March 1996

St. Francis of Assisi: Writings for a Gospel Life.  By Regis J. Armstrong. Crossroad. 240 pages. $11.95.

Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings.  By Tessa Bielecki. Crossroad. 203 pages. $11.95.

Francis de Sales: Finding God Wherever You Are.  By Joseph F. Power. New City Press. 159 pages. $8.95.

We call great artists “masters” because they continue to touch hearts in an unchanging way or in a way that is both immediate and forever new. This is also true of spiritual giants, such as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales. Like the masters, they can be read again and again, revealing new facets and insights at each new reading.

Francis of Assisi seems the most enigmatic of the three. His “naive” and holy charm have masked the great intensity of his life and his overpowering love of God. His basic message of voluntary poverty, too frequently ignored, is as disturbing to 20th-century Christians, greatly consumed by the material and media culture, as it was to his contemporaries. Francis shows how the lack of possessions is liberating and how many of us are owned by what we own. Francis, like Jesus, was voluntarily a homeless man, an itinerant preacher whose holiness and love of the poor changed the world. Fr. Armstrong’s volume can be a great service to Christians who wish to simplify their lives according to the Gospels. Armstrong also makes the mystical aspect of Francis’s life more understandable — his conversations with Jesus, his ecstasies, as well as the stigmata.

Teresa of Avila reformed the Carmelite Order despite opposition, physical dangers, and bad health. Her Mystical Writings speak of life as a spiritual adventure lived in its entirety as a prayer. Like Francis, she was consumed by the love of God, which also manifested itself in raptures, visions, and revelations. Teresa lived a very busy life, achieving much while making time to write and give spiritual direction via correspondence. She was an intense, realistic person with a sense of humor; she was driven by her mission, but refused to take herself seriously. The Interior Castle, a spiritual classic, is well excerpted by Sr. Bielecki, who shows us the immediacy of Teresa’s spirituality — “wherever God is, there is heaven.” Suffering, friendship, prayer, and taking risks were essential components of Teresa’s life. She lived each moment as if it were her last, trusting in God for a favorable outcome.

Of the three, Francis de Sales may speak more directly to those who are not in the religious life. His works and letters of direction included in Finding God Wherever You Are are for people living in the world, and show how everyday secular tasks can be sanctified with “peace in the midst of activity.” Francis de Sales offers practical advice on how to fulfill well the duties of one’s state in life and how to work while always remaining in the presence of God. Unfortunately, his works and letters of direction were better suited for the privileged than the poor.

All three books offer unique means of turning daily tasks into prayer so that the joy in living “the sacrament of the moment” in God’s presence, even in sickness and grief, can create the secret joy of heaven wherever we are.

- Aaron W. Godfrey



The Recovery of the Sacred: Reforming the Reformed Liturgy.  By James Hitchcock. Second Edition. Ignatius. 186 pages. $11.95.

A recent survey showed that two out of three Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As Hitchcock argues throughout this book (first published in 1974 and now reissued), how we worship has a profound affect on what we believe about the meaning of the liturgy.

In many Catholic parishes today, the sense of the sacred — of mystery and majesty and even of worship itself — has largely been evacuated. The bells, incense, votive candles, and Communion rail are gone. Elegant statues are locked in the basement. It’s virtually impossible to pray before (or after) Mass because of all the chatter and back-slapping. The cantor drones out the page number of the Communion “song” over the PA system while we’re receiving our Lord in the Elements. The English translation of the words of the liturgy is flat and unpoetic, and these words are often improvised upon by even less poetic clerics with private, and sometimes weird, agendas. Homilies often consist of anecdotes and unfunny jokes or recycled editorials from yesterday’s paper. We must clap for the choir and the liturgical dancers and for this and that (we aren’t making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but only unto the “performers”).

In too many venues, attending Mass fails to be an opportunity to worship the Almighty in a concentrated manner or to be near our dear Jesus in a sustained way, for the primary focus of the Mass has subtly been transformed into a time to “celebrate community” and be entertained — though by the standards of Las Vegas, or even of the Evangelical megachurches where pulpit and altar have been replaced by a stage, the entertainment is third-rate at best.

The good news is that the desacralization of the liturgy was not intended by the Vatican II reforms, as Hitchcock amply demonstrates. Nonetheless, as he ably documents, it was intended by certain post-Vatican II liturgical “experts.” One of them, who was later elevated to the episcopate by Paul VI, said that worship should not convey “a feeling of infinity or eternity or the world beyond,” but is “primarily the communal sensitivity that I am one with my brother next to me and that our song is our common twentieth-century situation….” Most Catholic guys I know would see this as nothing but warm spit and prefer to watch a ballgame or auto race on Sunday morning — or seek out a Latin or Eastern-Catholic Mass.

Happily, as even the usually pessimistic Hitchcock saw back in 1974, lukewarm Christianity has no staying power. Indeed, today’s trendy Evangelical megachurches, which have turned “communal sensitivity” into full-service religio-therapeutic shopping malls, lose an average of half their followers every two years. Easy come, easy go!

The sense of the sacred will be recovered, because the sacred is real and people tire of its contrived substitutes.

- Dale Vree



The Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective.  By J.A. Di Noia. Catholic University of America Press. 199 pages. $19.95.

Can non-Christians gain salvation? While he maintains that God’s salvific will extends to every human being, Fr. Di Noia vigorously asserts that “the Christian community in its authentic forms has a privileged access” to knowledge of salvation.

Following Vatican II’s call for dialogue with non-Christian religions, Di Noia stresses that for Christians to engage in meaningful dialogue there must be a “conversation in which the distinctive doctrinal claims religions make…emerge with particular clarity.”

Those Christians who believe non-Christian religions are salvific are not, says Di Noia, “truly respectful of the doctrines” of other religions. They gloss over the fact that different religions teach contradictory things. For example, Christians believe that the ultimate end of life is personal union with the Triune God, whereas Buddhism teaches that it “consists not in a permanent…personal union with any divine being but in the extinction of desire, and…the extinction of the desire for personal identity.”

Instead of affirming the salvific role of other religions, Di Noia affirms that members of other religious communities can “lead morally upright lives that orient them to fellowship with God.” Therefore, there is a general possibility of salvation that can be underway in the lives of non-Christians. The moral conduct of non-Christians and the particular dispositions their communities foster can advance their members “partly along the way to fellowship with the Triune God.”

The doctrine of purgatory is given as an account of how salvation of a non-Christian might happen. Purgatory is a state between death and the last judgment in “which any personal obstacles to the full enjoyment of the true end of life, fellowship with the Blessed Trinity, are eliminated.” Because of Christ’s sacrifice, men may be granted the additional transformation that is needed. According to Di Noia, this is a possibility for non-Christians.

- Nick J. Bagileo





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