Religion Booknotes

Yves Congar
Essential Writings
Edited by Paul Lakeland
Orbis, $20, 208 pp.

It is hard for younger Catholics to appreciate how revolutionary the nouvelle théologie was when it first appeared because so much of it has been absorbed into the main current of Catholic theology. The French Dominican Yves Congar (1904–95), one of the nouvelle théologie’s leading lights, ranks as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century.

He was a pioneer in ecumenics, a groundbreaking theorist of the role of the laity in the church, and, in his late years, an expert in the theology of the Holy Spirit. His work, which had a marked influence on the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, was characterized by both a profound grasp of the sources of the church’s traditions and a bracing honesty.

Paul Lakeland’s selection of texts gives us a look at the range of Congar’s thought. Lakeland divides his book into five large categories: ecumenism, ecclesiology, the theology of the laity, the spiritual life, and the Holy Spirit. Newcomers to Congar’s work will get a good sense of the range of his thinking. Let me single out one of these essays that I found especially perceptive and moving: Congar’s reflection on St. Thomas Aquinas. Congar’s main point is that Thomas was a “servant of the truth,” and that a servant is, by definition, poor in relation to the one he or she serves. Pure of heart and constant in prayer, St. Thomas the servant owned nothing and received everything he needed from his divine master. Congar quotes Thomas in the Contra Gentiles: “I envisage as the main duty of my life the working out of my debt to God in such a way that I express him in my every word and attitude.” Congar shows that Thomas Aquinas became a towering figure in theology because he was a saint. This one long essay alone is worth the price of this well-conceived and unfailingly interesting collection.

 

Christians and Pagans
The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede
Malcolm Lambert
Yale University Press, $50, 336 pp.

I have profited enormously from the work of Malcolm Lambert, beginning with Franciscan Poverty (1961), which is still a useful introduction to the subject. His new book, Christians and Pagans, tells the complex story of the Christianization of Britain—a story that involves, first, the Christian presence among the Romanized Britons, then the arrival and Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, and finally the slow incursion of Christianity into the world of the Picts and Celts. This story has had some famous chroniclers—Gildas in the sixth century, Bede in the seventh—but much of Lambert’s attention is focused on recently discovered archaeological evidence: treasure hordes, burial sites, and architectural remains. His discussion of Whithorn, the first church in Scotland, is a good example of just how complicated the story can be. There scholars have found a foundation stone datable to the last post-Roman age, as well as a monastic foundation from circa 500. There was a monastic evangelist at Whithorn known to Gildas, and in the twelfth century pilgrims went there to venerate the relics of St. Ninian.

In the course of his story Lambert introduces us to a heroic cast of characters, ranging from the redoubtable Hilda of Whitby to Cuthbert, Columba, and, of course, Patrick. Along with these memorable characters were memorable struggles between Britain’s different Christian communities. There was a long contest between the Roman usages and those of the Celts, involving everything from the proper style of monastic tonsures to the vexatious problem of how to date Easter. Lambert pays careful attention to the great monastic centers such as Iona and Lindisfarne, which provided the local church with much of its missionary impulse. The monks managed a life that somehow combined monastic stability with church planting. St. Columba founded a monastery as far south as Bobbio in Italy in the lands of the Lombards, while Boniface became the apostle of Germany.

Lambert has particularly interesting things to say about the struggle of the early Christian missionaries to overcome—or sometimes accommodate—Britain’s deeply rooted ancient pagan traditions. Readers of Beowulf will recognize how native customs and languages hung on after the arrival of the new faith, and jostled with it. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, records one particular accommodation that Pope Gregory suggested to Augustine and his monks: Do not destroy the pagan sites but convert them into Christian ones by replacing their idols with relics.    

Readers of this book not fully conversant with the geography of the British Isles may get a bit lost in Lambert’s text (the maps he provides are inadequate). Readers may also be a bit overwhelmed by all the archaeological information. But then, it’s hard to fault such a book for being too informative. As I said, it’s a complicated story, and one that can be told well only by someone with Lambert’s erudition. He is to be congratulated for this useful and fascinating work.

 

Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy
Edited by Neil  J. Roy and Janet E. Rutherford
Four Courts Press, $45, 204 pp.

Pope Benedict XVI has called for a “reform of the reform of the liturgy.” Benedict XVI and the Sacred Liturgy, a collection of nine papers from a conference that took place in Ireland, examines the significance of this call in the context of the pope’s many writings on liturgy. Like almost any collection of conference papers, this one is a mixed bag.

Three of the papers—those of Helen Hull Hitchcock, Joseph Murphy, and Alcuin Reid—concern themselves with the history of Benedict’s thinking on the liturgy and relate it to other elements of his theological outlook (for example, his idea of continuity). These should be read against Manfred Hauke’s essay on the Regensburg scholar Klaus Gamber, whose work had an important influence on the pope’s ideas about liturgy. Two other essays, one by Cardinal Jorge Mejía and the other by Dennis Mc-Manus, deal with the contentious issue of how liturgical texts should be translated. McManus’s essay is particularly good. It explores the late Jesuit Hermann Schmidt’s profound (but now contested) influence on translation theory at the time of the Second Vatican Council. It also considers later ideas—many drawn from semiotics—that provide us with the background of Liturgiam authenticam, the source of the guidelines for the new English translation of the liturgy that is to be implemented this year during Advent. (I confess I’m not eager for its ponderous Latinate tone.) Uwe Michael Long makes the point that Benedict’s insistence on the importance of continuity within the Christian tradition has implications for Christian art, but it’s even harder to see what these implications might be than to see what continuity requires in liturgy. One of the volume’s editors, Neil J. Roy, has a very thoughtful essay on the Roman Eucharistic Canon, which emphasizes that in the liturgy the whole church, in heaven and on earth, prays as one. (For this reason, I’m always irritated when the celebrant omits the roll call of saints in that canon.) James Hitchcock’s essay on continuity and disruption, which simply rehearses stale, three-decades-old complaints, is unworthy of the collection.

In general, however, this volume does a fairly good job of explaining the view of those who operate within the mindset of Benedict. It also leaves many questions unanswered—for example, why has Pope Benedict not focused exclusively on the reform of the rite established at Vatican II (the Novus Ordo) instead of yielding to requests to rehabilitate the Tridentine rite, a usage that smacks more of the sectarian than of the truly catholic? Still, thanks to some of the essays in this volume, I understand better the issues involved in liturgical translation, as well as the truth of the old Italian adage that every translator is a traitor.

 

Gateway to Resurrection
Maria Boulding, OSB
Burns & Oates, $16.95, 156 pp.

The late Maria Boulding was a Benedictine nun of Stanbrook Abbey in England. She spent her last years living in solitude while translating both the Confessions of St. Augustine and the five volumes of Augustine’s exposition of the Psalms. Gateway to Resurrection, a book she started writing after being diagnosed with a terminal illnesss, was completed shortly before her death. The book reflects not only her long monastic life, shaped by the liturgy and lectio, but also her intimate knowledge of Augustine’s work. That knowledge is most brilliantly reflected in her chapter on that most Augustinian theme: desire.

Boulding’s book includes no cheery or lugubrious reflections on the ars moriendi. Instead, it offers profound meditations on how we journey toward God by conforming ourselves more and more to Jesus Christ, revealed to us as the Word of God. In a passing observation, Boulding writes that prayer is the “response of a gifted people”; and the gift is both a desire for and a language of prayer. The whole book can be read as a development of this insight. The author notes that God is not so much above us as “out ahead of us.” In moving ahead toward God, we must pass through the “gateway of resurrection.” Our yearning for God is the motive force for this movement, and the yearning is itself a gift. This powerful little book is a fitting final tribute to an authentic spiritual writer, an excellent scholar, and, above all, a woman of great faith. It’s what spiritual reading is supposed to be, and so rarely is. 

 

In the Valley of the Shadow
On the Foundations of Religious Belief
James L. Kugel
Free Press, $26, 256 pp.

James L. Kugel, the emeritus Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard, also received a diagnosis of life-threatening cancer nearly a decade ago. Kugel is a world-class scholar whose books on the Bible and Hebrew literature have both instructed and delighted me over the years. His cancer now seems to be gone, and he is cautiously optimistic about his future, but in the aftermath of his illness he decided to write a book about illness, death, and belief. In the Valley of the Shadow is no more an ars moriendi  than Gateway to Resurrection is. Kugel is concerned not so much with the details of his own illness and recovery as with what such experiences tell us about the nature of religious belief. The result is a powerful hybrid of memoir, scholarship, and speculation.

Kugel notes that when he first received his diagnosis he did not think immediately of the Psalms (which he knows by heart); instead, he thought of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard and A. E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.” This is less strange than it might seem at first, since both the song and the poem emphasize, among other things, the finality, inevitability, and—if one can say it—the triviality of death. Trivial only as long as it’s someone else’s; it isn’t trivial at all, of course, for the one who is dying. The great Samuel Johnson got it right: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Kugel is a scholar to the marrow, and so he ranges over a vast literature in anthropology, neuroscience, literature, and biblical studies. It is nearly impossible in so brief a review to summarize the range of his explorations, but certain repeated words do provide a key to his thoughts. One is smallness—that is, one’s own smallness within a much larger context, a sense of oneself “trimmed down, discrete, not taking anything for granted.” Related to smallness is an idea that Kugel calls starkness, which he finds in such disparate artifacts as “Amazing Grace,” gothic cathedrals, and passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Starkness is the negative space that leads many of us to yearn for, and reach out toward, God.

Kugel believes that today most of us live in a disenchanted world. “We have outgrown our old, small selves, but our new, big ones have brought us to a rather unreal sense of the shape of our own existence.” Nevertheless, the old yearning returns, at moments when routine habits of mind are upended. A yearning for what exactly? Kugel does not say, but his book suggests that only the divine will satisfy a certain desire or soothe a certain restlessness.

In the Valley of the Shadow is utterly unsentimental in its analysis of the struggle against illness, as well as in its view of those few decades of life the God of the psalmist portions out to us. And it is as clear as a book can be about the conundrum which is life itself. It does not have the appealing simplicity of Maria Boulding’s book, but both deliver an unflinching look at that greatest of mysteries: our own death.

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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