A CHARMED LIFE: The Spirituality of Potterworld,
by Francis Bridger. Image Books/Doubleday. 159 pp. $10.95.
Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, assistant managing editor
of St. Anthony Messenger, and a Muggle listener to the unabridged audio
editions of the four Harry Potter books in print, as well as a viewer of Book
One on the big screen.
MY YEARS as a second-grade teacher confirmed my intuition that
children learn much in the world of fantasy that helps them in the “real” world.
That’s why I welcome J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
What a surprise to learn that many parents, critics and readers
of this magazine found danger lurking at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry,
where Harry Potter is enrolled! Twice last year, St. Anthony Messenger
gave a thumbs-up to Potterworld. Both times, readers weighed in with mixed reviews,
weighted, to be honest, toward vigorous critiques of promoting witchcraft, sorcery,
magic spells, misusing the sacred notion of transfiguration and misrepresenting
witches as “nice.”
Into this history comes the present small volume, A Charmed Life,
purporting to analyze the spirituality of Potterworld.
Francis Bridger’s credentials as a longtime analyst of children’s
faith development and as an Anglican pastor in England (close to Harry’s own
origins), plus his experience as a father, grandfather and theologian lend great
credibility to his arguments. He pokes some holes in Potterworld’s consistency
but generally favors Rowling and her good intentions.
Does the author succeed in dispelling criticisms? As Bridger admits,
subjectivity reigns in this realm. Allowing that, his calm, Scripture-rich,
Christian reasoning merits careful reading. Bridger’s text is brief, but packed
with references to Potter (useless to those who have dismissed the texts unread).
Speaking from a faith tradition we can recognize and claim, he is balanced in
Bridger writes that the desire to protect children from demonic
forces is praiseworthy, but what is feared is often found, even when it isn’t
Bridger further asserts that for Joanne Rowling (he consistently
calls her “Joanne” rather than by her pen name, “J.K.”), witchcraft and wizardry
simply provide a fictional plot device, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“Wizard” doesn’t necessarily carry occult overtones. “Financial
wizards” and “technical wizards” do things that look like magic, but
no one thinks them members of an evil coven. That’s the kind of wizardry that
reigns at Hogwarts.
Potterworld’s wizardry is more like that of Joseph interpreting dreams or
Magi following a star. Potter’s wizardry is not opposed to
godly forces; it’s a fictional (and fun) plot device, which,
in general terms, equals human power.
This power is not supernatural. Harry, Hermione, Ron and
the whole fictional gang are flawed and vulnerable, yet gifted in various ways.
“Magic is there, but it is actually the humanity of the characters that proves
to be the decisive factor in enabling good to defeat the purposes of evil,”
writes Bridger. This magic is playful, even humorous, but well short of omnipotent.
So what about nice wizards practicing their craft, which includes
spells, to be sure?
Bridger writes, “Not taking things at face value is one of the cardinal
virtues of Potterworld.” For readers, that also holds. Harry and his cohorts
aren’t really all that great at magic, on a consistent basis. Professor Sybil
Trelawney, writes Bridger, is Rowling’s idea of an astrologer or crystal-ball
gazer or palm-reader. The fact that Trelawney is taken so lightly indicates
how these skills are regarded at Hogwarts.
Beyond Professor Trelawney’s brand, there’s more respected but “unglamorous”
magic, to use Bridger’s adjective. “The nature of magic in Potterworld,” says
Bridger, “would seem to be that it is accepted as normal only to be subverted.”
In the end, this leads perhaps to one of the most important conclusions
of Potterworld: that Hogwarts is a place of education, and education is not
fundamentally about feeding children information but about using information
to develop their characters. “For Christians wishing to mount a challenge to
the closed-mindedness of modernity, Rowling has proved an unexpected—yet welcome—ally,”
Harry Potter and his friends have profound theological ideas teased
into their curriculum—and extracurricular adventures. Free will, moral decisionmaking,
self-defense, racism, spiritual warfare, love’s power: This is no infant formula,
but the stuff of moral complexity, the stuff of growing up in a morally ambiguous
Bridger isn’t in Rowling’s pocket, and Rowling has not approved
or authorized his work. I suspect Harry Potter’s harshest critics may not approve
or support Bridger’s book either. This simply means they’re missing a good read
in Harry Potter—and a worthy analysis in A Charmed Life.
You can order A CHARMED LIFE: The Spirituality of Potterworld
HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: Stories for Young and Old, compiled by Miriam
LeBlanc. Plough Publishing. 346 pp. $15.
CHRISTMAS IN MY SOUL: A Third Collection,
compiled by Joe Wheeler.
Doubleday. 160 pp. $14.95.
WATCH FOR THE LIGHT: Readings for Advent
and Christmas. Plough
Publishing. 344 pp. $19.
Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a theology and literature undergraduate
at Franciscan University and an editorial intern last summer with St. Anthony
THE PINE FIRE crackles as Dad reaches for a worn volume on
the bookshelf and begins reading to his children, “Long, long ago, on a snowy
Christmas Eve....” Who hasn’t grown up with stories read to them at Christmas?
The book Home for Christmas can help relive those days of family togetherness.
In these pages, 20 classic stories are presented in a “read aloud”-friendly
format. With nary a mention of reindeer on rooftops, these are not tinsel-swept
tales, but more humble ones of families, shepherds and burros.
I read about the compassion of Sister Egg to a cynical Scrooge in
the story “Transfiguration” and three Cuban boys’ generosity to the village
poor in “Three Young Kings.” I especially enjoyed the legends from Denmark,
Italy and Germany.
When reading this collection to children, I might suggest first
taking down the Bible and reading the Nativity from Luke’s Gospel. It is the
melody from which all these other stories take their harmony. Having that first
Christmas in mind helps put the rest in perspective.
This book certainly lives up to its subtitle: “Stories for Young
and Old.” Many of the 20 tales date from the 1950s and before. They were written
by my grandparents’ generation, but my sisters (aged four, 10 and 13) enjoyed
listening to them.
Most of the stories are about 12 pages long—easily read in one sitting.
The text is large and legible; full-page woodcuts preface each story. I only
wish this was available in hardback, so it could more easily last through decades
of children’s loving abuse.
Another collection of old-time stories to be read aloud or silently
enjoyed is Christmas in My Soul: A Third Collection, compiled by Joe
Among other stories, a 1920s college girl communicates the true
meaning of Christmas to her friends while the gift of a grubby, stuffed kitten
from a lovelorn child reminds a teacher of her calling. Yet reciting well-worn
plot-lines cannot communicate the essence of the small tales: messages of hope
and reminders of home.
At the same time, due to the literary age or the sentimentality
of the season, all six selections tend to be overly cute. Reading them in succession
leaves the reader with the feeling of stomaching one too many peppermints. These
are best appreciated in small doses, when you need a little reminder of the
joy of the season.
Even better for harried adults than the candy-coated sweetness of
stories is the plain brown-bread nourishment of daily meditations presented
in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. In the words
of Alfred Delp, “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to
be genuinely shaken up.” This book attempts to do that for our sentimental image
of Christmas and it succeeds.
These meditations delve into topics such as the stable and the cross,
humility and the scandal of the Incarnation. J.B. Phillips says this well when
he writes: “What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of
God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever
blind us to its quiet and explosive significance.”
Through these meditations, my wakefulness toward Advent turned from
simply marking the time before Christmas to hearing in the readings the sound
of striking sulfur before the match catches flame. The Light is coming into
I could not read this all at once, but instead paused after each
passage. Each day’s meditation is beautiful, convincing and shocking, a cold
shower after fuzzy Christmas tales.
This book is laden with insight from classic and contemporary authors.
It is not trite, warm or fuzzy. But it is strong and true and altogether good.
You can order HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: Stories for Young and
Old, CHRISTMAS IN MY SOUL: A Third Collection and WATCH FOR THE LIGHT: Readings for Advent and Christmas from St.
THE THOMAS MERTON ENCYCLOPEDIA, by William H. Shannon, Christine
M. Bochen and Patrick F. O’Connell. Orbis Books. 556 pp. $50.
THOMAS MERTON: Essential Writings, by
Christine M. Bochen. Orbis Books. 191 pp. $14.
Reviewed by JULIE S. DONATI, a Catholic school teacher
who lives in Sugar Land, Texas. She is married to Marcello and has three children—ages
11, nine and a newly adopted baby. She is working on her M.A. in theology at
St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston.
A 20TH-CENTURY St. Augustine, Thomas Merton could easily be
called the most influential spiritual writer of the last century. Although it
is over 30 years since the Trappist monk’s untimely death on December 10, 1968,
his writings and life hold an abiding interest.
His prodigious works covered a wide spectrum of subjects and genres
including over a hundred books, countless essays and articles, poetry and photography,
and volumes of published letters and personal journals. Since his death, there
have been numerous books written on Merton describing his life, writings and
Who was Merton? He was a man of deep contemplative prayer. He was
a strident voice for peace and nonviolence. He was one of the first Catholic
writers to initiate a dialogue with the Eastern religious traditions.
Two new books have graced the Thomas Merton collection this year
alone, both from Orbis Books: The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia and Thomas
Merton: Essential Writings.
In his earlier book on Merton, Something
of a Rebel,
William Shannon repeatedly lamented the lack of any Merton
concordance or encyclopedia. As founding president of the
International Thomas Merton Society and a Merton scholar,
Shannon is well qualified to undertake this collegial project
with fellow Merton scholars Christine Bochen and Patrick O’Connell
in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia.
In this large volume, replete with 350 entries and enhanced by 50
illustrations, Shannon has undertaken to “organize it [Merton’s literary output]
into some workable, user-friendly form.”
The bulk of the encyclopedia, which starts with a chronology of
Merton’s life and works, is dedicated to descriptions of Merton’s writings and
the essential themes that emerge, such as love, peace and racism. Also included
are brief biographies of influential persons he knew and brief descriptions
of the places where he lived.
It’s a veritable treasure trove for Merton aficionados. I have found
it particularly useful cross-referencing texts, themes or people.
Not only a must-have for any Merton scholar, it is also a valuable
resource for those new to Merton. Given Merton’s prolific writing, a neophyte
can easily become confused or overwhelmed. Referring to this immense literary
output, Shannon observes, “The number of items is staggering.” The Thomas
Merton Encyclopedia will fill gaps and answer questions quickly and easily.
The Modern Spiritual Masters Series, by Orbis Books, is designed
to introduce “the writing and vision of some of the great spiritual masters
of the 20th century whose spiritual journeys were shaped by the concerns of
our age.” The latest in this series is Thomas Merton: Essential Writings.
Christine Bochen, co-author of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia and editor
of two of Merton’s journals, has brought together an assortment
of writings to offer an overview of three central themes in
Merton’s spirituality: contemplation, compassion and unity.
While Bochen acknowledges that any anthology is a daunting
task, she stresses that her book is not meant to be a comprehensive
collection of Merton’s writings. In her Preface, she details
three recent major anthologies and explains their particular
emphases and their differences from her work.
In only 191 pages, Bochen’s book fulfills its primary objective:
to “offer a taste of Merton to lure readers to read more of Merton for themselves.”
The book opens with a brief overview of Merton’s life and spiritual
quest. The bulk of the volume is then dedicated to exploring the three themes.
Most excerpts have a small explanatory preface situating the work in the context
of Merton’s life. Underscoring her thorough knowledge of Merton, Bochen offers
some less familiar selections from Merton’s personal letters, prefaces to particular
editions or obscure talks.
Before Merton, few people had any accurate understanding of what
it was to be a monk or a contemplative. The popularity of Merton’s writing did
much to overcome this obstacle. Bochen reflects on this in some excerpts such
as, “In the silence of the countryside and the forest, in the cloistered solitude
of my monastery, I have discovered the whole Western Hemisphere. Here I have
been able...to explore the New World, without traveling from city to city, without
flying over the Andes or the Amazon.”
Bochen’s book is well suited for those interested in delving deeper
into Merton and unsure where to start. By selecting just three essential themes,
Bochen serves as a helpful guide in leading the reader into Merton’s writing
without overwhelming the reader with either a comprehensive overview or a detailed
Both The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia and Essential Writings
are unique contributions to the growing body of Merton literature, and would
benefit all readers and serve as a guide for today’s Merton seekers.
You can order THE THOMAS MERTON ENCYCLOPEDIA and THOMAS MERTON: Essential Writings from St.
CHRISTMAS PRESENCE: Twelve Gifts That Were More Than They Seemed, edited by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce. ACTA Publications. 157 pp. $17.95.
Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, managing editor of this
publication. She is a graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism.
SOMEHOW GIFTS have been at the heart of Christmas long before consumerism
dictated that Christmas shopping begin the day after Halloween.
The gifts in these stories are the kinds brought by the Magi,
tangible expressions of the heart with far-reaching effects.
The publisher, who is also the book’s editor, Greg Pierce,
has gotten 12 spiritual writers to recall a special Christmas
gift they received and “reveal how it evoked emotions and
feelings that are both priceless and unforgettable.”
Because these writers are so good, they can describe the incidents
succinctly and convey the emotions vividly as if everything happened no earlier
than last Christmas. They are emotional without being maudlin, nostalgic without
being sappy, timeless without sacrificing contemporary situations.
I picked up this book because I know Pierce. Two of these authors
(James Stephen Behrens and Alice Camille) have written for St. Anthony Messenger.
And five others I’ve met in the professional world of Catholic publishing. The
book has already been selected as a “Feature Book” by Spiritual Book Associates.
That predisposed me to like the book, but the stories really sold
it. I’m a sucker for dog stories, so I headed for “I Had Already Named Him Buddy,”
by Patrick Hannon, and ended up teary-eyed. John Shea’s description of his family’s
Christmas tree, a gangly fir with one long branch at the top that “stuck out
like E.T.’s finger,” a bottom branch that grew straight down and “a waistband
of short branches” that gave “the impression that the tree was sucking in its
stomach for a Christmas photo,” reminded me of most of the Christmas trees of
my childhood. (Upon seeing the tree, Shea’s brother Alex commented, “Now I know
why they invented artificial trees.”)
The gifts are only an excuse to talk about family and relationships
and what’s most important in life. For Tom McGrath, it’s what he learned from
his father by the example of his life. For eight-year-old Carol DeChant, it
was her maiden Aunt Harriet’s gift of a camera that opened her eyes to the world.
Jeff Behrens remembers how his family continued to put up his twin brother’s
Christmas stocking long after he had died.
The stories are not Pollyanna-ish. There is mention of abortion,
spiritual malaise, estranged grandparents, alcoholism and homosexuality. But
these people have grown through their life experiences, and that is reflected
in their thoughts on Christmas. Why can’t there be a frog in the manger?
One of the most touching stories is in Pierce’s Introduction, where he explains
how the “gift” of his crying two-year-old daughter allowed
him to recognize the sacred in his daily life.
These authors are sharing the stories of the presents that reveal
“the essence of Christmas—the divine presence that permeates the world.” This
book is just such a gift to us.
You can order CHRISTMAS PRESENCE: Twelve Gifts That Were More Than They Seemed
from St. Francis
NUREMBERG: The Reckoning: A Novel, by William F. Buckley, Jr. Harcourt,
Inc. 366 pp. $25.
Reviewed by EMILY McCORMACK, an author and adjunct faculty
member of the College of DuPage in Illinois. Her brother, Staff Sgt. Walter
Sammon, now deceased, was a court reporter at the war crimes trials in Germany.
He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
NUREMBERG—Die Meistersinger? Wagner? Nein! Nuremberg—war
In studying Nazi Germany, future American historians will no doubt
refer to William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or William
Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp, or the many autobiographies and
biographies of well-known figures like Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Albert
Speer, Rudolph Hess and Erwin Rommel. Adolf Hitler’s own Mein Kaempf,
obviously, would be a must-read for those historians.
These same students of history, unless they are total intellectual
snobs, would do well also to read You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas
Wolfe. In this, his last autobiographical book, Wolfe captures the brooding
and threatening atmosphere of Germany in the 1930s.
Now comes Nuremberg: The Reckoning, a novel by William
F. Buckley, Jr.
“A novel?” these historians might cry, abashed.
“Yes,” I say. “And yes again. A novel.”
Not only is Buckley’s new (his 44th) book unapologetically a novel;
it is also incredibly readable, fast-paced, a real page-turner, and—most important
of all—accurate and believable. Clearly, Buckley has done his homework.
Starting on the first page, the reader becomes caught up in the
lives of the Reinhard family. We follow young Sebastian (“Sebby”) from the hour
he leaves Germany to go to America and there, with his mother, makes his home.
His father is forbidden by Nazi authorities to leave Germany.
Most of the story takes place after World War II, during the Nuremberg
war crimes trials. Because Sebastian, now in the United States Army, is fluent
in German, his first language, he is assigned as one of the many interpreters
at the trials. He had left Germany as a young boy and now returns as a young
Buckley leads us back and forth in time and place, almost casually,
to describe the atmosphere and to fill in all necessary details of the war-crimes
trials and of the Reinhard family. Obediently, we follow him through to the
Buckley lays the scene before us. Like the rest of Germany, Nuremberg,
where the trials are to take place, is still reeling from the war. Enter dramatis
personae: American Justice Robert Jackson and other judges, high-ranking
Nazi prisoners on trial, lawyers, interpreters, stenographers, each with a special
role to play. Expert technicians prepare the earphones, recorders, amplifiers,
toggle switches and other paraphernalia necessary to make the trial run smoothly.
Finally, the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg who are found guilty
are sentenced to be hanged. Goering, who committed suicide, has the last laugh
on the executioner.
The story of Sebastian Reinhard and his parents runs parallel to
the trials. The last poignant truth about this family lingers in the reader’s
mind after the final chapter.
Nuremberg: The Reckoning recounts a time in history that
should never be forgotten. Buckley’s fine book helps us to remember.
You can order NUREMBERG: The Reckoning: A Novel
from St. Francis
FATHER MYCHAL JUDGE: An Authentic American Hero, by Michael Ford.
Paulist Press. 176 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by JOHN BOOKSER FEISTER, an assistant editor of
this publication, who co-wrote an award-winning article about Mychal Judge for
our December 2001 issue.
IN THE RUSH OF EVENTS surrounding September 11, 2001, the image
of Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M., emerged as one of heroic self-sacrifice.
The media-savvy FDNY chaplain was well known in New York City. Within
a day of the terrorist attacks, a fantastic, mournful photograph of his corpse
being carried from the rubble of the World Trade Center was showing up everywhere
in the world via newspapers, TV and Internet.
His closeness to high-ranking public officials, including then
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, along with the powerful righteousness of his
dying act, cemented his celebrity.
The magazine stories came, each written under extreme deadline,
each homing in on some aspect of the man’s life that could be grabbed and rushed
into print. Now, a year after his death, Michael Ford and Paulist Press have
provided us a more complete and satisfying picture of this complex hero.
Journalist Michael Ford calls the biography an “impressionistic
portrait,” based on interviews with friends of Father Judge. He was unaware
of the friar before the terrorist attack. Ford is the author of a recent biography
of Henri Nouwen, Wounded Prophet, also by Paulist Press.
The strength of Ford’s work is the breadth with which he approaches
his subject. Here we learn, in separate chapters, about Mychal the Franciscan,
the Irishman, the homosexual, the alcoholic, the firefighter chaplain, the New
York celebrity. Ford perceptively uses deep Catholic, Franciscan imagery to
help us understand what made Mychal Judge tick.
We learn that Judge struggled with alcoholism early in his priesthood,
and was 17 years sober at his death, with the constant help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
We read about the search for Irish identity in this immigrant son, who ultimately
achieved dual citizenship in Ireland and the United States. We learn that, on
sabbatical in England some years back, Father Judge came to grips with his homosexuality
and made a conscious decision to become more open about it. (He was selective
with this information, however.)
Not only do we hear that Mychal Judge worked with AIDS victims,
but we are also reminded that he did so during the earliest years of the epidemic
in the 1980s, when no one knew why people were dying or what the risks of care
were. Like St. Francis with the leper, Mychal was moved to compassion by the
isolation of the AIDS sufferers. He came to those whom no one would touch and
offered comforting massages along with prayerful concern.
Ford entitles one section of his book “Charism of the Wounds,” another
“Seraphic Wounds,” indicating his familiarity with the Franciscan themes around
which Mychal Judge lived his life.
Most helpful, perhaps, is Ford’s nuanced treatment of Judge’s homosexual
orientation, in a chapter with a Nouwenesque title, “Courage to Be.” He leaves
us with a solid sense that Judge was committed to living a chaste, celibate
life. “Out of his incompletion flowed a fruitful longing,” writes Ford. He continues,
“Always aware that public knowledge of his sexual identity could undermine his
work, he invariably kept quiet because he did not want homophobia to compromise
Of all the people Ford interviewed, one wonders why there is no
evident interview with Judge’s close friend and eulogist Father Michael Duffy.
This book is a very good start at appreciating someone who defies
easy categorization. Writes Ford, “What marked out his holiness was precisely
his refusal to inhabit any niche of conventional sanctity....Here was a friar
who dared to be himself.”
You can order FATHER MYCHAL JUDGE: An Authentic American Hero
from St. Francis
Books can be obtained through St.
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