Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 2009

October 2009

Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family

By Veronica Chater

Publisher: W.W. Norton

Pages: 330

Price: $23.95

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

The first flag of distress in Veronica Chater’s memoir, Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family, waves in its title. Chater’s father, Lyle Arnold, spurned his 11 children’s physical, psychological, and educational needs in the belief that the Apocalypse (or the Chas­tisement) was imminent. Though he cut a handsome figure in his California State Patrol uniform, armed with a .357 Magnum on his hip and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand, in the 1960s he descended into mania after the Second Vatican Council, which he termed “the greatest crime in history apart from the Crucifixion.” Arnold blasted Vatican II Catholics for “behaving like Protestants, which was only one step away from being atheists, which was no different from being Communists.”

Chater assesses her father’s nature with an easygoing, conversational flair: “Part of Dad’s problem is family life. He isn’t cut out for it.” Arnold can’t handle noise, dirty diapers, scattered toys, broken appliances, visiting neighbor kids, or calls from teachers. As for chores, he “can’t operate a can opener. He can’t cook an egg or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He can’t scare away the boogieman, or soothe a crying baby, or tell a story….” Vatican II was his only subject, and he cloistered himself in a backyard retreat to track its progress.

The book’s emotional crescendo soars as Chater resurrects the 1960s and 1970s with graceful authenticity. Rubber-banded knee socks, rampant ringworm, and ragtag baby debris branded the Arnolds at Mass. Mom led the kids through a daily office: “The Daily Offering in the morning. The Act of Contrition for times of temptation. Prayer to My Guardian Angel when in danger. The Memorare at times of doubt or faithlessness. Intercessions to keep us in the state of grace.” The rosary was an all-occasion public prayer — perfect for the grocery store and waiting rooms.

Arnold sold everything in 1972 and moved his family to Portugal to await the Apocalypse near Fatima, where in 1917 the Blessed Mother warned three shepherd children that, absent repentance, mass destruction awaited a sinful world. Chater wondered how our Lady would handle the Chastisement: “How would she designate which areas had to be annihilated?” Arnold’s benefactor in Portugal was missing, but no matter: “We were in a Catholic country. The government was Catholic. The people were Catholic. Even the dogs were Catholic.”

The shock of not finding a Traditional Latin Mass in Portugal demoralized Arnold. The kids ran free, unrestrained by parents, school, or schedule. Their six-month-long adventure ended when the broke and bitter Arnolds returned to California on borrowed money. At the airport, Arnold sharply told his exhausted, harried wife to listen up as he ranted about Chilean Catholics fighting Marxism. Chater’s analysis of her mother’s predicament is exquisitely poignant: “What did Dad want from her? What words did he want her to say? Was he waiting for a burst of applause? Did he think Mom had been dreaming of Allende being finished in Chile, and could now celebrate?”

Arnold got a truck-driving job for Hamm’s Beer, and the family, labeled “the Clampetts” by one child, camped out at a friend’s house. A renegade priest said Traditional Latin Masses in the garage as Arnold and a friend “packed iron while they served mass, both of them wearing shoulder holsters….” A rental house was found, and the family was marched through a series of orthodox churches and fringe groups like the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a “last remnant of the Roman Catholic Church.” Arnold’s flirtation with the militaristic Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP) deepened when he and his wife flew to the organization’s Brazilian headquarters — a facility manned by “warrior-monks.” Newly aflame, Arnold sent two sons to the TFP school in New York, but they returned, calling the group a Nazi cult. He shunned his boys as apostates, quit Hamm’s Beer, and put the family on food stamps.

With a ninth child on the way, the Arnolds moved to “a dump” that became a meeting place for traditionalists. Chater chronicles further deterioration: dress codes were tightened — no more pants or shorts for girls, so no more climbing, swimming, or biking. The teenagers dropped out of school, and everyone hunkered down for the End Times. Lessons and work habits fell away. Hourly prayers were mandatory. Enormous quantities of food, water, SSPX-blessed candles, holy water, and ammunition were stored. Archery equipment was ready for when the bullets ran out. The older kids recognized their roles as trivial ornaments adorning Arnold’s grandstanding derangement. The oldest daughter became an unwed mother.

Chater examined her life: “I was seventeen. I had no friends. No job. No talents. No vocational calling. No special gift that I knew about. No big idea. No real education. No hidden aptitude. No prospects. No boyfriend. No self-esteem. No ace in the hole. No shocking revelations. No dreams. No hopes. Nothing to show for myself. Who was I? A girl in a bedsheet dress waiting for the Apocalypse.” At one point, the three-bedroom, one-bathroom neighborhood eyesore sheltered 15 Arnolds. As the Apocalypse skidded into definite-maybe territory, Chater worked at McDonald’s and attended junior college on the sly.

Chater told her father that this memoir concerns a family torn apart by religion. Arnold shot back with an astonishing deflection: “Boy, are you ever right about that. The Catholic Church really did a number on us.” Ten of his 11 children left the Faith, but he celebrates one personal victory — none of them embraced the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. No mea maxima culpa crosses Arnold’s lips; he still prepares for Apocalypse and its ghastly retribution. Veronica Chater’s brave testimonial of twisted, tyrannical scrupulosity will trouble readers long after the last page is turned.

Sweet and Blessed Country: The Christian Hope for Heaven

By John Saward

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 195

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

In this profound and deeply moving work, Fr. John Saward, a Catholic priest and a convert from Anglicanism, begins by examining the link between the human heart’s two great aspirations — the desire to love God for Himself and the hope for eternal happiness with Him. This leads into a meditation on Enguerrand Quarton’s masterpiece (reproduced on the cover), The Cor­onation of the Virgin. This painting, completed in A.D. 1453, was commissioned by Car­thusian monks in Provence, France, and was to be “an icon of the whole Creed” — of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Coronation of the Virgin, the Church, the Papacy, the Mass, Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell. At the time, the Council of Florence had reunited Greeks and Latins, so the painting shows a Car­thusian monk about to embrace a priest of the Greek Church.

Although the invisible God cannot be sufficiently or accurately represented, the artist depicts the Son in His humanity, the Holy Spirit in the form He once took of the Dove, and the Father in the likeness of His “consubstantial Image,” the Son. The “Empyrean Heaven” all around is a real place for glorified bodies, Fr. Saward observes, our true homeland where we’ll rest “deep within the Trinitarian Godhead.” Building on ancient fathers, angelic doctors, and modern theologians like Newman, Marmion, and John Paul II, Fr. Saward reflects on the beatific vision we’ll enjoy in Heaven, where our intellects will see the “First Truth,” or divine essence, of the perfections found in creatures, as well as the infinite value of Christ’s acts and the unmatched “plenitude” of the Virgin’s soul.

Quarton’s masterpiece depicts the Cross on Calvary as reaching both Heaven and the altar, where Pope St. Gregory the Great offers Mass and receives a vision of the suffering Christ in confirmation of the Real Presence. Here Transubstantiation “breaks down the barriers of space” so that the “revealed reality” in Heaven is “veiled reality” in the Mass, the Blood of Christ opening “the way to the Fatherland.” There is a mystical presence in our brethren, Fr. Saward notes, but it’s not to be confused with “the true and substantial presence” of Christ in the Eucharist.

NOR readers will be delighted with Fr. Saward’s defense of the existence and eternity of Hell, a place vividly depicted in Quarton’s altarpiece. The Catechism presents Hell as an “actuality for an indeterminate number of human souls,” Fr. Saward explains, thus excluding “the theory of those who claim that, in order to call us to conversion, our Lord presented Hell only as a possibility for any man still living rather than as an actuality for souls already departed.”

According to Fr. Saward, the “gravest objection” that can be brought against this theory of an empty Hell is that it makes our Lord a deceiver. For if He “systematically said ‘is’ or ‘will be’ when He meant ‘may be'” in His teaching about Hell, if He said it was “an actuality” when He knew full well it was “only a possibility,” then He was a deceiver. But it’s impossible for our Lord to be a deceiver. He is “true God from true God, the Father’s incarnate Wisdom and Truth, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Therefore, the [empty Hell] theory is false and, whatever its intentions, a kind of blasphemy.” This is a superb and unanswerable argument.

What “concentrates” the mind regarding our Lord’s teaching on Hell “is the thought that even now a vast number of the souls of our fellow men are eternally lost, and that we may join them.” The denial of Hell’s reality is not just contrary to revealed truth, but also to divine love, for why else did God humble Himself to enter our human condition but to save us from Hell?

Quarton’s design consists of two triangles that meet at the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary as she is crowned Queen of Heaven by the Holy Trinity. In his meditation on the Coronation, Fr. Saward notes that Mary is “more Mother” than Queen, for she is first of all the Mother of God, the title (declared at the Council of Ephesus) that sums up the mystery of the Incarnation. Fr. Saward cites Pope St. Gregory the Great’s observation that the Son is generated in eternity from the Father without a mother, and in time from a Mother without a father.

In conclusion, Quarton’s masterpiece — with its many angels and saints — shows Heaven as the wedding feast of the Lamb and the Church Triumphant, “whose immaculate heart is Mary.” Only those who contemplate the “transcendent splendor” of Heaven will see the “lesser glories” around them in this world and hear echoes of our eternal home in the hum of bees and the cry of kestrels. Indeed, “Catholic Christianity,” Fr. Saward concludes, “is not just the only authentically divine religion, the one given to men by God, but also the only compassionately human religion, the religion revealed by God-made-man, which does not crush or diminish our humanity but elevates and perfects it.” This book is not an easy read, but it is much to be recommended for serious meditation.


By Peter Kreeft

Publisher: St. Augustine's Press

Pages: 168

Price: $17

Review Author: Pieter Vree

Before embarking on this review, let’s try an experiment. Put this magazine down, stand up, and say one word: “Jesus.” Say it out loud. It doesn’t matter where you are — alone at home, on a crowded bus, in a hushed library. Stand up and say His name, out loud….

O.K., now that you’ve done it, ask yourself this question: How did it make me feel? Answer honestly: Did it feel awkward? Were you embarrassed? If you refused to do it, ask yourself why. Are you ashamed to even utter His name?

Boston College theology professor and revered Catholic writer Peter Kreeft also has some questions: Why is Jesus the “most non-neutral” and “most embarrassing” name in the world? Why is Jesus the most “controversial” topic in the world, one most people are reticent to discuss? No one is embarrassed to talk about Buddha, Mohammed, or Moses. Why, Kreeft asks, are “almost all educated, non-fundamentalist Christians embarrassed to talk about Jesus to non-Christians, and why are almost all non-Christians embarrassed to hear such talk?”

Kreeft’s Jesus-Shock attempts to get to the root of this discomfort — a discomfort that is particularly troublesome for a religion that commands its adherents to convert the world to Jesus. How can we begin to accomplish this if we can’t bring ourselves to speak His name?

This pocket-size book packs a wallop, and parts of it are bound to upset readers’ comfortable assumptions about their faith in and relationship with our Savior. But moments of conversion, from the initial moment of faith to moments of ascent on the ladder of virtue, in some way always involve an “identity crisis.” This is the mark of the best Catholic literature: It gives us new eyes through which to evaluate our own faith, helping us along the difficult path to greater fidelity. One thing such literature should not be is boring. Boredom, says Kreeft, is one of the “major psychological problems” in the world today.

The opposite of “boring” is “shocking.” This is what Jesus is. “Jesus is the only man in history who never bored anyone,” says Kreeft. Jesus “bursts asunder all of our comfortable categories.” Those who encounter Him experience either foretastes of Heaven or foretastes of Hell. “Not everyone who meets Jesus is pleased, and not everyone is happy, but everyone is shocked.” Are you shocked by Jesus?

If not, then something is wrong. “If your Jesus is boring,” warns Kreeft, then “your Jesus is not the real Jesus.” He who “became man and let Himself be murdered by man in order to save man” is, if anything, “certainly not boring.” If you are bored by the Gospel, “that puts no black eye on the Gospel, but on you.” It means you haven’t been paying enough attention or that familiarity has dulled its impact.

Yet boredom abounds. How did this happen? How could we have “turned the intoxicating wine of the Gospel into a mushy grape jelly”? We have tamed the roaring Lion of Judah and turned Him into a meek, weak Lamb. We have replaced the Church Militant with the “Church Mumbling.” Jesus “put the world in a daze. We put it in a doze.” And so modern man rejects Christianity “not because it looks stupid or wicked but because it looks boring.”

What is the antidote to boredom? Jesus! “Nothing is less safe and soft and squooshy and boring than Jesus Christ.” Kreeft points out how Jesus shocked people in the Gospels, and how He still has the power to shock modern man, if only we let Him. Most significantly, He shocks us with His real presence in the Eucharist — the greatest stumbling block to non-Catholics, and to some Catholics as well. Jesus-shock “breaks your heart in two and forces you to choose which half of your heart you will follow.” He is “history’s greatest divider.” He not only divides hearts, He is “the sword that divides all of time and history into two halves…and divides the population of the world into two halves.”

In whatever way we have deformed our faith, Kreeft’s goal is to call us back to Christ. Kreeft calls us back from apathy to zeal, from rigorism to love, from scrupulosity to joy — or as he puts it, from “pallid religion” to “potent religion.”

The primary object of our faith is not creeds or dogmas, beneficial and important though they are, but Jesus Christ Himself. The numerous crises that have rocked our Church can be boiled down to one thing, says Kreeft: Christlessness. This is also the root of her current malaise: “Most of institutional Christianity is a fireplace without a fire.” Hardly heartwarming. “All bad theology, morality, and liturgy,” Kreeft says, “are a diluting of Jesus.” The Church, individually and collectively, must rediscover the fire and dynamism — the shocking power — of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels and in the Eucharist.

Written in Kreeft’s inimitable, breezy style, Jesus-Shock is chock full of clever puns (“it is reasonable to love the Absolute absolutely for the same reason it is reasonable to love the relative relatively”) and quotable quips, some of which are fairly brilliant (“the Eucharist is a sword. It is pointed at your heart”; “there is a danger among Catholic ‘intellectuals’ that the doctrine of the real presence becomes a substitute for the Real Presence”; “Don’t put your faith in faith; put all your faith in Christ alone”), and others that are head-scratchers (“Cathedrals are boudoirs for trysts with God”; “Preaching is usually boring. Jesus does not usually preach. What does He do? He dances”; “Christ teaches us joy through our dogs, but we don’t listen”). Kreeft spends ample space defending the doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, and delves into its decisive role in his own conversion from Protestantism. The book has seven separate beginnings. Yes, seven. Each consists of a question; some involve quizzes or “self-tests” for the reader, making for an interactive, engaging read. The book also has seven postscripts.

Its overall effect is electric. Read it, and the next time you stand up and say “Jesus” out loud, you won’t feel ashamed; you’ll feel the shiver of giddy excitement zing down your spine, knowing that you have invoked the Name that is above all names, the living God whose presence abounds now and eternally.

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