Religion Booknotes

My copy of Columba Marmion’s Christ, the Life of the Soul-heavily underlined and annotated from use on retreats during my youth-is on somebody else’s bookshelf. Years ago I lent it to a friend, never got it back, and now I would love to reread my juvenile spiritual effusions. Marmion’s classic work was one of the most widely read spiritual books in the period before Vatican II. In retrospect, it stands as both a solid book of “spiritual reading” and a serious theological work.


Christ, the Life of the Soul

Blessed Columba Marmion

Zaccheus Press, $24.95, 532 pp.


At the heart of Marmion’s book is a long reflection on the theological idea that we are by adoption what Christ is by nature: a child of God. Put in other words, this is a book-length meditation on that crucial insight expressed by St. Paul in Galatians 4:4-6.

Marmion was, by birth, an Irishman. After his ordination in 1881, he spent five years as a priest in Dublin. With the permission of his bishop, he went to Belgium in 1886 and entered the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous. (He would later become its abbot.) He died in 1923. His life as a monk, theologian, retreat master, and monastic founder has been well told in Dom Mark Tierney’s Dom Columba Marmion: A Biography (1994). Tierney, a monk at the Benedictine monastery in Ireland (Glenstal Abbey) that Marmion founded, also serves as postulator for Marmion’s canonization.

A lot of theological water has flowed under the bridge since Marmion wrote his book. Readers today might find his scholastic approach a bit old-fashioned (especially his take on the sacraments), but this does not gainsay the fundamental richness of his Christological and Trinitarian insights. One must read Dom Marmion’s text in light of the time when he wrote it. After all, some of the theological formulations of St. John of the Cross seem equally antiquated, but that hardly disqualifies him as an author.

Christ, the Life of the Soul was first published in French in 1917 and appeared in English five years later. This edition features a new translation by Alan Bancroft and an introduction by Dom Tierney. (It also includes a tendentious and grumpy forward by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who argues that Marmion’s book is an antidote to all of contemporary Christological writing.) The translation reads well, and the text includes excellent notes. It is good to have this book back in print at a reasonable price. When it first appeared in English, Cardinal Francis Bourne of Westminster predicted that many readers would rise up and bless the author. As Marmion’s cause proceeds in Rome, that appears to be happening.


What Is the Point of Being a Christian?

Timothy Radcliffe, OP

Continuum, $16.95, 218 pp.


I have tried to read every book by Timothy Radcliffe since I first encountered his writing while traveling. Fr. Radcliffe is an English Dominican and a scion of one of England’s most distinguished Catholic families. As master general of the Dominicans from 1992 to 2001, he sought to visit every Dominican community in the world. There was much talk that he would succeed the late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster but, alas, that was not to be. He currently resides at the Blackfriars community in Oxford and does what Dominicans are supposed to do: travel and preach.

Radcliffe exhibits the kind of intellectual charm that has been the hallmark of the Blackfriars-think of Fergus Kerr or the late Herbert McCabe. He is deeply spiritual, extremely cultured, and a clear, compelling writer. He possesses a certain fearlessness and optimism about the world without being insensitive to the terrible burdens of our times. After all, in his travels he has seen the grinding poverty and violence of certain parts of the world, as well the moral and spiritual fissures of our own.

With those experiences in mind, Radcliffe addresses the question posed in the title of his book: What Is the Point of Being a Christian? He orbits around this query by exploring what Christian faith “sees” in the world today. Midway through the book he quotes a lovely observation by John Henry Newman: the Christian is one who watches for Christ. One can catch a glimpse of Christ by deeply loving another person; by understanding the intimate quality of the “exchange of gifts” during the Eucharist; by listening to the other; and, finally, by plumbing the depths of one’s own commitments. He repeats one of St. Thomas Aquinas’s most profound declarations: our faith terminates not in words, but in the reality behind those words. Radcliffe recognizes that if the Christian faith is to be preached effectively, it must be taught in an intelligible fashion; merely repeating formulas is not enough.

Radcliffe also makes an unassailable point about abortion. He quotes the second-century Letter to Diognetus, which asserts that Christians marry, beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring. (The Didache, also published in the second century, makes the same point.) Given this long tradition, it is doubtful that church teaching on abortion will change, but Radcliffe argues this fact does not absolve us from seeking to understand the “complexity of the lives of those who make choices about abortion.”

Radcliffe’s book reflects his omnivorous reading; his long meditation on Scripture, liturgy, and the Catholic theological tradition; and his wide knowledge of the world thanks to his visits to various Dominican communities (some trips, he writes, were quite harrowing). In other words, he exemplifies the very essence of the life of a Dominican: contemplata aliis tradere-to hand on to others the things he has himself deeply pondered.


The Tree of Life

Models of Christian Prayer

Steven Chase

Baker Academic, $19.99, 299 pp.


For the past several years I have taught a course on the “theology of prayer” covering the long tradition of Christian theologians who have written on this subject. Although I tend to use primary texts, I have often thought it would be useful to have a broad survey of Christian prayer written by an expert. Steven Chase’s The Tree of Life may fill that need.

Chase organizes his work into three large sections. In the first, he discusses prayer as a way of life. In part 2, the longest and meatiest section of the book, he lays out five models of prayer: conversation, relationship, journey, transformation, and presence. In part 3, he wisely considers prayer not only as a solitary exercise, but also as a communal activity. (In a sense, all Christian prayer is communal because we pray, even in our solitude, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) This sketch does little to provide a sense of how widely Chase has read, and how well he has organized his research. Thankfully, he not only provides copious end notes to each chapter, but also a very fine bibliography. He also includes a synthesis on the literature on prayer, which is generous in its acknowledgment of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant literature.

Chase’s book is not strictly historical (although it has a lot of history in it); it is synthetic and, in its own way, systematic. Nor is it phenomenological; it is theological both in conception and articulation. Near the end of the book Chase addresses the practices of prayer. This section would serve as a nice companion work to the more practice-oriented books of the Australian Cistercian, Michael Casey, whose work both on prayer and lectio (sadly missing from Chase’s bibliography) I greatly admire and often use in class. I have often told my students that to do theology seriously is itself a form of prayer. Chase makes the same point.


Edith Stein

The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite

Teresia Renata Posselt, OCD

ICS Publications, $15.95, 372 pp.


I am a huge admirer of St. Edith Stein, the Carmelite nun and convert from Judaism who was killed at Auschwitz in August 1942. Edith Stein was first published in German in 1948. The author is the former mistress of novices at Stein’s Carmelite convent. Between its first printing and 1963, her book went through nine printings. It was not a perfect book (it contained some factual errata), but with the aid of three editors, we now have a completely new version that includes extensive selections from Stein’s writings. This book is a true gift for those who wish to know more about one of the most extraordinary Catholic women of the modern era.

Stein led a profoundly contemplative life long before she entered a Carmelite convent in Cologne in 1934. Her deep prayer life served as the foundation for her busy career as a teacher at a pedagogical institute and a popular lecturer in Germany, Switzerland, and France. Her professional work was enhanced by her intellectual relationship with the philosopher Edmund Husserl, and later through the encouragement she received from the polymath Jesuit, Erich Przywara, who shared her love for Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman.

My favorite Stein book is The Science of the Cross, which was written on the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of St. John of the Cross. She was still working on it only a week before she was murdered at Auschwitz. What makes reading Sr. Renata Possett’s biography so poignant is that the reader knows Stein’s fate. When Stein enters the convent after losing her teaching position because of her Jewish ancestry, the reader knows that it will not be the safe haven she hopes for. When one reads what she wrote to Pope Pius XI about the situation of the Jews in Germany in 1933, one wonders: “What if the pope heard her plangent cry for her fellow Jews?” It is equally poignant to read Etty Hillesum’s letters from the transit camp of Westbork in Holland describing Edith and her companions being sent east to certain death.

Stein was canonized in 1998 and later named a patroness of Europe. Studies of her life abound. In his encyclical Fides et ratio, Pope John Paul II held her up as a model of a person who combined faith and reason. At the University of Notre Dame, a group of young women have started the Edith Stein Project to explore new ways of understanding feminism, a topic Stein wrote much about before entering the convent. As Stein’s writings become better understood, I have no doubt that they will receive the attention they deserve. One of her observations has always stayed with me, and I often repeat it to students: “My longing for truth was a prayer in itself.”


New Ecclesial Movements

By Tony Hanna

Alba House, $17.95, 282 pp.


In the wake of Vatican II, numerous “new ecclesial movements” came into existence or gained prominence, thanks to the support of Pope John Paul II. One thinks of L’Arche, Focolare, the Neocatechumenate, Communione e Liberazione, and Sant’Egidio. In 1998, four hundred thousand members of ecclesial groups gathered in St. Peter’s Square for a celebration of the New Pentecost proclaimed by the pope. Many of these groups have their origins in the Catholic Charismatic movement that developed in the late 1960s. Tony Hanna’s useful New Ecclesial Movements, which is based on a doctoral dissertation, is a good survey of this phenomenon.

Hanna is principally concerned with the theological and ecclesiological significance of the new ecclesial groups, especially their roots in Vatican II’s Lumen gentium. Among the questions Hanna addresses: What is the relationship between charism and office in the church? How do these movements relate to the local bishop and the bishop of Rome? How does one determine how faithful these movements are to their stated aims? If these are predominantly lay movements (as most of them are), how do they relate to priest members and to their bishop? (At least one of the movements-the Neocatechumenate-has sought to become a “personal prelature” like Opus Dei. Rome has resisted the move which, in my opinion, it should have done with Opus Dei.)

In an important 1998 essay defending new ecclesial movements, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acknowledged that their evolution has sometimes been marked by growing pains. That is surely the case. Rome recently had to issue instructions on the liturgy for the Neocatechumenate, and some eminent prelates in Italy, mainly the former archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini, have been less than enthusiastic about the politics of Communione e Liberazione. This is hardly a new story, though. The evangelical movements spawned by the eleventh-century Gregorian reforms produced both real gifts for the church (the mendicants) as well as dissident groups (the Patarines; the Poor Men of Lyon), just as the Jesuits had their rocky days with the papacy in their early years.

Hanna is himself a member of a lay charismatic group in Ireland. His book seeks to show the value of ecclesial movements, while describing the pitfalls they need to avoid. He sometimes takes on too much, but he has read widely and digested it well. His book could use a bibliography and an index, but overall it is a good resource for anyone interested in one of the salient characteristics of Catholicism today.

Published in the 2006-11-03 issue: 

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

Also by this author
Nearer to God

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads