Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 1987

December 1987

Flannery O'Connor: Images of Grace

By Harold Fickett and Douglas R. Gilbert

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 151

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

This book consists of text by Harold Fickett and photographs by Douglas R. Gilbert. The text itself is a hybrid: Fickett combines biography, literary criticism, and theology to open our minds and imaginations to O’Connor’s achievement.

Out of this seeming mishmash emerges a wonderful harmony. By treating O’Connor and her world as a whole, the authors escape the various forms of reductionism that have been applied to this great Catholic artist. Thanks to Freud (or perhaps one should say, Freudianism), the most common way to distort the legacy of an artist is to impose preconceived notions on the relationship between the artist’s life and work. In the case of O’Connor, scholars have concocted the myth of her as a sort of Neo-Expressionist – the stereotypical alienated modernist who just happened to live in Milledgeville, Georgia, and to inherit a colorful religious tradition.

As Fickett rightly points out, O’Connor did consider herself possessed of a modern, alienated consciousness. Her art arose out of the tension between that consciousness and her Catholic faith: she was not one to take shortcuts. But Fickett and Gilbert provide a needed balance by showing that O’Connor’s art is not merely a form of “expression,” but a way of seeing. Fickett reveals the remarkable confluence in O’Connor’s life between the Christian’s vocation to holiness and the writer’s vocation to give meaning and form to raw experience.

A novelist and Catholic convert, Fickett engages in an unpretentious, but incisive and readable, criticism that will undoubtedly remain the best introduction to O’Connor’s fiction for some time to come. Equally important is his attempt to place O’Connor’s achievement in the context of modern literature. The modern artist has been stuck with his Self: an isolated node of consciousness without faith or community. He can choose to create an expansive, epic Song of Myself, like the great modernists (e.g., Pound, Olson, Williams), or retreat into the arbitrary, but playfully solipsistic, world of language games. However, the artist can only find true meaning by locating himself in time and space, and by gazing upon the mystery of being. Not without struggle, O’Connor found her way to this integration of craft and vision.

That this book is published by Eerdmans, which stands in the Reformed tradition, is perhaps another sign of a growing movement of “deep Christian” ecumenism. O’Connor herself knew that the Catholic “will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development.” She respected the emotional fervor of the evangelical tradition and never hesitated to let her Catholic friends know it.

Gilbert’s photographs evoke what for most Americans is an alien land. The South’s grotesquerie and backwardness provided O’Connor with a richness the novelist needs. In coming late to secular modernity, the South kept in touch with elemental realities, good and evil among them. O’Connor often set her fiction in the no-man’s-land of urbanization known as the New South. Gilbert’s photographs, by contrast, are mostly woodsy – there is little of Taulkinham here – but they do provide windows through which to see the fiction with greater clarity. (Incidentally, the best graphic companion to this book is John Huston’s excellent film of Wise Blood.)

Flannery O’Connor: Images of Grace is not only the best introduction to O’Connor, but a refreshing look at one of the most profound writers of our time; even those well-versed in her work will find it rewarding.

Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship

By Lawrence M. Mead

Publisher: Free Press

Pages: 318

Price: $19.95

Review Author:

Lawrence Mead engages the reader on two levels. Pragmatically, he questions the prevailing explanations offered by both Left and Right for the failure of the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s to reduce poverty and dependence. Thinkers on both sides of the spectrum have erred, he asserts, in focusing on the extent of government programs rather than on their nature. On a deeper level, Mead challenges orthodox American political philosophy which has exalted individual rights at the expense of the obligations individuals owe society.

Three broad historical movements have shaped the welfare state of the 1980s: Progressivism at the turn of the century, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement. Each of these sought to remove external barriers that prevented able individuals from entering the economic and political mainstream. These obstacles were as varied as corrupt political machines, powerful trusts, economic collapse, and Jim Crow laws.

These movements created an intellectual paradigm within which the policymakers of the late 1960s and early 1970s operated when they addressed the problem of a persisting welfare class despite the removal of obvious external barriers that must be discerned and rooted out. Sociologists and economists duly identified various impersonal social forces as culprits. Some of Joseph Califano’s testimony before Congress in 1978 is representative of this line of thought; he suggested that “poverty, unemployment, poor education, family breakdown” were among the forces that prompted unwed teenagers to have children. To suggest that “personal self-discipline” might surmount these difficulties smacked of “blaming the victim.” Much conservative criticism of the welfare state has simply been a converse of some of these arguments. Charles Murray, for example, asserts that welfare recipients are rational economic decision-makers who take advantage of the structure of the welfare state for personal gain. Such an approach, Mead claims, ignores real difficulties many welfare recipients face.

Mead proposes a via media. Rather than locate the source of dependency in additional external barriers or in conscious economic decision-making, he finds impaired personal functioning to be at the root of much current dependency. Basic skills and habits, such as literacy and punctuality, have declined. This slippage is often traceable to lower educational standards and poor worker motivation. Such internal causes do not constitute barriers susceptible to the typical legislative response. Paradoxically, the welfare legislation of the Great Society, generous in benefits but limited in the obligations imposed in return for benefits, has exacerbated these problems.

Mead draws on his studies of the Work Incentive Program for his prescriptions. Known as WIN, this program requires capable recipients of federal welfare to register for and seek employment as a condition of receiving benefits. In his study of the New York State WIN offices. Mead discovered that personal, behavioral factors were paramount. Effective WIN staff refused to condescend to clients. They sought to affirm clients’ self-confidence and dignity and viewed work as a means of achieving this affirmation. They rejected double-standards that allowed clients to evade work obligations. Ineffective staff were more passive, viewing recipients as “terribly, terribly limited.” They tended to blame impersonal forces, while effective staff directed clients to any available work. Mead concludes: “To overcome nonwork, WIN offices must be demanding of clients. They must also be affirming. And there is no contradiction. Demands themselves are an affirmation to the clients that they can actually realize mainstream norms like work.” Mead’s recommendations consist essentially in expanding on WIN’s limited successes to a broader work obligation for all capable citizens.

Mead grounds his recommendations on his political philosophy. He asserts that the debate over welfare reform has fallen victim to the idea that the federal government is the great dispensary of benefits. Individuals and groups see themselves as repositories of rights. That they might also owe obligations is typically dismissed. On this more fundamental level, Mead argues that the American understanding of citizenship needs rethinking. We must view ourselves as possessing rights, yes, but we must also recognize obligations to society.

Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel

By Thomas Keating

Publisher: Amity House

Pages: 137

Price: $8.95

Review Author:

“Be still, and know that I am God.” Our world has lost the art of being still. Modern man has no quiet center; it’s fashionable to be frantic. T.S. Eliot said it well when he lamented that we spend our time being distracted from distraction by distraction. Fr. Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart calls us back to silence. “Be still, and know that I am God” – fidelity to that directive resonates from every page of this book.

Open Mind, Open Heart is about centering prayer. As Keating defines it, this is “a method of refining one’s intuitive faculties so that one can enter more easily into contemplative prayer.” It is not contemplative prayer itself, only a prelude to it. Centering prayer teaches the novice how to “be still.” Yet Keating’s presentation is so thorough and his experience with contemplative prayer so extensive that one also finds in Open Mind, Open Heart a conceptual background for contemplative practice. The luminous passages on transforming union (and what lies beyond it) indicate that the simplicity of this book is far from simpleminded.

Centering prayer is concentrated in what Keating calls the sacred word – a short word of one or two syllables, such as Peace, Love, Jesus, God, formed silently in the mind. This sacred word “becomes an expression of your intention to open yourself to God, the Ultimate Mystery, Who dwells within you.” It “points us beyond our psychic awareness to our Source, the Trinity dwelling in our inmost being.” While the essence of the prayer is interior silence, that silence is maintained with the assistance of the sacred word.

“No one,” warns Keating, will “fall instantly into an ocean of peace where there are no distractions.” When one first sits down to practice silent prayer, one may feel as though one had strayed onto a battlefield: one is bombarded with an endless succession of thoughts. This is not the time to attend to them. The basic rule during periods of centering prayer is to let thoughts pass. Whenever the mind becomes attached to a thought, one gently substitutes the sacred word. “Be still…. ” The challenge in centering prayer is to become more attentive to the silence than to the thoughts.

Keating remarks that many people “feel nervous about doing what may seem like ‘nothing’ for a set period of time.” He assures us that this is hardly “doing nothing.” Centering prayer is a discipline. Meeting God faithfully for 20 minutes twice a day requires serious effort. This in itself is a training of the will. But the will is being trained on deeper levels, too, where the requirement is “not effort but surrender,” the surrender of one’s whole being to God. As the will learns “to let go of every thought and thought pattern, we gradually develop freedom from our attachments and compulsions…. By His secret anointings the Spirit heals the wounds of our fragile human nature at a level beyond our psychological perception.” Paradoxically, there comes a point when “trying” becomes counterproductive. “As the will goes up the ladder of interior freedom, its activity becomes more and more one of consent to God’s coming, to the inflow of grace…. The more God does and the less you do, the better the prayer…. Transformation is completely God’s work. We can’t do anything to make it happen. We can only prevent it from happening.” Thus, in centering prayer one is making an act of pure faith. The intention is to rest in God, to wait humbly for any response he may choose to make – or not to make. One is in effect saying, “Jesus, I trust in Thee.” One is also obeying a divine command: “Be still, and know that I am God.” For these (and many other) reasons, centering prayer is hardly “doing nothing.”

If, as Fr. Keating notes, silence is God’s first language, Open Mind, Open Heart teaches us its grammar.

Up 'Til Now: A Memoir

By Eugene McCarthy

Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Pages: 273

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

Asked to identify Eugene McCarthy, a college freshman would probably respond: “McCarthy. Hmmm. Didn’t he have something to do with anti-Communism back in the 50s?”

The former Senator from Minnesota deserves better. Since his election to the House of Representatives in 1948, McCarthy has been one of the most urbane, discerning, and sagacious figures on the public scene. He will probably be remembered chiefly for dethroning Lyndon Johnson in 1968, but more than that, he has graced the political enterprise with a high moral sense and an antique respect for the public calling. The pity is that instead of Eugene McCarthy in the Oval Office, we have witnessed a parade of moral and intellectual cripples. How could the electorate be so stupid?

Up ‘Til Now suggests that mass chuckleheadedness may not be the sole problem, for though the memoir reveals McCarthy’s sterling qualities – elegant wit, sophisticated intellect, political acuity – it also exposes his flaws. McCarthy evinces here the same dispassion and cool detachment that prevented him from firing the ardor and imagination of the masses of American voters. The warmth and passion of an FDR, a Truman, a Bobby Kennedy, even a Ronald Reagan, are missing. One catches hints of aloofness and arrogant integrity that vitiate his obvious virtues.

McCarthy would probably have felt more at home in the company of Jefferson, Madison, and the Adamses, men who did not have to press the flesh or emote into a TV camera to attain the presidency. Certainly among the politicians of the past 40 years he belongs to that select number (Adlai Stevenson and William Fulbright also come to mind) who could have conversed intelligently with those statesmen from Virginia and Massachusetts.

History, Truth, Liberty: Selected Writings of Raymond Aron

By Franciszek Draus

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Pages: 384

Price: $27.50

Review Author:

From World War II until his death in 1983 Raymond Aron was one of Europe’s most distinguished observers of politics and society. During his long life, however, leftists frequently pilloried him as a reactionary, stonehearted conservative, and, on occasion, fascist. He was none of these; only the Marxist dominance of intellectual discourse, especially in his native France, gave him the appearance of a rightist. He was in truth an old-fashioned man of the Enlightenment, a position difficult to maintain in a century ravaged by extremisms of Right and Left. Aron evinced the most admirable qualities of the siècle des lumieres: cosmopolitan loyalties (he felt equally at ease in France, Germany, England, and the U.S.); devotion to the free play of reasoned minds; civility toward one’s opponents; individual moral responsibility; dedication to the public weal; commitment to freedom, tolerance, and liberal democracy. His cogent criticisms of Marxism arose from his perception that it would destroy the values that formed the vital core of Western civilization. History, Truth, Liberty reminds one of the wisdom, erudition, and clarity of vision that Aron brought to his analysis of the vexatious social, political, and economic questions of our era.

At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities

By Jean Améry

Publisher: Schocken

Pages: 111

Price: $5.95

Review Author:

Some men have been sucked so deeply into the vortex of maleficence that if they emerge alive there can be no consolation. Having passed beyond the circle where language has meaning, they finger the coins of communication, groping for ones to describe what they have seen. Solzhenitsyn, Eugenia Ginzburg, Elie Wiesel: they and others have attempted to fetch back a message from the furthest reaches of hell. We understand their words with the mind alone; those who have not felt the icy tentacles of unimaginable malevolence cannot really know. Jean Améry stood face-to-face with the Gorgon: he knew. At the Mind’s Limits, first published in 1966, imparted his testimony.

Viennese; half Jew, half Catholic; Jew by choice in defiance of anti-Semitism; inmate of Auschwitz; survivor; homeless exile; bearer of sorrow beyond sorrow, of wounds that bled fresh every day for the rest of his life: these are the raw facts of Améry’s story. He entered Auschwitz without God, left without him, and died without him. A humanist intellectual, he found reason – the intellect, the mind – powerless to resist the horror. Of his fellow prisoners, two types “survived better or died with more dignity”: Marxists and devout Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews. Liberalism, humanism, and secularism usually failed when plunged into the maw of Moloch.

Christians dare not take pride in this. Christians labeled him a Jew when as a boy he knelt at Mass; Christians spat their venom upon him when he tried to be one of them. The Christians incarcerated in Auschwitz “paid no attention” to him, “be it in tolerance, in the willingness to help, or in anger.” He admired their assurance, but their answers could not be his. He searched for answers the remainder of his days with unflinching courage and moral gravity. He never found them, but his search carried him to depths of profundity of which most men only dream. In October 1978 Jean Améry died a suicide in Brussels.

A Companion to the Summa

By Walter Farrell

Publisher: Christian Classics, and Sheed & Ward

Pages: 4 volumes; 1,918

Price: $15 each volume; $50 the set

Review Author:

The revival of Thomistic thought sparked early in this century by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson marks one of the outstanding intellectual achievements of our era. From France it spread to America where it quickened Catholic thought and helped inspire such men as Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler to focus on the classics of Western civilization. St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae became a staple for those – both Catholic and non-Catholic – who aspired to reanimate the grand procession of Great Books.

The revival flourished all too briefly. Today one asks the melancholy question: “Who reads St. Thomas?” Those who seek to rebuke theological folly would do well to revive the revival and immerse themselves in the Summa. To do so, however, demands tenacity and stamina, for St. Thomas does not yield easily to minds drenched in ephemera. One could find no better key to unlock the treasure house than the four volumes of Walter Farrell’s A Companion to the Summa, published originally between 1938 and 1942, and now back in print.

St. Thomas was, as Farrell observed, “head over heels in love with God,” and he wrote the Summa to express that love. Walter Farrell was similarly seized by both God and St. Thomas. His Companion to the Summa is a magnificent monument to a holy passion.

Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl's Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond, 1939-1945

By Janina Bauman

Publisher: The Free Press

Pages: 195

Price: $16.95

Review Author:

When the Nazis and Soviets raped Poland in 1939, Janina Bauman, a Jewish girl, was 13 years old. Her home, Warsaw, fell to the Germans, and she and her sister and mother plunged into a hellish maelstrom from which they would not emerge for almost six years. They survived the mass deportation of Jews in 1942, the Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and the final scourging of the Jews in the waning days of German occupation. They endured because Polish gentiles sheltered them, even though the penalty for this crime was death. The Poles in Winter in the Morning are not uniformly admirable. Some hid Janina and her family solely for money; some treated them with ill-concealed contempt; others blackmailed them with threats to betray them to the Gestapo. Even amidst the unspeakable suffering that should have united Jew and gentile, some Poles seethed with hatred for the “Christ-killers.”

For many Poles, however, simple humanity and Christian charity compelled them to acts of kindness and heroism. To them, Janina and her family were not Jews, but hounded fugitives, strangers at the gate, silently beseeching the succor that no Christian could deny. Most heroic of all was Aunty Maria, a “quiet, faint-hearted” Catholic woman who had served as housekeeper to Janina’s grandparents. She risked her own life countless times to protect the woman and two girls she loved.

Forty years later, in the act of remembrance, Janina Bauman recalls her experiences without bitterness. The goodness of Polish Christians triumphs over the evil of anti-Semitism: “My book is meant as a tribute to those innumerable people who helped me, my mother and sister to survive the war.”

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