March 2009

Ransomed From Darkness: The New Age, Christian Faith and the Battle for Souls.  By Moira Noonan. North Bay Books. 174 pages. $15.

What makes Moira Noonan's autobiography Ransomed From Darkness of great interest is the breadth of her exposure to New Age practices and the slippery slope of her descent therein from a seemingly innocent introduction. She was no Faustian character, bargaining away her soul to the Devil for occult powers. Instead she was a cradle Catholic who had become "a career-oriented yuppie." She was publishing a tourist magazine in Hawaii when an automobile accident left her seriously injured and in chronic pain. Relief came in a "pain clinic" that used extensive bio-feedback and self-hypnosis to reprogram her mind. While such techniques themselves can be morally neutral and are clinically helpful in many cases, at this particular clinic she was brainwashed by a so-called "New Thought" system of belief. She was taught to believe that pain was not an objective reality, and that by thinking in a new way she could create a pain-free reality for herself. She was told that there was no God to help her -- and none was needed because she, like everyone else, was divine. It did not bother her at the time that this New Thought system was anti-Christian and anti-God. It was only with years of hindsight that she came to understand that this was when she broke the First Commandment. She had come to believe in and depend upon what she describes as "the Holy Trinity of Me, Myself and I."

The New Thought system not only stopped her pain, it provided out-of-body sensations that excited and intrigued her. Deciding to further her prowess in psychic matters, she was guided by the clinic to the Church of Religious Science, a denomination that emphasizes self-manifestation as a way to achieve success -- think rich, become rich. She underwent a four-year training in ministry for that "church," and she joined a teaching program in the Hindu "Third Eye" technique to see into the spirit world. She was highly successful as a clairvoyant, able to see events in the lives of those she counseled as if they were flashing on a screen in her mind. But she was unable to turn these movies on and off at will. She likened her mind to Grand Central Station, with something always rushing around in it -- and not just earthly events, but angels and demons.

As if that were not enough, she became a certified Ericksonian hyp­notherapist with a special interest in past-life regression. The aim was to uncover the blocks in the pastlives of her clients so that they could clear themselves for god-energy in this life. And how could she afford to pass up Reiki, with its roots in Buddhist spiritualism? She couldn't. She became a Master Healer. Séances, with real, live demons? Yes, after studies of Teachings of the Inner Christ. Studies with Indian gurus? Of course, including with an acclaimed Sikh whose own mentors came in spirit form right to her house to welcome her with visions of grandeur and celestial music. Shamanism too, with Native American teachers, whose enlightenment put her in touch with her own animal spirit guide. There was more, but you get the idea.

She would not be telling this tale, at least not with the title she has given it, if she had not been "ransomed from darkness," a deliverance she ascribes to the Blessed Mother. She had never quite emptied her mind of Mary, despite her New Age beliefs that had replaced Catholicism. She began to sense the Blessed Mother manifest herself by stopping her from engaging in séances and channeling with crystals. She could hear a voice saying, "Only the rosary. Pray the rosary. Through prayer, all is answered." She started going to an occasional church service, and at one, she saw the image of Jesus' face in His Passion, superimposed on the face of the priest. That prompted her to go to confession on the spot, for the first time in twenty-five years. But, just as she needed to empty her house of all the occult paraphernalia she had acquired over the many years she had spent as a spiritualist, she needed to unburden her soul of all the occult practices she had engaged in. Fortunately, she found a priest who was adept at rooting them out. It took almost seventeen hours over three days. She does not describe the experience as an exorcism, but the priest made her identify and renounce separately each practice and the spirits behind it. Finally, she was at peace and back in the Church. Noonan is now helping others to shun New Age practices and find the only real Way.

America is awash in New Age seminars, retreats, books (such as the textbook A Course in Miracles), CDs, and paraphernalia (from tarot cards to Ouija boards, from crystals to astrological charts) and many ordinary Americans, including Catholics, see no harm in attempting to enlist the aid of spirits. The Church has attempted to guide shepherds in dealing with this danger with a study released in 2003 by the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue titled Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the New Age. It analyzes New Age philosophy, and contrasts it, point by point, with orthodox Catholic teaching. Replete with a bibliography and many footnotes, it is certainly a great scholarly resource. But for parents, teachers, and counselors who seek to understand the multiform and seemingly innocuous New Age practices, and how they can entrap young people into idolatry, a good source to begin with is Ransomed From Darkness.

- Hurd Baruch



Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.  By Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf.. 242 pages. $25.95.

Some readers may find it impertinent, even sacrilegious, to put words in the Savior's mouth -- words not found in the New Testament -- but that is exactly what Anne Rice does once again in her second novel on the life of Christ. This bold technique delivers a first-person report, almost a diary, from Jesus Himself in Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. His words reveal irony, anger, humor, and even a bit of sarcasm, all in contemporary parlance with folksy words and expressions.

Rice speeds the novel along after opening with a graphic stoning scene, exposing Nazareth as an ingrown, hard-bitten village rife with the pettiness of small, poor places. The narrative, taut with short sentences and clipped phrasing, is saturated with the grimy hardships of a bitter, dry winter. Jesus' family life and His work as a carpenter with aching shoulders and sore knees confirm the work ethic, impeccable manners, and good sense that have the locals calling Him Yeshua, the Sinless. Luminous, lovingly drawn figures of Mary and an aged Joseph are unforgettable.

Pinched on every side, multigenerational Jewish families shelter together in enclaves. Jesus bunks with snoring and sneezing unmarried uncles and cousins in a sort of male dormitory room attached to the family compound. Feuds, gossip, sickness, and the mundane irritants engendered by cramped conditions and miserable weather stalk everyone. Sturdy dialog, notable for a genteel earthiness, shows lives severely constrained by custom, law, and sorrow. A gritty sense of place emerges on every page, particularly the short distances between villages (an hour on foot from Nazareth to Cana).

Pressure for Jesus to marry a good girl across the way becomes relentless. The attraction is mutual, and the teenager is desperate for rescue from a deranged father. Jesus' refusal, misunderstood as an insult, also constitutes a reckless defiance of tradition. Rice threads masterful subplots through this thorny predicament, launching Jesus into behind-the-scenes negotiations for the girl's protection among the women of His own family while arranging her betrothal to a worthy suitor. Moving nimbly from scene to scene, Rice shows Jesus pulling out the Magi's chest from Bethlehem, "plated in gold and exquisitely decorated with curling vines and pomegranates," to fund the bride's dowry. In testimony to local lore swirling around Jesus, talk resurfaces about "the strange doings" when He was born, the flight into Egypt, and the "miserable massacre of those babies in Bethlehem by that madman…."

At the same time Pontius Pilate places his ensigns in Jerusalem (a fresh affront to the Jews), the area is awash with news of John the Baptist offering purification by baptism in the Jordan River. The Nazarenes join other caravans of travelers on a rousing pilgrimage to John's camp, where they find the river ringed by ragged and rich, Pharisee and king. Jesus relates, "I moved slowly towards what was at last going to separate me from all around me. I knew this. I knew it without knowing how or what would actually happen. And the only place I saw this same awareness…was in my mother's soft, habitual gaze." At the river He also encounters Matthew, the dreaded toll collector, a dandy in regal robes.

In a sublimely wrought scene with Satan in the wilderness, banter between Jesus and the archfiend proceeds with wit and elegance. Jesus, responding to the howler's claim of rule over mankind, retorts, "Think of the thousands upon thousands who rise each day and go to sleep without ever thinking evil or doing evil, whose hearts are set upon their wives, their husbands, their fathers and mothers, their children, upon the harvest and the spring rain and the new wine and the new moon…, and how they turn from pain and misery and injustice, no matter what you would have them do!"

A glittering mosaic of period information and old Jewish law culminates in the wedding at Cana. The bride (the vulnerable neighbor girl of Nazareth) is secluded for months prior to the wedding. When the happy day arrives, the groom and his people travel from their homes in Cana to collect her and her kinsmen in Nazareth. Jesus is among the chains of men locked arm in arm, singing and dancing their way back to Cana with the merrymakers and musicians. The ancient segregation of the sexes, even in wedding processions and banquet rooms, was absolute.

The miracle of Cana crowns the final pages. Mary, distraught by the theft of wine in a caravan coming up the road, approaches her Son who saw "panic in her eyes." His response: "I looked at her. I saw the cause of it. She didn't have to tell me." Annoyed, He chides His mother (with just a hint of insolence), indicating that the loss is not their problem. Reminding her Son of the Fourth Commandment with "mock scolding, and then placid trust," Mary retreats to the curtained women's quarters after instructing the servants to follow His orders.

This tender rendering of a beloved biblical account will enjoy wide appeal across generations, even to readers enamored of thrillers and brisk popular fiction. Although liberties are taken with sacred relationships and motives, Anne Rice's radiant interpretation serves up a shimmering alchemy of scripture, history, and immensely satisfying, grace-filled fiction.

- Mary McWay Seaman



Awe-Filled Wonder: The Interface of Science and Spirituality. The 2008 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality.  By Barbara Fiand. Paulist Press.. 80 pages. $9.95.

In Awe-Filled Wonder, Barbara Fiand, Ph.D., a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, faculty member of the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago, and well-known retreat director, laments that our culture clings to past truths instead of embracing "new revelations emerging today from the world of reality" -- i.e., from science, which is opening up "horizons of depth hitherto unknown."

In this Madeleva Lecture, delivered at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, Sr. Fiand declares that the difficulty with Christianity, especially Catholicism, is its insistence on unchanging and eternal truths. Dogmas make it hard to "rethink the symbols and metaphors of our faith." She complains of our "anthropomorphized" view of God as father, judge, and king. She especially deplores our view of Heaven as a realm "above," whence our Lord descended at the Incarnation, whereto He ascended after His Resurrection, where He sits now at God's right hand, and whence He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. In effect, Sr. Fiand finds fault with most of our Creed. She thinks it is in need of serious "de-literalization." In place of the Christian God, whom she alleges we made in "our image," she offers us a "sea of quantum fields" as the ultimate ground of reality that will satisfy our need for "awe-filled wonder."

According to Sr. Fiand, the universe is self-conscious and communicates with us. Through Ein­stein it "announced that it was expanding" and "explained itself" as having "erupted" fifteen billion years ago. Not only do we "belong" to the universe, but even our thoughts are a current in this "great macro-event," which is "omnicentric" and always beginning. Creation, you see, is "an ongoing evolutionary event" in which God "emerges."

A self-avowed disciple of Teilhard de Chardin, Fiand shares his mad grandiosity. She agrees with him that the universe "longs to express itself in total awareness, in a universal, all embracive yes that allows for full realization." But in order to reach this goal, which is "crucial for the next evolutionary movement," the universe needs our human cooperation. So "the whole cosmic enterprise now hangs on our decision." We human beings can determine the fate of the universe by coming into "communion" with it. Of course, it will require a "transformation" in us to engage in "a wholehearted entering into, and inhabiting of, the universe," a "surrender -- not so much to someone, as to the All." Once we do this, we will experience "holiness" as something not "above us," but flowing through our veins. The name Sr. Fiand gives to this communion is "depth prayer," and she assures us that through such prayer the energy of the universe can be "channeled" and "utilized for healing." Unfortunately, God the "Provider" doesn't fit in with her "de-literalization," so once we get used to depth prayer, the old "prayers of petition" will likely cease.

Sr. Fiand wants us to "trust in the cosmic benevolence that surrounds us, cherishes us, sustains us." Yes, she imagines that the universe itself (not the God who created it and is distinct from it) cherishes and sustains us! Only a tenured professor insulated from the world's hardships could conceive of the universe as a Disney movie. But wait, there's more to come: Sr. Fiand insists that "thought is energy and can effect what it envisions," and so people who think "thoughts of divisiveness" can "increase the power of war," while those who engage in peaceful thoughts can "tap into the love energy in the universe and send healing through their focused intention." Yes, and I too believe in Peter Pan. Fiand states that if large enough numbers of people envision the end of the Iraq war and send "these images into the universe, accompanied with blessings and thanksgivings," peace would soon arrive. She surmises that Jesus followed something like this method in His "healing practice." Sorry, Sr. Fiand, Jesus was not a psychic, He was God made flesh.

A friend recently posed this question to Sr. Fiand about her teaching: "Where is the personal God that loves us and answers our prayers?" After some reflection, her reply is that some people cannot discard their anthropomorphic God "immediately"; it will take time for them to get used to the new way. Yes, I'll say! Basking in the presence of "quantum fields" is a far cry from basking in the Real Presence of a loving Savior in the Blessed Sacrament. It's hard to imagine how anyone who was baptized and confirmed, never mind a nun, could fall from this to that.

Sr. Fiand's study of atheism has led her to conclude that the most famous atheists of the past did not reject her kind of mysticism, but rather rejected "a god [small g] defined and codified by declarations of certitude, devoid of depth and of the awe-filled Mystery that whispers to us of the truly Holy." You see, they simply rejected Catholicism. Indeed, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, found no contradiction to her atheism in her embrace of a weird Rosicrucianism.

In her final chapter, Sr. Fiand declares that in Christ Jesus, the God who "empowers all of creation, and is the love, life, and light that flows through the universe, emerged and expressed divinity to the fullest." Interpreted in the context of this book, what she is saying is that those "quantum fields of light" took flesh and dwelt among us. Moreover, Christ is not unique, for we are also "called to this emergence."

Comparing Sr. Fiand's Awe-Filled Wonder with Sarah McFar­land's Green Sisters [reviewed by this writer in the Feb. 2008 NOR -- Ed.], one can see the difference between two types of feminist-pantheist nuns giving retreats today. One type likes everything concrete, prays to her homegrown organic food, and sits in front of trees making acts of contrition. The other type likes everything intangible, speaks in apophatic terms about the universe, and enters into mystical "communion" with "quantum fields." There is plenty of madness on both sides.

When one considers all the wise, humble, and devoted sisters who taught in Catholic schools not so long ago, one could weep over this foolish yet tragic betrayal. Let us pray the Rosary for their conversion.

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner



The Quest for Shakespeare.  By Joseph Pearce. Ignatius Press. 216 pages. $24.95.

Joseph Pearce has made quite a name for himself in the field of literary biography. With the writing of outstanding books on the lives and works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Oscar Wilde, among other fascinating literary subjects, Pearce has earned a reputation of excellence and accuracy among the Catholic literati. In his latest work, The Quest for Shakespeare, Pearce turns to the most esteemed figure of English letters, the Bard himself. The Quest for Shakespeare is perhaps his most fascinating book to date, and certainly adds to his already stellar reputation as a man able to accurately and entertainingly explore the lives and works of great authors.

In The Quest for Shakespeare, Pearce makes it clear that he intends to "show objectively who Shakespeare was, and what his deepest beliefs were." He produces the most solid argument for Shakespeare's Catholicism I have come across. Poring over primary sources, including official government records, parish records, and personal letters, Pearce begins his argument by firmly establishing the steadfast and often perilous Catholicism of the Bard's father, John Shakespeare, laying a solid foundation upon which to build his argument for the true faith of the Bard himself. Pearce examines everything that is known about Shakespeare's family, including his distant relatives, all in an eminently thought-provoking manner. One gets the sense that Pearce is living with the people of Elizabethan England as he writes about their greatest literary talent. This is not to say that any of Pearce's accounts are fictionalized -- the vast array of footnotes is more than is needed to bolster his arguments.

Fascinating pieces of information abound along Pearce's journey of discovery. For instance, not many people know that John Shakespeare paid what amounted to an average yearly salary in a single fine to the Crown for being a Catholic. To those who would argue that the Shakes­peares were merely culturally Catholic, this exorbitant tax poses a rather obvious problem. Perhaps the most entertaining passages in The Quest for Shakespeare are ones that feature Pearce's sardonic putting to rest of the myriad myths about the Bard. He points out that those scholars who would presume that the works of Shakespeare were actually penned by various other authors have fallen prey to a most petty elitism. They insist that because Shakespeare did not attend Oxford he could never have been astute enough to write such abiding literature. Anyone who knows the arts understands that institutionalized education is not a prerequisite for understanding human nature and the reality that surrounds us, and the way that Pearce drives this point home is downright hilarious.

Pearce, an Associate Professor of Literature and Writer-In-Residence at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, has doubtless spent countless hours exploring the meanings of Shakespeare's work with his students, and that is evident in the book, which is as conversational and exciting as it is enlightening and deadly accurate. His experience as a literature professor becomes apparent in the second half of The Quest for Shakespeare, which is essentially an introduction to what Pearce hopes to be its sequel -- a serious work of literary criticism focusing on several of the Bard's most contested dramatic works.

The Quest for Shakespeare clips along steadily, and Pearce's outstanding sense of humor permeates even the driest of historical details. Overall, the work stands as a definitive study of Shakespeare's spiritual proclivities, a testament to his grasp of matters spiritual. While the book does not prove that Shakespeare was a practicing Catholic -- no book ever could -- it does offer an insight into Shakespeare's personal beliefs, and in doing so sheds new light on the deeper meaning of some of the most celebrated works of fiction ever written. Fans of William Shakespeare owe a tremendous debt to Pearce's dauntless efforts -- he has produced what will surely become required reading among Shakespeare scholars.

- Paul Bower





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