Briefly Reviewed: May 1986
Molchanie: The Silence of God
By Catherine de Hueck Doherty
Pages: 128 pages
Review Author: Raymond T. Gawronski
A few hours north of Toronto, the cultivated, fertile farms and the tame, settled land begin to yield to bracing bits of wilderness — forests and lakes too wild and poor to be tamed. It is fitting that Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Desert Mother of the 20th century, should have lived in a log hermitage on an island in that northern forest so like her native Russia.
Until her death last December, she was at the very heart of the Church in North America in this century, her birth in 1900 having set her on a 20th-century pilgrimage. Displaced post-Revolutionary aristocrat, despised and impoverished refugee, she dedicated herself to social justice work for decades — in Canada, and in Harlem where the young layman Thomas Merton encountered her evangelical witness. Yet her concern for the poor and her love of Christ grew in an Eastern Christian heart, and so produced a different sort of flower than that of her contemporary Dorothy Day. Catherine left the crowded cities for a “poustinia” — a desert place, a solitary life in the wilderness — in the woods near the Algonquin Provincial Park.
There, from the lay community she founded, she produced a series of spiritual reflections that merit inclusion in a new Philokalia, that collection of the teachings of the Ascetic Fathers so treasured in the Eastern, and especially in the Russian, Church. Under Russian titles, she treated Union, Solitude, and Pilgrimage — and just before her death she wrote of Molchanie (mawl-cha-nee-yeh), Silence.
The book itself is the writing of a mystic. In the understated form of a simply printed paperback, we find ourselves sharing Catherine’s visionary journey, and we hear her dialogues with Christ. This is neither a treatise nor an essay on “silence”; those who desire academics must go to academic houses. Rather, the reader is led on a journey with a sister in Christ who discovered the childhood that Our Lord stipulated is central to entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, for her, true childhood follows adulthood.
The speech of God is silence, and they who would listen must themselves become silent. Repeatedly, she describes silence as “an immense sea” — once one plunges in, one does not leave. Nearly driven to distraction by mowing machines, Merton once wrote that the demon of this age is noise. Catherine’s answer is immersion in the ocean of God which is profound silence. Yet this silence is not merely an absence of sound: there is the false silence that allows injustice; there is the evil silence of those depressed ones who would seek solace in sleep, only to open wide the door to the Tempter, despair. Silence can be that of a stone. Rather, the silence of God prepares us to preach the Gospel.
Nor is this silence a Stoic apatheia, for it leads us into the very heart of pain, the “Furnace of Love — the heart of God”: “This silence of God is pain beyond measure.” In it, we share in the ongoing Agony of Christ.
In a visionary chapter entitled “The Mystery of the Church,” she accomplishes the seemingly impossible: she looks with tremendous pain at the contentiousness, vanity, disobedience, and hedonism that tear at the contemporary Church, and she is buoyed by an overarching sense of the communion of saints in a Heavenly Church (“above the tree line”). There is hope, for the Church is the Bride of Christ, she is the Beloved of God.
Perhaps the best chapter in the book is entitled “The Silence of Old Age,” a tender and glowing testimony to a life lived in Christ. The key to the mystery of life is only given to children, although they “might be ‘children’ with white beards and white hair.”
Her vision was deeply personal. Perhaps her most important message to the Church is that people are only brought to Christ individually, through a loving face. Although there “may be a few exceptions,” she concludes, “there is only one way to bring men to God and that is to love each individual personally.”
The strength and witness of Catherine Doherty are perhaps best summed up as she writes: “I know neither fasting nor prayer is the most important thing, but rather to be a prayer, and to go about the world doing good to mankind as long as I possibly can, as long as my fingers move and my mind is clear.” The silent words of this book will bear the weight our hungry reading can bring to them, as they are the thunderous words of a silent heart, the action of a contemplative and holy teacher who lived in a remote cabin in the wilderness.
The Generation That Knew Not Josef
By Lloyd Billingsley
Publisher: Multnomah Press
Review Author: Juli Loesch
At a recent Christian peace workshop, I found myself listening to a talk about the record of U.S. complicity in Latin American oppression. Though familiar with this shameful history, I felt irritated by the speaker’s presentation of it. Puzzled by my own reaction, I listened more closely to her voice, which was cheery with moral outrage: “… and then, just as the impoverished workers began to organize, what do you suppose happened?” She paused. “But of course! They sent in the Marines! They also disbanded the laborers’ union, just as the ambassador was telling Congress that we are the arsenal of de-MOCK-ra-cy” — and that’s just how she said it, savoring every ironic syllable.
A ripple of knowing laughter swept the room. The speaker allowed herself a smile of satisfaction.
Just so. That’s what didn’t set right with me: that anyone should get such a bang out of uncovering wrongdoing. In a flash, I realized that she’d have been disappointed if the U.S. hadn’t sent in the Marines: it would have interfered with her enjoyment of indignation.
These too were my thoughts as I read The Generation That Knew Not Josef, a critique of the religious Left. Billingsley’s fine anger is almost certainly what drove the writing of this book, and I thank him for it. But his smugness and partisan indignation almost guarantee that his book will not be appreciated by those who need it most.
Part I paints a devastating picture of the whoredom of liberal intellectuals in the West, from the founding of the U.S.S.R. through the Stalin period. Because they wanted to believe that the Soviets had founded a nobler society, intellectuals minimized or actually defended the strangulation of human rights, deceits, tortures, and murders committed under communist tyranny.
Intellectuals who thus defiled themselves were all too numerous. Indeed, it’s hard to find a liberal from 1917 to 1939 who did not do so to some degree. Billingsley features two especially compliant camp-followers — Anna Louise Strong and the Very Rev. Hewlett Johnson — to show that religious liberals were among the worst of those who toured the Soviet Animal Farm and, as Orwell would say, sided with the pigs.
Strong, an American Congregationalist laywoman, and Johnson, a leading Church of England cleric, wanted so much that new world where Lazarus is hungry no more, that they channeled their religious ardor into the Bolshevik cause.
Their delusions about “humble comrade Stalin” and the “splendid success of the Five Year Plan” (written when small farmers were being rounded up and shot, and hunger-maddened peasants were driven to cannibalism in the Ukraine) make for rueful reading today. It’s significant that Strong’s “reporting” and Johnson’s “analysis” were considered insightful and morally potent stuff in their day, “must” reading in the progressive Social Gospel circles. They knew Uncle Joe was a good guy.
And that brings us to Part II, or, pointedly, “The Generation That Knew Not Josef [Stalin].” Today’s radical Christians, claims Billingsley, have ignored the lessons of history and are now duplicating their grandparents’ sins.
There are indeed dangerous parallels between the journalists who recycled Kremlin speeches in the pages of the New York Times in the 1930s, and those who today reprint Sandinista press releases as if they were, well, the Gospel Truth.
And it’s important to realize that the Christian leftists’ “balancing reflex” — they never write an unflattering word about a communist regime without an automatic “but things are just as bad in the West” — is a mechanism of distortion. Things are not often “just as bad.” For example, NATO troops in Holland do not serve quite the same function as Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia.
But there is a problem with Billingsley’s presentation. He targets Sojourners and The Other Side, two Protestant peace and justice magazines, with occasional swipes at Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), Daniel Berrigan, and others. The “problem” is that, in terms of their reliance upon biblical justice norms, their defense of human rights from attacks by both rightist and leftist regimes, and their dissent from the secular Left’s cultural/moral agenda, these radicals should come off rather better than their putative forebears earlier in the book.
Most of today’s Christian progressives regard the U.S.S.R. as a political and economic failure. (Ron Sider, for one, insists that there is no scriptural blueprint for a perfect economic system, but rather biblical norms which must be used to judge every system.) In this they are quite unlike the religious Left of 50 years ago, which submitted so credulously to the lunacy of Marxism-Leninism.
The Christian activists targeted by Billingsley’s book are (though he doesn’t mention this) allies of dissident movements for human rights in the communist world. Soon after the accords that ended U.S. involvement in Indochina, a group of American peace activists, including many Christians, took out full-page ads appealing for an end to human-rights violations in (communist) Vietnam, publicized the martyrdom of Buddhist monks and nuns, and attempted to channel aid to the victims of Pol Pot’s terror in Cambodia. Sojourners and similar publications often appeal for Soviet and East German peace dissidents, along with others whose causes are promoted by groups like Amnesty International.
Moreover, Sojourners and ESA, as well as the leadership of the Catholic peace movement, have broken with the secular Left on key cultural/moral issues, especially on the questions of abortion and fraudulent sexual “liberation.”
Daniel Berrigan, whose nonconformity is legendary, has published repeated, acerbic criticisms of the Sandinista junta in Nicaragua. In The Other Side and other publications, he has directly challenged Daniel Ortega and Ernesto Cardenal on the subjects of military conscription, aggression against Indian minorities, and other Sandinista injustices.
Billingsley never mentions this kind of information. He avoids any fact, any pattern of facts, that would fail to support his thesis: that Sojourners and all its allies have sold their souls to Marxism-Leninism.
Billingsley gets a bang out of uncovering the sins of left-wing preachers and the editors and readers of radical Christian publications. He relishes tidbits that make conscientious activists look flaky (e.g., a stupid one-liner by Joan Baez about “fascists at Disneyland”) but ignores weightier matters that would tend to show the activists’ moral courage.
Such partisan carelessness seriously wounds Billingsley’s credibility. This grieves me, because much of what he has to say is important. Good, serious criticism could help “save” Christian activists from their characteristic faults. But I wonder if Billingsley wouldn’t be a bit disappointed to see the Christian Left saved in this way.
Celebrating the Single Life: A Spirituality for Single Persons in Today’s World
By Susan Annette Muto
Publisher: Image Books
Review Author: Celia Wolf
This book is intended as a defense of the value of the single life and a corrective to the all too prevalent attitude that single people are somehow unfortunate, lonely, and incomplete. By stressing the rich possibilities and special graces of the spiritually grounded single life, the author hopes to encourage other single people to “put the creative power of their minds and hearts into action.”
The author is director of the Institute of Formative Spirituality, and readers unfamiliar with such spirituality may find her use of unexplained technical terms off-putting. In addition, she writes very much from the point of view of a person who feels a strong calling to the single vocation, who is very much wrapped up in her career, and who is drawn to a rather solitary and contemplative style of spirituality. Single people who do not fall into these categories may therefore find her book of limited use.
Much of her advice is of a fairly obvious sort: one should cultivate close friendships, balance solitude with social activities, become involved in service to others, etc. One insightful bit of advice is on how to avoid the workaholic phenomenon. Single people are often made to feel guilty by remarks like, “It must be nice to have all that time to do whatever you want,” or “Since you don’t have a family, you wouldn’t mind staying overtime to finish this project, would you?” As she points out, we have a right to the time we need to replenish ourselves with quiet prayer, reflection, or reading, and it is not selfish to seek these. Another valuable thing is her sensitive discussion of prayer and spiritual reading. I would strongly encourage priests to heed her advice to address their homilies to all adults and not just those in families.
The main flaws of the book are that: (1) because she is trying to defend the single life against prejudices she goes too far the other way and claims for it graces that are in no way unique to it, and (2) she seems to think that the single vocation is more widespread than it is, and that advice aimed at those who do have a single vocation will be helpful to those who, although single, do not feel committed to it as a vocation.
Beyond the fact that they are freer to take on jobs that involve long hours, constant traveling, risk, or economic insecurity (e.g., being a labor organizer who is frequently fired from jobs), it is unclear what special graces the single vocation offers that are not open to others. A case could perhaps be made that singleness forces us to become more dependent on God since we have no one else to lean on. But after reading her book one might come away with the impression that singleness gives us a special advantage in almost every aspect of Christian life. She thinks it heightens our perception of reality, enables us better to discern God’s will and to be freer of self-will, to stand up for what we believe, to affirm others’ uniqueness, create a “welcoming space” around us, to see things from a transcendent perspective, to be compassionate, joyful, playful, etc. But surely these qualities can develop in the married or religious vocations also.
Those who have a genuine calling to the single life may well find it helps them to develop the qualities she describes. But there is no reason to suppose that the majority of people who are actually single have such a vocation. They may be single for a variety of reasons: negative experience of their own family (being abused or watching their parents destroy or abandon each other); painful experiences in the “sexual revolution” which make it hard to trust the opposite sex; spending large amounts of time in environments that devalue family (e.g., careerist feminists); homosexual orientation; having to care for an ailing parent; accidents or career or geographical location, etc.
If people are single, but not genuinely called to singleness as a vocation, then they may find their state actually makes it harder to develop those gifts of which Muto speaks. They may find her book depressing because they would like to be the sort of beacon of light in the world she is calling them to be, but find themselves constantly failing. This is especially true of those who live and work in an environment not supportive of Christian values or who have experienced a lot of personal brokenness. Such people need a supportive community, and the sort of solitary, contemplative spirituality she advocates would probably be wrong for them. She does not seem to consider the possibility that someone might be called to be single and live in community.
What is needed is an intelligent discussion of whether there is a single vocation and why, what it involves, and how to discern whether one is called to it. Unfortunately, Muto has not undertaken to provide this. What she has done is to show that the single life can be richly fulfilling and an occasion for spiritual growth and giving to others.
How Brave a New World? Dilemmas in Bioethics
By Richard A. McCormick, S.J.
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Price: No price given
Review Author: Bryce J. Christensen
Also: Science Education and Ethical Values: Introducing Ethics and Religion into the Science Classroom and Laboratory. Edited by David Gosling and Bert Musschenga. WCC Publications/Georgetown University Press. 115 pages. No price given.
Scientists are giving up their claims to objectivity and value-neutrality. Some have been persuaded by Thomas Kuhn that their disciplinary paradigms are inevitably shaped by extraneous forces. Others now agree with bioscientist John Maynard Smith, who argued in the November 1984 issue of Nature, that pure science is possible, but is sterile and undesirable. Smith asserted that only when science is wedded to some nonscientific “myth” can it become morally and socially meaningful. In recent years, the need for some non-empirical beliefs has become especially evident in medical science, where human control over genetics, life-support, and prenatal care has grown with dizzying speed.
The question remains, though: Which nonscientific convictions, derived from which sources, and pointing to which ends, should govern our burgeoning scientific powers? In the competition to supply answers, one might suppose that Christianity would be a favored choice, since many historians of science have concluded that without the scriptural belief in a transcendent Creator and a beneficent creation, science would never have been possible. But John Maynard Smith — distressed that science itself offered no support for gay and women’s rights — wasn’t looking in that direction. Instead, he was apparently looking to some form of Marxism for his new mythos. And unfortunately when the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Free University of Amsterdam recently convened a conference on science and ethics, the published proceedings — Science Education and Ethical Values — suggested that most of the participants shared a similar outlook.
Again and again participants began with sensible and overdue remarks about the need to locate science within a matrix of humane values, but ended up talking about “political processes.” Rather than illuminating the ontological and spiritual status of science by invoking those religious truths that transcend and are metaphysically anterior to all human endeavors, the conference served largely to politicize the laboratory and lecture hall.
One speaker, an Australian biologist, did seem more concerned with philosophical first principles than with political slogans. But in promoting an “ecological God” that has neither substance nor independence, he sounded more like a pantheist than a Christian.
Readers of How Brave a New World? will see that the Roman Catholic Church has done better than the WCC in providing science with a philosophical and ethical setting not defined by politics. In assessing the problems posed by abortion, genetic engineering, euthanasia, contraception, and artificial insemination, Fr. McCormick carefully surveys the pertinent literature, and he thoroughly outlines the reasons for his own positions.
Those positions generally conform to accepted Catholic teaching, but not always. On contraception, for instance, he questions whether Humanae Vitae is “an authentic teaching statement,” and he politely quarrels with those who so view it. Indeed the reader suspects at times that the author prefers genteel intellectual debates over conclusive affirmations. McCormick confesses that he may be guilty of “over-rationalization of the moral life,” and it is hard not to say “Amen!” when he begins complaining about all the “verbal bludgeoning” on the abortion issue and expressing his confidence that some national consensus can still be reached through “disciplined argument” among all parties.
Glad that contemporary Catholics are in an age of “acknowledged pluralism of theologies” and of “a changing notion of the magisterium,” McCormick is annoyed that “some theologians remain to a degree biblical fundamentalists” and that “not all hierarchal processes are…rehabilitated to modern times.” In these pages “contemporary consciousness” seems about on a level with papal encyclicals. How far, I (a Mormon) wonder, can Catholic theologians travel down this road of sophisticated pluralism before doctors and scientists simply tune them out as quarrelsome pedants who are merely speaking their own minds?
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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