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 Labeling a certain spirituality outdated is for some the death-knell that modern is for others.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 Chittisters 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. Chittisters subordinates in her community are her sisters, but Dohertys 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 Dohertys 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 individuals discretion. Chittisters 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 everyones 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 mothers 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 Cervantess 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.
Cervantess 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 Spains 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