Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 1987

October 1987

All Is Grace: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day

By William D. Miller

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 207

Price: $14.95

Review Author:

Retreat notes and the diaries of teen-age girls should be concealed from prying eyes. To guard titillating secrets? Hardly. Rather, both genres generally stagger under a prodigious load of banality. Such things at times find their way into print, justified only by the fame of the writer from whose pen the random jottings sputtered.

God bless William D. Miller! In All Is Grace he provides a selection of Dorothy Day’s retreat reflections (accompanied by his own felicitous commentary), not because she was perhaps the most famous American Catholic of her time, but because the notes embody a concentrated beauty that sparkles with gemlike brilliancy.

Dorothy Day’s spirituality evidenced none of the candied sentimentality to which aspirants to the holy often fall prey. She approached the spiritual life with a hardy realism that owed nothing to inflamed imaginings or ecstatic soarings. She knew, as she notes in one entry, that such flights could be grounded by something so mundane as the distraction of “a too tight girdle.” But she could distill her thoughts into an essence so limpid that one looks to Pascal for an apt comparison. In a stunning image, she remarks: “Our enemies are the galley slaves that row us to heaven.” On another occasion she warns: “Instead of fearing death…we should fear life. This is because those who wish to enter heaven must be saints.” And in a moment of Pascalian fear and trembling, she refers to “this terrible overwhelming cruelly demanding love of the living God.”

The Life and Legend of Jay Gould

By Maury Klein

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press

Pages: 595

Price: $27.50

Review Author:

One admires Maury Klein’s chutzpah in his efforts to redeem the reputation of Jay Gould, Wall Street wizard and railroad and telegraph magnate, whom Klein calls the “arch villain in the Age of the Robber Barons, the most hated man in America.” Klein contends that Gould’s ill repute stems not from any singular malignity on Gould’s part, but from newspapers that seized upon him as the supreme embodiment of the rapacity and greed that swept America during the Gilded Age. The New York Herald, for example, found him a “ghoul in human form,” a “Satan of the modern world.”

Through exhaustive scholarship, Klein succeeds in penetrating the legend of Jay Gould to reveal that the spartan little New Yorker was no worse than the other ravenous creatures that roamed Wall Street in the heyday of the “Great Barbecue.” But Klein wants more: he views Gould as a prophet of progress, the “prime mover” in the development of transportation and communications, “two industries vital to the Industrial Revolution.” Far from a villain, the Jay Gould that Klein adduces is a hero.

Since World War II, historical revisionism has generally thrived among leftists bent on ferreting out every shred of American iniquity. Whatever Klein’s own politics may be, his book will hearten pro-business conservatives: what’s good for business, he seems to say, is good for America.

G.K. Chesterton

By Michael Ffinch

Publisher: Harper & Row

Pages: 369

Price: $18.95

Review Author:

Not too long ago one invited condescension, even derision, if one mentioned Chesterton in polite company. The Father Brown stories were tolerated (tales of detection are the intellectuals’ idea of acceptable literary slumming), but the rest of Chesterton’s prodigious output was consigned to the liberals’ index of forbidden books. Chesterton was outdated; Chesterton was dogmatic; Chesterton was shallow; Chesterton was an anti-Semite; Chesterton was just not…well, relevant.

Who would have expected that we would now be awash in a wave of Chestertonianism? Ignatius Press has just issued another volume in its projected complete edition, and the poet Michael Ffinch has authored an admiring biography of G.K.C. In his Introduction to Vol. IV of the Collected Works (featuring What’s Wrong with the World, The Superstition of Divorce, and Eugenics and Other Evils), Fr. James Schall quashes the charge of “irrelevance” with the comment that “these essays…challenge the very foundations of contemporary public life…. ” And they do. If anything, Chesterton’s animadversions on birth control, divorce, and sundry components of modern morality are even more germane today than they were a half-century ago.

Michael Ffinch doesn’t even bother to defend Chesterton’s pertinence; he takes it for granted. Ffinch’s lively and graceful biography reminds one of what issues from Chesterton’s life and works: an emphasis upon responsible liberty; praise of common sense; advocacy of widespread property ownership; revulsion at prideful concentrations of wealth; admiration for the uncommon virtues of the common man; and most important, an orthodox Catholicism unencumbered with narrowness. If this is outdated or irrelevant, then we are in deeper trouble than even our bleakest pessimists imagine.

Collected Works, Vol. IV

By G.K. Chesterton

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 442

Price: $17.95

Review Author:

Had the Spanish Inquisition not existed, some Catholic-baiter would have invented it, for it has long been a favored means of flogging the Church. It is foolish to respond to the Church’s detractors by trying to ignore the Inquisition, or – as one occasionally notices among folks on the swamp-fever wing of Catholicism – by defending it. The Spanish Inquisition was an appalling affair, a dreadful chapter in the Church’s history.

One can, however, follow Henry Kamen’s example: scrutinize the episode with the dispassionate eye of the scholar. Kamen confirms the iniquities of the institution: secret deliberations, police-state procedures, torture, anti-Semitism, and entertaining the populace with public burnings of heretics. There is another side to the story, however – one that seldom gets told. Relatively few executions occurred after the first 20 years of the Inquisition’s existence, and, Kamen contends, “torture was used infrequently.” Spain was not a uniquely repressive, proto-totalitarian land; in fact, it boasted one of the freest societies of the time. The Inquisition did not dominate Spain’s political, economic, cultural, and religious life. Protestants and anti-Spanish Catholics, notably the Italians, created the “Black Legend,” through which the Inquisition came to be viewed as a centuries-long reign of terror that controlled every facet of Spanish life.

Fevered imaginings and the exigencies of anti-Catholicism are more potent than the scrupulous investigations of historians. Despite Kamen’s book, the Black Legend will persist; it is too handy to get rid of.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

"Grandpa! Grandpa!"

Harold Cybulski was to be taken off life support. When his two-year-old grandson ran in, Cybulski opened his eyes, sat up, and reached for the boy.

New Oxford Notes: June 2011

Irony & the Obama Catholic... How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet... Is Your Job on the Endangered-Species List?