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SURPRISING BUT TRUE: A PRAYERFUL COUNTRY

Q U I C K S C A N

ONE NATION UNDER GOD: The History of Prayer in America
THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: A Pyschiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth
JOURNEY IN A HOLY LAND: A Spiritual Journal
CARYLL HOUSELANDER: Essential Writings
WELCOME TO THE BANGKOK SLAUGHTERHOUSE: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok's Bleakest Slums
LETTERS FROM ROME DURING VATICAN II
RELIGIOUS PIONEERS


ONE NATION UNDER GOD: The History of Prayer in America, by James P. Moore, Jr. Doubleday. 520 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

IF ASKED to describe the United States, would the first adjective to jump into your head be “prayerful”? After perusal of James P. Moore, Jr.’s book, it would seem that no other description is as accurate.

From the Native American inhabitants to the modern era of immigrants practicing myriad religions, we Americans have been a praying people. Moore is neither a historian nor a clergyman but a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He has produced an impressive study of the effects of prayer on virtually all facets of American life.

In 16 chapters, Moore thoroughly documents his text with excerpts from the writings of the individuals chronicled or those of firsthand witnesses, which necessitates 34 pages of Notes and a 15-page Index. Readers will find no legends here.

Early explorers were deeply religious and mandated how their crews would pray daily. Christopher Columbus was a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, as were his sponsors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. In Jamestown, Virginia, in 1610 a law was passed that all residents should attend morning and evening prayer services, enumerating the punishments to be leveled for absence.

The Founding Fathers, Moore writes, used prayer as “a coalescing tool to bring together widely disparate colonies, communities, and churches.” At the First Continental Convention, after the report of a British incursion in Boston, the delegates prayed “for America, for Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston.” John Adams wrote in his diary that the prayer and emotions expressed were “as permanent, as affectionate, as sublime, as devout, as I have ever heard offered up to Heaven.”

Every president has acknowledged the existence of a higher power in his inaugural address; admittedly with varying degrees of belief and, possibly, for ulterior motives. But all presidents, sooner or later, would call upon and acknowledge this power to aid in carrying the heavy burden of office.

John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States, inaugurated prayers for the country’s leaders to be recited after Mass on Sundays to allay suspicions that Catholics were loyal only to the pope. Carroll composed a special prayer on the occasion of President Washington’s birthday in 1794. Carroll was foresighted enough to request permission of the Holy See to use English for all Mass prayers to help integrate Catholic immigrants.

Publishing in the United States began with The Bay Psalm Book; a hymnal was the first songbook. These overtly religious writings were followed by uniquely American poetry, prose, drama, art, dance and architecture executed by talented people using their expertise to praise the Almighty.

The Jazz Singer, the story of a Jewish cantor, was the first talking movie. The first American opera to be written and staged was George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which has songs like “Oh Doctor Jesus” and “Oh Lawd, I’m on My Way.”

The chapter entitled “The Dreamers: The Legacy of Slavery” alone is worth the price of the book. Dealing largely with Frederick Douglass, a slave who was able to buy his freedom and work for the release of other slaves, the narrative is spellbinding in detailing the role that prayer played individually and communally in the life of a slave.

Many unique spirituals were introduced to the country and the world in 1871 by the touring Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, and the response was overwhelming. Andrew Ward, music biographer, has said the spirituals “not only declared faith but carried news, raised protests, expressed grief, asked questions, made jokes, lubricated a slave’s never-ending toil.”

Many industrialists felt called upon to aid the religious cause: Andrew Carnegie purchasing 7,000 organs for churches and schools, the J.C. Penney Foundation providing funds for care of retired ministers and Church workers. Military leaders encouraged prayer and often led by personal example.

Most of us will have lived through the events recounted in the last five chapters, culminating in the second inauguration of George W. Bush, but there are still personal and often touching new insights here into the personalities behind the media reports. Yes, Moore exhibits some political favoritism, but seven years of research utilizing and reproducing primary resources on prayer from virtually every religious sect is a blockbuster publishing event. This historical compilation is as readable and accessible as a novel.

You can order ONE NATION UNDER GOD: The History of Prayer in America from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: A Pyschiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, by Gerald G. May, M.D. HarperSanFrancisco. 199 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., a Catholic priest and licensed psychotherapist, who is currently on special assignment for the Archdiocese of Detroit. His latest book is Securing Serenity in Troubling Times: Living a Day at a Time (Xulon Press).

ONE’S DARKEST MOMENTS lead to the freedom and joy that come from authentic spiritual growth, finds this physician-turned-spiritual director. A psychiatrist from Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland, May explores in seven chapters the connection between darkness and spiritual growth.

Dr. May shows how the drive for perfection leaves little room for one’s dark side (shadow, to use Jung’s term) as a key ingredient in the spiritual life. A cancer survivor himself and now a candidate for a heart transplant, May finds consolation in his own desolation in the thoughts of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Both saints knew psychology well, long before it became a formal field of study.

“With amazing accuracy they described psychological phenomena that would later be called defense mechanism, behavioral conditioning, addictive and affective disorders, and psychosis.” May admits that, in his opinion, “they had clearer insights into the dynamics of consciousness and attention than most modern neuroscientists do.”

Without a doubt, these two mystics were on a quest to find God; psychology was merely a tool to appreciate and understand the struggle.

In converting trials into graced events, these 16th-century Spanish mystics discovered that “in the dark night” there was a letting go of addictive control, powerlessness and freedom. One’s dark night, May concludes, gives way to depth, dimension and fullness in the spiritual life.

Out of the “night” comes the dawn, and love is born from the experience of dawn, May suggests.

Spiritual guide and Thomas Merton specialist Joann Loria of Detroit said, “This book was the best commentary I have ever read on the Dark Night experience.” I concur.

May’s comparisons of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are gripping. Where John is analytical, Teresa is gentle, earthy, even sensuous in her writings.

A brief example of quest is in John’s Spiritual Canticle, where the bride (soul) screams to her lover (God): “You fled like a deer after wounding me, and I went out, calling for you, and you were gone.” In their frustration, John calls this episode “God’s games,” while Teresa of Avila calls it “war.” It is the “wound of love” for both of them, however. Affirming life as “neither cruel nor antagonistic,” love is about liberating, enlivening, longing and seeking, they conclude.

May’s own journey of despair and hope—against the backdrop of mystics who pointed a way to depth and meaning—leads the reader to experience deepening trust in the face of pain and heartaches.

You can order THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: A Pyschiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

JOURNEY IN A HOLY LAND: A Spiritual Journal, by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. Preface by Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O. Paraclete Press. 177 pp. $21.95.

Reviewed by HILARION KISTNER, O.F.M., editor of Homily Helps, published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.

A QUESTION pops up as soon as one reads the title: Why call the book Journey in “a” Holy Land rather than Journey in “the” Holy Land? After all, the substance of the book deals with the author’s spiritual adventures in the Holy Land. My take on the title is this: Granted the importance of the material locations, more important are the prayerful experiences of the author about the holy land of his inner life with God.

We learn a good bit about Pennington from the Preface by his former abbot, Thomas Keating, and from the author’s own statements. The Preface by Keating is the homily he delivered for Pennington’s funeral. From this homily and from the author’s own statements, we gather that Pennington was larger than life, exuberant, adventuresome, a man ready for any challenge, an initiator of action. He was also prayerful, introspective, aware of his limitations and his need for God’s grace and forgiveness.

In the course of his journey, the author refers frequently to centering prayer, for which he had become famous through his books and lectures. But in this book he is more concerned about the events that took place in various locations of Palestine and the New Testament passages that describe these events. He provides his own translations of the New Testament texts and appends his prayerful reflections.

His reflections are insightful and practical. Here are some examples:

In Nazareth he quotes and meditates on Luke 1:26-38, the Annunciation. He spent a long time in silence. He then engaged in centering prayer, losing himself in God’s presence. He has a sense of the Word being made flesh anew in his own life. He observes that we can do nothing better in our lives than to provide another life for the Word in our world today.

After this, he quotes Luke 4:16-30. Though the scene begins and remains a beautiful and marvelous narrative of Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-3 (“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me...”), Pennington reflects on the rejection of Jesus by his townspeople. He concentrates on the terrible experience it had to be for Mary. At that time and in the future, Mary must have suffered from the snide remarks of the people of Nazareth.

Pennington confesses that there is something about Nazareth he does not like. Yes, he does revere it as the place where the Son of God became flesh. Mary’s sufferings, however, remind him how religious-minded people can sometimes be nasty.

At Calvary, Pennington notices the strange mingling of languages, activities, groups moving about or resting. He wonders whether Calvary should be like this. Maybe so. Maybe it is a reminder that Jesus’ passion, even though the greatest act of love, played itself out in mayhem. It points to the fact that Jesus did not hesitate to immerse himself in a world that was far from perfect in order to permeate it with the grace and love of God.

These examples indicate, I think, the flavor of Pennington’s reflections in the Holy Land. They also suggest the simplicity of his style. He does not seem to make any special effort to tickle the ears with fancy language. This leads to a feeling of immediacy: He is in direct contact with whoever is willing to listen.

The book has a map of main sites in the Holy Land visited by the author.

In general, this is a fine book. Those who read it with prayerful care will come to a deeper appreciation of the Gospels and a closer walk with God in the holy land of their spirituality.

You can order JOURNEY IN A HOLY LAND: A Spiritual Journal from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

CARYLL HOUSELANDER: Essential Writings, by Wendy M. Wright. Orbis Books. 223 pp. $16.

Reviewed by JULIE DONATI, a freelance writer and teacher of theology at St. Agnes Academy in Houston, Texas.

WHAT A PERFECT MATCH: spiritual writer Wendy Wright penning the latest entry in the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series and Caryll Houselander, the subject of that book and a British mystic who enjoyed a wide audience among English Catholics during the World War II era. When Houselander died in 1954, she left a prodigious legacy of spiritual and other writings, numbering over 700 pieces.

Houselander pursued a life of active service to others, working and writing with a passion that was distinctive. She was an unusual woman: an artist, a wood-carver, a children’s book illustrator, a social activist, an innovative healer of war-traumatized children, a prolific author and a visionary.

At first blush, Houselander’s writing might seem dated and overly devotional. Wright, however, presents a compelling portrait by selecting some rare texts, interviews and unpublished personal letters archived at the University of Notre Dame to give an amazingly comprehensive picture of Houselander.

Organized thematically, chapters begin with a brief Preamble by Wright followed by selected writings covering a wide range of social, political and religious topics, in a broadly chronological order. Wright starts by describing the foundational elements of Houselander’s life: her Baptism at age six, her solitary childhood and a series of visions that caused her dramatic conversion and formed the basis of her spirituality.

Houselander interpreted these visions to mean that Christ was present in everyone: the rich and the powerful, the poor and the oppressed, the loved and the hated. Our duty, as empty vessels, was to allow the “flowering of Christ” inside by having complete trust and dying to self, as Christ did by becoming man.

This theme of complete openness to God’s will is omnipresent in her work. In a private notebook she wrote, “The train is an image of God’s will, first of all we must be sure we are on the right train, then just let ourselves be carried on, all the way is lovely, but all must be left behind.”

Wright, who has written extensively on the contemplative dimension of the ordinary, highlights that in Houselander’s writings. One chapter is dedicated to work as a contemplative experience, an act of creative love. She wrote, “Work was to be a way of entering into and sharing the experience of God Himself.”

Not a theologian, she touched people with her simple, loving words—not unlike Thérèse of Lisieux. Yet Houselander calls us to a radical commitment, to be “heroic Christians,” “empty reeds” for God, to throw away “all the trifling unnecessary things in life.”

Wright includes a wide variety of selections: illustrations, children’s stories, private journal entries, interviews and poetry. I have yet to read a book about Houselander that gives so comprehensive and faithful a portrait of her as this one does. I highly recommend it!

You can order CARYLL HOUSELANDER: Essential Writings from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

WELCOME TO THE BANGKOK SLAUGHTERHOUSE: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums, written by Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R. Foreword by Jerry Hopkins. Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd. Distributed by Tuttle Publishing. 158 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER HEFFRON, an assistant editor of this publication.

THE PHRASE “Home Sweet Home” usually conjures images of happy families sitting around a fire in the living room. But for children who grow up in the Thai slums of Klong Toey, that kind of Norman Rockwell utopia is foreign, even absurd. The people of this forgotten place live with a much darker reality. Hazards like AIDS, pedophilia, child prostitution and drug use are commonplace. Welcome to the slums.

In a series of short, shocking and poignant stories, Redemptorist Father Joe Maier, C.Ss.R., writes of Bangkok’s most forgotten citizens and the brave men and women who have given their lives to saving others. (This is the same heroic priest that St. Anthony Messenger featured in a September 2005 article.)

Father Joe came to Thailand in 1967 as a missionary. In 1972, he founded the Human Development Foundation in the Klong Toey slums to combat the barrage of miseries that infects the area and its beleaguered people.

As the title of the book suggests, those looking for a leisurely read would be wise to look elsewhere: One must have a strong heart to navigate the devastating stories that Father Joe provides.

Meet Malee, a nine-year-old girl abandoned by her parents and left in the care of her uncle, an alcoholic and pedophile; or Master Nong, an 11- year-old with AIDS whose junkie parents both died young; or Miss Noina, a third-grader who went to school and then cooked, cleaned and cared for her AIDS-infected mother. Noina had to cut her own mother down from the rafters after she hanged herself.

Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse is filled with similar stories: Some end well, others don’t. What’s remarkable about Maier’s book is that there is a pulse of hope that pounds heartily through its pages. That hope is the saving grace of the book.

Maier’s stories are far from vignettes of victims’ voices. Everyday heroes are also featured within: people who live and work in the slums, who risk life and limb to ensure survival for the poor. Maier writes of these people with such charm that a reader can sometimes forget the gravity behind his words, as is the case with one Bangkok heroine, a teacher whose students call her Miss Teacher Froggy.

“They think of her only as a hero. I don’t mean that she’s the Rambo type. She’s pretty and svelte. Her eyes sparkle and dance, and her students think she is Wendy and Tinker Bell, plus Kanga, Pooh and Tigger, and even Hermione from the Harry Potter books all rolled into one lovely teacher.”

For the author, documenting such stories of Bangkok and its people—some villainous, some virtuous—is a risky juggling act, yet Maier manages to weave an accessible, memorable tapestry of heartbreak and hope, a testament to God’s grace.

As is often the case, for the youngest and poorest of Klong Toey, AIDS, prostitution and poverty have robbed many of them of their childhoods. Thanks to Maier and the safe haven that he has established through his foundation in Klong Toey, there is transcendent truth to the saying, “If you lived here, you’d be home now.”

You can order WELCOME TO THE BANGKOK SLAUGHTERHOUSE: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

LETTERS FROM ROME DURING VATICAN II, by Bishop Aloysius J. Wycislo. Paisa Publishing Company. 246 pp. $15.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. He was a freshman in high school when Vatican II began.

BETWEEN 1961 AND 1965, parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Chicago, Illinois, were probably the best informed U.S. parishioners regarding Vatican II—if they read their parish bulletin regularly.

Their pastor, then also an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Chicago, wrote these 56 letters to explain the Council to them.

The letters were written on the ship to Italy in 1962, in Rome during the sessions and in Chicago during the “intersessions,” when bishops were studying revisions of the 16 official Council documents.

These accounts have a very popular tone. After the opening Mass on October 11, 1962, Bishop Wycislo wrote, “Pope John asked us to come together to break down the wall of isolation between the Church and the world, of eradicating distrust among us who would believe and serve our God in unity of mind and heart, of bringing our Church and each of us to an aggiornamento, a renewal of our faith and to a dissipation of the fog of ignorance that divides those whom Christ prayed should be one.”

Less than three weeks later, he wrote, “Most of us here in Rome feel that the use of English in the Mass and in the sacraments would make our liturgical rites more understandable and meaningful to the faithful laity at home.”

Later he recalls that on December 8, 1962, Pope John XXIII (now Blessed) told all the bishops, “The sometimes sharply divergent views of the Council Fathers manifested during the first session were a healthy demonstration to the world of the holy liberty that exists within the Church.”

On October 6, 1963, Bishop Wycislo wrote, “We bishops will have to grapple with Pope John’s pastoral and ecumenical vision of the Church’s mission, make real that vision in such definite and concrete realities as reform of the Roman curial offices which sought to impede that vision and make of us bishops passive participants.”

This volume emphasizes the significant role Cardinal Albert Meyer of Chicago played during the first three sessions; he died before the fourth one. Wycislo also describes several speeches that Meyer gave in Chicago about the Council’s work.

Bishop Wycislo notes that Pope John XXIII’s original vision for the Council “had not only been fulfilled, but fulfilled beyond expectations.”

In 1968, Wycislo was appointed bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and served there until his retirement in 1983. He died 22 years later. His book Vatican II Revisited was published by Alba House in 1987.

The present volume reproduces five black-and-white photos, but has no index, unfortunately. A few Italian and English words are misspelled. A one-page chronology of Bishop Wycislo’s life would have been helpful, especially because of frequent references to his work for what later became Catholic Relief Services.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in Vatican II.

You can order LETTERS FROM ROME DURING VATICAN II from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

Religious Pioneers

Most new forms of religious life start with a person on fire for God who sees a need for an alternative way of responding to God’s love.

ANGELA MERICI’S JOURNEY OF THE HEART: The Rule, the Way, by Mary-Cabrini Durkin (WovenWord Press, 336 pp., $29, hardcover/$22, softcover). Angela Merici (1474-1540) was a Secular Franciscan whose female followers became the Company of St. Ursula (or Ursulines). This new apostolic community was “a quiet revolution.” Durkin starts by telling Angela’s story as if she were interviewing her. Then there is scholarly examination of her Rule.

BROTHER ROGER OF TAIZÉ: Essential Writings, selected with an introduction by Marcello Fidanzio (Orbis Books, 127 pp., $15). Another in the Modern Spiritual Masters Series, this volume explores the writings of the founder of the Taizé monastic community in France, dedicated to reconciliation and ecumenism. This book is poignant in light of Brother Roger Schutz’s murder a year ago.

MIDWIVES OF AN UNNAMED FUTURE: Spirituality for Women in Times of Unprecedented Change, by Mary Ruth Broz, R.S.M., and Barbara Flynn, photographs by Jean Clough (ACTA Publications, 206 pp., $14.95). These 16 chapters operate as mini-retreats exploring different aspects of women’s spirituality. Who knows what new forms of spiritual life will result when their meditations collide with lived experience?


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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