Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 1998

November 1998

Weapons of the Spirit. Selected Writings of Father John Hugo

By David Scott and Mike Aquilina

Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor Books

Pages: 238

Price: $24.95

Review Author: Paul C. Fox

To a reader like me — emerging from an Evangelicalism of a strongly Anabaptist flavor — it’s curious that much of the first section of this collection consists of Fr. Hugo’s efforts to persuade lay Catholics that holiness is not optional. Why curious? Because the universal requirement of holiness is so commonplace among Evangelicals that whole denominations style themselves “Holiness Churches,” and the word “saint” is used casually to describe any fellow believer in good standing.

Yet Fr. Hugo decries as “only too common” the error of “thinking that the duty of pursuing sanctity derives primarily from ordination or religious profession,” and portrays a situation in which “the laity conclude that they need not become holy” while the ordained, on “seeing that laypeople live careless and worldly lives while still retaining the hope of supernatural life and happiness, are led to relax their own spiritual efforts.” The Evangelical reader may find in this a confirmation of his suspicion that Catholicism breeds laxity.

Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Hugo is urging us to a higher and more demanding concept of sanctity than what passes for “holiness” in many Evangelical circles — all too often the mere avoidance of drinking, dancing, cardplaying, etc. I suspect Hugo would have diagnosed such approaches to holiness as pharisaism.

“Divine perfection” and “divine holiness” — it is to nothing less than these that Hugo calls us. It is a call to take seriously the command of Christ, “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hugo brings us to a clear understanding of the perfection God requires of us; it “consists essentially in charity — primarily in the love of God, secondarily in the love of neighbor.”

Hugo’s desire to eliminate every obstacle to loving God led him, in the 1940s, to quit smoking and get rid of his large collection of literature. He did this not because of a puritanical spirit that sees such things as intrinsically evil, but because of the ascetic principle that what does not lead to God is to be renounced. Having experienced the liberating effect of renunciation, he called others to such holiness through his retreats. It was here that he met up with Dorothy Day and formed a friendship that bore fruit for both of them.

Hugo’s constant striving to advance in divine love is the key to understanding the remarkable combination of theological conservatism and social radicalism that runs through the selections in this book. For example, Hugo supported Dorothy Day’s efforts against the injustices of capitalism. He saw through the claims of materialism that, as he puts it, “through technical and material means mankind would attain to universal happiness.”

But if his love for the poor and oppressed could lead him to radical criticism of American society, his love for divine truth did not permit him to accept a simplistic condemnation of capitalism. Drawing on Scripture and Catholic social teaching, he saw that the problem lies deeper — in the heart of each of us. And this brings the issue right back to the need for holiness, perfection, and love.

In each of the eight sections of this book, dealing with matters ranging from prayer and repentance to war and sex, Hugo exhibits uncompromising orthodoxy and unquenchable love. When Fr. Hugo died in an auto accident in 1985, the Catholic Church lost an extraordinarily able teacher of true holiness.

The ISI Guide: Choosing the Right College

By the Staff of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 672

Price: $25

Review Author: Dale Vree

At the NOR we occasionally get inquiries from parents asking for information on Catholic colleges and universities. Here is a book we will recommend to future inquirers.

Accompanying our review copy of this book was a letter from Winfield J.C. Myers, one of its two Senior Editors, who stated that he is a long-time subscriber to the NOR and “a convert whose journey to Catholicism was guided in no small part by the NOR.” Need I say more about the unique reliability of this book?

The Guide doesn’t cover all institutions of higher learning in the country, or all Catholic institutions, but those discussed are treated in depth. The Catholic schools examined are Boston College, Catholic University, University of Dallas, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (New Hampshire), and Villanova.

It’s hard to evaluate a book like this without some independent familiarity with at least some of the institutions it covers. My familiarity is with four of them: Berkeley, Calvin College, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and (to a lesser extent) Notre Dame. My sense is that the descriptions of Berkeley, Calvin, and Steubenville given by the Guide are accurate. As for Notre Dame, I was a bit shocked at how un-Catholic it comes across in this volume — which is not to say the portrayal is inaccurate.

A remark by a Steubenville professor is worth pondering: “Many students these days are afraid that if they go to a Catholic college they’ll lose their faith. They won’t lose their faith if they come here.” This is not to say your children will lose their faith if they go to a semi-secularized Catholic school, or to the standard private or public institution. But there are significant risks — which may or may not be worth taking. If you care about your children’s salvation as well as education, if you wish to embrace them in the Kingdom of God as well as at commencement exercises, this book is worth getting.

The Silent Subject: Reflections on the Unborn in American Culture

By Brad Stetson

Publisher: Praeger

Pages: 246

Price: $No price given.

Review Author: Paula Vandegaer

Brad Stetson notes up front, “so much has been written and said over the last three decades about the…issues surrounding abortion…that one would think it difficult, if not impossible, to say something new about them.”

Indeed, I asked myself whether — after so many years and so much analysis — anything fresh could be said. I was decidedly surprised. Stetson enlists a dozen top scholars who deepen our insights.

Olivia Vlahos, for example, brings us an anthropologist’s view. Seen from the long term, procreation is nature’s first and greatest law. A species unable to fulfill it won’t survive. Vlahos asks what happens when it takes long years to rear offspring, as in the case of human beings. “Partnership” becomes a key issue. A woman and a man must learn to divide labor, share food, and care jointly for their children. So powerful is the role of partnership that the lack of it is, for most women, the prime motive for abortion. Vlahos also gives us extensive evidence that abortion goes hand in hand with gender hostility.

Another of Stetson’s authors who merits attention is Michael McKenzie, who reflects on persecuted groups and on those who watch but do nothing. We often ask why, with few exceptions, the German people did not act in defense of the Jews. But consider a parallel question. When so many religious people object to abortion, why do so few act on their beliefs?

Historically, a group is persecuted when it is easy to identify and when a socially constructed myth presents it as a source of contamination and danger. Certainly the unborn are an identifiable group that is profoundly threatened. As many as one of every three pregnancies is aborted. But portraying babies as undesirable because of overpopulation is standard fare. Portraying prolife people as fanatics has been effective in preventing mass protest of abortion on demand. As abortion continues to be a silent, secret act, it is less and less likely that people on a mass scale will recognize their personal responsibility to act.

Yet so many interventions are open to us. Frederica Mathews-Green, for example, leads us through a visit to a crisis pregnancy center. She offers telling examples of true sisterhood: women helping women to have their babies and to be good mothers.

Ideas do have consequences. Brad Stetson’s authors bring us fresh ideas. Readers will find this collection well researched and provocative.

A Little Child Shall Lead Them: Hopeful Parenting in a Confused World

By Johann Christoph Arnold

Publisher: Plough (800-521-8011)

Pages: 193

Price: $10

Review Author: Kalynne Pudner

Like many parents who take their calling seriously, I began reading books on child development and parenting the day my first pregnancy test came back positive. A number of these books still reside on my bookshelf, some frequently referred to, some periodically reread, some warmly recommended, and some — with my acquisition of experience — fallen into disfavor. A Little Child Shall Lead Them is happily added to my collection in one or more of the first three categories.

A father of eight, grandfather of 14, and Bruderhof (Anabaptist) pastor to hundreds of families, Arnold offers advice on subjects such as discipline, sex education, and the role of grandparents. The topics are predictable enough, but the substance of his advice may be surprising. Example: Instead of endorsing one or another disciplinary method, Arnold asserts that “every child has an instinctive longing for a pure conscience,” and that all we need to do is support that longing. The point of discipline is to help the child recognize that he has done wrong, and when that recognition has been reached and a purpose of amendment has been evidenced, then drop it!

The fresh simplicity in Arnold’s discussions of familiar topics is even more pronounced in his treatment of physical work (children need to grow up loving work, desiring to perform every task with joy), and materialism (the spirit of mammon is at the root of abortion). There is much wisdom here, and many of Arnold’s suggestions and observations were new to me even though I have had six children and have read ten times that many parenting books.

Of course, any parent who agreed with every point in a parenting book would evoke suspicions of credulity. So indeed I have two differences of opinion with the author of this very good book. First, Arnold urges parents never to impose religious instruction on their children, but instead to let them “sense” and evidently absorb it from the parents’ own living faith. Without question, children need to see their parents practice their faith, but practice need not — must not — preclude teaching! How many parents are now praying anxiously for their teenaged and grown children who have strayed from the faith they saw their parents live? How many of these young people abandoned Christianity because when challenged to “give a reason” (1 Pet. 3:15), they had not been taught how to do so? It is difficult to impress upon a child that God is a higher good than, say, algebra, if we require that he study the latter but not the former. As those who were required to learn their catechism can still tell you, we were created to know, love, and serve God, and “know” comes first — for good reason.

I must also disagree with Arnold’s mildly negative appraisal of home-schooling. Much of what Arnold says throughout the book — parents who love their children try to spend as much time with them as possible, recognize and appreciate each child’s individual gifts and learning style, let the child discover God’s world through his natural sense of wonder, and so on — points naturally toward home-schooling. So Arnold’s skepticism perplexed me. What Arnold needs, I thought as I read, is a copy of Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson’s Catholic Education: Homeward Bound (reviewed in the June 1997 NOR).

Running into a representative of Plough (Arnold’s publisher) at the National Association of Catholic Home Educators convention, I was able to pass on this suggestion, and was assured that Arnold has read that excellent work since writing A Little Child and in its light is reconsidering his assessment of home-schooling.

Overall, this is a beautiful book that exudes a joyful confidence in and reverence for children. Where does this attitude come from? No doubt from Arnold’s deep awareness of our divine filiation. Rearing children fundamentally means helping them to see what God is asking of them and to respond to His request generously, because they are God’s children first and ours by His grace. And the love with which we look at our children, the joy we take in them, is (though imperfectly) an image of the love and joy God finds in us. The best parenting guide of all, Arnold seems to be saying between the lines, is careful consideration of the way God does it.

My Path to Heaven: A Young Person's Guide to the Faith

By Geoffrey Bliss, S.J., with pictures by Caryll Houselander

Publisher: Sophia Institute Press

Pages: 89

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Lisa Zee

Any parent or teacher who has tried to hold a child’s attention will recognize a treasure on opening this book. Fr. Bliss and Miss Houselander wisely use pictures to make abstract doctrines concrete for the child and to help him use his imagination. Yet the illustrations and text are anything but childish. Rather they are in keeping with the dignity of their sacred subject.

My Path introduces the child to the Catholic mind and the spiritual life. Older readers familiar with Caryll Houselander’s writings will find her characteristic depth and imagination at work in another of her creative facets, her detailed illustrations that complement the fine text of the English Jesuit Geoffrey Bliss. What they have produced is a rendering for children of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Mirroring the Exercises, Bliss divides the book into 12 meditations. One of Houselander’s line drawings illustrates each of the themes while Bliss comments on the drawings and expounds on each theme. The opening meditation entitled “Made for God” begins with a symbolic picture of a boy’s journey to Heaven. From Heaven Christ looks down on the boy with love, bestowing on him the life of grace. The picture continues to show the various stages through which the boy journeys to God, assisted by the light of grace and his guardian angel.

Fr. Bliss explains each theme simply yet with implications to be appreciated by the mature reader. In telling how God prepares the boy for the supernatural life, Bliss uses the familiar classical principle of activity for a purpose. He says that whatever God makes, He makes for something — just as we do. If we make a dress, it is to wear, and that settles the shape; if we make a knife, it is to cut. The child, too, is made for something — to love God. Yet unlike the dress and the knife, for the child to fulfill his purpose he must choose to do it.

Similarly, Houselander’s pictures include straightforward illustrations of angels and devils as well as more subtle ones such as the depraved creatures representing the seven deadly sins. For those ready for a deeper understanding, there is an appendix that explains further the symbolism of the pictures.

Most striking is the balanced view of the Christian life. Material things are portrayed as good so long as they do not impede our way to Heaven. Bliss counsels that any kind of life can take you to Heaven so long as you use the grace God provides, but that some kinds of lives, such as those of honor and riches, seldom lead to Heaven, while others, such as those filled with hardship, provide ample opportunity. Houselander’s artwork places the abodes of loneliness, poverty, and hardship near Paradise, whereas riches, honor, and comfort lie perilously close to the Inferno.

The asceticism of the Christian life is not sugarcoated for the child. In keeping with St. Ignatius, Bliss comments that the higher the perfection of the Christian, the greater will be his willingness to suffer, even to the point of denying himself the legitimate goods of this life to embrace the cross. Parents, educators, young people, and anyone with an eye for spiritual beauty will appreciate and learn from My Path to Heaven. Fr. Bliss reminds us of truths that constantly need to be called to mind regardless of our age.

Serpent on the Rock: A Personal View of Christianity

By Alice Thomas Ellis

Publisher: Sceptre Press (UK) (available from Roman Catholic Books, P.O. Box 2286, Ft. Collins CO 80522)

Pages: 223

Price: $

Review Author: Bob Artner

Ellis is an English Catholic novelist, the author of ten novels, including The Clothes in the Wardrobe and The Inn at the Edge of the World. In this work of nonfiction, she inquires into the often discouraging state of Catholicism in the United Kingdom. What she reveals is sadly relevant to American Catholics.

She begins the book with a road trip to Ireland. While Ellis was there the Maastricht Treaty was being voted on, and this gave her the opportunity to ask: “What perverse element is it in human nature…that causes the Church on the one hand to banish the universal Latin and prevail upon its people to pray in the vernacular, while politicians try to persuade us of the benefits of a common currency on the other?”

After leaving Ireland, she returns to England and surveys English Catholicism, looking at priestly celibacy, the issue of women priests, declining participation by the young, and the quality of today’s liturgies. She is scrupulously honest, often discussing these controversies with people who strongly disagree with her. And she doesn’t always give herself the last word.

Though she asks simple questions (“What do you think about women priests?” or “What is all this carpet doing in our church?”), she wants serious answers — and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. At one point, she quotes a Sunday school text that refers to the Holy Spirit as she: “Jesus said…when I go away another helper will come from God, called the Holy Spirit. You won’t be able to see her, but she will be there…she will help you to understand what God the Father is like.…” Ellis’s response is deadly: “If I were a Sunday school child I would instantly assume that the Holy Spirit was Mrs. God, sent round by God to keep an eye on things when He was engaged elsewhere.”

Toward the end of the book she avers: “I prefer God to man. I think this is permissible — the Decalogue requires us first to love God and then our neighbor; it is not, however, fashionable to say so.” By this point, she has skewered various charismatic and New Age practices, the barrenness of much new church architecture, and many liturgical fads. A warning — Ellis is too hard on Vatican II, and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between what the Council actually said and what some people merely assume it said.

The book isn’t all about Church politics. At one point, she discusses the death of her son, when so many women encouraged her to “let it all out” and embrace the “stages of grief”: “Some also claimed that a greater trust in Jesus would restore me to equanimity. The Jesus of whom they spoke, however, was a marshmallow figure I did not recognize.” She goes on to say “I have retained enough of my early Catholic teaching to know that the only way through suffering is to ‘offer it up,’ to believe that we can share in Christ’s work of redemption by accepting suffering and loss and assimilating it, not by rejecting it as an unfair imposition on our innocent selves. Grief is a salutary reminder of what love is, of its power and its eternal nature. Love exists beyond happiness, beyond tranquillity, beyond reason and, in this life, is inseparable from pain.” She recalls the words of the Creed, et homo factus est, and writes almost prayerfully, “This reminder of the absolute reality of self-sacrificial love, of total goodness, is all we can hold on to in a climate dedicated to the pretense of fellowship and loving-kindness, to schmaltz, self-conceit and heresy.”

Beneath the vivid phrasing and the bracing wit, this book is a cry from the heart. There is perhaps more of Ellis in these pages than she intended to reveal, and the fortunate reader will find her to be a woman of uncommon intelligence and faith.

On Being Catholic

By Thomas Howard

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 263

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Philip Blosser

Thomas Howard first achieved notoriety in his native Evangelical world while professor of English at Gordon College in Massachusetts in the early 1970s. A consummate master of English, he wrote in celebration of the sacramental outlook of the Western tradition and the literary achievement of writers such as C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. His conversion to Catholicism in 1985 jarred the Evangelical world and cost him his job. He now teaches at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts.

On Being Catholic is Howard’s first full-length book since he became a Catholic. It contains a sustained meditation on what it means for a seasoned Evangelical, who spent much of his professional life as an Anglican, to live as a Roman Catholic.

Howard paints pictures with words as vividly as a great master paints with oils. For example, in one place he argues that the Christian life isn’t just a matter of passively receiving grace, but of hard work and discipline, like the years of training endured by a dancer to achieve perfection. Knowing how most of us recoil from such discipline, Howard contrasts us to that dancer: “The rest of us, full of potato chips and sour cream dips and nachos grande, must make shift to hobble about, wheezing and grunting, hauling our tremulous torsoes and abdomens in and out of cars and up and down the stairs.” Howard can paint the soul as slob in everyday words, yet also commands an extensive vocabulary that will have many readers profitably consulting a dictionary. (I had fun looking up “termagant” and “tumid” and “insouciant.”)

Howard is perhaps at his best describing the sacramental or incarnational aspect of Catholic life and practice. Why all the smells and bells and ceremony? Why not a more purely “spiritual” religion? Howard points out that if a pagan shopkeeper in ancient Smyrna had expressed the desire to become a Christian, he would not simply have been given John 3:16 and asked to invite Jesus into his heart; he would have been invited to meet the bishop, become a catechumen, and start participating in the weekly liturgy. The Church doesn’t just announce the Good News; the Church is part of the Good News.

Particularly helpful for the Evangelical reader is Howard’s discussion of the many ways in which the Gospel is clearly and routinely presented to Catholics in various parts of the Mass. Howard is well aware of Evangelical doubts about all this, doubts not allayed by the reticence of many Catholics when asked about their faith (in contrast to the typical loquacity of Evangelicals about theirs). He confronts these doubts with a poignant scene in which he imagines his octogenarian Evangelical mother asking an old Catholic parishioner named Sarah, “Are you saved?” Sarah draws a blank. “Well,” asks Mom, “Are you born again?” Sarah is confused. And just as Mother is concluding that her worst fears about Catholics are confirmed, Howard steps in and leads the two ladies over to a crucifix on the wall and asks Sarah who that is. She answers: Jesus. Who is He? The Son of God. What is He doing? Suffering death. Why? For our sins. And suddenly Howard’s mother has heard Sarah make a confession of faith that qualifies her for inclusion among the “saved.”

Howard is gifted with a particular deftness at bridging the distance between Evangelical and Catholic. Some of the best chapters in the book are devoted to an issue which, from an Evangelical point of view, constitutes perhaps the major problem of Catholicism — the teaching that others may share with Christ in the mediation of God’s grace, whether that mediation takes the form of intercessory prayers of the saints, the instrumentality of Mary as “co-redemptrix” or “mediatrix,” or “offering up” one’s own earthly suffering in “reparation” for the sins of others. Howard successfully navigates the perilous waters round these most misunderstood of doctrines. He removes confusions and clarifies obscurities with disarming concreteness: “If I ask you for your prayers for me, you do not say, ‘Why are you asking me? I’m not a comediator.'”

His description of the Rosary as a “tarrying” in prayer-partnership with Mary is wonderfully winsome and illuminating. With regard to the veneration of Mary in Catholicism, Howard’s observation that a king’s own glory is augmented, not diminished, by his elevation of members of his court to places of high honor is shrewd and compelling. On Being Catholic is a rare gift for Evangelicals, and no less a treat for Catholics; indeed, it is recommended to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of what it is to be a Catholic.

Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin

By Leo F. Stelten

Publisher: Hendrickson (1-800-358-3111)

Pages: 328

Price: $24.79

Review Author: Dale Vree

Whether you think the use of Latin in the life of the Church is still waning or is enjoying a revival, serious Catholics run into Latin words and phrases with some frequency. For those whose knowledge of Latin is rudimentary, sketchy, or nonexistent, this not-too-technical dictionary will be a handy and welcome guide.

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