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Hispanic Alternative to Cather's Novel

Q U I C K S C A N

GUITARS AND ADOBES: and the Uncollected Stories of Fray Angélico Chávez
COMPASSIONATE FIRE: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty
THE WINE OF CERTITUDE: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox
DON'T TRUST THE ABBOT: Musings From the Monastery
AROUND THE MONASTIC TABLE: Growing in Mutual Service and Love
COSTLY GRACE: A Mystery
U.S. Catholics Today



GUITARS AND ADOBES: and the Uncollected Stories of Fray Angélico Chávez, edited and introduced by Ellen McCracken. Museum of New Mexico Press. 295 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by MURRAY BODO, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest who grew up in New Mexico and continues to write about his youth in the Southwest in Wounded Angels, a book of poetry. His latest book is Brother Juniper: God's Holy Fool.

FRAY ANGÉLICO CHÁVEZ (1910-1996) is one of New Mexico's foremost writers and the first native New Mexican to be ordained a Franciscan priest. At the age of 14, he traveled from northern New Mexico to Ohio to begin his studies for the priesthood. During those 13 years of preparation, his imagination returned to his beloved New Mexico again and again in the stories that are collected here for the first time.

At the heart of this book is a little-known novel, Guitars and Adobes, that the young friar serialized in St. Anthony Messenger in eight installments from 1931 to 1932 when he was still in temporary vows. Also contained in this volume are previously uncollected stories first published in St. Anthony Messenger and The Sodalist. Though written early in Fray Angélico's career (the novel was written when he was 20), the writing already shimmers with his charming story-telling talent, wit and love of language.

The present book, in combination with Ellen McCracken's previous two books, Fray Angélico Chávez: Poet, Priest, and Artist and The Life and Writing of Fray Angélico Chávez: A New Mexico Renaissance Man, completes an in-depth triptych of one of New Mexico's greatest humanists and men of letters whose bronze statue in downtown Santa Fe attests to his eminence in modern New Mexico history.

In this short review I shall limit myself to the novel. It is written as a Hispano alternative to Willa Cather's great novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, based on Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of Santa Fe. Chávez's novel begins with Lamy's death in 1888 and ends with the death of an ordinary Hispana in 1929.

The heart of the novel is a love story between Consuelo, the daughter of a widow with proud and important Hispanic lineage, and an industrious adobe maker, Rosendo Rael. The two eventually elope and marry, settling down in Mora, where Fray Angélico grew up. They have one daughter, born shortly before an epidemic of smallpox breaks out in Mora. The whole family is infected when Rosendo nurses some of the sick.

Lest I give away too much of the plot, let me just say that the novel then switches to 1929, about 30 years later, and focuses on the house of Consuelo and Rosendo's daughter, which is bought by an artist who belongs to a group of writers and artists that Chávez belonged to as a young man.

The novel ends, in Fray Angélico's words, with a mystery "as intangible and uninterpretable as the one that holds the Old Santa Fe with the New in spite of the years, a tie of race, faith, and traditions, of love and romance, of guitars and adobes." The mysterious guitar of the title and in the novel's recurring motif is a symbol of death—anyone who plays it dies, including Consuelo's father and Archbishop Lamy. The adobe is a symbol of life.

As McCracken points out, one troubling note in the novel is the young author's anti-Semitism. The guitar is inscribed with Hebrew letters that encode a Spanish saying, "La muerte canto—tócame y mueres" ("I sing death—play me and you die").

The attitudes Fray Angélico reveals, both in the mysterious origin of the guitar and in his historical asides, are those he grew up with in Mora and those he may have imbibed in the pre-Holocaust Germanic milieu of a Catholic seminary in the 1920s and '30s. The older and wiser Fray Angélico published My Penitente Land in 1974, which contains better informed writing on Jews and the Jewish biblical tradition.

As a native of New Mexico and a writer inspired by Fray Angélico when I was a seminarian at St. Francis Seminary, the same Cincinnati seminary the young Manuel Chávez attended 30 years before, I was amazed by how well he wrote for one so young.

I delighted in the twists and turns of the novel, and I enjoyed the stories, even those written for young female readers of The Sodalist, a publication of The Sodalities of the Blessed Virgin. (As one would suspect, the stories from The Sodalist impart advice for young girls, but with humor and witty wordplay; and, of course, the female characters are usually wiser and smarter than the men. Interestingly, Fray Angélico adopts female pen names for four of these stories, including "Ann Jellicoe"!)

Anyone interested in the work and life of Fray Angélico Chávez and/or in New Mexico and its culture, past and present, will find much wisdom here imparted through interesting fictional characters, some of whom are totally imagined and others based on historical personages like Don Diego de Vargas, Archbishop Lamy and Doña Tules.

The timing of the book is impeccable: 2010 is the 400th anniversary of the founding of Fray Angélico's beloved Santa Fe.

You can order GUITARS AND ADOBES: and the Uncollected Stories of Fray Angélico Chávez from St. Francis Bookstore.

 

COMPASSIONATE FIRE: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty, edited by Robert A. Wild. Ave Maria. 110 pp. $12.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. He interviewed Catherine de Hueck Doherty for our November 1976 issue.

THOMAS MERTON (1915-1968) was teaching English at St. Bonaventure College (University since 1950) in southwestern New York when he met Catherine de Hueck (1896-1985). She spoke there twice in 1941. They never met again, but neither could have predicted the deep spiritual friendship that developed through their letters over the next 27 years.

In the summer of 1941, Merton worked in Harlem at Friendship House, which de Hueck had established three years earlier. Merton's first letter (October 6, 1941) was written after Catherine's fall visit to St. Bonaventure. Two months later he joined the Trappists at Gethsemani, Kentucky, and asked her to "write sometime." Indeed, she did and he wrote back!

This volume is edited by Father Robert Wild, a member of Madonna House Apostolate in Combermere, Ontario. It was established in 1947 by Catherine, who had married journalist Eddie Doherty four years earlier.

Compassionate Fire presents 16 letters by Merton (at least two more were written) and 17 letters by Doherty (at least one more was written). Wild, a collaborator of Doherty's for many years and now postulator of her cause for canonization, provides introductions for several letters.

Merton's letters to Catherine appeared in William Shannon's 1985 volume, The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns. Doherty's letters are published here for the first time.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton penned several very positive passages about Catherine, formerly a Russian baroness. In 1941 he left her his Cuban Journal, which was published in 1959 as The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, with the royalties assigned to Madonna House.

In the fall of 1941, Catherine wrote that sainthood is fundamentally "doing everyday things extremely well." She anticipated by 24 years Vatican II's chapter "The Universal Call to Holiness" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church). Both Merton and Doherty did everyday things extremely well.

Two passages hint at the richness of this correspondence. Commenting on people drawn to monasteries and Madonna House, Merton wrote: "The basic trouble is perhaps that they are still very immature in the spiritual life, because they are centered on a 'self' for which they want to attain the best of ends: they want to possess 'contemplation' and 'God.' What they really need is solid and simple direction...the kind of really basic sort of training that the Desert Fathers and the early monasteries gave: to shut up and stop all their speculation and get down to living a simple laborious life in which they forget themselves" (November 24, 1964).

Catherine once wrote: "Strange as it might seem, my agony of spirit is connected with the world as a whole. It appears to me as if the human Church was asleep and Christ is vainly trying to wake it up. Or to put it another way, the masses of the laity have clothed their souls in asbestos suits so that the fire of the Holy Ghost may not impenetrate us nor set us on fire" (May 26, 1961).

Wild's volume includes the text of Catherine's talk at Madonna House after learning of Merton's death and her telegram the next day to Abbot Flavian, Merton's abbot.

This book presents four pages of black and white photos, including one that Merton took of Catherine. The Afterword about Catherine's influence on Merton precedes three pages of notes about people and events cited in these letters and a two-page bibliography.

In his 1941 journal, Merton wrote, "The Baroness is a saint." Seventeen years later she wrote to him: "And you may not be a saint now. But who can tell, perhaps you or even I will someday be a saint. With God's mercy, all things are possible! I surely will pray."

These letters justify Wild's observation, "Only great souls can affect great souls."

You can order COMPASSIONATE FIRE: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty from St. Francis Bookstore.

 

THE WINE OF CERTITUDE: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox, by David Rooney. Ignatius Press. 427 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian with a master's degree from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

THE EDITORS at Ignatius Press believe that there is currently a revival of interest in the myriad writings of Ronald Knox and have issued a scholarly yet readable compendium of his works.

David Rooney, an Irish-Catholic author, had been a longtime reviewer of books on English and American Church history when an unsolicited copy of Knox's A Retreat for Lay People appeared on his desk. When not moonlighting as a reviewer, Rooney is an associate professor of engineering at Hofstra University, and his scientific mind-set found the English scholar's logical approach to apologetics mesmerizing.

Although Knox died in 1957, Rooney states: "Knox stands out as a consummate writer who can carry a reader through a philosophical or theological argument, a recounting of a saint's life, a serious analysis of a literary figure's contributions, a hilarious mystery novel, all without sounding stuffy or condescending."

Rooney devotes only one chapter to recounting the life of Ronald Knox, a convert from Anglicanism who became a major figure in the Catholic revival in England in the first half of the 20th century. He takes for granted that the reader will get further biographical information from other sources, and cites the best of these in footnotes.

The absence of a detailed bibliography seemed a definite failing until I recognized the wealth of detail included in footnotes throughout the book. Unique to this work is the attention given to people who influenced Knox by their writings or in personal encounters, again explained with highly detailed footnotes for further reference.

There is no attempt to categorize Knox's theology. The aim is to present a retrospective of 50 years of writing and entice the reader with samples of material. Indeed, almost one quarter of this book consists of the writings of Knox! For so prolific a writer of over 75 books alone, this represents only one percent of his total output, and Rooney assures us that the other 99 percent is equally good.

The chapters are arranged by types of writing and range from consideration of early satirical works to science fiction, mysteries, acrostics and even sequels to the novels of others. In addition to publishing his sermons and retreat notes, Knox excelled in apologetics, producing a book from a debate in letter form on the assertion that the Catholic Church is the true Church. Other media he utilized included newspapers and radio broadcasts.

Even Rooney admits that the genius of Ronald Knox can become wearying, but one wonders how frustrated Knox must have been by the mind-numbing clerical assignments given him.

Knox's crowning achievement was, of course, the translation of the Bible. Given the blessing of the English hierarchy in November of 1938, he opted for a literary rather than a literal translation and excelled in making Old Testament prophets and the letters of St. Paul more readily accessible.

Here is his modus operandi: "The transition from one sentence to the next must be made logically clear, even at the cost of introducing words which are not there, but are implicit in the context....You must cast your sentences into a form which will preserve not only the meaning but the rhetoric of the original, or the flying wrack of imagery will pass you by."

Interestingly, soon after he settled at the Acton estate at Aldenham to begin the translation, war broke out. The evacuation of children to the British countryside brought 15 Assumption nuns, some lay teachers and 50 schoolgirls to Aldenham. He served as their chaplain for the duration of the conflict. Some of the sermons addressed to them became his books The Mass in Slow Motion and The Creed in Slow Motion. Knox remained a dutiful priest from ordination to death.

Perhaps most well-known after his Bible translation is the work Enthusiasm, a 600-page tome about enthusiastic religious movements. Having worked on this encyclopedic book for over 30 years, Knox probably never felt the Catholic Church imperiled by such movements but wished to present the dangers they personified. Perhaps it is just as well that he did not live to see such movements adopted by some Catholics in the 1970s!

Then again, in talking about the Communion of Saints, Knox said: "The Church in heaven is All Saints. The Church in Purgatory is All Souls. The Church on earth is all sorts."

I would highly recommend this literary biography for educated readers, but even those may need to keep a dictionary at hand. Perhaps the best attack is to peruse a section at a time that catches one's fancy, read the footnotes and select a work cited there for further reading.

Libraries in Catholic colleges and seminaries will wish to purchase this book, as will most inclusive religious collections.

You can order THE WINE OF CERTITUDE: A Literary Biography of Ronald Knox from St. Francis Bookstore.

 

DON'T TRUST THE ABBOT: Musings From the Monastery, by Abbot Jerome Kodell. Liturgical Press. 94 pp. $11.95.

AROUND THE MONASTIC TABLE: Growing in Mutual Service and Love, by Aquinata Böckmann. Liturgical Press. 296 pp. $29.95.

Reviewed by SISTER ANNA MARIE COVELY, O.S.C., of the Cincinnati Poor Clare Monastery. She has held many roles in her community, including abbess and formation director.

THE FIRST of these books, with the whimsical title of Don't Trust the Abbot, is a collection of articles originally printed in Subiaco Abbey's newsletter, The Abbey Message. They are divided into sections on Trust and Faith, Christian Life and Prayer.

The author has an easy-to-read style that would appeal to general readership. In the title essay, he has some interesting thoughts on legitimate authority and obedience, even when the person making the rules may not be someone we admire. What he wrote resonated with my Franciscan approach to authority.

One of the articles that I found most interesting was titled "Sabbath." He sees Sabbath as "an act of faith in the loving providence of God. I can lay down my tools and cease my constant striving for one day a week and the world will not fall apart....While we need a Sabbath day, we need the Sabbath in every day, a time when we trust enough to put the world on automatic pilot (God) and rest. This at its best we call prayer."

In our overly busy world, there is such a passion for control that Sabbath may seem like a threat or a luxury, but it is really one of God's unsung gifts.

Another interesting essay was titled "The Family of Jesus." Abbot Jerome writes of pilgrimages to the shrine of the Black Christ in Esquipulas, Guatemala. The Guatemalan families who have saved for some time to be able to make this pilgrimage usually plan on staying at the shrine for several days. They establish their family spot on the floor of the basilica and set up candles, food and clothing that will be needed during their stay.

While they attend the liturgical and devotional celebrations, they are very casual about going in and out of the basilica to eat and relax. People from the United States are often disconcerted to see them dozing or visiting with friends, playing with their children: "They act as if they were at home." And that is exactly the point: They recognize that they are at home in their father's house.

The second book, Around the Monastic Table, is a more scholarly work, presenting a form of lectio on Chapters 31-42 of the Rule of Benedict. The author challenges us to take this slow reading of the Rule and allow it to change our modern approach to meals and all that surrounds our eating together at a common table. In our society, so often meals are something you do "on the run" rather than an expression of shared fellowship. In the monastic setting, meals are celebrated together and have their own ritual which flows from the eucharistic celebration.

Each chapter begins by bringing the section of the Benedictine Rule into a contemporary context. For example, when looking at Chapter 31, "Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer," we are asked to look at it from the contemporary viewpoint of the need for "people who care for distribution of public goods, not pushing the marginalized into deeper poverty."

Throughout the book, connections are made between the respect that must be given to all material things such as garden tools ("They treated the tools carefully like things consecrated to God"). They are to be treated with the same respect as the vessels for the altar.

Throughout the text, the Rule of Benedict is contrasted with the Rule of the Master or Regula Magistri, a sixth-century collection of precepts which probably served as a basis for Benedict's writing. In contrasting the two Rules, the special vision of Benedict stands out. A greater compassion and kindness is seen in the Rule of Benedict.

There are also some interesting sidebars which give historical background for the various Rules on topics such as bathing in ancient times and the eating of meat. In all, while it is not a book to be read lightly, it contains much information on monastic customs and ways.

You can order DON'T TRUST THE ABBOT: Musings From the Monastery and AROUND THE MONASTIC TABLE: Growing in Mutual Service and Love from St. Francis Bookstore.

 

COSTLY GRACE: A Mystery, by James Allaire. iUniverse (www.iuniverse.com). 264 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paperback; $6, e-book.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication.

THE TITLE FOR THIS comes from a term used by Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It refers to what it cost Jesus to earn grace for us and what it demands of us: "resolute choices, motivated by self-sacrificing love," as one of the book's characters puts it.

This is not a theological book, however, but a very timely mystery, one where clergy sex abuse may be a motive for murder. The protagonist is Brian Kane, a creative writing teacher at Newman College in western Iowa, who stumbles into the murder of his mentor, Father Michael McCoy.

This teacher, with his girlfriend, Maria Valencia, a librarian at the college, decides to do a little sleuthing. Was the priest an abuser? Working for the diocese to cover up the abuses of others?

Or was the sale of his land to a resort development corporation the reason why someone took a rock to his head? Or had he been offed by an environmentalist who had protested the sale of McCoy's valuable land along the Mississippi River? Or had he just annoyed one of his neighbors?

At first, Kane is a suspect, then taken into the confidence of the local sheriff (in actuality, rather unlikely). But Kane has the summer vacation to spend delving into Michael McCoy's life and death, then finding out about his family and his work.

Along the way, Kane antagonizes two Church bureaucrats who are determined to stop him from finding out the truth. One might say that their reactions are extreme, but with what has come out about clergy sexual abuse and the measures the Church has taken to stifle the scandal, they may be more on target than anyone would like to admit.

This is a first novel from a retired psychologist who lives with his wife in Winona, Minnesota. As such, it's amateurishly written in places. The love scenes are also awkward. But the main mystery works and carries the reader along. Give it a try. I predict more mysteries from the intrepid duo of Brian Kane and Maria Valencia.

You can order COSTLY GRACE: A Mystery from St. Francis Bookstore.

 

 

U.S. Catholics Today

As flags fly high for the Fourth of July, check out some books about American Catholics and how we've changed.

PRAYERS OF THE FAITHFUL: The Shifting Spiritual Life of American Catholics, by James P. McCartin (Harvard University Press, 225 pp., $25.95). This assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University describes a shift in how Catholics are praying: away from institutional, formal and devotional prayer toward more independent, novel and activist. McCartin covers Father Patrick Peyton's Family Rosary Crusade (1940s and '50s), explains the tightened link between political choices and spiritual commitments ('60s and '70s), and concludes with today's exploding spiritual options.

CATHOLIC CULTURE IN THE USA: In and Out of Church, by John Portmann (Continuum International Publishing Group, 202 pp., $32.95). This associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia analyzes "cultural Catholics" who claim a Catholic identity without conforming to Church standards on issues such as marriage, sex and end-of-life options. This volume ties Catholicism into the "I'm spiritual but not religious" trend.

WITNESSES TO RACISM: Personal Experiences of Racial Injustice, edited by Lois Prebil, O.S.F. (ACTA Publications, 78 pp., $9.95). Here, 10 laypeople and one permanent deacon recount their moving experiences with racial injustice.—B.B.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookstore, 135 W. 31st Street, New York, NY 10001, phone 212-736-8500, ext. 324, fax 212-594-6025.

 


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