October 1990

The Prayers of St. Teresa of Avila.  Edited by Thomas Alvarez. New City Press. 131 pages. $8.95.

Hope in the Gospels.  By Charles de Foucauld. New City Press. 100 pages. $7.95.

A Charlie Brown cartoon I particularly like features Lucy staring dreamily at Schroeder as he weaves his magic on the piano. He looks up eagerly at the end of a piece, waiting to hear her opinion. “You have such beautiful blue eyes,” she says.

Such is the language of the lover in the presence of the beloved: She has a hard time sticking to the subject because she is so enamored of the Subject. Such is the language of St. Teresa of Avila in these excerpts from her prayers. We have all been somewhat embarrassed by the utterances of those in love. But if the one so afflicted is a poet, as Teresa is, what you get is poetry, or perhaps music.

One feels almost shy reading these words, as if one has come unannounced upon lovers. For instance, she says to the one she calls her “true spouse”: “Hence, my Lord, I do not ask You for anything else in life but that You kiss me with the kiss of Your mouth….” And from her mystical experience of repeatedly being pierced with an arrow, made famous by the sculptor Bernini: “O superb contrivance of my Lord! What delicate skill You use with Your miserable slave! You hide Yourself from me and afflict me with Your love through a death so delightful that the soul would never want to escape it!”

Objectively analyzed, her words declare an abject unworthiness that moderns (“I’m special!”) would find distasteful, like her reference above to herself as “a miserable slave.” It gets worse; Teresa also says she’s an ant, a worm, and “a filthy and malodorous dung-heap.”

But be careful: Understood in context, her words reveal an amazing self-confidence and ease in the presence of the Lord of the Universe, the Creator, the Ineffable. Her words should not be confused with low self-esteem. This is because for the saints there is no tension between God’s unutterable majesty and God’s incredible closeness. The way Teresa expresses her love for Jesus is the needed antidote to pop theology’s “Jesus is my friend and I know he is always there when I need him!” Her language of love is the appropriate language for maintaining that delicate, orthodox balance between intimacy and awe.

Similarly, her ruminations on her sinfulness are always within the overall understanding of herself as beloved. The beloved knows that to forget is the worst kind of offense, and such is Teresa’s description of sin: “My soul grew distressed, my God, while considering the glory You’ve prepared for those who persevere in doing Your will, the number of trials and sufferings by which Your Son gained it, and how much [such] love…deserves our gratitude. How is it possible, Lord, that all this love is forgotten and that mortals are so forgetful of You when they offend You? O my Redeemer, and how completely forgetful of themselves they are!” The forgetfulness of sin is a double amnesia: God and self.

For one who believes in the communion of saints, to read the words of a saint is to begin a friendship. How I would have loved to have had Teresa as my confidante in high school! (How many headaches such a helpful friendship would have saved me about the true nature of desire!)

It is that fascination with the actual person which is best about the book by Charles de Foucauld, also published by New City Press as a second volume of his works. (New City Press is the publishing arm of the Focolare movement.) How lovable must be the man whose days are like this: ‘‘To have an exact idea of my life, you have to realize that someone knocks on my door at least ten times every hour of the day — poor people, sick people, travelers who need a place for the night.”

But there are obstacles to full delight here. One is an inferior translation. Another is Charles’s inexorable drive to be thematic. His subject is hope, and he makes his way doggedly through the gospels, reading them for what they can yield about that virtue — a worthy undertaking, but a good insight is unnecessarily repeated over and over.

Alas, too, Charles is burdened with a most un-Christian indifference to or even hatred for the body. For page after page in his commentary on the physical cures of Jesus, the meaning de Foucauld extracts is the same: They’re metaphors for soul cures. But we forgive him this, because we like the man so much.

For one who is choosing a book as an aid for prayer, either book is helpful. But the de Foucauld book is one of those pious little books that some people, like myself, cannot use effectively. The book of St. Teresa, on the other hand, is truly a classic.

- Janice Daurio



Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?.  ByH. Wayne House and Thomas Ice. Multnomah. 460 pages. $15.95.

Aficionados of fundamentalist silliness will delight in Christian Reconstructionism, a movement dedicated to establishing theocratic rule in the U.S. Led by Rousas J. Rushdoony of California and Gary North, head of Geneva Ministries in Tyler, Texas, these proponents of “dominion theology” (the name taken from the dominion over creation granted to Adam) promise to saddle America with a legal code that would enshrine the Mosaic Law.

Along with the usual crimes considered deserving of the death penalty, Reconstructionists would add adultery, bestiality, unchastity, homosexuality, witchcraft, blasphemy, and “propagation of false doctrines.” Wayne House and Thomas Ice, vehement opponents of the movement, convey a flavor of its bizarreness in their description of a debate within Reconstructionist ranks over how capital punishment would be inflicted in the ideal state. “Many Reconstructionists,” they explain, “allow for the modernization of the method of execution. Not, however, Gary North. He argues forcefully for the role of stoning as an integral part of the Mosaic penal code.” One reason for North’s fondness for this form of execution is, according to House and Ice, that “stones are plentiful at almost no cost.”

Okay, fun is fun, but the joke threatens to turn morbid. Trouble is, this is no joke. North and Rushdoony are serious (deadly so, the incorrigible punster would add). North proclaims: “God is in charge, waiting for His people to challenge the rulers of the earth and take the steering wheel from them.” If not a tasteless joke, then surely Reconstructionism is an offbeat movement scorned by all decent Christians. Not so, warn House and Ice (both of whom are themselves fundamentalists), for the Christian Reconstructionists offer “an appealing, upbeat, and aggressive agenda to evangelicals tired of the one-step forward, two-steps-back world of American politics.” North and Rushdoony have also, with some success, extended their recruiting campaign into Pentecostal circles.

Although Reconstructionism is not on the verge of converting its warped vision into reality, its siren song can mesmerize those who have sickened of our nation’s moral blight. Secularists and religious liberals, who for years have been indiscriminately crying “Wolf! Wolf!” at everybody from Billy Graham to Jimmy Swaggart, should take note: Reconstructionism is decidedly lupine.

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John Crowe Ransom’s Secular Faith.  By Kieran Quinlan. Louisiana State University Press. 116 pages. $20.00.

Kieran Quinlan unintentionally confirms what some observers had long suspected: In matters of religion and theology, John Crowe Ransom, putative leader of the Southern Agrarians, was a muddled and shallow thinker. “He makes up his theology as he goes along,” Allen Tate once snapped. During the heyday of Agrarianism it appeared that Ransom was a believing Christian. He sounded like a Christian in the “Statement of Principles” he composed in 1930 as the Introduction to I’ll Take My Stand, and in the same year he assailed secularists and religious liberals in God Without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy. The trouble with this “defense” is that it leads one ineluctably to the conclusion that, with friends like Ransom, orthodoxy needs no enemies. “Far from being a defense of orthodoxy,” the book was, a writer declared in the Sewanee Review, “a repudiation of the Christian religion, in its doctrinal and practical aspects.”

Quinlan’s admirably concise and perceptive study dispels the cloud of confusion that has surrounded Ransom’s thinking on religion. His “belief” boils down to this: He was no believer at all, but a “contented” agnostic, steeped in positivism and naturalism. The son of a Tennessee Methodist preacher, Ransom early lost his faith after reading the German higher critics. Rejecting his father’s church, he formulated a secular creed that transmogrified art into religion and demoted Christianity to a “necessary myth” that, through its “aesthetic and ritualistic aspects,” could help make man “more appreciative of that which is immediately available to him in the concreteness of nature.”

Ransom halted short of atheism, and even “seems to have been willing finally,” Quinlan avers, “to concede the likelihood” of the existence of a Supreme Being. In 1968, six years before his death, he ventured so far as to call himself a “Unitarian.” Quinlan concludes on a poignant note. In an essay Ransom wrote in 1961 on Thomas Hardy, he evidenced, according to Quinlan, “a straining wistfulness for lost certainties, as if Ransom in his old age desired to return to the spiritual comfort of his own remote past in a Tennessee parsonage.” Almost, but not quite: To the very end “he still finds himself philosophically unable to profess any form of Christian orthodoxy.”

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Poor in Spirit: Modern Parables of the Reign of God.  By Charles Lepetit. Ave Maria Press. 192 pages. $5.95.

Poverty terrifies most of the American middle class, living as it does in neighborhoods systematically isolated from the poor. The recent phenomenon of the homeless is disturbing enough to encourage philanthropy, but usually at a distance (sending money).

It is difficult to understand what it is to be poor and helpless, since there has always been a touch of unrealistic romanticism about the poor — both in literature and junk mail designed to stir pity and compassion. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that the poor are human beings with the same faults and virtues as (even) the rich. Yet vice seems different in squalor than in elegant surroundings — with the poor sin seems uglier because the setting is ugly.

Poor in Spirit is about the suffering, love, and generosity of the poor. Charles Lepetit, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, has selected 50 parables of the poor throughout the world, told by members of his community. Some of the stories are deeply moving. A poor family in North Africa gives its most precious possession to a stranger; a member of the community, urged to tell the Christmas message of poverty to the rich, chickens out; slum dwellers try to deal with city hall.

Many of Lepetit’s stories encourage us to examine our lifestyle and to share more of what we have — trusting that God will sustain us in the future — and to be less judgmental and more forgiving. Poor in Spirit rattles our complacency.

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Spheres of Liberty: Changing Perceptions of Liberty in American Culture.  By Michael Kammen. Cornell University Press. 191 pages. $9.95.

Without realizing it, Michael Kammen exposes a cruel irony in the American conception of liberty. Following his thesis that Americans have always coupled liberty with another idea (usually authority, property, or order), Kammen contends that since the late 1930s the dominant practice has been to link liberty and justice. Fine — who but the most obdurate conservative would deny that we are better for that? If nothing else, the blacks’ winning of new freedoms would make the union of liberty and justice a welcome sight.

But then the irony: The increasingly popular notion of liberty and privacy — a “connection,” Kammen observes, that “has acquired a legitimacy and a resonance that it did not previously enjoy” — buttresses the demand for unfettered rights to abortion. Liberty thrives, but where, in this case, is justice? That Kammen fails to answer this question (or even to ask it) does not vitiate the cogency of his elucidation of Americans’ thinking about liberty.

Spheres of Liberty (originally published in 1986 and now reprinted in paperback) enhances Kammen’s reputation as one of our most gifted historians.

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