Briefly Reviewed: September 1985
The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews
By Flannery O’Connor
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Price: No price given
Review Author: Regis Martin
Flannery O’Connor, among the fairest blooms of the Roman Catholic literary revival in this century, died 20 years ago last August, victim of a harrowing and protracted illness whose cumulative debilities could neither diminish her spirit nor her style. (“Her pen,” wrote Thomas Merton, “was dipped in pain.”) Evidence of her spirit and style plainly abounds in this handsome collection of pithy reviews she wrote for the diocesan press during the last years of her life.
Concerning the health of the diocesan press, she was far from sanguine: In 1957, reviewing a work written by drama critic Walter F. Kerr, Criticism and Censorship, she quotes approvingly the following sentences: “the generally low taste of the Catholic community in America has been a minor scandal for quite some time now. It stares at us from the pages of the same diocesan newspapers that devote so much of their space to censorial exhortation.” And concludes with the witty recommendation that Kerr’s book be used as a study manual for all Catholic decent-literature committees. (Of course, like the proverbial ad which used to run in the parochial press — “Let a Catholic do your termite work” — the phenomenon of the decent-literature committee, unsleeping watchdog of the Catholic community, seems rather to have faded like so much Victorian lace.)
Elsewhere on the subject of Catholic taste and morals, O’Connor muses on the need for a “reverse Index,” which would operate as a sort of required reading list for anyone seriously bent on becoming an educated Roman Catholic. Indeed, not a few of those prescribed volumes could easily be culled from among the many cited here as worthy examples of the Catholic mind and heart at work. For instance? Let the following five serve as a fair sample of what might be regarded as high water marks of Catholic revivalist literature from the 1950s (just in case any of you thought all life back then, including Catholic intellectual life, was like an Eisenhower press conference): Romano Guardini’s Freedom, Grace, and Destiny (1961); William F. Lynch, S.J.’s Christ and Apollo (1960); Jacques Maritain’s The Range of Reason (1961); Charles Peguy’s Temporal and Eternal (1958); and Edith Stein’s The Science of the Cross (1960).
We are to be grateful to such as Flannery O’Connor for the number of pains she took to correct the times in which she lived, to try and leaven the lump; to be that presence of grace that so aptly informs the content and title of this long-awaited collection.
St. Vincent Pallotti: Apostle of the Laity [comic book]
By Donald Ham, Kevin Kelly, and Corinne Hart
Publisher: The Pallottines of the Immaculate Conception Province
Review Author: Pieter Vree
This is an inspiring comic book for young people, the special message of which is that one need not be a priest, sister, or brother to do the work of the Church.
Ever since Vincent Pallotti was young, he gave of himself to the poor. He grew up a good Christian, and on May 16, 1818, his dream came true: he was ordained a priest. Not long afterward he became a seminary professor and was very popular among the students as well as a familiar face in the streets of Rome.
Little by little he gathered a few priests and lay people together and realized another one of his dreams: the formation of an apostolate for both laity and clergy. In the meantime, he had not stopped giving of himself to the poor.
Finally, one day he collapsed from exhaustion. Vincent went to a quiet monastery to recuperate. When he returned to Rome he found violence in the streets. Hatred of the Church had erupted, and priests were being shot down in the streets.
One evening a man, whose son was one of the rebels fighting to tear down the Church, asked for some help, as his son was badly wounded and in danger of dying with an embittered heart. The son had said that he would kill any priest on sight. In spite of the father’s warning, Vincent decided to visit the son. Putting a large shawl over his head and shoulders, he went disguised as a lady. Once there, he quietly slipped a cross under the pillow, right next to the son’s pistol. Later when Vincent’s shawl slid off, the boy saw that the “woman” was actually a priest. Angered, he reached for his pistol and pointed it at Vincent. But, realizing that the priest had come to help him, he put the pistol aside.
All along, Vincent’s health had been declining. On January 16, 1850, he became seriously ill, and on January 22 he died. On January 20, 1963, Pope John XXIII declared Vincent Pallotti a saint.
Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love
By Dietrich von Hildebrand, with a Foreword by John J. O’Connor, Archbishop of New York
Publisher: Sophia Institute Press
Review Author: Peter Kreeft
Dietrich von Hildebrand may be the most neglected of all 20th-century philosophers. He was high on Hitler’s “hit list” during the Nazi era. Archbishop (now Cardinal) O’Connor called him “one of my real heroes,” and Pope Pius XII said, “Dietrich von Hildebrand is a twentieth century Doctor of the Church.” Von Hildebrand used the same phenomenological method and personalist content that another great Christian philosopher of our century has found most useful for Catholic philosophizing: a certain Karol Wojtyla.
Von Hildebrand’s work is an aggiornamento in the true sense of the word: not a watering down or compromising of the faith for the sake of making the unacceptable acceptable, but a use of Christianly legitimate philosophical ways of exploring, explaining, and expounding the truths of human existence. (His Transformation in Christ and Christian Ethics are classics in every sense of the word except recognition. The former lives up to its title, and the latter winnows and relates the ethical insights of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Kant in an original, orthodox, and honest account of, ethical experience.)
This little book on marriage is typical von Hildebrand. The style is not sprightly, but Germanic; however, it is clear and honest, and the translation seems flowing and clarifying. The progress of thought is not elaborate or convoluted, but it is insightful and utterly faithful to the truth, to the real. The reader senses the passion for truth here that all philosophers are supposed to have, but which usually gives way to sophism, posturing, or ideologizing in lesser thinkers.
The topic is crucial to our century. It can be argued that most of the decay of morals today is due to the decay of marriage. This is a book to give to your children. (Indeed, my teenage son picked it up, browsed through it for 20 minutes, and said, in a tone of some surprise, “Hey, this guy is really good!”) Sophia Institute Press is to be commended and encouraged for its nonprofit publication of out-of-print gems like this.
The book’s two essays deal with love and marriage — first in the created order of nature and then in the sacramental order of grace. The most ardent romanticist will not be able to fault von Hildebrand for a single sentence, and the most orthodox Christian will love him no less for his celebration of the natural glories of love and marriage.
In fact, one of the major themes and great achievements of this simple little book is to show the unity of nature and grace concerning love and marriage, the unity of man’s love and God’s law. Kierkegaard made the same point in Either/Or, Sheldon Vanauken (more indirectly) in A Severe Mercy, C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves, and Christopher Derrick in Sex and Sacredness. These five authors (add Chesterton and Marcel) share a common vision.
A few of the major themes are (1) that procreation is the primary end of marriage, but love is its primary meaning; (2) that “conjugal love is not only a means for the encouragement of marriage…on the contrary marriage exists for the fulfillment of conjugal love”; and (3) the reminder that “no natural human good has been exalted so high in the New Testament. No other has been chosen to become one of the seven sacraments. No other has been endowed with the honor of participating directly in the establishment of the Kingdom of God.”
Von Hildebrand is marriage’s Lancelot, and this book is his lance. It is a high and exalted romanticism, entailing utter fidelity and responsibility. The secularist will feel duly threatened by it, for he is busily devaluating the very things von Hildebrand exalts: marriage, love, and the human person. But Christians will be edified by it in the literal sense of the word: built up into a holy house. ©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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