Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books
John Christman, SSS
The spiritual journey of Saint Peter Julian Eymard is a remarkable one. As a young boy growing up in the small mountain village of La Mure d’Isère, France, he was heavily imbued with the Jansenist spirituality of his day. On a steep hill behind the family home were three crosses representing Calvary. Young Peter Julian would often walk the incline barefoot in an act of penitence and prayer. Such was his sense of the fallen state of humanity. Later in life, he would become a powerful preacher extolling God’s unfathomably abundant love and mercy available especially through the gift of the Eucharist. It was a remarkable lifelong conversion.
For those seeking his counsel, it may be easy to focus in upon the mature spiritual insights of his adulthood and dismiss the lessons of his youth. However, Saint Peter Julian Eymard never downplayed the importance of the cross, but integrated it into a fuller view of God, salvation, grace, and love. He once said, “To be able to bear the crucified Jesus, we must see the risen Jesus.” This, of course, means that the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion was still a very present and disturbing reality for him.
When art historians and critics speak of harrowing images of Christ, Matthias Grünewald’s bloody and gruesome crucifixion scene from the Isenheim Altarpiece often takes pride of place. Jesus is wracked with pain, his fingers curled in agony, his bones and muscles wrenched beyond limits. It is indeed a disturbing painting to behold.
However, though more subtle and restrained, Fra Angelico’s fresco The Mocking of Christ is perhaps more psychologically challenging and unnerving a viewing experience. It is, after all, easy to become desensitized to the image of the crucifixion due to the great preponderance of crucifixes in Catholic places of worship and in Catholic homes. We are less frequently confronted with the scene of Christ being mocked before he was crucified. In Fra Angelico’s hands, it is disturbing indeed.
Fra Angelico isn’t content to have the viewer ponder the mocking of Jesus as a bystander. Instead, the viewer is subtly directed to empathize with Jesus on a deeper level, the level of our shared humanity. Fra Angelico accomplishes this with an ingenious device.
Instead of depicting a menacing crowd surrounding Jesus and ridiculing him, Fra Angelico paints disembodied hands mocking and striking Jesus. This cleverly draws us deeper into the psychological cruelty Jesus endured and frighteningly realizes the gospel passage from Luke 22:63-65: “The men who held Jesus in custody were ridiculing and beating him. They blindfolded him and questioned him, saying, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ And they reviled him in saying many other things against him.”
The viewer, therefore, gets a glimpse of just how frightened and upset Jesus might have felt to be mocked and beaten in such a way. Moreover, because Fra Angelico depicted only generic hands, without cultural, historic, or gender specificity, they raise a question: are these hands really that much different than our own hands? That is the more disturbing implication of Fra Angelico’s aesthetic choice. He challenges us with these hands. He makes us wonder how different we might be from those who mocked and beat Jesus. If we share in Jesus’ humanity, we also share in the humanity of those who ridiculed and struck Jesus.
For Fra Angelico, who gave us some of the most beautiful and tender Christian paintings of the early Italian Renaissance, this painting is all the more jarring for its depiction of cruelty and suffering. Indeed, he displays with works of this kind that he knew well the full scope of human behavior. It seems that his body of artwork echoes in paint what Saint Peter Julian Eymard said in words, “To be able to bear the crucified Jesus, we must see the risen Jesus.”
Some say, praying is a waste of time.
The wasting is a letting go
That lets in the voice of the Lord over mine.
Patricia Chehy Pilette
Sometimes I come as Martha busy sorting through worries, envies, and fears.
Sometimes I am Mary sitting in silence, leaning in to freely-given grace.
Sometimes I am Zacchaeus looking for Jesus, seeking to be near.
Sometimes I come as a prodigal daughter returning home for a merciful embrace.
Spending time in chapel loved for who I am
and consoled by knowing whose I am.
Patricia Chehy Pilette
Philip C. Kolin
Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2017
80 pp., $9.99
Philip Kolin, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Southern Mississippi and editor of the Southern Quarterly, has written or edited over 40 books. Benedict’s Daughter is his eighth book of poetry. This inspiring collection of 41 poems contains a variety of forms and styles. Kolin’s rhythmic verses in simple language create memorable images that rouse the heart to the deeper mysteries of life.
A prologue of five poems corresponding to the hours of the day in the Divine Office celebrates this sacred practice of prayer in Benedictine life. In “Day Opens,” “It’s time to shake off / the mortality of sleep; / the tomb of night / is cracked, step out / and feel the infinity of light. . . . God fills daybreak with himself.” Kolin is known for weaving together spiritual and secular themes. He begins this volume based on his knowledge and appreciation of Benedictine spirituality which is lived out in the life of a daughter of Benedict. He intersperses several other poems reflecting the Benedictine way of life throughout the book.
In the heart of the book, we meet Midge, an extraordinary woman of faith. Kolin’s had developed a deep spiritual bond over the 30 years she served as his spiritual director. As a novice in a Benedictine community, she had flourished spiritually, but regretfully, prior to her profession, the community sent her home. It was feared that her slight stature and weak constitution would not allow her to endure the life. She had already absorbed the essence of Benedictine life which she faithfully continued to live out as a Benedictine Oblate.
On her return to secular life, a priest advised her. In “Father Luke, OSB,” a simple poem of couplets with striking images, “He taught her to open to God’s outdoor lectionary / and read the messages written there / to see the sky as his canvas, / each rainbow a stroke of quiet color / . . . / hoping for a new birth / she strived to be a small light / for others on their journey from self to salvation.”
She spent her ordinary life as a loving wife to Mr. Al, mother, teacher, and spiritual guide who integrated prayer and work. Her brothers had earlier nicknamed her Midged; though small in size, she was large in compassion. In “Midge,” we read, “curled up in her Bible / she birthed prayers for those who sought her / after Mass or at the school in which she taught. / Souls rang her doorbell, called her name / in the small hours of their mourning. . . .” When a young man from El Salvador showed up at her door looking for work, she took him in and made him part of her family. She fed the poor and homeless and welcomed every guest as Christ, to her table.
In “She Taught Her Classes Proverbs,” Kolin captures her insight in the true heart of teaching. “She taught her classes proverbs / helping students grow holy / from the inside out. / First they had to befriend / the skeletons they wore / under their flesh. . . .”
After her long and fruitful life, we are privileged to share Kolin’s description of her suffering and death in “A Hospice Crucifixion.” Its final lines recall the biblical images, “The ancient gates open / and martyrs receive her rejoicing / leading her into the Holy City.” Then we read, “A Holy Woman’s Obituary,” which summarizes her life, “Her house was a bakery for souls / seeking rest from restlessness, lives fleeing the flurry and fault of self. / She baked bread for the homeless / and fed a table full of envelopes / begging for her rich mites.”
Kolin’s heartfelt tribute to Midge and the Benedictine charism encourages the reader to recognize and appreciate the possibilities of human existence when lived with great purpose. His poems give us a glimpse of this woman who dedicated her life to serving God by caring for others in an extraordinary way. At the same time, we are challenged to review our own life and discern how purposeful it is.
This book should hold a permanent place on our bookshelf so that we can return to it frequently for inspiration.
Ann Kelly, OSU, PhD
Pepper Pike, Ohio
Peter C. Phan
Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2004
283 pp., $40.00
In this book, the author, Dr. Peter C. Phan, offers up a wealth of reflections on issues facing Roman Catholics and Asian Christians in the postmodern society. Moved by the serious problems of the society concerning interreligious dialogue, Phan divides his work into three major parts. In the first part, he discusses at length issues and challenges pertaining to doing theology interreligously, especially in the postmodern age. Moving further, in the second part, he develops particular themes of Christian theology, especially in dialogue with Confucianism and Judaism. Finally, in the third part, he elaborates on how prayer and worship should be practiced in the postmodern, multicultural, and multi-religious age.
Convinced by the fundamental imperative that to be religious is to be interreligious, Phan engages himself in a project of explaining different ways and models in which one should be engaged in being interreligious. He is convinced that interreligious dialogue today is no longer a historical accident but a theological imperative required by religion itself. His point is that through globalization and migration, people are exposed very much to different religions and that people have no option but to live interreligously.
What I appreciate most in Phan’s presentation is his simplest yet in-depth deliberations on the challenges and opportunities of being a religious person today and the necessity of interreligious dialogue for the faithfulness of one’s spiritual life. His presentation tries to answer the following questions: What are the theological issues posed by being interreligious? Is there the possibility of “multi-religious belonging”? What will “religion” look like if this being interreligious is taken seriously? How is religious identity formed? What is the point of “mission” and conversion?
With extensive footnotes, copious bibliographical references, and a detailed index, it is clear that this book is targeted toward professional theologians, academic scholars, and graduate students. Nevertheless, Phan’s clear and convincing writing style renders the book accessible even to a general audience. From this perspective, one can easily be motivated by his own conviction that the most difficult yet most enriching and transformative way to promote interreligious dialogue is through interreligious sharing.
Finally, I must say that this book is laudable, not only by those interested in Asian theology in particular, but also anyone who is interested in researching on wider topics concerning the interplay between postmodernism, religious pluralism, and interreligious dialogue.
Justin Chawkan, SSS
Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament
National Seminary of Sri Lanka
Paul A. Holmes, ed.
Foreword by Archbishop Bernard Hebda
Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2017
193 pp., $19.95
This book is an outgrowth of the Toolbox for Pastoral Management, a nationally-recognized project of the Leadership Roundtable held at Seton Hall University. As with the first volume of this resource, this volume puts together the work of 16 authors and topics ranging from leadership skills, finances, personal health of a pastor, time management, why Catholic schools are important, and why we all have a stake in promoting them. The writers are leaders in their fields providing best practices. Included in the volume is a checklist for personal, spiritual, and administrative health to strike a balance in the often very busy lives of pastors.
Whether you are a new pastor (which was one of the audiences to which the “toolbox” was directed) or wishing to enhance your skills as a “veteran” pastor or priest, this volume assists with key insights, communication, and stewardship information to improve how you perform your administrative duties in today’s parishes. Highly recommended!
John Thomas Lane, SSS
Saint Paschal Baylon Church
Highland Heights, Ohio
Richard Leonard, SJ
New York, New York: Paulist Press, 2015
184 pp., $14.95
My initial glance at the cover of Leonard’s text led me to think that this was a Christian reflection on our relation to the environment. A more focused look at the cover revealed that I had mistaken “on earth” for “to earth.” This is not a book about creation theology. Instead, it is a theologically solid, accessible exposition of the Christian message in three parts. It is directed at younger Christians.
The first of the three sections offers an explication of what has traditionally been called fundamental theology. Under the title of “Belief and Unbelief,” Leonard unpacks basic distinctions between theists and atheists, faith and certainty, science and religion. Regarding the first of these distinctions, Leonard insightfully highlights morality as a common ground of interest to both theists and atheists. There are certainly ethical atheists.
In addressing the second distinction, Leonard carefully describes the fundamental human freedom to believe or not to believe in God. The third distinction, between science and religion, leads Leonard to the following formulation: “Science asks how we came to be here. Faith asks why we are here in the first place. Science questions the mechanics. Faith addresses the meaning” (18).
Recognizing the existence of people who identify as nonreligious or atheist, Leonard points out that this group comprises only 5.4% of the 7.02 billion people on planet Earth. The vast majority of people profess some religion. Of this total, roughly 31.6% are Christian. Leonard concludes his study of belief and unbelief by stating that “Christian faith will not be judged by what we say as much as by what we do” (30).
The middle section, “Questions of Faith,” is reminiscent of apologetics. Here, Leonard takes up a number of questions being posed by young Christians. These questions are presented as challenges to the reasonability of believing in the traditional Christian message today. For example, “Isn’t Religion the Cause of Most Wars?” (35). This question spills over into the biblical theological question of whether God is in fact a violent God.
Another significant question Leonard engages concerns the agonizing reality of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and the resulting cover-up by some Church leaders. He suggests that this reality is one of the most prominent stumbling blocks to faith today.
Alongside this contemporary challenge to faith, Leonard treats several of the traditional challenges to Christianity: Is the Bible true? Did Jesus really exist in history? If he did exist, did he have to die in the way he did? Can there be a hell if God is a loving God? What about women’s ordination? Why is the Church so wealthy? How can the Church be relevant to modern society?
Within the confines of this review, permit me to give but a sampling of Leonard’s work regarding the challenges posed by these questions.
In responding to the question of the truth of the Bible, Leonard makes fruitful use of Lonergan’s distinction between truth and fact (51). While the Bible may contain statements that are not factual, nonetheless the Church believes in the truthfulness of the revelation contained within the biblical tradition. This distinction between truth and fact grounds Leonard’s response to the tradition of “satisfaction theology” and the argument that Jesus had to die to redeem us and the world from sin. Leonard argues that “our God does not deal in death, but life. . . . On Good Friday, we find God in Jesus Christ confronting evil, death, and destruction head-on, and staring it down, so that light and life have the last word” (63).
With regard to the question of women’s ordination, Leonard lists the several arguments often posed against this idea and then offers the distinction between ordination and leadership. Of course, we are very familiar with the numerous examples of women’s leadership within the Church’s history and ministries. Leonard also points hopefully to the initiative of Pope Francis to study the issue of women deacons in the early Christian communities.
Perhaps the question that elicits Leonard’s most creative theological application concerns the influence of modern technology. Leonard is concerned with how children’s digital technology has contributed to “the disempowerment of parents in regard to the supervision of their children in the home” (88). The internet and the various forms of social media have brought about “the relatively new phenomenon of what is now termed the techno addict” (88-89). This addiction to technology has linked with the world of pornography, “combining as it does a perfect storm of two addictions: sex and technology” (89).
In response to this dual addiction, Leonard guides the reader to “the EABV model: event, attitude, behavior, and values” (90). This model, the work of John Pungente, SJ, offers a meaningful approach in our attempts to assist people addicted to unwise consumption of all that is available today on internet websites.
The third and final section of the book is devoted to short biographical sketches of “Witnesses of Faith, Hope, and Love.” Leonard’s choices are diverse. Two are well-known saints from history, Thomas More and Ignatius Loyola. In Thomas More, Leonard highlights two qualities: “the importance of silence, and being prepared to die rather than wanting to be killed” (100). Leonard sees these two qualities in More, paralleling Jesus’ actions at his trial. The aspect of Ignatius’ spirituality that Leonard raises up for our consideration is the virtue of humility.
The remaining biographical sketches are of more contemporary Christian figures, some well-known, others less so. While all are aware of the heroic virtue of Teresa of Calcutta, Leonard highlights what we now know about “how long and lonely her life of faith actually was” (127). Leonard also charts for us the spiritual journey of Archbishop Oscar Romero. What he finds illuminating is Romero’s journey of conscientization —“his conversion, not to Christianity, but to the radical call of the Gospel to have a faith that does justice, to the needs and rights of the poor” (129).
To these well-known Christian individuals, Leonard adds some that are more germane to his personal life-history. Two are Irish nuns — Venerable Catherine McAuley and Helen Leane; one, Mary Mackillop, “is Australia’s first, and at present, only canonized Catholic saint” (112). These women are significant to Leonard in their unwavering efforts to be faithful to the call of the Gospel, even in the midst of the countless roadblocks they encountered on their respective journeys of faith.
Leonard offers a personal portrait of Pope Francis. For him, Pope Francis is someone who “sees the poor. He really sees them” (134). Leonard also highlights Francis’ image of the Church as “a field hospital after battle, tending the major wounds” (135).
Leonard includes sketches of his family, a transvestite parishioner, and the Trappist monks of Algeria who were murdered in 1996. In each of his snapshots, he illuminates faith-in-action. Each inspires the reader and, at the same time, encourages the reader to see how each and every Christian has the opportunity to live her or his faith not in competition with others, but alongside those whom the Church calls “canonized” saints.
I recommend Leonard’s book for any Christian who would like to engage with a very accessible and contemporary account of the Christian life of faith. In addition, I would suggest that getting this book into the hands of young Christians would be an excellent way of strengthening their faith, which is likely asking the same kinds of questions that Leonard engages so straightforwardly and non-defensively in his book.
George S. Matejka
Pepper Pike, Ohio
New York, York: Penguin Books, 2015
288 pp., $27.95
I was intrigued when I saw that Garry Wills had written a book on the Church and Pope Francis. I have enjoyed reading Wills’ earlier books on the Church. He has a profound grasp of history and often reveals insights like those in Papal Sin and Why I Am a Catholic, which cut with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. I was interested in learning what he saw as unique and challenging in how Pope Francis lived his papacy. So, I delved into the text.
I have to say that I was disappointed in the book. It is a good book. Wills masterfully demonstrates major shifts in Church belief and practices over the centuries. He begins with the Latin language, which in the beginning was a language of inclusion, as it was a language understood by many, but, as the Church moved beyond its Italian borders and won over peoples for whom Latin was foreign, it became an exclusive language primarily for scholars and clergy. It stayed too long.
The same could be said of the Church’s monarchial style of government and leadership. Wills describes briefly the centuries-old battle of who was in charge. Was it king or bishop, pope or emperor? He also offers a short summary of the Church’s response to the growth of nationalism, democracy, and the “evils” of the separation of church and state, all of which eroded the power and control of the Church which she battled well into the twentieth century.
Wills then tackles the Church’s long history of anti-Semitism. Jesus and the disciples might have been Jewish, but the early attacks on Christianity by the leaders of the Jewish community were not forgotten, and anti-Semitism was so pervasive in the life of the Church for centuries that it was one of the sins for which Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness in the Jubilee of 2000.
The Natural Law is next on Wills’ agenda in the book. He examines this as a central focus of Catholic ethics as it provides the framework for so much of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, and so on. Wills, in fact, titles one of his chapters in this section of the book, “The Pope as Sex Monitor.” Wills tries to demonstrate how the Natural Law is understood and used for justifying Church teaching is in great need of rethinking.
Outside of a few side comments, Wills leaves Pope Francis out of the book until we come to the Epilogue. Here, he writes that “Pope Francis, like Chesterton, does not see the Church as changeless, as permanent, as predictable, but as a thing of surprises.” So, the weight of the book from its contents might have been better titled The Church Which Pope Francis Inherited: What Surprises Will He Bring to It? With this title, I would have read the book and enjoyed it from the actual perspective of the author. With that caveat in mind, read the book. It is well written.
Patrick J. Riley, DMin
Book Review Editor