September 1989By Thomas W. Case
Thomas W. Case is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.
The Whos Who of Heaven: Saints for All Seasons. By John P. Kleinz. Christian Classics. 344 pages. $12.95.
Saint Dominic. The Grace of the Word. By Guy Bedouelle. Ignatius. 290 pages. $11.95.
Guide to Thomas Aquinas. By Josef Pieper. University of Notre Dame Press. 182 pages. $8.95.
The Last Days of Maximilian Kolbe. By Sergius C. Lorit. New City Press. 142 pages. $5.45.
Saints are exceedingly diverse in type, and sanctity is difficult to characterize. There is something of heaven in it, beyond our ability to think, to know, to pin down. To talk of extraordinarily graced individuals is to encounter a mystery. Then, just as we are ready to give up, and relegate these persons to some ultra-pious dreamland, we hear Mother Teresa say: Oh, dont make such a big deal out of it. Everyone is called to holiness. Just do it. This is the other side of the coin: the supreme practicality, the no-nonsense attitude, the energy, the guts, the multitude of accomplishments. It is as if the generality of mankind is living in molasses, stuck in intricacies of power and futility, while the saints cut through the bureaucracy of institutions and the bureaucracy of the spirit with the great power of powerlessness. They just do what obviously needs doing, and the world collapses before the onslaught. If Mother Teresa wants to set up a foundation to help the poorest of the poor in the Soviet Union, she does the obvious thing. She knocks on the door of the Kremlin.
The books under review all capture this profoundly practical quality to some degree, simply in telling the tale. But they are quite different in scope, tone, focus, and quality. The Whos Who of Heaven is a compendium of very short columns written by Msgr. Kleinz for the diocesan newspaper of Columbus, Ohio, from 1978 to the present. It suffers from brevity; one wants more than three pages on St. John Vianney, on Fr. Damien of Molokai, on Matteo Ricci. On the other hand, these 70-odd vignettes serve their purpose not only as leads for further reading, but as snapshots of history. The first and largest section deals with Our Lady: her role in the Church today, her prayers, her shrines. Then come eight role models for priests, from St. Philip Neri to Charles de Foucauld. Next there is a group of missionary martyrs of Africa and the Far East. Then missionaries to the Americas. Then foundresses of Orders, ending with the first saint of the United States, Elizabeth Ann Seton. Next come Eight Jesuits, followed by some of the early saints, and, wrapping up the book, an appeal for the canonization of the Venerable Mary Katherine Drexel, who in 1891 founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.
The book contains much little-known information, and this is what I found most valuable. I had known something of the perennial Christian martyrdoms in Africa, say, and I had some vague sense of the extraordinary courage of the early Jesuits in America, undergoing torture (as a test of their manliness) in order to evangelize Indian tribes in Canada and the northern tier of what is now the U.S. But it helps to fill in the blanks to read of the 22 young Catholic converts burned alive in Uganda in 1886. These 22, raised to the altar in 1964 by Pope Paul VI, are known as the first martyrs of Central Africa. (The same mad king responsible for these deaths eventually murdered 250 Catholics and Anglicans in that year of the martyrs.) Or consider Fr. Jean Pierre Aulneau, S.J., skull split open by a Sioux tomahawk in upper Minnesota in 1736. Or Fr. Pierre Jean de Smet, S.J., who brought the Faith to the Flatheads and Blackfeet in the Pacific Northwest in the 1840s. This is exciting stuff, and admirable, and puts to shame a certain kind of modern Jesuit whose faith is as swift and fervent as a tortoise in hibernation, and who finds his martyrdom in bickering with the pope.
This brings up one of the books shortcomings. The author is so enamored with Teilhard de Chardin (a modern among moderns) that he never misses an occasion to quote the man, and in particular this thrice-repeated phrase: We make our way to heaven by doing the work of the world. This the author calls a beautiful truth. I am not so sure. The thrust of Teilhards work is to turn God into a process within the cosmos, emerging from matter as matter itself evolves (through complexification) into spirit, and God finally attains its godhead as matter evolved to spirit (one uses the word its advisedly). God is then cosmos in evolution, and spirit is no more than highly organized matter. And what is Jesus? The end result of evolution: the Omega Point. The Christian Faith becomes Darwinistic evolution, an automatic process-pantheism with the theism left out. And on top of this science Teilhard throws in a few religious words to cover a vacuity. Sadly, Kleinz praises this less than competent scientist and worse theologian to the hilt, and includes him in his litany of the saints.
Karl Rahner is another misplaced figure in the Whos Who of Heaven. According to Kleinz, Rahner used contemporary philosophy to renew the Catholic and Thomistic heritage in a meaningful way for the modern Church and thus has achieved a position next to St. Thomas and St. Augustine on the golden benches surrounding the throne of God. Hardly. Rahner used philosophy all right mainly Kant and Heidegger and this was his mistake, for by it he turned all knowledge into a subjective exercise with no room for a God outside the human mind. So much for objective truth; so much for an acknowledgment that we are created and contingent beings. But this is perhaps too harsh an indicment of Rahner. The trouble is that his reasoning is equivocal to the point of contradiction, with subject and object, real and unreal, being and nonbeing thrown together in a garbled dialectic that is a poor guide to a substantive faith in an Incarnated and Resurrected God.
One cannot blame the author too much for including these dazzling rascals in his list of the saints. One surmises that he has not followed out the disastrous implications of their illogic: it is good enough that they are dazzling. But the book is thereby marred.
Guy Bedouelles Saint Dominic is state-of-the-art scholarship, detailed, thorough, and tarnished only by an exceedingly diffident and passionless style. The author is a French Dominican who teaches at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland a school that seems to attract the best minds of this century. The first part of the book presents the extant manuscripts scraps of homilies, early biographies, legends and plainly sets forth how little, in fact, is known about the life of Dominic. We know he made an early trek to Scandinavia in connection with a royal marriage; that he preached in Languedoc against the Catharist heresy, and later in Italy; and that he founded a convent of nuns, former charges of the Catharists, in the little town of Prouille right in the heart of Cathar territory. We know, too, that he created a number of foundations for religious and laity, and immediately sent little groups of Preachers throughout Europe, and especially to the major towns, where they settled next to the universities. From the very beginning the need and the method was to study, pray, and then preach. All this, and much more, was accomplished between 1206 and Dominics death in 1221.
The intellectual character of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) was established from the beginning, and understandably so, since the order was born amidst the clash of competing theologies. The chief competition was the logical train of thought that led to the notion of two equal principles, the one good and the other evil. This notion, popular in various areas in the 13th century southern France, Lombardy, present-day Yugoslavia is a perennial temptation to the mind trying to deal satisfactorily with the problem of evil. This dualism destroys metaphysical unity and topples goodness from the apex of reality. It has resurfaced with some regularity since the second century, and the Church has fought it whenever and wherever it has cropped up.
What can one say about the sanctity of Dominic? The external things are evident: the foundations, the rules of the order, the theological contests against the Cathars and the Waldensians, the itinerant life. But we can judge also of the interior things by noting, for example, that Dominic was superbly strenuous in his poverty; that he slept and ate catch-as-catch-can; that his charism was such that people who met him followed his lead so willingly that there were, in a year or two, hundreds, then thousands, in the new mendicant order. When Dominic died there were 30 monasteries from Spain to Denmark. The charism of the order was such that in two more decades it produced a St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church.
Dominics most usual personal prayer was: Jesus, Savior, Son of the Living God, be merciful to me, a sinner. It was a variation of the Jesus Prayer, based on Luke 18:13, and a cornerstone of the Hesychast mystics of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is surprising and gratifying to know that this prayer was in use in the West in the 13th century. And of course there is the Rosary, always associated in a special sense with the Dominicans. Bedouelle avers that there is no doubt that the first Dominicans prayed the Rosary, but that this had been a common practice since the 11th century. The form then was only to recite the Annunciation. The Visitation (Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb) was added in the next century. It was not until the mid-15th century that the present form of the prayer came into general use. St. Dominic did not invent it, or receive it by revelation from Our Lady, but he did make it a central part of Dominican devotions, in the short form common in his time.
Josef Piepers Guide to Thomas Aquinas (a paperback reprint originally published in1962) provides a vivid sense of the life and times and thought of St. Thomas. The book covers some of the same ground as Bedouelles: a bit of the Albigensian or Catharist movement; the early history of the Dominicans but it places such events within the context of other intellectual, spiritual, and political currents of the time, particularly the onslaught of Aristotle on the mind of Europe. Piepers style and clarity of mind are such that he can handle the most difficult and dry subjects with intelligibility and verve. He points out that St. Thomas arrived in Naples at the age of 20, only to run into two seemingly contradictory forces. The first was a back to the Bible movement, filled with millennialism and a boding sense of the apocalypse. Intent on a renewal of religious life, this accounted not only for various heretical sects, but also for the mendicant orders themselves.
The second force was the new learning from the East, a seductive natural philosophy in the form of Aristotle and Averroes, that contended with the old Augustinian neo-Platonism of the West. This contest was one not only of philosophy but of cosmology or worldview. The old Weltanschauung saw the visible world as a symbolic portrayal of higher being, and the cosmos as a series of levels of being from the least real (material being) to the most real (God). A man in such a world was sheltered, enclosed in a harmonious structure, but always in touch with higher reality, since everything exemplified greater realities. The new learning jettisoned that invisible superstructure, and along with it the notion that a man could see a form of God in an oak tree. The cosmos was reduced to two levels only visible beings without exemplary analogues above, and God. The world was divided, the one part entirely natural and knowable, the other progenitive but unknowable.
St. Thomas took the middle ground, borrowing from both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies, but only insofar as he considered each of them true; from these he built his own grand synthesis. On the nether side were the Latin Averroeists, whose slavish following of Aristotle as mediated by the Moslem philosophers got them into so much logical trouble that they ultimately developed the notion of the Two Truths, one given by reason and the other by faith.
But however mitigated the Aristotelian naturalism St. Thomas brought into his philosophy, it was enough to engender a fierce attack from upholders of the old neo-Platonism. As a sign of the clash of world views, we can point to the fact that the last great expositor of the old cosmology, St. Bonaventure, gained a professorship at the University of Paris on the same day as the innovator St. Thomas.
Pieper suggests the terms of the intellectual task confronting Thomas: I have said that almost as soon as Thomas awoke to critical consciousness he recognized that it was his lifes task to join these two extremes which seemed inevitably to be pulling away from one another. I have labeled the extremes Aristotle on the one hand and the Bible on the other hand. The name Aristotle was meant to serve as a cryptic word for natural reality as a whole, for the visible, sense-perceived world of physical, material things and within man himself for sensuousness, for nature and naturalness, and also for the natural cognitive powers of reason, the lumen natural. The other cue word, Bible, was meant to include the whole realm of the supernatural: the suprarationality of divine revelation; the reality of universe, man, and God which is accessible only in faith; the Gospels doctrine of salvation as the norm of human life.
My only comment is to suggest that the Bible, in Piepers formulation, can more easily and coherently be matched with the neo-Platonic exemplarism of Bonaventure than with the naturalism of Aristotle. And my only complaint with this insightful book is that it gives short shrift to the Platonic viewpoint. A cosmos viewed as hierarchical and exemplary throughout its many levels brings a person closer to God through the harmony of all its parts, while at the same time sheltering him from the temptation to self-sufficient Prometheanism.
Such Prometheanism was to reach a hideous level in the 20th century in Hitlers Germany. The resulting chaos is portrayed vividly by Sergius Lorit in the recently reprinted The Last Days of Maximilian Kolbe, but only as a deathly backdrop to the luminous martyrdom of a sickly Franciscan priest.
Here is the end of the story: Arrested in 1939, released, and arrested again, Fr. Kolbe, a trouble-making priest, stepped out of a concentration camp lineup and volunteered to take the place of a fellow prisoner who had been condemned to die the horrible death of starvation. This was in Auschwitz in August 1941. Staying alive well beyond the usual time, without food or water, leading his fellow starvation-bunker inmates in constant prayer, he was finally injected with carbolic acid, and achieved the martyrdom he had promised the Blessed Virgin at the age of seven. An eyewitness recalled: His face had an unusual radiance about it. The eyes were wide open and focused on some definite point. His entire person seemed to have been in a state of ecstasy. I will never forget that scene as long as I live.
Kolbes Last Days take up only a part of the book. These days begin each chapter, then follows a series of flashbacks, telling of the incredible naive energy of this man who would re-evangelize the world through the printed word. In 1917 he founded the Militia Immaculatae, a crusade in defense of Christianity that today has two million members. In 1918 he was ordained to the priesthood; a year later he completed degrees in philosophy and theology; in 1922 he began publishing The Knight of the Immaculate, which by 1938 achieved a circulation of 800,000. By 1930 he was in Japan, publishing Mugenzai no Seibo no Kishi, and by the next year this magazine had become the largest circulation Catholic periodical printed in a non-Christian country. In 1938 Kolbe returned to his native Poland and founded other publications among them a daily Catholic newspaper. He started a radio station in December 1938; made plans for the production of Christian films, and conceived the idea of building an airport to connect various Cities of the Immaculate around the world. And then came the blitzkrieg of Poland and all hell broke loose.
The book is short, perhaps too short, but if it does nothing else, it shows what one man, often laid low by an incremental tuberculosis, obstructed by cautious hierarchs, and ridiculed for his wild ideas, can accomplish with no money and much prayer.
Now just suppose what could have happened had World War II not intervened to put an end to this tornado of God: A worldwide network of Marian Cities all connected by jet transport; Catholic movies, television, and radio networks; a daily newspaper. The International Catholic Tribune .
It would have all been quite easy for a priest who could hardly speak above a whisper, who often had to stand on one foot to say Mass, who hobbled to his prayer-room, and who laid down his life for a person he did not know.