December 1990

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.  By Joan Chittister, O.S.B.. Harper & Row. 216 pages. $15.95.

Dearly Beloved: Letter to the Children of My Spirit (Vol. I, 1956-63).  By Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Madonna House Publications. 351 pages. $12.95.

C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological fallacy” for the error of assuming one has refuted a belief merely by dating it. The obviousness of this error does little to lessen its popularity. Religious people are right up there with the rest. Labeling a certain spiritu­ality “outdated” is for some the death-knell that “modern” is for others.

In the two books under consideration here, we find two different spiritualties. Dearly Beloved consists of letters written by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, foundress of the Madonna House apostolate, from 1956 to 1963. Wis­dom Distilled from the Daily is Joan Chittister’s 1980s reflec­tions on the Rule of St. Bene­dict. The two books are easily distinguishable. For example, Chittister, like many authors since the 1960s, peppers her writing liberally with words like “growth,” “change,” and “process.” Chittister’s subordi­nates in her community are her “sisters,” but Doherty’s are her “children.”

There are some aspects of Catholic tradition that all Catholics should agree on as unchangeable (the tenets of the Creed, certainly) and there are a few all can agree on as changeable (“No meat on Fri­day” is one). Deciding on the vast midsection between un­changing creedal statements and transitory practices takes special wisdom. With the re­newal of orders and congrega­tions in the 1960s and 1970s, women religious have had to choose what should stay and what should go. Chittister re­members, from her days as a novice, what went: “One of our customs was to break bread on our…plates into three pieces at every meal in order to call to mind the three per­sons of the Trinity and to rest the dinner knives beside our serving plates on one of them in recollections of the cross.” All of us need many daily reminders of God as Trinity and of Jesus’ passion, but how we remember these things can change. To her credit, Chittist­er does not commit the chron­ological fallacy: “The list of prescriptions was endless,” she says about those early days, but she faults herself for fail­ing to see the window for the stained glass pieces.

Both authors deserve commendation for holding fast to the essentials as they inter­pret the faith for their day. The authors have much in common. But what they most notably do not share is their understanding of authority within the community. The specificity of the rules given in Doherty’s letters is unusual today. For example, you must “come to the table and the chapel with clean hands and face,” and “not put your elbows on the table bending over the soup, lapping it noisi­ly as though you were a child or animal.” Complete disclo­sure in all matters is to be given to the local superior. In short, little is left to the indi­vidual’s discretion. Chittister’s approach is quite different.

Whether your interest in spirituality runs in the Doherty direction or the Chittister di­rection, I suggest that, within the range of legitimate spiritualties, each of us needs to examine sympathetically the kind of spirituality we are not at first attracted to, if only be­cause of the tolerance and compassion we would gain for our brothers and sisters who practice that form of spirituali­ty. After all, this wild, won­derful thing we call the Church is not a long line of evenly spaced, uniformed soldiers.

- Janice Daurio



Cervantes.  By Jean Canavaggio. Norton. 348 pages. $25.

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is probably on every­one’s short list of great writ­ers. His life is full of surprises — and puzzling lacunae. This biography, by a distinguished scholar, is a stunning book that will encourage the ama­teur to sample more of Cer­vantes than Don Quixote.

Except for the 16th and part of the 17th centuries, and now this last decade, Spain has not been mainstream Eu­rope. The Pyrenees tended to isolate, and the seven-century struggle with Islam lasted until the end of the 15th century. Vestiges of the large Jewish and Muslim populations were always regarded warily by an intertwined church and state.

The Spain of Cervantes was a new and insecure na­tion, united for only a short time when the rest of Europe was convulsed by the Reforma­tion. Spain produced many Counter Reformation leaders marked by rigidity and intoler­ance. By the end of the 15th century, Spain had expelled all practicing Muslims and Jews. Many became Christians to avoid deportation; others prac­ticed their religion secretly. It was to root out these subver­sives that the Spanish Inquisi­tion came into play and achieved its deservedly disa­greeable reputation. Too fre­quently those with Jewish roots had to prove their ortho­doxy by extreme asceticism or piety, even by offering their children to religious communi­ties. Cervantes himself may have been Jewish through his mother’s family.

Life was never easy for Cervantes. Despite an active role in government service, his literary output was substantial. We forget how difficult, until recently, life was for a writer without a patron. Most writers had to work at another pro­fession for which they were temperamentally unsuited. Of­ten they had to struggle to support their families. Even if they won fame they sometimes suffered from their own fiscal ineptitude — as did Cervantes, who was involved in litigation due to his financial blunders.

We can never know a writer completely. Although Cervantes’s works offer auto­biographical clues, it is unclear whether he presents himself as he really was. The various in­terpretations of Don Quixote il­lustrate the question well. Is Quixote, the aging idealist, Cervantes himself (who wrote the first part of the book when he was 57)? Or is Quixote an allegory of Spain, recovering from the Armada of 1588? It is certainly a burlesque of the chivalric romance, which was then read by an adoring pub­lic.

From start to finish Qui­xote is admirable because he is totally unselfish and seeks to right the wrongs of society. And from start to finish he is ridiculous because middle-aged men are supposed to have put aside reckless idealism to grow old gracefully.

Cervantes’s other works, especially the Exemplary Novel­las, merit him a high place in Spanish literature, but Don Quixote has won him immortal­ity. It is a fitting testimony for a writer who stood at Spain’s artistic summit — a contempo­rary of El Greco, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Velasquez.

Canavaggio has given us an accessible work without condescension. He brilliantly incorporates the life of Cer­vantes within the historical context of Spain and Europe. Even so, Cervantes — as writ­er and man — remains elu­sive. For example, becoming deeply religious, he takes final vows in the Third Order of St. Francis just days before his death. Canavaggio, to his credit, avoids facile psychoa­nalysis. What he does achieve is a solid work worthy of its subject, the author of the first modern novel.

- Aaron Godfrey





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