Religion Booknotes

Marking the Hours
English People and Their Prayers, 1240–1570
Eamon Duffy
Yale University Press, $35, 208 pp.

Today, every decent-sized museum displays one or two examples of those lavish medieval compendiums known as Books of Hours. With their beautiful illuminations and finely rubricated calligraphy, these books continue to be prized by collectors, and many noncollectors have bought single pages for their own enjoyment.

The books (about eight hundred full manuscripts have come down to us) have been the object of study by art historians, but Eamon Duffy, the noted Cambridge historian, studied the parts of them that art historians deplore: their jottings, erasures, and personal annotations, including pasted-in additions and penned-in family histories. Duffy’s purpose is twofold: to discover what the markings may tell us about the history of personal piety in the medieval period; and to test the hypothesis that the widespread use of these books reveals a turning away from institutional piety to a more self-centered, privatized form of religious devotion. Duffy demurs when it comes to the latter issue, but given his fine historical sense, he has much to say concerning the former.

The Books of Hours, as the title indicates, were devotional books that included the prescribed canonical prayers for given periods of the day, usually the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and/or the Office of the Dead in Latin, but with an admixture of the vernacular. There were also assorted prayers and such exercises of piety as recitations in honor of Our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints. Owners would sometimes express their own reactions, petitions, and aspirations in the books. A number of the prayers seemed to have a talismanic function: if such and such a prayer were said at such and such a time or for a certain period, the one who performed it would not die unshriven, would be saved from certain disaster, and so on. In one book that belonged to a soldier can be found a version of a prayer attributed to Charlemagne, with a Latin rubric indicating that whoever carried such a prayer or said it on a certain day would not be “killed by a weapon of iron, nor killed nor burned by fire, nor drowned by water.” In case anyone thinks such superstitions ended with the Middle Ages, it is worth noting that many of our soldiers in Iraq carry a prayer card with Psalm 91 and its promise that “though a thousand fall at your side / ten thousand at your right / near you it shall not come.”

Duffy has a wonderful chapter on the Book of Hours that Thomas More had with him in the Tower of London as he awaited execution. It includes many of More’s own reflections and the famous petition, in More’s hand, “Give me thy grace, good Lord / to set the world at naught.” Another fascinating chapter discusses the changes made by those who lived during the reign of Henry VIII, when Catholic themes were either blanked out or crossed out (for example, the description of a saint as “pope”). After Henry, of course, the Book of Hours was replaced by approved manuals of prayer.

Duffy’s book, reasonably priced and lavishly illustrated, is a feast for the eyes and reflects the judicious treatment of historical artifacts that we have come to expect from this fine scholar. Many illustrations, some in color, some in black and white, accompany the text. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of prayer or church history in general.


Negotiating Darwin
The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877–1902
Mariano Artigas, Thomas F. Glick, and Rafael A. Martinez
The John Hopkins University Press, $50, 336 pp.

Thanks to the recent opening of the archives of the former Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and of what was once known as the Sacred Congregation of the Index, three scholars have examined the work of six authors whose writings came to the attention of the Vatican in the late nineteenth century because they seemed to support the theory of evolution. The disposition of the six cases differed widely, even though it was popularly assumed that all six were “condemned,” an impression this careful study will help to correct.

The earliest case concerned an irascible Italian parish priest and scientist, Raffaello Caverni. His work was put on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1878, but was mostly ignored. His official “condemnation” did not happen until the late 1890s. The French Dominican Dalmace Leroy also had his book condemned, but Leroy made a public retraction and his condemnation was never publicized. The defense of evolution by Italian bishop Jeremiah Bonomelli was put on the Index but, after a public retraction, no further action was taken. Fr. John Zahm (for whom a residence hall at the University of Notre Dame is named, and whose memory is still venerated on campus) retracted his published defense of evolution; a decree of condemnation was never published by Rome. A British bishop, John Hedley, an admirer of Zahm’s work, defended him in print and later took part in a bitter polemic with the Jesuit editors of La Civiltá Cattolica. Hedley seems not to have drawn the attention of the Vatican. Finally, the famous convert scientist St. George Jackson Mivart, while never condemned by Rome for his views on evolution, had three articles on the mitigation of eternal punishment in hell listed in the Index.

Each of these cases is examined in full—and sometimes tedious—detail, thanks to the authors’ careful retrieval of archival materials. From my perspective, the most interesting threads running through the book are not related to Darwinism. They include the fact that both the Holy Office and the Congregation of the Index were keenly aware that the Vatican’s peremptory condemnation of scientific hypotheses would arouse memories of the Galileo affair and bring further discredit to the church. Some things had been learned from history.

While the subject of evolution is central to this story, the real debate at the time concerned the interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis. What worried the commentators used by the Vatican was the historicity of the Genesis accounts, in particular the creation of Adam and Eve. In 1893, the same year that Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical on Bible study, which included a grudging acceptance of newer modes of biblical interpretation, Alfred Loisy was removed from his chair at the Institut Catholique in Paris. Finally, it is fascinating to see how the rigid scholastic approach of the time was ill suited to assess a different way of thinking. That unsuitability was magnified by the intellectual struggles that marked the earlier Syllabus of Errors and in the various condemnations of philosophical errors at the First Vatican Council.

This book remains closely tied to its subject (except for a nice excursus on “Americanism” in the chapter on John Zahm). As a consequence, it provides little broader cultural context. It is a study of individuals and their travails with the Roman authorities. They were denounced for their errors, given no chance to represent themselves, told post factum of their fate, and invited to recant. It would not be until our own time that these high-handed procedures would be modified. Still, it is a source of melancholy to reflect on our not-so-distant past.

As I read this book, I thought of John Henry Newman. His biographer Ian Ker has astutely noted that more than a decade before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Newman wrote a book on a certain kind of evolution—his 1845 essay on the development of doctrine. As Ker remarks, Newman had no problem with theories of evolution as they came to be discussed in the aftermath of Darwin’s famous publication. Interestingly, Newman had also written words of consolation to St. George Mivart, when the latter’s orthodoxy was impugned. “Those who would not allow Galileo to reason three hundred years ago,” Newman wrote, “will not allow anyone else now. The past is no lesson for them for the present and the future: and their notion of stability in faith is ever to be repeating errors and then repeating retractions of them.” Fortunately, Rome did learn a little, but with great reluctance. This book is both a cautionary tale and a welcome piece of historical research.


Eternity Today
On the Liturgical Year (2 volumes)
Martin Connell Continuum, Vol. 1
$ 22.95, 256 pp. Vol. 2 $19.95, 256 pp.

These two volumes are a wonderfully readable tour of the liturgical year. The first opens with a theological meditation on the Christian notion of time and takes the reader from the season of Advent through to Candlemas. Volume 2 discusses the season of Lent, the three days of Holy Week, the Easter season, and the “ordinary” time of the year. Each season is viewed from the vantage point of its development in the history of the church, followed by a substantive theological meditation on the meaning of a given season, including its liturgical and paraliturgical aspects. To cite one example, Connell not only discusses the place of the Christmas tree in Christian history, but also provides information about how it (and the manger set) may be “blessed” for home use.

Although these volumes reflect a fine grasp of liturgical scholarship, they are written in an accessible style and will make an excellent addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in a deeper knowledge of our common worship. I suspect they will be particularly useful to those who teach in schools of religious education and/or theology, and that they will be a goldmine for those preparing homilies or devotional exercises. Connell pays particular attention to the scriptural texts appropriate for the feasts and the seasons. He knows how they were used traditionally as well as how they are treated in contemporary Scripture scholarship. One of the more charming aspects of the volumes is Connell’s use of poetry, both modern and historical, as he underscores the temper of a given season.

Each volume has a useful index, but, alas, there are no bibliographies. As a consequence, the reader must search Connell’s ample footnotes in any given chapter. That small complaint aside, I think that these two volumes are a useful and welcome addition that will help readers gain a deeper knowledge of the liturgy. Connell underscores Vatican II’s declaration that the promotion and restoration of the sacred liturgy are rightly held to be a “sign of the providential dispositions of God in our time” and “a movement of the Holy Spirit in the church” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 43).


Merton and Friends
James Harford
Continuum, $35.95, 320 pp.

 James Harford met the late poet Robert Lax in the early 1950s in Paris and through that friendship got to know Edward Rice and, to a lesser degree, Thomas Merton. This volume is a joint biography of the three, who were once fellow students at Columbia University and remained lifelong friends. The three men are seen mainly though the lens of Harford’s own friendship with Edward Rice and his frequent visits to the expatriate Robert Lax on the Greek island of Patmos.

I know a great deal about Thomas Merton and have contributed to the unwieldy torrent of literature on him. Of Robert Lax I know a fair amount because I have been a longtime admirer, both of him as a person and of his too-little-known work. I tend to agree with Harford that Lax (who spent many years living in Europe, where he is better known as a poet) was the eremitic contemplative that Merton always desired to be. Rice, born a Catholic, served as godfather to both Lax and Merton when they converted.

What was most interesting to me is the picture of Rice that emerges in this fascinating book, and, more particularly, the role he played in initiating and sustaining that most wonderful of Catholic magazines, Jubilee (1952–67). It was one of the more innovative and forward-looking Catholic publications produced in the period before the Second Vatican Council. I still like to go to Notre Dame’s library and thumb through the bound volumes. After Jubilee folded, Rice lived as a freelance writer and editor, not always free of financial and personal woes (including Parkinson’s disease), while Lax remained on his Greek island until illness made it necessary for him to return to his home town of Olean, New York. Just this past fall, when speaking at St. Bonaventure University, I was able to pay a visit to Lax’s grave. It was an act of pietas toward a truly saintly person.

The portraits of Lax and Rice are extremely well done, but the author’s picture of Merton is badly out of focus, mainly because he sees Merton almost exclusively through these two friends. One would think that the breezy, hip, irreverent, self-mocking tone of Merton’s letters to Rice and Lax defines Merton. But it is well known that Merton could exhibit a chameleon-like persona, depending on whom he was writing to. One would never get a sense of Merton as a contemplative monk by reading this account. In contrast, Harford’s picture of Lax is both moving and deeply appreciative of Lax’s considerable poetic gifts. It is my conviction that Lax was a true hidden saint who managed to combine a poetic gift, a wicked but never acidic sense of humor, and the habit of prayer with an asceticism that never touched on the fanatical. The author also does justice to Rice.

In the end, this volume captures a certain period when American Catholicism was on the cusp of the great changes that would take place at the council. It was a time of great energy, hope, and intellectual ferment, a period reflected in the spirit and substance of journals like Jubilee, CrossCurrents, and later Continuum. Harford catches the excitement of that era in his homage to three extraordinary American Catholics who represented the best of the American church at a time that is now only memory.


Catherine Labouré
Visionary of the Miraculous Medal
René Laurentin
Pauline Books, $24.95, 230 pp.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the canonization of Catherine Labouré (1806–1876), whose name is inextricably linked to the “miraculous medal,” a sacramental image still worn by countless Catholics. The iconography of that medal was revealed to Labouré in 1830, during a series of apparitions she experienced as a young nun in a convent on the Rue de Bac in Paris. How she managed to persuade her skeptical confessor, first to accept as authentic her apparitions and then to have the medal cast, is a story that seems almost fictional. What is clear, though, is that, within a very short time, wearing the medal became so popular that it seemed almost talismanic in its power. The noted Jewish convert Alphonse Ratisbon said it was instrumental in his baptism, and John Henry Newman began to wear one around his neck two months before his own reception into the Catholic Church in 1845. Since the medal incorporates the phrase “Mary conceived without sin,” it may have been a motivating force for the subsequent definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

René Laurentin writes that even during the ferocious battles for the Commune in 1870, the rigidly anticlerical and skeptical communards would wear the medal, convinced it had protective powers for those going into battle. It is still popularly worn, and I remember well the countless times I was an altar server at the weekly “Miraculous Medal Novena” held in our parish on a weekday evening.

Laurentin is easily the most productive scholar of Marian matters in modern France. Anyone faintly familiar with the Lourdes story is in his debt for his enormous documentary and scholarly reflection on that most famous of shrines. The new book, translated from the French original of 1983, is a detailed biography of the saint based largely on archival research. What is most curious about the story of Catherine, however, is that after those illuminating experiences of 1830, she spent the next forty-odd years of her life in relative obscurity. (For a long time, only a small coterie knew that she was the recipient of the apparitions.) She tended a garden, raised chickens, pigeons, and a few milk cows; and she cared for the destitute old men the nuns housed and other people who came to the door for food, clothing, and other needs. Her life was very much like that of Bernadette Soubirous, who also sank into cloistered anonymity after the initial Lourdes apparitions. In a way, Lourdes, and not Bernadette, was the story after she entered the convent and, to a lesser degree, the same thing was true of Catherine.

What struck me in reading this book is how French Catholic life after the revolution was profoundly shaped by the piety generated from the experiences of a few women and men whose approach to the faith and whose revelatory experiences were a kind of living reproach to the Age of Reason promised by the revolution. If ever there was proof that a saint is one who does the ordinary in an extraordinary fashion, it is the life of Catherine Labouré.

Published in the 2007-04-06 issue: 

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

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