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Convicted Murderer Becomes Franciscan


THE PRISONER: An Invitation to Hope
PASCAL'S WAGER: The Man Who Played Dice With God
MARKING THE HOURS: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570
GIFTS OF THE DESERT: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality
Strong Women

THE PRISONER: An Invitation to Hope, by Paul F. Everett. Paulist Press. 193 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by ANTHONY BOSNICK, coordinator of prison ministries for the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association (Washington, D.C.). He writes a column on prison spirituality in Let’s Talk!, a newsletter for prisoners.

BUREAU OF JUSTICE statistics show that well over 70 percent of U.S. prisoners return to jail within three years after their release. In light of this data, we may wonder if there is any hope that more of the 2.2 million people in jail will return to society as contributing members.

The story of Brother Jim Townsend, O.F.M.Cap., shows us that there is. His life story should give hope to all those who know and work with prisoners, including family members, who may have abandoned any thought that those caught in a life of crime can change.

Townsend knew mostly neglect and rejection as a youngster. Born in 1927, the Depression years hit his family hard, and he suffered the death of his mother while he was still a boy.

While the details may differ, his background is not so very different from that of many prisoners today. Raised in an abusive household, he knew precious little love as a youngster. He ran into trouble early, ran away from home and spent time in a reform school, an orphanage and a juvenile facility—all by the time he was 14.

These institutions did more punishing than reforming.

Townsend finally found love and acceptance as a young man, and his life seemed to change. He married in 1947 at 20, and his wife, Alice, loved him and cared for his deep needs. Then the unthinkable happened. Only six months after their marriage, Townsend took a hunting rifle and murdered her while she was taking a bath. In the early months of pregnancy, as her body changed and her desire for a sexual relationship with her husband lessened, Townsend feared that Alice too was abandoning him. In his anxiety, he snapped and killed her.

Life imprisonment was the sentence, first in Pennsylvania’s Western Penitentiary and then 13 years later in Rockview, in the central part of the state. The security level at Rockview was lower than that at Western, and Townsend’s plan was to work his way to a prison job where he could drive unaccompanied in a truck through the prison gates, never to return.

He did all he could to achieve that job assignment, including participating in the prison religious program. He attended religious services and worked his way into a job cleaning the chapel. All the while, his heart was stone-cold against religion. He just played a game, not believing all that “hocus pocus” stuff about bread and wine. To get in good with the chaplain, he even went to confession and joined the Franciscan Third Order.

But something mysterious began to happen. The words the chaplain spoke, the liturgies he attended and his presence among the holy things of the chapel such as the Blessed Sacrament and the Stations of the Cross began to make an impression—even though he remained unaware of it.

God, whom Townsend referred to as “Mr. Slick,” never gave up on him. Nor did the chaplain.

The rest of the story is one of slow growth and change. After release from prison for good behavior, Townsend developed caring relationships with others, which led to further healing as he began to trust people and realize that he wasn’t worthless and unlovable as he thought of himself. It eventually led to his vows as a Capuchin Franciscan brother. Steady and determined growth in the knowledge of God’s life and love now sustains Brother Jim.

This book shows a way of spirituality for all readers, especially laypeople, pointing to how we too may walk in pilgrimage on the way of holiness. It is truly an invitation to hope for the hopeless, especially prisoners, who believe that there is no changing for them. Brother Jim shows that there is.

You can order THE PRISONER: An Invitation to Hope from St. Francis Bookshop.


PASCAL'S WAGER: The Man Who Played Dice With God, by James A. Connor. HarperSanFrancisco. 224 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by DAN KROGER, O.F.M., publisher/CEO of St. Anthony Messenger Press. He earned his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame. He was a full professor at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines, and has taught at the Franciscan seminary there.

THIS BIOGRAPHICAL STUDY is an account of the life, work and spiritual struggles of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a French mathematician and theologian. Tracing Pascal’s development from sickly infant, to child prodigy, to respected scientist, Connor narrates how Pascal published a study of conical sections, adding to the developing field of projective geometry, when he was 17. At only 20, Pascal devised a mechanical calculator so his father could make tax calculations accurately and rapidly.

Pascal became convinced that progress comes from scientific research, not from adherence to traditions like Aristotle’s rule that “nature abhors a vacuum.” Expanding Evangelista Torricelli’s work, Pascal constructed barometers and carefully measured air pressures at low and high altitudes. He discovered formulas to calculate the properties of gases and fluids placed under pressure, applying these principles in devising a hydraulic press. Late in life, Pascal studied questions posed by a friend who engaged in recreational gambling. The result: Pascal developed principles for probability science and decision-making theory.

The subtitle of this book—The Man Who Played Dice with God—hints at how Connor traced Pascal’s spiritual pilgrimage. Connor leads readers through the religious quest of a man whose search for God matured in his mid-30s, when Pascal grew dissatisfied with his life and became convinced of the limits of reason.

According to Connor, Pascal’s conversion was influenced by his sister, Jacqueline. After caring for their father until his death, Jacqueline entered the Port-Royal Convent in Paris, contrary to the wishes of her brother Blaise. Jacqueline lived under the watchful eye of the abbess, Mère Angèlique, who had taken the Port-Royal community from undisciplined comfort to a life of strict religious observance.

Mère Angèlique was under the influence of Jansenism—an exaggerated Augustinian theology promoted by disciples of Bishop Cornelis Jansen of Ypres (1585-1638). Jansen’s spirituality accentuated the hopeless condition of humankind without God’s grace, as Luther and Calvin had done in the 16th century.

Like the reformers, Jansen felt that Roman Catholicism strayed from the Gospels in allowing people to believe that they could earn salvation. He blamed “merit theology” for causing Christians to lose their sense of dependence upon God, so Jansen promoted strict forms of mortification and eschewed human reason.

Connor assesses Jansenism by describing two tendencies found in Christianity. Some believers “seek to find God in all things” and are at peace with reason and believe that most people are decent. They “believe that the world is a wide and good place.” Such folks, says Connor, “end up orbiting around the ideas of Thomas Aquinas...and his Christian reclamation of Aristotle.” On the other hand, writes Connor, there are those “who seek to find God outside human experiences, who distrust reason, who think that the world is a shipwreck and that people are no damn good.” These people tend to “orbit around the ideas of Augustine.”

Clearly, Connor is not in the Jansenist or Augustinian camp. He interprets Pascal’s turn to Jansen’s theology as “tragic,” claiming that the philosophical-theological brilliance of Pascal was wasted on defending the Port-Royal community against the French government, the Church hierarchy and the Jesuits.

Some of Pascal’s “Provincial Letters” attacked the Jesuits for compromising with worldly values. Even as he neared death, Pascal was gathering ideas for a defense of faith. Published posthumously as his Pensées, Pascal’s notes include his “wager argument” for the existence of God. He claims that the odds are in favor of the believer because he has little to lose if he bets that God exists and orders his personal life accordingly.

Connor shows mastery of the subjects that occupied Pascal’s short life. Some may question Connor’s work, claiming he favors the Jesuits; after all, Connor was Jesuit-trained.

The strength of Connor’s work arises from his research into the social context of the 17th century and its influence on Pascal. In this reviewer’s opinion, Pascal’s Wager is a masterpiece.

You can order PASCAL'S WAGER: The Man Who Played Dice With God from St. Francis Bookshop.


MARKING THE HOURS: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570, by Eamon Duffy. Yale University Press. 201 pp. $35.

Reviewed by the REV. MICHAEL P. ORSI, Ed.D., a research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

EAMON DUFFY is a religious historian and expert on the English Reformation. In previous books, The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath, he examined the effect the Reformation had on the liturgy and parish life. In this book, Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570, Duffy looks at the Book of Hours to determine the devotional life of the people “high and low, aristocratic and plebian” before and after King Henry VIII’s time.

His findings are based on the additions, subtractions and notations found in a cross-examination of the surviving volumes of prayer books from the era.

The Book of Hours contained a standardized selection of psalms, antiphons, hymns, prayers and pictures, arranged for recitation and meditation in honor of Mary for each of the eight monastic hours of the day. To these hours were added the Office for the Dead, the short Hours of the Cross, the seven Penitential Psalms and the Litany of the Saints.

By the 15th century, it had expanded to become a compendium of popular devotion which often included “prayer charms” designed to coerce God or a saint for a specific need, such as conception, financial success or prayer against an enemy. These semi-magical formulas were expunged from post-Reformation editions. Such prayers were also condemned by the Catholic Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent (1545-63).

Duffy says that, after the Act of Supremacy (1534), references to the pope were replaced with the bishop. Also, the name of Thomas Becket (1118-70), the great defender of the rights of the Church, was removed.

Duffy, however, contends that often the changes found in the Book of Hours were the result of prudence on the part of the individual book’s owner and not necessarily indicative of the interiority of the new Tudor religion.

Duffy states, “If the owner of a Book of Hours became a Protestant, he or she was more likely to stop using the book altogether than to leave clues in its pages as to the movement of their religious opinions.”

Duffy looks at some prayer books designed to replace the Book of Hours, among them The Royal Primer which was officially imposed in 1545, and “the very Protestant Edwardine Royal Primer” (1551), which resembled a slimmer Book of Common Prayer.

Duffy’s examination of these texts reveals that they were adapted for the Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58) by simply crossing out the name of King Edward VI (1537-53) and adding the notation “you may say the prayers for the Queene [sic].”

“The accommodations found in these books and the continued use of the Book of Hours is indicative,” says Duffy, “that the prayer life of the laity lagged behind shifts in royal religious policy.

“We need to remind ourselves,” Duffy says, “that the prayers of these books were not merely used privately. Major sections of them were regularly recited collectively as part of public worship of the whole community, or some of its constituent sub-groupings, such as the gilds [sic].”

In an especially interesting chapter, Duffy provides an insight into the private prayer of St. Thomas More (1478-1535) as he awaited execution in the Tower of London. By examining More’s jottings in the margins of his personal Book of Hours, Duffy shows that More was by no stretch of the imagination a religious individualist but rather someone who longed for the parish community. He also finds More’s piety to be “surprisingly conventional.”

He says, “More’s devotional instinct moves toward the human conditions in general, and to the universal disciplines of the spiritual life.” This is especially noticeable in his prayer of intercession for his enemies: “Make us saved souls in heaven together where we may ever live and love together with the [sic for thee] and thy blessed saintes [sic]."

Here, Duffy gives us a picture of religious practice and belief, as well as social customs of medieval and early Renaissance England.

Yale University has enhanced this volume with excellent photographs of some of the museum editions of the Book referred to in the text. Marking the Hours is a keepsake.

You can order MARKING THE HOURS: English People and Their Prayers, 1240-1570 from St. Francis Bookshop.


GIFTS OF THE DESERT: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality, by Kyriacos C. Markides. Doubleday. 370 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a teacher and writer at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He edited (with Bill Madges) Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).

IN 1054 the Christian Church became divided into East and West, Orthodox and Catholic. This has continued, despite efforts at reunion, for close to a thousand years. Some have described this break as breathing with only one lung. It is only when the two traditions are joined, distinct but unified, that Christianity can breathe fully again.

In his book Gifts of the Desert, Kyriacos Markides, a professor of sociology at the University of Maine, gives a taste especially to Western Christians of what it would be like to breathe again with the lost lung of Orthodoxy.

Central to the spirituality of Orthodoxy is the theme of pilgrimage. If nothing else, this book is that. Markides is always on the move—a desert monastery in Arizona, the island of Cyprus, shrines on the Aegean islands, a chapel in England and, finally, Mt. Athos in Greece—attempting to come to a deeper understanding of Orthodox life and spirituality.

Markides’s guide and mentor on this journey is Father Maximos, a onetime monk on Mt. Athos who is now a bishop in Cyprus.

Through a series of conversations, Father Maximos distills the essence of Orthodoxy. For example, when speaking of grace, he says: “When it comes to the grace of God we have a license to be greedy and avaricious. It’s the only form of greediness that is music to the ears of God. Believe me, such good greediness has no limit or point of satiation. That’s when moderation is truly not a virtue but a vice.”

Another figure Markides uses to provide insight into Orthodoxy is Bishop Kallistos Ware. As an Anglican who converted to Orthodoxy, Ware sees himself as an interpreter of the East to the West. In his conversation with Markides, Ware relates that what attracted him most to the Orthodox faith was its liturgy—experiencing heaven on earth—and its living tradition.

Father Maximos and Bishop Ware also touch upon other topics, including salvation, interpretation of Scripture, the role of Orthodoxy in the West, the need for Orthodoxy to repent of historical sins, and the sacraments.

Though deeply appreciative of the gifts of Orthodoxy, Markides is not blind to its weaknesses. At one point, he shares the experience of his wife explaining that “the issue of the non-inclusiveness toward women has remained a lingering shadow in her relationship to the religious tradition within which she was born. This is the case with most modern women today, who can no longer accept the traditional roles imposed on them by an antiquated, male-dominated patriarchal world.”

The substance of Orthodoxy for Markides is disclosed in a three-step process: purification, illumination and God realization. What feeds this process is metanoia—a deep desire to live according to the will of God, which brings forth conversion. Markides finishes by saying: “These ‘gifts of the desert’ have remained in our secularized civilization, the survival of which may depend on how quickly we make these gifts part of our everyday reality.”

Gifts of the Desert is a worthwhile read on two levels. First, it exposed my parochial understanding to another living tradition—Orthodoxy. Second, Markides allowed me to see numerous similarities between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

It’s a nice, non-academic introduction to the Orthodox tradition and spirituality.

You can order GIFTS OF THE DESERT: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality from St. Francis Bookshop.


Strong Women

Women’s religious communities have always been countercultural. Founding, joining or staying in one today calls for courage.

PIONEER SPIRIT: Catherine Spalding, Sister of Charity of Nazareth, by Mary Ellen Doyle, S.C.N. (The University Press of Kentucky, 286 pp., $45), is the first biography of the independent and compassionate cofounder of this religious order based near Bardstown, Kentucky. Mother Catherine (1793-1858) led her sisters into health care and services for orphans (she herself was orphaned early) and founded Louisville’s first private hospital.

THE EIGHTH AMERICAN SAINT: The Life of Saint Mother Theodore Guérin, Foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, by Katherine Burton, with a Foreword and Afterword by Mary K. Doyle (Acta Publications, 269 pp., $12.95), updates Burton’s 1959 Faith Is the Substance and continues Mother Theodore’s story through the 2006 canonization. Born in France and missioned to Indiana, she lived from 1798 to 1856.

COURAGEOUS WOMEN: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Chesapeake Province, by Mary Reilly, S.N.D.deN. (Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Chesapeake Province, 305 Cable Street, Baltimore, MD 21210, 208 pp., $20), was written for the order’s 200th anniversary. It contains the stories of each sister in the Chesapeake Province. In response to Vatican II’s call to renew religious life, these sisters have embraced new challenges in pastoral ministry.

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, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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