Religion Booknotes

A Church in Search of Itself

Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future

Robert Blair Kaiser

Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 261 pp.



God’s New Man

The Election of Benedict XVI and the Legacy of John Paul II

Paul Collins

Continuum, $ 24.95, 233 pp.


Immediately after the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI, a spate of books on the two men and the conclave were published, none of any great interest or enduring value. They tended to be cobbled together from press releases, slices of papal writings, Vatican tittle-tattle, and educated guesses, gussied up with instant analysis by self-described experts. Kaiser and Collins’s new volumes (others, alas, are in the wings) are further examples of what I like to call the “higher gossip.”

The Latin word for a gossip is garrulus, and both these books have their fair share of garrulity. Neither Collins nor Kaiser is ready to bestow the title of “the Great” on the late John Paul II despite his American cheerleaders who have tried to attach the sobriquet. In fact, both writers have a somewhat acerbic revisionist slant to their judgment about the last pope. Such revisionism is, of course, standard after the death of a pope, and we should not be surprised that Papa Wojtyla is the subject of retrospective assessment.

Kaiser is a journalist of long standing who reported on the Second Vatican Council for Time magazine and has never lost his penchant for lining up the conservatives against the liberals. Collins, an Australian writer, resigned from the priesthood after a dustup with, first, the Australian hierarchy and later the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Both are good writers, but the tale they tell is an all-too-familiar one. They rehearse, for the umpteenth time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s work against progressive thinkers and movements in the church while he was at the CDF, but do not fail to note that he loves Mozart, plays the piano, and has a predilection for cats. Both trace his rigid view of things to his interest in St. Augustine, although Collins understands that Ratzinger’s second dissertation on St. Bonaventure-which includes an account of the apocalyptic group known as the Spiritual Franciscans-perhaps taught him to be leery of messianic movements. This might have made Ratzinger suspicious of certain strands of liberation theology, to say nothing of the radical students who so appalled him when he taught in Tübingen in 1968.

The two writers understand the profound impact John Paul II had on the church, but they also fault him (not unjustly) for some truly horrendous episcopal appointments; his cultivation of the cult of personality (a charge that will not be made against Benedict); the centralization of power in Rome; and his narrow range of advisers and confidants. Whatever faults may be laid at Joseph Ratzinger’s door, one must recognize that he saved the church by uttering a “no” to the pope’s desire to exercise the charism of personal infallibility on the issue of contraception and by resisting the papal temptation to speak authoritatively about Mary as Co-Redemptrix. There is something to be said for having a really good theologian around.

Kaiser and Collins end their books without any bold attempt at prognostication. Kaiser calls for a more democratic church; Collins opines that Pope Benedict will continue the late pope’s interest in world affairs while hewing to a traditional line on matters of faith and morality. No surprise there. We have already seen some modest signs of Benedict’s program: less focus on the person of the pope; a tendency toward a classical style of papal liturgies; reorganization of the curia; and, judging from his first encyclical, a less prolix and more “evangelical” style of discourse.

Of the two books under review, which is better? Collins knows more theology, but Kaiser knows the Vatican better. Each is very readable, but writes from a definite parti pris position. If one has a taste for this kind of book, either would serve. As for this reviewer, permit him his moment of garrulity as these books continue to multiply: Basta!

An Infinity of Little Hours

Nancy Klein Maguire

Public Affairs, $26, 272 pp.

Carthusians are famously reticent. Their graves are unmarked save for a cross. They do not often open their houses to pious visitors or retreatants. And they are famously averse to changing their long-established practices, which date back to the eleventh century when the order was founded by St. Bruno. It is said that the Carthusians, alone of religious orders, have never needed reform because they have never deviated from their original way of life (numquam reformata quia numquam deformata). It came as a great surprise to me, then, to read An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire, who had received unparalleled access to life at St. Hugh’s Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery in Parkminster, England.

Maguire follows five young men who entered Parkminster in 1960. Her entrée to the monastery was her husband, a former Carthusian and one of her five subjects. (Of the five, only one remains a monk today.) Their stories are told against the backdrop of the ordinary life of a Carthusian monk, who balances a commitment to solitude with periods of regular communal prayer. In their little cottages the monks work, pray, eat, and cultivate their gardens with a minimum of creature comforts: no flush toilets; heat only from a wood-burning stove; no hot water for bathing, etc. When Dom Leo (one of Maguire’s subjects) as prior installed such niceties in the 1990s, he was regarded as something of a daring innovator. He later lost his priorship, apparently because of these relaxations.

Monks are said to live the regular life-which means, life under a rule (regula). I can sit in my office, glance at my watch, and describe what the monks in the monasteries I know are doing. The greatest penance in the monastic life is, I suspect, its monotonous regularity. Maguire brilliantly conveys this regularity while also describing how each individual responds to the “infinity of little hours.” St. Bruno evidently knew how rigorous this life could be: he stipulated that every week the monks were to take a long walk together and talk. Once a year this spatiamentum, as it is known, becomes a whole-day ramble and picnic. One can think of these interludes as a kind of psychological safety valve.

Too many lay writers on monastic life invoke romantic visions of silent men in cowls padding about cloisters while Gregorian chant plays in the background. Not Maguire. She is a graceful writer who has the added gift of avoiding clichés. She also shows convincingly that the years the four ex-monks spent in the monastery left an indelible mark. When she first wrote one of the monks asking him to share his experiences, she got a forty-page letter in return.

Today, as one might imagine, few young men seek admission to the order. Yet the number of Carthusians has never been great. As one of the monks notes, if they disappear in the future they will have served their mission as long as God willed it. The Carthusians live out their motto-“While the world changes, the cross stands firm”-as they have for centuries. Maguire has written a brilliant book, offering a glimpse of that portion of the church which, by design, is a silent witness to the contemplative mission of Catholic Christianity.

A final note: While reading this book, I learned that a documentary has been made about life at the Carthusians’ mother house in Grenoble, France. Into Great Silence was featured at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Shot in black and white with almost no dialogue, it is nearly three hours long. It took the director seventeen years to persuade the monks to allow him to make the film. And he had to follow their rules: no extra lighting; no small talk with the monks; etc. Still, it seems that the Carthusians are opening their doors just a bit to give observers a look into their silent life.

Spirituality and Mysticism

James A. Wiseman

Orbis, $20, 242 pp.

James Wiseman teaches theology at the Catholic University of America. A Benedictine monk and longtime participant in monastic interreligious dialogue, he is perhaps best known for his excellent translation and commentary on the mystical works of the Flemish writer, John Ruusbroec. Spirituality and Mysticism is a historical and theological survey of Christian spirituality. The opening chapter traces the history of spirituality from its biblical origins to the present. Since the book is part of a series on “Theology in Global Perspective,” it also includes chapters on Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions (thus making it useful for parish study groups) and a selected bibliography. It would make an excellent college textbook, alongside Light from Light, an anthology of mystic texts edited by Wiseman and Louis Dupre.

The amount of serious scholarship on Christian spirituality is daunting. Kees Waaijman’s recent volume (Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, and Methods) comes in at just under a thousand pages, and Bernard McGinn’s monumental history of Western Christian mysticism is four volumes and counting. By contrast, Wiseman’s book is economical in size and scope. In my judgment, it is a judicious text that covers the main themes and the major figures. Wiseman is a clear writer with a keen grasp of the history of theology. This is just the right text to put in the hands of a beginner.

The Writings of Julian of Norwich

Edited by Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins

Pennsylvania State University Press, $65, 474 pp.

The woman we know as Julian of Norwich (1343?-1416?) was an anchoress of Norwich, England, who wrote an account of her visionary experiences. Besides these facts we know practically nothing about her; even her name may have been taken from the church where her hermitage was located. She is mentioned in a few bequests of the time, and Margery Kempe writes in her autobiography about seeking her out for spiritual advice. Some have alleged that Julian was a widow, but there is no clear evidence of that. What is important is that she is one of the first women to write in English and that what she wrote, in an age of vigorous developments in English (Chaucer was her contemporary), is a beautiful account of her own spiritual experiences. Scholars are unanimous in praising both the beauty of her language and the subtle theological formulations of her experiences.

In The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins have collated Julian’s manuscripts. What is most attractive to people like me is that they have also reproduced the Middle English text (not too difficult to read) on the recto of the page with a running commentary on the verso. There are also a fifty-plus-page introduction; an appendix which includes, among other things, the first translations I have seen of the bequests to Julian; and a superb bibliography.

This is not an inexpensive text and may well be out of the reach of the ordinary reader. Yet for the teacher/lover of medieval spirituality, it is an indispensable work. Reading the Middle English text, with some words that now have quite different meanings, and others that have lost their original power, is a wonderful experience. Thus, for example, Christ is called “homely,” in the early sense of one who is hospitable. The word “oned” means to be brought together; “deerworthy” is precious; “ghostly” is spiritual; “shewing” is revelation. Where the Middle English is too obscure, the running commentary gives immediate help.

I often tell my students that Julian’s text helps one understand the nature of the “visions” of the mystics. Julian clearly distinguishes between what she has seen exteriorly (the vivid impression she has of Christ’s suffering as she looks at a crucifix) from what she sees in her mind or her imagination-what she intuits. These distinctions go back to the discriminations made by St. Augustine in his commentaries on Genesis.

Julian described herself as “lewed, febille, an freylle” (uneducated, sickly, and frail). The editors point out that this was not simply false modesty, but a standard way of identifying oneself with the ordinary Christians (Julian calls them “evenchristene”) whom God favors. Julian is to be numbered among those “Friends of God” who were so prominent in late medieval spirituality. Her maternal language for both Christ and God has caught the attention of feminist scholars, although her writing is part of a tradition that stretches back to the twelfth-century Cistercians. Watkins and Jenkins note that interpreters of Julian vacillate between those who emphasize her theological acumen and those who focus on her affective yearning for God. I think that she falls somewhere between these two poles. The wide range of responses to Julian underscores the incisive observation of the late Hans George Gadamer, who wrote that a classic work always has a surplus of meaning.

God’s Last Word

Reading the English Bible from the Reformation to Fundamentalism

David S. Katz

Yale University Press, $38, 385 pp.

Over the past year or so I have read (and reviewed in these pages) some excellent books about the production of Bibles. Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: A History of the Making of the King James Bible, was highly readable; Christopher de Hamel’s The Book: A History of the Bible was both a visual feast and a highly literate account of how Bibles were actually produced over the centuries. To that excellent company I would like to add this learned but readable new book by David Katz.

When Protestant reformers made the argument that faith should be based on Scripture alone (sola scriptura), they unwittingly laid the groundwork for a vast intellectual tradition dedicated to establishing an authentic biblical text. This tradition encompassed everything from the study of manuscript transmission-comparing hand-copied versions of the Bible to identify revealing mistranslations or mistakes-to philology, the study of Greek and Roman texts. These Protestant reformers were contemporaries of the humanists, who were also keenly interested in returning to the original Greek and Hebrew biblical texts. (Think of Erasmus’s “critical” edition of the New Testament.)

Katz begins with the story of the humanists and then moves on to the complex story of the reception of the Scriptures in Great Britain. It is a story of unintended consequences.

Inspired by the growing interest in science in the seventeenth century, English biblical scholars sought to come up with a biblical chronology. These efforts were unsuccessful, which led people to question the accuracy of the Bible the way they never had done before. The same was true of attempts to quantify, for example, the number of Israelites who left Egypt for the desert or the size of Noah’s ark. According to Katz, this kind of scholarly inquiry ended up “drilling holes into the pillar of sola scriptura that their further research did nothing to repair.”

As a side benefit, this book provides a look at the emergence of studies in Arabic, Syriac, and other Semitic languages, as scholars sought to reconstruct the Scriptures in their original language. One marvels at the diligence of these scholars, including one who groused that he was only allowed to spend twelve hours a day in a library where he was copying Hebrew manuscripts. Katz ends his story in the late nineteenth century with the rise of the new sciences of anthropology, geology, and comparative religion. He also writes about Darwin, whom he places in historical context by studying his intellectual antecedents. He points out that Darwin was not the only scholar involved in “evolutionary thinking.” After all, as Ian Ker has noted, John Henry Newman’s classic study of the development of doctrine preceded On the Origin of Species by a number of years.

Katz’s book is intellectual history at its very best and provides some lessons for the present. He notes that fundamentalists are the direct heirs of those who fought for the principle of sola scriptura four centuries ago. Similarly, the readers of the apocalyptic novels so much in vogue today are descendants of sects like the Fifth Monarchy Men, a seventeenth-century group that favored a hallucinatory reading of Scripture. And there are more than one figure in Katz’s book who sought consolation in the “secret” Gnostic gospels-a reminder that the cult of Dan Brown and the scholarly effusions of Elaine Pagels are nothing new.

Published in the 2006-09-22 issue: 

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

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