicles of restless starts and unresting efforts to live the faith.

Knowledge, Lickona understands, is one thing, and a living Faith quite another. "I think about God," he writes, "and the faith, and I hope my thinking has some spiritual worth. But knowing a great deal about God is not knowing God…." Lickona is a "young traditional Catholic," but at the same time he asks tough questions about his beliefs and practices.

Lickona's questions are candid; his style is conversational, with streams of consciousness flowing here and there. He's partial to referencing other people's books, which might distract some readers. He might have done better to leave unsaid some of what he reports (you might want to skip the chapter "The Roach and the Woman"). Perhaps, too, there's too much preaching.

Lickona's candor became unsettling for me when he writes about finding out that his wife was pregnant. "I wanted it [intercourse] but I didn't want them [children]…." He married when he was 23; he wanted marriage without children, for the time being. So, what next? He tries to bargain with God. "If I surrendered my will and accepted this child, perhaps he would then take it away. Perhaps my wife would miscarry. Perhaps this could all be just a test." He even asks God to end the pregnancy.

And yet Lickona couldn't erase Mother Teresa's words: "It is a poverty that a child must die so that you may live as you wish." In time he recognized his "self-absorption." He chose to co-operate with God's will for him and his family, no matter how hard it seemed. "Good" Catholics can come frighteningly close to going badly wrong.

For the most part, Swimming With Scapulars resonates with my own struggles. I'm in Lickona's category of the "New Faithful." I'm 26 years old with two boys (and a baby on the way), averaging a year or less apart. Got my drift? Often I feel like I'm in the wrong generation, swimming upstream yet holding fast to the Church's teachings.

I'm proud of the way our Church has held strong in matters about which others thought she would waver or surrender. I hope Swimming With Scapulars will energize your faith, and remind us young Catholics that we are not alone.

- Judy Elsner



Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology.  By Michael Casey. Ligouri Publications. 352 pages. $19.95.

Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John.  By John Vanier. Paulist Press. 360 pages. $18.95.

C.S. Lewis knew he was "spot on" when he realized that doctrinal books were "often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books." The same holds true for books treating Scripture. So although these two recent works by Casey and Vanier do not easily fit the genre of biblical commentary, they nonetheless read more accurately and faithfully than the many volumes simply treating the Bible in isolation from the rest of Tradition. Therefore, in order to work through one of the Gospels, both Casey and Vanier incorporate the Church's doctrinal and moral teachings, the ancient liturgy, as well as the saints' insights into the truths of holy living.

Casey, a Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, judiciously advances through the Gospel of Mark in order to show how Christ is portrayed as the One who has become man so as to make man like Himself. This is what is known as an "interactive Christology" because, according to Casey, Mark wants his readers to understand how the Son's Incarnation and each of Jesus' actions aim at actuating human godliness. In this spirit Casey writes: "God's Son descended so that we might ascend, that we might share the divinity of him who humbled himself to share our humanity." Casey is excellent at selecting a few lines of Mark or one scene out of Christ's life and then taking the reader through a prayerful meditation of the text. Moreover, we enter into this lectio divina with many of the Church's spiritual masters, but especially St. Bernard and other figures within the Cistercian tradition.

Jean Vanier is the founder of l'Arche in Canada (and now all around the world), a community devoted to the care of people with developmental disabilities. Originally an Aristotelian scholar, Vanier abandoned his academic career to form communities with people in need of special assistance. His writings are thus constantly challenging how we understand human fragility and vulnerability. The central emphasis of this work is to show us, through the lens of John's Gospel, how the unshakeable love of God is present here and now in the lowliest and most unheralded of places: in the brokenness of oneself and one's neighbor and in the majestic silence of the Eucharist.

Both Casey and Vanier write clearly and avoid the overly technical academic jargon that plagues many works on Scripture today. As such, these two works will prove valuable spiritual reading for all, and will also make excellent guides for those ordained to preach and make the Scriptures come alive.

- David Vincent Meconi



Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. John of the Cross.  By R.A. Herrera. Eerdmans. 156 pages. $16.

At the heart of this eclectic work is a summary of the mystical theology of St. John of the Cross, drawn from his major poems and his own commentaries on them. In these works, John draws on the experience of his own ascent to union with God as well as his extensive spiritual direction of people from all walks of life. Both his poetry and prose describe the ascetic-mystical progress of the soul, from the dark night of the senses, when the soul learns detachment from earthly pleasures, to the dark night of the spirit, when even spiritual joy has deserted the soul, which lives by faith alone. At the end of the arduous journey is union with the Godhead with its transforming effects on the Christian.

In comparing the exquisite beauty of John's poems with his sometimes dense prose, Herrera understandably prefers the former, even to the point of calling John's commentary on his Spiritual Canticle an "impoverishment of the poem." Yet one must understand these works for what they are. John's poetry intuitively expresses the stages of hunger and ecstasy of the soul. The commentaries not only explicate the poems, often giving layers of meaning, but deal with a variety of topics, from the subtle spiritual manifestations of the seven capital sins in those beginning the detachment process to guidelines for spiritual directors. Even the material not directly related to the poems enriches one's understanding of the spiritual ascent.

At times Herrera winces at the harshness of demands placed on souls who would advance to transforming union with God. But it must be remembered that John wrote for religious and other devout souls who had already in some sense renounced the world. One factor that makes John's counsels seem too demanding for moderns is that we have lost our taste for mortification. We would have Christ without His cross. Yet a leitmotif in John's work is the utter necessity of participating in the sufferings of Christ.

In general, Herrera's summary of John's doctrine is lucid and accurate, a good place to begin an acquaintanceship with this Doctor of the Church. Herrera explains that John's emphasis on nothingness is a springboard to propel one toward the fullness of being, which is God. In this reversal of values, the darkness the soul experiences in its ascent is the result of its being blinded by the dazzling light of God. The author stresses that John's commentaries only approach the profound realities captured by the poems.

The chapter on John's life emphasizes his singlemindedness, forgetfulness of self, and austerity, rather than his great charity, compassion, and meekness; these latter virtues humanize one who might otherwise seem too remote to imitate.

The introductory and concluding chapters of the book are best skimmed over rapidly, or even avoided, as they treat a number of disparate issues in an idiosyncratic fashion, making assertions that are ambiguous or erroneous. The bold reader who takes on this material should be prepared for such anomalies as a quote from a psychoanalyst characterizing St. Teresa of Avila as "the patron saint of hysterics" and an accusation that the Jesuits "converted the supernatural into a mere adjunct of the natural world," an obvious misrepresentation. Some comments are merely eccentric, such as Herrera's evaluation of Fray Luis de Léon as "perhaps the greatest Castilian poet" (John was from Castile). Other judgments are quite appropriate, such as Kierkegaard being the "peculiar fulfillment" of Pascal.

One problem of particular importance is the distinction Herrera draws between the life of grace in the soul and the mystical life. These are really different names for the same phenomenon: the elevation of our nature by grace. Unusual or extraordinary experiences may occur in those responding fully to grace. These, however, are not essential, as the life of St. Thérèse documents. She reached a very high degree of union with God with long stretches of aridity and spiritual darkness, and very little in the way of extraordinary experiences.

An appendix gives the text of the poems The Dark Night, The Living Flame of Love, and part of the Spiritual Canticle, with Herrera's translations. These are as good as any available, and capture the spirit of John's verse.

- Inez Fitzgerald Storck





Back to October 2005 Issue