Religion Booknotes

Hidden Holiness
Michael Plekon
University of Notre Dame Press, $25, 224 pp.

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Michael Plekon’s 2002 book Living Icons was a wonderful survey of saintly men and women—some too little known in the Western Church—who exemplified the deep spirituality of the Eastern Church. Hidden Holiness, drawing again on Orthodox spirituality, but with an ecumenical sweep, discusses the holiness that can be attained by doing ordinary things. In seven meaty chapters, including an ecumenical cast of characters, Plekon searches for the strategies and resources that bring people close to God, for, as he rightly understands, holiness is a fundamental characteristic of God, and everyone else is holy to the degree that he or she is drawn closer to God. Plekon is particularly interested in how this holiness is most frequently hidden, even if he must use sources that are quite well known.

The persons and stories on which he meditates are varied. He writes about the outstanding Orthodox theologians Sergius Bulgakov and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; about a Dutch victim of the Holocaust, Etty Hillesum; about the Episcopal servant of the poor Sara Miles in San Francisco; and about the wife of an Inuit Orthodox priest, Olga Arsamquq Michael. Of course, the usual suspects, such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, also feature in his pages.

What stands behind Plekon’s approach is his conviction, inspired by the late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, that the church exists for the “life of the world.” Schmemann resisted the temptation (hardly peculiar to Orthodox believers) to sectarian inwardness. By framing much of his own analysis in terms drawn from the Orthodox tradition, especially from those great figures associated with the Russian Saint Sergius Institute in Paris, Plekon reinforces the judgment of the past two popes that the church must breathe “with two lungs.”

This book is especially recommended to those who are interested in solid work on spirituality but who have little knowledge of the Christian East in general or Russian thought in particular. The best of this thought roots itself in the deepest soil of the Christian life through an engagement with Scripture and the liturgy, while remaining aware of the larger world around it. Plekon helps the uninitiated into this thought with generous notes that highlight works in English.

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Saint Paul
Pope Benedict XVI
Ignatius Press, $14.95, 131 pp.

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During the Year of St. Paul, which ended last June, Pope Benedict XVI gave twenty talks on the apostle Paul at his weekly papal audiences. They have now been gathered into a slim, highly readable book, simply titled Saint Paul. Beginning with a talk on the cultural context of Paul’s life as a Jew, Greek speaker, and Roman citizen, the pope proceeds to Paul’s Damascus experience and ends with the saint’s martyrdom in Rome during Nero’s persecutions. In between, the order of the talks more or less follows the chronological unfolding of Paul’s busy missionary life. The chapters are brief, about six printed pages apiece, but the talks are far from elementary. It probably was a bit difficult for Benedict’s general audiences to follow some of what he had to say about, for example, the existence of the Word before the Incarnation. 

On the page, however, these short essays are a model of concision and learning—the distillation of decades of theological reflection. I read this book a chapter at a time over the course of several weeks and found each chapter a good exercise in spiritual reading. I even toyed with the idea of having my undergraduates read the book as they were studying the Pauline letters. Benedict alludes to scholarly disputes about the meaning of this or that particular passage in the letters, but the main thesis of each chapter unfolds with clarity and erudition. Any biblically literate reader will learn a good deal from these chapters, whether or not he or she is an expert in exegesis. I have already recommended the book to interested persons as a good first entry into the Pauline literature. It would also make an ideal text for a parish Bible-study group.

This volume from Ignatius Press reprints the English translations that first appeared seriatim in L’Osservatore Romano. These are readable but hardly elegant. The only other criticism I have is that an index, as well as a map of Paul’s missionary journeys, would have been useful to readers.

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The Wine of Certitude
A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox

David Rooney
Ignatius Press, $17.95, 450 pp.

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Many literate Catholics of a certain age have been inspired by the learning, wit, and piety of Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888–1957). An adult convert from the Church of England, Knox served for a time as chaplain to Catholic students at Oxford, but, beginning in the late 1930s, he was (rather like the poet Rilke) a more-or-less permanent house guest of the gentry—though not an idle guest: he worked prodigiously as a translator (of the whole Bible), biblical commentator, and indefatigable apologist for the Catholic faith. Apart from his translation of the Bible, he is perhaps best known for his book Enthusiasm, a careful study of the religious movements that, in Knox’s judgment, put too much emphasis on personal religious experience. Some readers were misled by the title: a now-deceased bishop of my acquaintance bought copies of the book for all his clergy, saying that this is what the contemporary church needed more of—enthusiasm. Had he gotten past the cover, he would have discovered that Knox felt strongly that this was precisely what the church did not need.

Knox was fortunate in his first biographer (his friend Evelyn Waugh), and his reputation grew even after it became clear that his translation would not become, as he had hoped, the definitive modern English Bible for Catholics. Alas, he is little read today. Events of the past fifty years have made some of his writings seem charming but outdated, and even some of the charm has not aged well. David Rooney strongly desires to remedy that neglect with his new study of Knox’s writings. The Wine of Certitude is a bit of a slog, since Rooney felt obliged to comment on most of Knox’s published work, from his crime novels to his occasional essays. The study’s saving grace is the thoroughness with which it puts Knox’s books into the context of the vigorous Catholic culture that sprang up in Great Britain in the 1920s and lasted through the ’50s. We read about popular apologists (for example, G. K. Chesterton, at whose requiem Mass Knox preached), spiritual masters like Herbert van Zeller and Bede Jarrett, and great literary artists like Evelyn Waugh.

Rooney clearly thinks the time is ripe for a Knox revival, but it isn’t clear to me that young Catholics today would profit from reading Knox the way they profit from reading, say, Chesterton. Knox’s apologetics are somewhat twee; his biblical scholarship is dated; his writings about the liturgy are not of much help with the novus ordo, and even Enthusiasm, written before the Catholic charismatic renewal, is now of mainly historical interest. Still, there is one aspect of Knox’s work that has aged beautifully: his style. A student could learn from any of Knox’s writings, including his journalism, what a great English sentence looks like.

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Not Being God
A Collaborative Autobiography

Gianni Vattimo, with Piergiorgio Paterlini
Translated by William McCuaig
Columbia University Press, $27.50, 200 pp.

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Although I’ve read only one of Gianni Vattimo’s books, the somewhat murky After Christianity, I decided to read his autobiography—because I have an on-again-off-again interest in postmodern theory and an abiding interest in all things Italian. Vattimo studied under Hans Georg Gadamer in Germany but made his name writing about Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger in Italy, where he was given a chair at the University of Turin while still in his thirties. Like Heidegger, he had a thorough Catholic education (his one-time spiritual director and teacher was an uncompromising Thomist responsible for the Marietti edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas) but left the church in order to follow the siren call of postmodern philosophy.

In Not Being God, Vattimo exhibits both an inordinate pride in his scholarly accomplishments and a little-disguised resentment at being snubbed by upper-class Italians, whose sensitive social antennae detected his modest upbringing in the South of Italy. Almost inevitably, Vattimo got mixed up in extreme left-wing politics, though he was not quite extreme enough to avoid death threats from the Red Brigades in the 1980s. He has lived and taught in other countries, including the United States, but in Italy he is a celebrity, enough of one to get himself elected to the European Parliament. Like many intellectuals of his generation, he is an unabashed activist and an avowed, if idiosyncratic, Marxist. In addition to his philosophical works, he has written newspaper op-eds, chaired committees, and appeared on television as a commentator.

In recent years he has made a tentative turn back to his Christians roots. Deeply influenced by his encounters with René Girard, he now considers himself a kind of Christian philosopher. He sees the promise and the wait for the parousia as a grand framework for understanding the sweep of human history. His return to the language and typology of Christian faith, if not to its creedal substance, is reflected in the aphorism “I believe that I believe.” His philosophical skepticism about metaphysical absolutes, understandable in the light of his postmodernism and his theory of “weak thought” (pensiero debole), has not kept him in good odor with the Vatican. But how can you not admire a postmodern thinker who, now on the brink of old age, has taken up the habit of reading every evening that most beautiful of canonical hours, Compline.

Not Being God is a pleasurable stroll through one corner of the Italian intellectual world, and through the city of Turin, where poor Nietzsche went mad and where the revitalized Fiat Corporation may save one part of the American automobile industry. Vattimo did not exactly write this book—it is the edited transcript of conversations he had with the Italian journalist Piergiorgio Paterlini, and it is charmingly presented. Turin is very much Vattimo’s city, despite his Southern roots, but in the long run it may be another Piedmontese writer, Enzo Bianchi, who will have the larger impact on the believing world. Bianchi is the founder of the Bose Community, the most interesting new monastic movement in the Catholic world today. Little known in this country, he is widely respected in Europe. His vision of Christianity, as a rooted practice rather than just a belief in believing, offers as much stimulation as Vattimo’s theories, and far more direction.

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Dom Helder Camara
Essential Writings

Edited by Francis McDonagh
Orbis, $16, 160 pp.

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This collection of texts by and about Dom Helder Camara (1909–1999), the late Brazilian bishop of Recife, is the most recent addition to the estimable “Modern Spiritual Masters” series published by Orbis. Camara got up most days at 2 a.m. and wrote, prayed, and meditated until 4 (he would then catch another hour or two of sleep). That daily regimen explains the large body of written work he left us, despite a full schedule away from the desk. He was a central figure in the Latin American Episcopal Conferece (CELAM), a frequent lecturer, a participant at Vatican II, and an activist. Throughout his career, he remained a strong voice for the poor and the oppressed in his native land.

Dom Helder Camara: Essential Writings has two parts. The first is a biography of the bishop; the second consists of selections from his published works translated into English. From the biography one learns that as a young cleric Camara was active in a Brazilian political movement that, by his own later admission, was a homegrown form of fascism. It was his participation in Vatican II that awakened him politically and socially. After that awakening he became an important voice not only in Brazil but all over the Americas.

Helder Camara was also a poet (this volume includes a few of his poems), and his prose is full of striking metaphors. Everyone knows the huge concrete statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio. Camara noted that the statue was frequently covered by clouds. He had dedicated his own life to seeking out the “unclouded Christ,” and his search for this Jesus was inspired not only by Scripture but also by his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and by his passion for the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. Those twin figures help explain how Camara could always keep in view both the Christ of the poor and the cosmic Christ of the whole created world.

What most strikes me about Camara’s writing is the simplicity with which he approaches Scripture—simple but not simplistic, and not unctuously pious. His own theological outlook was shaped by his radical belief in God, his love of Christ, his devotion to the Blessed Mother, and (somewhat surprisingly these days) his devotion to the angels. Camara called his guardian angel “José” and spoke to him daily.

We should not be put off or misled by Camara’s simplicity. He was not naive. He could be sharply critical of political authorities, in his own country and abroad, and his ideas about everything from education (he was a friend of Paolo Freire) to pastoral ministry had a clear edge. Those whose ministry includes preaching could learn much about how to apply the Word of God to every kind of human experience by reading Camara’s reflections on the gospel, many of which appear in this volume.

Published in the 2010-01-15 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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