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A DIALOGUE WITH THREE SAINTS

Q U I C K S C A N

HUMILITY MATTERS FOR PRACTICING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
A CHURCH THAT CAN AND CANNOT CHANGE: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching
A TINY STEP AWAY FROM DEEPEST FAITH: A Teenager's Search for Meaning
TEENS SPEAK ON FAMILY MATTERS
ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA!: The Greatest Seas Rescue in History
THE IRISH MARTYR: Stories
Getting Closer to the Cross



HUMILITY MATTERS FOR PRACTICING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, by Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B. Continuum Publishing. 188 pp. $19.95.

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

AND JUST WHY should humility matter? Funk says, “It is at the core of our experience of life in Christ...,” at the center of what it means to have purity of heart.

Sister Mary Margaret Funk combines her vast experience as a Benedictine nun, retreat leader, scholar on spirituality and prayer, and former director of East-West monastic dialogue in writing this little gem. For Funk, the human search for God is unchanged, and early monastic teachings are still valuable, though often discarded as incomprehensible or obsolete.

Her goal has been to write books “that retrieve, reclaim and reappropriate the early teaching of the desert elders on the monastic tradition for contemporary contemplatives.”

The first two volumes in this trilogy on the spiritual life, Thoughts Matter and Tools Matter, identify classic “thoughts” that distract us from God and offer “tools” from tradition which help focus better. Funk describes this final volume as one that brings “the spiritual journey full circle and offers a simple and systematic rendering of monastic teaching on purity of heart and its human face: humility.”

Weaving the image imaginatively throughout the text, Funk likens the spiritual journey to a river. Similar to a river, our journey toward God has two dimensions: above the surface (the external journey) and below the surface (the internal and hidden journey that no one sees).

Chapter One describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey as comprising four renunciations: to renounce our former way of life, to renounce destructive thoughts, to renounce limited images of God and, finally, to renounce thoughts of ourselves.

Chapter Two offers an abbreviated version of her first book on renouncing thoughts that impede spiritual growth.

The rest of the text is cleverly structured as Funk’s dialogues with spiritual exemplars St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. John Cassian. In a question-and-answer mode, Funk explores each saint’s thoughts on contemplative prayer, loss of self in love, and humility. I particularly liked her technique of asking each saint contemporary questions, which gave insight into their practice of humility.

This small book is a real treasure and should be an immense help for those on a serious spiritual search, either on retreat, at home or even in a book club. The appendices provide more suggestions and scriptural references for deeper meditation. For more information, consult the author’s Web site, www.Humilitymatters.com.

You can order HUMILITY MATTERS FOR PRACTICING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

A CHURCH THAT CAN AND CANNOT CHANGE: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, by John T. Noonan, Jr. University of Notre Dame Press. 312 pp. $18.

Reviewed by DONALD MILLER, O.F.M., who earned a doctoral degree in moral theology from The Catholic University of America and has taught at various universities for over 25 years. In the spring of 2006, he taught at the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England. He is presently the vocation director for the Province of St. John the Baptist.

CLAIMING THAT in some instances magisterial teaching has changed over the centuries, John T. Noonan, Jr., presents an argument for a dynamic development in Catholic moral thought. At first, Noonan’s proposal appears to contradict the age-old “belief” that the Catholic Church cannot change its stand on moral issues.

But, in fact, the Church has changed, and changed radically, with regard to its teaching on the morality of Noonan’s illustrative topics. Nonetheless, as the author makes clear, it also has remained true to the teaching of Jesus. It is in this latter area that the Church must remain, and does remain, ever faithful and cannot change.

Noonan supports his argument that change has taken place, and continues to take place, by examining official Catholic teaching on slavery, usury, religious freedom and divorce.

In each case he offers a very detailed historical account, plowing almost laboriously through relevant ecclesiastical and secular documents and citing many examples. While the methodology makes for somewhat tedious reading, the overall experience is interesting and captivating.

The reader is carefully led, step by step, to an appreciation of how the response of the Church has gradually emerged in light of changing situations and understandings of both itself and society. It is interesting to note how often the impetus for change arises outside the magisterial Church as people reflect on the nature and implications of specific behaviors, and how the magisterial Church then incorporates that reflection into its official teaching.

For example, slavery had strong biblical and ecclesiastical support. Scholars argued from the Letter to Philemon that St. Paul approved slavery as an institution, and many Church Fathers and numerous Church statements supported it as consistent with natural law. Many popes owned slaves, and Church documents exist stating clearly the morality of buying and selling human beings. Some even justified it as beneficial to the slave. And yet, in 1992 on the island of Goré, Senegal, Pope John Paul II declared the very notion of slavery evil. How did the Church’s stand change?

Briefly, the notion of the dignity of the human person gradually emerged in both Church and secular circles, gaining significant prominence in the early 20th century. The idea then appeared in Church documents such as those of the Second Vatican Council which, without fanfare, accepted the then-prevailing understanding that slavery was bad. The pope brought the official teaching of the Church into line with a still fuller understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the sacredness of the human person by stating that slavery is an intrinsic evil.

Noonan does not try to twist historical facts to show that the Church “always taught” such-and-such. To do so would be both disingenuous and a denial of the facts. Rather, his arguments support the notion that there is development in the Church’s understanding of Revelation, of itself and of human nature. In its understanding of these, the Church can and does change.

Where the Church cannot change is in its fidelity to Revelation, especially as it is found in the person and teaching of Jesus. The Church must be faithful to the fullest understanding of that teaching, and that understanding can and does develop.

With regard to Noonan’s second example, usury, present-day readers might find the earlier teaching of the Church somewhat interesting, if not almost comical. The argument against using money to gain a profit was that such gain was unnatural reproduction and, therefore, contrary to natural law. Money was not meant by its very nature to reproduce.

One would not want to read this book at the end of the day before falling off to sleep. It is far too heavy for late-night reading. But anyone interested in history and the dynamism of the Church as a living institution may want to take it up in the light of day to appreciate the Church’s ongoing moral development.

Noonan supports his thesis of dynamic moral development well by his use of history. He also supports well the Church’s fidelity to its main task of preaching the gospel of Jesus. As humankind (the Church included) grows in its understanding of the teaching of Jesus, magisterial teaching must reflect the new understandings and insights. The Church remains faithful by changing. Thus, it truly can and cannot change.

You can order A CHURCH THAT CAN AND CANNOT CHANGE: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

A TINY STEP AWAY FROM DEEPEST FAITH: A Teenager’s Search for Meaning, by Marjorie Corbman. Paraclete Press. 100 pp. $9.95.

TEENS SPEAK ON FAMILY MATTERS, edited by Laurie Delgatto. St. Mary’s Press. 64 pp. $9.95.

Reviewed by MARK WILKINS, a 30-year veteran teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.

CORBMAN’S WORK is a powerful reminder of what young people are capable of when given the opportunity to think reflectively. It’s hard to realize that this young woman was 14 or 15 when she started writing this deep spiritual memoir.

Marjorie Corbman lives in Randolph, New Jersey, and has just completed her first year of college. The book is the product of her reflection on the great questions of life with friends and family. It shows the connections among the rational quest for truth, the neo-Wiccan phase connecting with nature, returning to her Jewish roots and coming out as a Christian baptized in the Orthodox Church over a year ago.

The quality of Corbman’s writing and the depth of reading and reflection that preceded it are impressive. This young woman has a mystical bent that belies her youth. She writes with great insight about what this generation seeks. She sees young people not as stupid, but as drowning.

One of her most compelling insights is that teens reach out to the flotsam and jetsam of spiritual speculations and grab whatever they can because they are attempting to reach a rope in the midst of turbulent waters. Their spirituality is not that of rational beings, but of drowning souls.

It is not that they are gullible and naïve to search everywhere for answers. It is more that so much is at stake that teens seem willing to try anything that provides some answer or hope. It is Corbman’s own recognition of her mystical bent that leads her to St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Thomas Merton.

She links these self-selected choices with leanings of the spiritually oriented people of her age group. She notes that no one tried to convert her. She came to it slowly and on her own terms through conversation, reading, thinking and prayer.

Corbman’s most insightful chapter might be the one on a teen’s feelings of despair and abandonment. She writes that she doesn’t know many happy people. This bizarre epidemic of misery (her description) leads to drugs and alcohol, suicide attempts, self-mutilation and promiscuous sex—attempts by teens to assure teens that they are here, that they feel and that their experience is tangible and valid.

Members of the most affluent generation have everything they desire and yet still bump into the reality that no material thing can conquer—the sorrow of the world. The author compares the intense emptiness, confusion and loneliness of adolescence to the time that the great saints and mystics have spent in the desert. Meeting God does not end sadness and despair, but gives us a way to face it with hope. The hunger for more does not come from wanting more gadgets and gifts, but from wanting truth, beauty and purpose. Through self-sacrifice and service, Corbman discovers inner joy rather than instant gratification.

Corbman’s understanding of the need and place for ritual is better than most adults could give. Her turn from Wicca and gnosticism came from a sense of history and a sense that her God was as small as she was. She wanted something more. Traditional Christianity became that path.

I only mention the second book not because of its depth, but because it gives some intriguing prompts for teachers and youth ministers to engage teens in the issues that they have the most experience in—family matters. Only four of the 30 essays were by boys. Overall, these essays are not as profound as the chapters in the previous book, but they do show that teens are capable of being insightful if adults ask them the right questions.

Having been around teenagers for the last 45 years, I can honestly say that they continue to amaze me. Here are two books which attempt to show teens and adults alike that adolescents are capable of great depth and wisdom, even though their experience might be limited in scope. Once the adults in their lives show them the joys and peace that come from committed faith, then we can explain Christian doctrine and the dogma. And even then, we have to face the sorrows of the world in which we live.

You can order A TINY STEP AWAY FROM DEEPEST FAITH: A Teenager’s Search for Meaning and TEENS SPEAK ON FAMILY MATTERS from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA!: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History, by Pierette Domenica Simpson. Purple Mountain Press. 312 pp. $18.

Reviewed by ANN TASSONE, an intern at St. Anthony Messenger during summer 2006. Ann is a senior at Xavier University in Cincinnati with a double major in English and communication arts.

FIFTY YEARS AFTER the Andrea Doria shipwreck, survivor Pierette Domenica Simpson has published a firsthand account of the disaster. This book’s July 2006 release corresponded with a dive to the shipwreck, the 50th-anniversary survivors’ reunion in New York and the launching of the same book in Italy.

This book is divided into two parts: stories of survival and stories of the ship. Part One’s nine chapters include vividly told stories from survivors of the collision. This allows readers to paint a picture in their minds of July 25, 1956, when an unlikely collision happened between Italy’s luxury liner, the Andrea Doria, and another ship, the Stockholm.

Information for this book was drawn from various nautical experts, government bureaucrats, maritime admiralty lawyers and survivors from two continents. Since the Andrea Doria shipwreck, the author believes that the whole truth has remained untold. Therefore, in this book, she strives to “change the minds of many people who for many years have portrayed the historical account of the Andrea Doria tragedy through the distortions of pure journalistic fantasy. It is my strong belief that this information will clarify and correct history.”

The story of the Andrea Doria collision is told from the point of view of the survivors. Their stories of heroism and courage are honest and inspiring. Stories such as a teenage girl catapulted from her bunk on the Andrea Doria and found alive on the bow of the Stockholm, and a young man carrying 11 children down a rope ladder on the inclined vessel are sure to touch the hearts of readers.

Throughout the book, it is apparent that faith remained steady in the midst of terrible chaos. A priest who was on board the Andrea Doria, Father Thomas Kelly, found it interesting that, looking back on his experience, “When faced with trauma or a disaster situation, people unite—regardless of their culture.”

Many of the firsthand accounts in this book are about turning to God and prayer in times of trial. The mother of a passenger on the Andrea Doria, upon hearing news of the crash, said that “prayer was the only solution.” As she walked to the cathedral at the end of her street to pray for the safety of her daughter, she was pleasantly surprised as “people began to come out of their homes and join her. She began to lead, unintentionally, a procession of townsfolk making their way along the cobblestone streets to the beloved cathedral. They prayed together to the patron saint of Vieste, Santa Maria di Merino—the protector of sea travelers.”

Part Two’s three chapters outline accounts of the ship itself. Many ships, most notably the Ile de France, came to the Andrea Doria’s rescue, allowing the rescue of 1,660 passengers who survived; 46 were killed. The Andrea Doria’s survival rate, compared with other maritime rescues, is extraordinary.

This book’s amazing stories are supplemented with pictures of the wreckage as well as explanations of how the collision occurred. It explores the improvements in travel that have resulted from this disaster, and the unending quest to find out more.

It is obvious that Simpson did not stop at gathering her own experience with the Andrea Doria when compiling this book. The memoirs of other survivors give the book a personal touch. It is easy to admire the survivors of the Andrea Doria for their strength and faith in the midst of what could have been a great loss of life, but what ended up as perhaps the greatest sea rescue in history.

You can order ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA!: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

THE IRISH MARTYR: Stories, by Russell Working. University of Notre Dame Press. 164 pp. $18.

Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER HEFFRON, an assistant editor of this publication. He graduated from the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1997 with dual majors in English and communication arts.

AUTHOR RUSSELL WORKING knows a thing or two about the human condition. Before becoming a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 2003, he spent years as a freelance journalist, traveling the world over. He specialized in countries of unrest and writing about people with lives shockingly different from our own.

Those experiences with brave but broken people have found their way into The Irish Martyr—which won the 2006 Richard Sullivan Prize for short fiction. In his 10 soulful stories, the author dives headfirst into the murky waters of his characters’ damaged but unforgettable lives. It’s a breathtaking plunge that the readers take along with him.

With a style that’s both poetic and raw, Working gives us characters from different nations, different realities, yet each is so fully realized and universal that it’s as if we are sharing their lives—and their hardships—for a brief time.

No two stories are alike, yet each tackles themes that permeate culture and time. In “Dear Leader” we meet Eun-ju, a North Korean woman who is sold into marriage; the fractured family dynamic is brought to life in “Perjury.”

The best of the lot is the first story in the book, about a young Egyptian woman preoccupied with an Irish man. In this Pushcart Prize-winning short story (which is also the book’s title), Working’s descriptive prowess and deep understanding of clashing cultures manifest themselves most vividly.

Thin-skinned readers beware: The Irish Martyr is not a casual, lazy-day read. Nevertheless, it should have a permanent home on every bookshelf in the country for its unflinching treatment of themes ever present in our fragile, unpredictable world. Working’s stories prove that, though culture divides us, there is much that unites us: War, fear, family, tragedy and survival are each sewn into our human tapestry.

Some may be aghast at certain passages but, to Working’s credit, he aims for—and hits—the right notes to present characters who linger long after the last page is turned.

It’s as if Working has shined a light on our own bruised world. In this day and age, understanding is a virtue not often found. The news is dominated by war and famine, poverty and unimaginable realities. From the predicament in Iraq to the endless horrors in Darfur, we are bombarded with facts but few insights.

With these stories, Working globetrots to different countries and presents diverse cultures, but also explores deeper issues to which we all can relate, proving we are all citizens of one world.

You can order THE IRISH MARTYR: Stories from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

Getting Closer to the Cross

The most popular Lenten devotions focus on Jesus’ cross and the Way of the Cross.

EMBRACE THE HEALING CROSS: Daily Prayscriptions for Lent, by Edward Hays (Forest of Peace/Ave Maria Press, 57 pp., $2.25). Lent is a time for healing the soul. Father Hays says that Rx on medical prescriptions is an abbreviation for “take thou,” and here is used with the prayers that follow short reflections. As always, Hays offers fresh insights.

EL VÍA CRUCIS DE JESÚS MIGRANTE/THE WAY OF THE CROSS OF THE MIGRANT JESUS, by Gioacchino Campese, C.S. (Libros Liguori, 64 pp., $3.95), is a bilingual look at 15 events in Jesus’ life, moments that are especially relevant for communities or people living with the difficult experience of migration.

I PRAY THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS, written by Maria Grace Dateno, F.S.P., illustrated by Virginia Helen Richards, F.S.P., and Regina Francis Dick, F.S.P. (Pauline, 36 pp., $4.50) is a colorful Way of the Cross for children. THE WAY OF THE CROSS FOR TEENS: Walking With Jesus to Calvary, by Therese Johnson Borchard (Pflaum, 32 pp., $4.95), uses vivid narratives in guided meditations for teens and is illustrated with photos that show contemporary applications.


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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