September 1997

Therese and Lisieux.  Commentary by Pierre Descouvemont. Eerdmans. 336 pages. $60.

The variations of theme and interpretation in the wide range of books on St. Therese of Lisieux attest to our enthusiasm for her “little way.” Indeed, few of history’s saints have had so many mementos of their lives preserved.

This month is the centenary of Therese’s death. A first response to this book is deep joy for her life. We follow Therese on a pictorial journey through her childhood in Alencon and her life as a cloistered Carmelite, and even to her final illness and death in the infirmary of Carmel. With over 600 pictures by Helmuth Nils Loose, the superb German photographer, and commentary by Pierre Descouvemont, an expert on St. Therese, this large-size book celebrates and documents the scope and depth of Therese’s faith and her influence on this century. At the same time, its lucid prose makes it suitable for devotional reading.

However we read this study, we come away with a fresh appreciation of St. Therese, especially the simplicity of her holiness. After 100 years, it is a shining holiness that is still “new.” It shows the way for a society distracted by materialism and hedonism, but still seeking authenticity. Especially touching are the several accounts of her concern for her “spiritual children,” the priests and other souls for whom she offered her work and suffering.

A companion for any student of St. Therese, this beautiful centenary publication includes an index of texts and a chronology of Therese’s life and the events that took place in the France of her time. It is a pictorial to be savored.

- Elizabeth O’Keefe



A Plea For Purity: Sex, Marriage and God.  By Johann Christoph Arnold. Plough (800-521-8011). 160 pages. $13.

To judge from the shelves at the local Borders Books, there’s a glut of advice books on the market. Even though most Americans style themselves individualists, we constantly seek advice from people we’ve never met concerning the most private aspects of our existence.

A Plea for Purity is an explicitly Christian attempt to convince people that spiritual purity is not only desirable, but the only way to build lasting, satisfying bonds in families. The book is armored with a cover bearing praise from prominent Protestants, as one might expect from a Protestant publisher, but also from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Cardinal O’Connor, and Peter Kreeft.

There are no statistics here, and the few anecdotes are all drawn from the author’s experience as a pastor in a Bruderhof (Anabaptist) community, a group of Christians dedicated to sharing property in common. The author is the grandson of the Bruderhof’s founder, and he offers lessons distilled from the collective experience of his brethren.

Arnold’s main thesis is that purity of the soul is the foundation for marriage and family. Ancillary points include: Modern personal freedom has almost destroyed marriage, and men and women have different, complementary roles in marriage.

Arnold also utters some hard sayings about things many committed Catholics and Protestants don’t seem to devote much mental energy to, such as the need for unity of faith within marriage. Though popular culture celebrates those who marry despite rational grounds against doing so, Arnold wants us to consider that if husband and wife are not united in faith, their marriage may well founder. And, according to the author, one-on-one dating is a bad idea for the young — and he’s probably right about that. Not very long ago, before the fear of pregnancy was (supposedly) removed from the picture, chaperones supervised dates to make sure nothing untoward happened. Have males suddenly become less carnal? Are surprise pregnancies less common?

But the bombshell comes when Arnold, a non-Catholic, links contraception and abortion in a chapter called “The Hidden War.” Orthodox Catholics will find it refreshing to see a Protestant preaching truths that they have shouldered virtually alone for decades. To paraphrase Newman, whatever can be said about abortion, contraception, or homosexual sex, this much is certain: They are not Christian, and have no place in any morality calling itself Christian.

And finally, as our culture is beginning to wake up to the idea that easy divorce isn’t so great after all, Arnold speaks out for the permanency of marital vows, for the indissolubility of marriage.

All in all, there’s little that deviates from traditional Catholic morality here. The only disagreements are minor, such as Arnold’s annoying habit of referring to husbands and wives as “partners,” as if they are cowboys out riding the range together, not men and women with distinct roles (in fairness, he doesn’t think the sexes are interchangeable at all). Otherwise, he is solid in all essentials.

- Eric M. Johnson



Founder of Hasidism: Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov.  By Moshe Rosman. University of California Press. 303 pages. $.

To most Christians, the Hasidim seem like an exotic sect without much connection to the ancient dignity of Orthodox Judaism. Their distinctive dress, like that of the Amish, attracts our attention, but not quite enough to find out more about them, especially since they appear to be clannish, standoffish, and self-sufficient in their own community. They cause some embarrassment to other Jews because of their evangelistic fervor and ecstatic sense of worship. Nonetheless, the writings of Martin Buber, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gershom Scholem have sparked interest in their beliefs, activities, and origins.

Hasidism is rooted in the Kabbala, originally a gnostic oral tradition which was not committed to writing until the end of the 13th century. Its equivocal and mystic lore attracted a wide spectrum of Jews and even found favor with some of the Renaissance humanists.

Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov or the Besht (master of the good reputation) (1700-1760), is usually credited with modifying the direction of Judaism. Hasidism is far more mystical, joyous, and enthusiastic than the scholarly and impersonal legalism that was previously associated with Judaism. It encouraged the belief that even the uneducated could reach the heights of spiritual perfection and attain a personal relationship with the Creator. The ecstatic experience is achieved, not by asceticism but by physical activity and the celebration of life itself.

The life and work of the Besht has been obscured by later hagiography and legend. Consequently it is difficult to sort out facts from folklore and learn the human qualities of the man. Rosman has done thorough archival work in Poland, Ukraine, and Israel and has presented us with a “historical and usable Besht,” who is neither the unworldly prophet nor the “vulgar ignoramus” of some of his critics. Rosman puts him clearly in his time and place, the 18th century Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the modest city of Miedzyboz. This was an era of popular mysticism in Poland, and the Besht was a healer who was said to perform miracles and exorcisms.

The Besht’s followers continue to honor his memory. His successor, Dov Ber of Lubavitch, gave the name to the group that is active in the U.S. (long under the leadership of Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994).

In a sense the Hasidim have held the same relationship to Judaism as the fundamentalist or charismatic movement to Christianity — bringing fresh energy, reminders of certain roots, and an emphasis on morality. They deserve greater respect, understanding, and appreciation.

- Aaron Godfrey



Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac: Rules, Conferences, and Writings.  Edited by Frances Ryan and John E. Rybolt. Paulist. 320 pages. $18.95.

Of the many male/female collaborations in the history of Catholic spirituality, the one shared by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac rates as among the most influential. The orders of ladies, priests, and poor village girls they fostered left an indelible impression on the Church in 17th-century France. One could also argue that what these two saints accomplished together transformed the notion of charity itself in Western civilization.

The scope of their work is astonishing: Their primary work was with the poor and the sick, but they also educated country girls, and cared for foundlings, galley convicts, the war-wounded, refugees, the mentally ill, and the aged. Their foster care program was the first organized in France, their hospital work a “prototype of the care of the sick by active religious women,” a model to be emulated even with the evolution of health care.

The rule developed by Vincent and Louise was to be the inspiration for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The form of consecrated life begun by Vincent and Louise has since become the norm for most religious congregations. Their innovation was to bring cloistered spirituality out of the convents, so nuns would make their monastery the abode of the poor, their cell a hired room, their cloister the public streets and wards of hospitals.

Apart from his vital work with Louise, Vincent also saw the urgent need to train priests properly, to rescue the Church of his day from a state of “disgrace and desolation” so deplorable that “all good Christians should weep tears of blood.”

This book presents the “way” of Vincent and Louise, a spirituality outlined in rules and selections from conferences and letters, since no definitive method was ever articulated as such by them. Their spirituality centered on finding Jesus Christ in the poor, a collaborative practical action rooted in prayer.

The book gives examples of Vincent’s exhortations regarding the poor, combining his practical advice with his concern above all for the health of the spirit: “Serving the poor is going to God and you should see God in them…. Urge them to make general confessions, bear patiently with their little fits of bad temper, encourage them to suffer patiently for the love of God. Never get angry with them nor speak to them harshly. They have enough to do to put up with their illnesses. Reflect that you are their visible guardian angel…and do not oppose them except in such things as are bad for them for, in that case, it would be cruelty to yield to their demands. Weep with them; God has made you their consolers.”

The readings selected for this book do not overemphasize the temporal plight of the poor, as opposed to their spiritual sufferings. In fact, the book may disappoint those with a “social welfare” orientation. Not only is the virtue of poverty extolled, but simplicity and humility as well. Where do these seemingly old-fashioned virtues fit into modern American Christianity, where humility is often seen as a block to self-esteem, without which it is assumed no true relationship, even with God, can result? And where do these old virtues fit into American society, where striving for productivity and success reigns? Vincent believed greed was ravaging the world of his day. What would he think of the modern West, and what would he say to us today?

- Paul Friedman



Revolution of the Heart.  By Bill Shore. Riverhead. 167 pages. $19.

Bill Shore served as an aide to two senators for a combined 11 years, but in 1984 he had a turning. News of an impending famine in Ethiopia, coupled with both his frank acknowledgment of the limits of legislative action and his keen desire to help those in need, led him beyond the political process. Share Our Strength, today a $30 million grant-giving organization dedicated to eradicating hunger, was the result of that turning. Revolution of the Heart is Shore’s attempt to share the secrets of its success.

One source of Share Our Strength’s vitality is its institutional character. It is a hybrid of the business and nonprofit sectors, what Shore calls a “community wealth enterprise”: a nonprofit organization that enters the market, producing goods and services, from toothpaste to travel packages, for public consumption. All or some of the after-tax profits are then used to foster cause-related institutions. As Shore sees it, given the shrinking pool of government funds and the fatigue of over-solicited donors, the community wealth enterprise represents the shape of things to come for certain types of nonprofit organizations and our best hope for social improvement both at home and abroad.

Revolution of the Heart is a well told, personal story with an important and timely message. Yet, one might question whether a nonprofit organization should subject itself to the very market forces that cause much of the misery it labors to relieve. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with success, and by any measure, Share Our Strength has had plenty of that.

- Adam Fein



Those Misunderstood Puritans.  By Samuel Eliot Morison. Sun Hill Press (23 High St., North Brookfield MA 01535). 32 pages. $.

Despite much recent scholarship to the contrary, most Americans today would readily agree with H.L. Mencken that the Puritans were terrified by the thought that someone, somewhere might be happy. One of the first historians to dispel the notion of the dour Puritan was Samuel Eliot Morison, whose delightful essay Those Misunderstood Puritans, first published in 1931, has just been reissued. Morison set out to present the authentic Puritan mind and personality to a public that had heard the Puritans blamed for everything from prudery to Prohibition. Morison describes the Puritans’ basic impetus as the desire to serve God and do His will. His Puritans rejected the pageantry and grandeur of Catholicism not because they rejected beauty, but because they did not want to be “distracted” from their focus on God.

The notion that the Puritans hated beauty is refuted by the artifacts they left behind. It is true that they did not admire art for its own sake. But they created splendid serviceable objects which were also decorative. Each item should, they believed, be admired as much for its function as for its form. The pastimes they rejected, such as theater and gambling, were nonproductive and did not encourage industry. Time was a gift from God, to be used profitably. And yet those who have left us with the Puritan Work Ethic also shunned the unbridled pursuit of wealth, insisting instead on the “just price” and fair wages.

Morison points out that Puritan theology, the driving force behind so many of their actions, has been the least enduring part of their legacy. Instead they have left us with a national tradition of placing great emphasis on education for all, and they reluctantly ushered in democracy. They also embraced the notion of public service and respect for law and order. Rigid enforcement of the laws did not come from their desire to preside over a gloomy community. Instead, it was considered vital for the maintenance of an orderly society on the frontier. And yet, that part of the Puritan experiment also ultimately failed, as the community became more secular and more connected to the outside world. But as Morison reminds us, the Puritans made a valiant effort at adhering to an ideal, and in having done so left behind an important legacy.

- Cara Anzilotti



Christology.  By Gerald O’Collins. Oxford University Press. 333 pages. $14.95.

After an opening chapter on a perennial issue (the relation of humanity and divinity in Jesus) and a recent issue (Jesus’ salvific role for non-Christians), the first two-thirds of this book gives a clear overview of the principal New (and Old) Testament sources for a theology of Christ, followed by an examination of the key events and figures responsible for formulating Christological teaching.

While these chapters aren’t exhaustive (there’s no mention, for example, of the “I AM” sayings in John’s Gospel, and the account of medieval Christology is brief), they do focus on the essential elements of Christology. They will be helpful to those relatively unfamiliar with the scriptural origins and historical development of Christology.

O’Collins favors an approach to Christology “that develops from an examination of Christ’s human history,” but he makes clear that his method complements a Christology that begins by asking how the Eternal Word can become fully human. He emphasizes that these categories aren’t to be confused with “high” and “low” Christologies, distinguished by their acceptance of Christ’s divinity.

The heart of O’Collins’s message is in the final portion of the book. Here he defends the divinity of Christ against current challenges, not simply by resorting to authority but by responding to the questions this profound mystery raises. At the same time, he argues that some positions once widely accepted, such as Aquinas’s view that Jesus had full access to the beatific vision throughout his earthly life, might undermine His full humanity. O’Collins’s distinction between the order of being and the order of knowledge enables him to affirm both that Jesus was incapable of sinning and that he was capable, as Scripture records, of being tempted. What emerges in this study is a portrait of Jesus and His mission that does justice to both His human and divine natures — and to His unitary personhood.

O’Collins’s work is engaging and engaged. It’s engaging in its forthright analysis of positions that are deficient in recognizing the full identity of Jesus. It’s engaged because he shows by precept and example that faith does not undermine but enhances our search for truth.

- Patrick O’Connell



Dwight Macdonald and the politics Circle.  By Gregory D. Sumner. Cornell University Press. 271 pages. $35.

In the 1940s Rosalind Murray, a convert to Catholicism, wrote an apologia entitled The Good Pagan’s Failure. One might apply the same title to the story of Dwight Macdonald and his “little magazine,” politics.

Macdonald and the politics circle were utopian Leftists who championed the humanistic communitarian value of “sociability” and rejected both the militaristic excesses of the West and the totalitarian Marxism of the East. Founded near the end of World War II, politics opposed the promiscuous bombing of civilians, repudiated violence, and promoted pacifism (or negativism). A strong strain of anarchism also characterized the articles in politics.

The life of politics (1944-1950) was brief, but many writers who interacted with it ultimately had a wide influence. Albert Camus, George Orwell, Simone Weil, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Robert Lowell, C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, Sidney Hook, and Irving Howe are among those whose writings were published in the pages of politics. Simone Weil’s profound essay on the Iliad, which changed many people’s thinking on that poem and on the nature of war, first appeared in politics.

The ideas of the politics circle were important in the development of the New Left and the various movements of the 1960s. Unfortunately, the individualism of the New Left too often became violent self-indulgence, and the “consciousness-raising” and “self-fulfillment” promoted by the movements of the 1960s have resulted in sexual permissiveness and the drug culture.

Macdonald would probably have been disappointed at how the unselfish and courageous idealism of his associates in the 1940s and 1950s has translated into the cult of self at the turn of the millennium.

The failure of the politics circle was the good pagan’s failure — focused more on a “man-god” than the “God-man,” as Dostoyevsky so eloquently stated.

- Aaron W. Godfrey





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