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Former Slave is Candidate for Sainthood

PIERRE TOUSSAINT: A Biography, by Arthur Jones. Doubleday. 326 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

WRITING A SAINT’S STORY as biography rather than hagiography is a genuine service. Arthur Jones has exercised a lot of self-control for a Catholic. He’s written about Pierre Toussaint (1781-1853), a candidate for sainthood, as though Toussaint were the reader’s peer.

Pierre Toussaint, this reader must admit, doesn’t appear to have any flaws (occasionally, he responded strongly to racism, but surely that’s no flaw), so he isn’t entirely my peer. Still, he does lead a life nuanced with ups and downs, adventures and humdrum everydayness. I prefer saints like this—neither flogging themselves till they bleed nor so enraptured by visions that they float.

Because I’ve read what Arthur Jones calls the “bedrock” material (Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee’s Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, 1854), Toussaint’s life story was no surprise to me. But Jones’s book provides a thorough historical context for Toussaint’s life in Santo Domingo (then a French West Indian colony, which the author usually calls Saint Dominque).

Jones also creates a lively context for Toussaint’s life in New York, which gave me an enriched perspective on Toussaint’s milieu in this nation. (I hadn’t known, for instance, that New York City was the nation’s capital in 1789-1790. Nor had I fathomed the extent of northern racism.)

Pierre Toussaint was born into slavery and came to New York as a slave. His employer/owner, Marie Elizabeth Bérard, freed him only on her deathbed, even though Toussaint actually supported her from her widowhood in 1801 to her death in 1807. And he did this behind the scenes, so as not to embarrass her sense of dignity, it would appear.

In New York, he learned the trade of a hairdresser and was sought after by society women. In his day, hair stylists did their magic in the homes of their clients. Pierre Toussaint worked in some very high-class households.

I have certainly attributed more than one miracle to women and men who have wielded scissors, combs, curling irons and magical foams and sprays around my head. But to think that a man whose profession was styling hair was so good a human being that he’s now a candidate for sainthood stirs me deeply. If hair stylists can be saints, after all, can editors and book reviewers be far behind? I’m edified, encouraged and strengthened by further proof that sanctity is open to us all—even if we’re married, as was Toussaint.

Toussaint was first a slave, then a free man. Jones writes, in both conditions, “There was nothing servile about him.” Both his youthful wife, Juliette, and his adopted daughter, Euphemie, preceded him in death. He was a generous philanthropist to individuals and to Church institutions. He risked his life tending neglected yellow-fever patients in New York. That’s as exciting as it gets.

It does excite me—and it moved Arthur Jones, his biographer to mainstream America. Jones wrote 323 pages. He apparently read Euphemie’s charming collection of notes in French to her stepfather. Jones’s approach is objective, historical and detached. When he’s speculating, he says so.

He wasn’t as careful with sources as I would have liked. Footnotes can put readers off, but to say that “quoted and paraphrased” historical context about Toussaint’s boyhood in Santo Domingo came from one of two books, unless otherwise noted, felt a bit cavalier.

I believe the work of Arthur Jones will serve well to introduce Pierre Toussaint to a wider audience. It probably won’t be long before we, like some of Toussaint’s own contemporaries, can call him “saint.” And I suspect St. Martin de Porres will have to share his assignment as patron saint of hair stylists. I’m already invoking Pierre Toussaint’s assistance on bad-hair days!

You can order PIERRE TOUSSAINT: A Biography from St. Francis Bookshop.

A MIRACLE FOR ST. CECILIA'S, by Katherine Valentine. Viking. 278 pp. $23.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian and member of the St. Anthony Messenger Press Advisory Board.

THE PUBLICATION of A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s is a miracle in itself. Viking Books has released a thoroughly Catholic novel, peopled with delightful characters mostly living in harmony with each other, although there are a few run-ins between the Catholics and members of the Congregationalist church. The sole villain is the bishop of the diocese! There are no sordid sexual episodes, no bad language and no renegade priests. But there are deep faith, broad humor and believable protagonists.

St. Cecilia’s Parish is in Dorsetville, a small New England town that has fallen on hard financial times due to the closing of the woolen mills which were its chief employers. Father James Flaherty, the middle-aged pastor, has been given three years to attempt a turnaround but, while deeply bonding with the 100 or fewer families remaining, has been unable to attain financial stability.

The bishop has decreed that the parish is to close on Easter Sunday. The story begins on Ash Wednesday with the introduction of the main characters: the pastor, an aged Irish priest who founded the parish, their very opinionated housekeeper, five elderly men and women who are daily Mass attendees, a suspended high school student, the Petersons, an aged Jewish man, the heating contractor/fire marshal and the sheriff.

Although the last three characters are non-Catholic, all are aware of the vital role the Church plays in the community and are adamant about saving St. Cecilia’s. How this comes about with both human and divine intervention provides the plot of the novel.

Mrs. Valentine’s prose is light and breezy with a liberal use of dialogue. She excels in having characters exemplify their faith by living it rather than preaching it.

Here is a description of Harriet Bedford’s prayer ministry: “She kept a small brown leather prayer journal, easily fitted inside her purse or an apron pocket, filled with the hundreds of prayer requests she had received through the years. Written on its ruled lines were petitions for renewed health, better jobs, financial assistance or the myriad needs people encountered along life’s way. People asked her to pray, not because her prayers were more powerful than theirs, but to help them uphold those prayers before God’s throne, as Aaron once had held up Moses’ arms as the battles raged. And so she prayed.”

Bob and Lori Peterson exemplify patient acceptance of God’s will as they await a bone-marrow match. Less successful is a longish exercise in apologetics that Father Flaherty delivers to a fallen-away Catholic in intensive care who manages to ask the right questions and accept forgiveness just in the nick of time.

A few errors in Catholic practices are present, such as complete fasting from food until sundown on Good Friday, disregarding the law of abstinence on Ash Wednesday and having a contemporary priest remain for 40 years in one parish. But these are small failings in a wholesome, easily readable book which can be enjoyed by virtually any reader.

An American folk artist experiencing physical and financial problems of her own, Katherine Valentine acknowledges at the conclusion of this first novel that: “...God sent me the idea for this book and the assurance that its sale would abundantly answer my prayer.”

Similar to the best-selling fictional series by Jan Karon that is set in Mitford, North Carolina, and features an Episcopal priest, A Miracle for St. Cecilia’s is to be the first of a series of books, presumably utilizing the same Connecticut setting and characters. May this and future books be as popular! I highly recommend this novel as light reading for all ages.

You can order A MIRACLE FOR ST. CECILIA'S from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, by Margaret Visser. North Point Press. 320 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 toddler. She is working on her M.A. in theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston.

AT FIRST GLANCE, it might seem a formidable task to write over 260 pages describing an “ordinary” church (as if any church building in Rome can be ordinary!). Yet that is exactly what Margaret Visser accomplishes in her latest book, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church—this, and so much more in a detailed and highly informative blend of history, theology and architecture.

Her intent is to “...give readers an inkling of the spiritual, cultural, and historical riches that any church offers.” Visser, a cultural anthropologist and an award-winning author, has written an account of the meanings, culture and history that are embodied in a single, “ordinary” church.

She chose Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura (outside the walls) in Rome, not a grandiose church yet one replete with history. Built in honor of St. Agnes, who was stabbed to death for her refusal to marry the son of a Roman prefect, the church was begun in the seventh century and continuously modified over time.

Visser takes us through the entire church, including the catacombs resting underneath, in an exploration of detailed proportions. Intended for a general audience, the book is so exquisitely researched that readers of any background will profit from it.

Proceeding through the building and its grounds, Visser takes us on a voyage in time, smoothly switching between the particular and concrete features of St. Agnes to the general. Thus, she describes not only the relics of St. Agnes, including how they came to reside there, but also the historical development of relics in general.

The spiritual aspect is beautifully interwoven when Visser frequently explores the spiritual significance of parts of the church as seemingly mundane as the central aisle. She moves deftly from Latin to early Church history, to biblical exegesis, to architectural development, to spiritual practice.

The church jumps out at us, bigger than life. My only complaint would be that I desired to see some visuals—a written layout, or perhaps even some photos, of this gloriously detailed church.

Perfect for someone traveling to Rome, The Geometry of Love is meant to be not just a tourist guide but also a meditation on all that a church can offer to us, to our senses, to our spiritual life.

A church is more than the building in which a community gathers to worship together. It is a place to reflect on the great history of the Catholic Church, the richness and depth of all its traditions, a history which Visser successfully helps us appreciate as Catholics.

You can order THE GEOMETRY OF LOVE: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE WISDOM OF TENDERNESS: What Happens When God's Fierce Mercy Transforms Our Lives, by Brendan Manning. HarperSanFrancisco. 179 pp. $21.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.MIN., a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit for 26 years on special assignment as a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Cura Animarum/Cure of the Soul. A longtime religion writer for The Detroit News, he recently wrote A Pearl a Day: Wise Sayings for Living Well (Jeremiah Press), the edited notes of his boyhood pastor, the Rev. Edward D. Popielarz.

LIVE IN GOD’S tender mercy, says Brennan Manning in The Wisdom of Tenderness. Manning is also the author of Ragamuffin Gospel and 11 other books.

When one experiences God’s love, one knows real peace, the author assures the reader. One is home then, in grace and mercy.

From the author’s own woes as an alcoholic to his mystical meeting with the fatherly Mephisto, the reader is swooped up into Manning’s eventual encounter with tenderness and mercy’s transforming ways. Here emerges a changed heart and mind.

The key to unlocking the door to God’s awesome mercy is the mind of Christ, Manning says in the seventh chapter, a treatise on forgiveness, reverence and compassion.

In the final pages, he says: “Imagination focused on Jesus and anchored in his Word liberates us from the tyranny of the existing arrangement; unglues us from the stuckness of the status quo; unlocks closed doors so that we can look anew at Torah, Christ, Church, and cosmos; implies that I can be more than I am at any given moment; and promises that the epitaph on my tombstone will read more than, ‘He muttered his prayers, mowed his lawn, and lost a thousand golf balls.’”

Tenderness has vanished, Manning complains. The freedom of Christ has been obscured. Calling for a mentor for each member of the Church,Manning proposes that the Church raise its bar for membership, while encouraging a system of support.

In the spirit of the now 40-year-old Vatican II and its renewal, Manning musters the courage to be fear-free, suggesting growth from the inside out.

Sin is the enemy of tenderness for Manning. And, as a practitioner of the 12-step spirituality of Alcoholics Anonymous, Manning knows that his culture’s “best” thinking got us to this place of disarray. A tender examination of conscience (Step 4) is where Manning’s transition started.

Quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, Manning tells the reader that, even from a person’s sins, God has drawn good. To love one’s whole story is living in tenderness.

In his 40 years of pastoral experience, Manning reluctantly confesses how he has “observed disciples of Jesus badger, bully and bludgeon themselves into earning God’s mercy.” Just accept it, he seems to shout.

In the middle of the media’s obsession with singling out Catholic priests and abuse of power, I needed the soothing salve of this seasoned pilgrim. He helped heal this fractured heart.

You can order THE WISDOM OF TENDERNESS: What Happens When God's Fierce Mercy Transforms Our Lives from St. Francis Bookshop.

WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE DRINKS TOO MUCH, by William F. Kraft, Ph.D. Servant Publications. 200 pp. $11.95.

Reviewed by JAMES VAN VURST, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest and pastoral counselor.

THERE’S NO QUESTION that alcoholism is a major problem in the United States. Current estimates are that 14 million adults (1 in every 13) are alcoholics or problem drinkers, which translates to nearly a tenth of the U.S. population! This is not even counting adolescent alcohol abuse, which we know is growing rampantly in high schools and colleges.

William F. Kraft, Ph.D., the author of eight books on alcoholism, spirituality and spiritual growth, has written a book with primary focus on the attitudes and behavior of those who are involved with drinkers.

The author begins by listing some basic alcoholic patterns such as the “ticking time bomb, the closet drinker, the polished drinker and the borderline drinker.” The descriptions are such that anyone who is in conflict with a problem drinker will probably exclaim, “Yes, that sounds just like him [or her].”

While the book is filled with information about the alcoholic and problem drinker, however, Kraft is always speaking to the loved one or the person facing daily painful interactions with the drinker. The readers are challenged again and again to face their own behavior rather than that of the alcoholic with whom they live.

The difficult truth is simply that we cannot change the problem drinker. We can only change ourselves. More often than one realizes, it is the family member who unconsciously encourages or enables the drinker to continue.

Kraft emphasizes the best way to deal with the alcoholic is to face one’s own issues and one’s relationship with God. He doesn’t do this in any blaming sort of way, however.

On the contrary, Kraft knows that spouses and children are often paralyzed by the situations they face every day. So often the suffering family members sabotage their own growth and health while experiencing the terrible tension and frustration of daily living with an alcohol abuser.

Kraft supports and encourages the readers with specific directions in order to face themselves and the issues.

Kraft gives some clear and realistic advice to make some changes in oneself. It involves reading, prayer or prayer groups or counseling. There’s no magic in the hard work of self-growth.

If the person works to change himself or herself (and it is hard work), change can paradoxically take place in the other person. How? It’s the mysterious power of relationship where healing can take place.

All through the book, the person of faith is reminded that there is a source of strength available from one’s relationship with God. A theologically solid chapter on forgiveness points out how many false and self-defeating ideas people have about what it means to forgive.

Kraft emphasizes that, without a realization of God’s help, the person will indeed experience powerlessness. A deep and lively faith in God allows for possibilities and hopes that otherwise would be more like daydreams and wishful thinking. The person, understanding God’s presence in his or her life, need not feel isolated and, in fact, is not isolated. God’s presence and strength become real.

The author also deals with problem drinking among teenagers as well as adults and spouses.

The last chapter treats the issue of “Now what?” when the alcoholic has stopped drinking.

“In the end, recovery from alcoholism (for ourselves or our loved ones) is not a state or condition but more a process of imperfectly and only gradually growing in perfection.”

You can order WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE DRINKS TOO MUCH from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

From years of reporting on the U.S. bishops’ conference, I have concluded that bishops have very different personalities, interests and priorities, as these books attest.

POEMS THROWN INTO THE WIND, by Robert F. Morneau (Paisa Publishing, 94 pp., $9.95), grew out of the daily meditations of the auxiliary bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The poems are simple, observant, questioning. I like best Bishop Morneau’s “Eschatology” (“If creation speaks of dependence,/eschatology tells of destiny./Maybe the first things and the last/are the same:/God’s love.”

LEADERSHIP IN THE CHURCH: How Traditional Roles Can Serve the Christian Community Today, by Walter Cardinal Kasper (A Herder & Herder Book/The Crossroad Publishing Company, 240 pp., $24.95). Former professor at the University of Tübingen, Cardinal Kasper was called to the Vatican to work with interreligious affairs and now laity issues. Here he writes about deacons, priests and bishops, the apostolic succession and the relationship of local churches to the Universal Church.

REVELATION AND THE CHURCH: Vatican II in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Raymond A. Lucker and William C. McDonough (Orbis Books, 283 pp., $24). Organized around the great constitutions of the Council (revelation, ecclesiology, liturgy, Catholicism in modern life), these essays by various authors reflect on those documents.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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