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Recovering the Optimism of the Incarnation


WISDOM OF THE BODY: Making Sense of Our Sexuality, by Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead. The Crossroad Publishing Company. 178 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit for 26 years, licensed counselor and former religion writer for The Detroit News.

LIKE FRESH AIR on the goodness of sexuality, this book prompts the dialogue that others seem to spurn these days. Developmental psychologist Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and pastoral theologian James D. Whitehead face questions of human sexuality with clarity, boldness, balance and beauty. It carries further the ideas they proposed a decade ago in A Sense of Sexuality.

In three parts and 12 chapters, a conclusion and bibliography, the authors plumb the wisdom of the body in areas of intimacy and commitment, marriage, single life, celibacy, the place of pleasure, homosexuality and transformation. They encourage readers to examine their own attitude toward sexuality with an eye to integration, healing and wholeness.

This wife and husband begin with the notion that the body is a sacrament and not a barrier to grace. Sex is good "because our bodies are blessed and holy." To confirm that idea, the authors go to the Song of Songs (8:6): "For love is strong as death,/Passion relentless as hell./The flash of it flash of fire,/A flame of Yahweh's own self."

The Whiteheads' clarion call is to reclaim the original optimism of the Incarnation. The authors move beyond cultural promiscuity and pornography, domestic violence and sexual addiction to a place of confidence where Christians tell the truth about their "lived" experience and encounter with the sacrament of sexuality. They say:

"We discover, first, the blessing of sexual arousal. This stirring in our bodies is one of the roots of our creativity; it draws us to others; it ignites the attraction that sustains the fruitful commitments of life—in friendship, in marriage, in devoted love.

"Second, we recognize that sexual love has more to do with fruitfulness than with fertility. Sex is, with its unexpected awakenings and unearned delights, an echo of creation."

Their discussion of masturbation (self-pleasuring, as the Whiteheads call it) is noteworthy in how it differs from the views of the 19th and first half of the 20th century: "Genital self-stimulation is a common, even pervasive, human experience." But "Our integrity is not preserved in isolation, untouched by the intrusion of others. Wholeness is instead forged in connections and commitments. The greatest peril is not contamination by others but an isolation that leaves us intact but ungenerous, composed but alone....The virtue of integrity flowers not in an inviolate privacy but in vital attachments."

With deep respect and sensitivity toward Catholic tradition, the Whiteheads help parents and pastors, teachers and religious formation personnel, singles and married couples, gay and straight people to look clearly at commitment and chastity, intimacy and the beauty of enduring love.

The Whiteheads provide a resource that starts with the wisdom of the physical body and the Body of Christ—raising sexuality to the sacrament of commitment that it always has been.

This book is worthy of study groups and Marriage Encounters conversing about sexuality's goodness.

You can order WISDOM OF THE BODY: Making Sense of Our Sexuality from St. Francis Bookshop.

ROSARY REFLECTIONS FOR KIDS, by Joe Oka. Ascension Press. 32 pp. $7.95.

THE ROSARY: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow and Glory, by Alice Camille. ACTA Publications. 112 pp. $6.95.

POPE JOHN PAUL II AND THE LUMINOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY, by Jerome M. Vereb, C.P. Catholic Book Publishing Company. 192 pp. $9.95.

Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a senior at Franciscan University of Steubenville and summer intern with this magazine. She and her fiancé met by praying the daily rosary at college.

IN HIS APOSOTLIC LETTER Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope John Paul II calls Catholics to a deeper appreciation and practice of the rosary. Many resources are available to help families do that.

Children who have trouble concentrating during the rosary are in good company with St. Teresa of Avila, who frequently was distracted, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who often fell asleep while praying.

But for parents and teachers who do not want to promote that sort of "saintly" behavior, the book Rosary Reflections for Kids encourages children to participate in the rosary by drawing. It was inspired by the pope's admonition to develop practical aids that encourage children to pray.

Twenty-six perforated pages of this 8-1/2" x 11" tablet contain pictures of the rosary beads that can be colored, with drawing space alongside each decade. Prayers and a brief guide to praying the rosary are printed in the front. Scripture readings (with a few thou's and thee's) correspond to the mysteries.

This guide can be used in religion classes, or it may keep a disruptive youngster busy so the family can pray.

Older children and adults can find gems for meditation in Alice Camille's book The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow and Glory.

Camille focuses on the scriptural foundation of the mysteries, as well as implications they hold for Catholics today. The book begins with an introduction to the rosary, explaining its origins, detailing why many Catholics ignored it in recent history and encouraging its revival among families.

She begins each mystery with a Bible passage. This leads to an interpretation of the scriptural event and a contemporary meditation, integrating the themes of the mystery into daily life.

It is a guide to the rosary rooted in the ordinary. It is a simple text, and profound in that simplicity, illustrating that the rosary is a prayer for every Catholic: a way to "hold in our hands all that we believe," as expressed by Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Her insights are thought-provoking. She presents Mary, who offered her newborn son to the Most High at the Temple ceremony, as the same woman who received him again from the cross, the Pietà. On Christ's crowning with thorns, she invites the reader to see that his kingship holds a stronger claim than the world's; it commands "not only our allegiance, but also our hearts."

The meditations are too lengthy to read out loud during a group recitation of the rosary, but they work well for private, devotional reading. Camille's deep respect and love for the rosary are apparent, as well as her concern for its preservation in the spirituality of the faithful today.

For adults already praying the rosary and interested in the theology behind it, Pope John Paul II and the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary is an excellent resource. Its slim size and large type belie the scholarly depth and insight it contains.

Mainly a contemplative and historical look at the rosary's background, it also includes meditations on the new mysteries. As the title suggests, the pope's personal connections to the rosary are illuminated. Papal influences, Church history and biblical ties to the prayer are all concisely explored.

It is not only historically detailed but also spiritually rich. The section exploring the rosary as the "School of Christ" gave much to ponder. Scholarly meditations on the luminous mysteries form the second part of this book. As with many other topics, they are grounded in the Old and New Testaments.

These three books were written for very different purposes, but each encourages a life of prayer and devotion to Christ through the most-powerful intercession of Our Lady.

You can order ROSARY REFLECTIONS FOR KIDS, THE ROSARY: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow and Glory, and POPE
JOHN PAUL II AND THE LUMINOUS MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY
from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE ROAD TO ASSISI: The Essential Biography of St. Francis, by Paul Sabatier. Edited with Introduction and Annotations by Jon M. Sweeney. Paraclete Press. 178 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by MITCH FINLEY, author of more than 30 books on Catholic topics, most recently It's Not the Same Without You: Coming Home to the Catholic Church (Doubleday).

THE FIRST MODERN biography of St. Francis of Assisi was written by a French Protestant author, Paul Sabatier, and published in 1894. By Sabatier's death in 1928, his biography of Francis had appeared in 45 editions in French alone, plus English, Swedish, German and Italian translations.

When it was first published, the official Catholic response to Sabatier's biography was to condemn it. It would be several decades before the Catholic Church, in the 1943 encyclical of Pope Pius XII called Divino Afflante Spiritu, would open its doors to historical and textual criticism of Scripture as legitimate scholarly tools.

Thus, Sabatier's book landed on the infamous Roman Index of Forbidden Books. This is understandable, given the historical context, as Sabatier's research correctly revealed a Francis who was a rebel and impatient with Vatican authorities.

Any reading of this new edition of Sabatier's biography of Francis will reveal how far ahead of his time he was. Still, it's surprising that a Protestant author was so open to a Catholic saint—given the classical Protestant attitude toward the very idea of saints.

The present text is an edited and slightly abridged version of the first English edition, which appeared in 1906. Editor Jon Sweeney updated some of the language while remaining faithful to the original French text. The informative annotations contributed by Sweeney are much more than footnotes that have moved uptown.

For example, to Sabatier's words about the meeting between Francis and Dominic, Sweeney contributes a quotation from another author about the contrast in the physical appearances of the two saints. Francis wore a garment the color of earth and dust, reminding an observer of "a sparrow or, as they were called in France, a moineau—a little monk," while Dominic presented himself in a "handsome habit of yellow wool so pale it looked white...[with] an air of somewhat intimidating nobility."

Sabatier's biography remains remarkably contemporary. For example, his final chapter, on the death of St. Francis, includes these words which still today are likely to evoke arguments and debates: "'Ah, yes,' said Angelo Clareno, 'St. Francis promised to obey the pope and his successors, but they cannot and must not command anything contrary to the conscience or to the Rule.' For him, as for all of the spiritual Franciscans, when there is conflict between what the inward voice of God ordains and what the Church wills, he has only to obey the former."

This new, updated edition of Paul Sabatier's biography of St. Francis of Assisi is nothing short of astonishing in its power to touch the heart and revive the soul. Recent biographies of Francis (such as Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life, by Adrian House) are invariably superior to most older, merely pious ones.

Still, Sabatier's book retains its prominence; while historically accurate, it has a lyrical quality that makes it a delight.

You can order THE ROAD TO ASSISI: The Essential Biography of St. Francis from St. Francis Bookshop.

POETRY AS PRAYER: Saint Francis of Assisi, by Murray Bodo, O.F.M. Pauline Books and Media. 150 pp. $9.95.

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

ST. FRANCIS' great prayer, "The Canticle of the Creatures," offers us an opportunity to see the world anew. And learning how to pray the poem can bring us closer to this mystical, passionate saint.

Franciscan Father Murray Bodo is the author of 15 books, among them the best-selling Francis: The Journey and the Dream (St. Anthony Messenger Press), and a staff member for Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs in Assisi. The book is illustrated with Ambrogio Bondone Giotto's artwork from the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

Although a small book in size and number of pages, this rich treasure must be savored slowly. It is part of the Paulines' "Poetry as Prayer" series, which has considered such poets as Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Jessica Powers. The series begins with a brief life of the poet, then moves into context and line criticism of the poet's major works.

This volume puts more emphasis than usual on the life of the poet, as Father Murray sees St. Francis' life itself as poetry—a life rich in allegory and literary devices like irony. I had never before considered how ironic it was that Francis took off his clothes to renounce the values of his father, a cloth merchant.

Because Francis' gestures were symbolic of a deeper reality, they functioned as metaphor. When Francis embraced the leper, he was embracing Christ and the Mystical Body of Christ. In putting stone on stone to rebuild the chapel of San Damiano, Francis was rebuilding the whole Church.

"St. Francis could only have written 'The Canticle of the Creatures' at the end of his life. It is a poem that crystallizes a lifetime of reconciliation and integration," Father Murray believes. Poetry and prayer arise from the same source, that deep center of ourselves where contradictions and opposing forces vie for sovereignty. In "The Canticle" St. Francis sings of his reconciliation with all the opposites within him.

Father Murray gives both the Italian original as well as the English version and points out ways that even good translations cannot do justice to the original. For instance, the original Italian relies on assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, for its musical sound.

Father Murray describes the cosmology to which Francis was heir, which considered the sun to be just one of the six planets circling the earth. Francis also chose the four primordial elements—air (wind), water, fire and earth—to represent all of creation, and arranged them in pairings by gender, male with female, indicating a profound reconciliation of the male and female aspects of his personality.

I was surprised, however, that in his comments on "Brother Fire," Father Murray did not refer to the irony that fire was used to cauterize Francis' eyes—a horrific experience which would have given him an intimate, painful knowledge of that particular element. Yet Francis manages to call fire "handsome and merry, robust and strong." Father Murray instead talks about the connection of fire and eros (the power to love) and gives two stories about Francis and Clare and their companions radiating light out of their love.

There is so much more in Father Murray's line-by-line analysis, like his comments on death and forgiveness, that I can do no better than recommend the whole book for meditation.

You can order POETRY AS PRAYER: Saint Francis of Assisi from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE PUMPKIN FAIRY, by William T. Boyd. Illustrations by Mary Jo Roberts. Wyatt Press. 32 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assitant editor of this publication, with the help of her four-year-old daughter, Madison.

AUTUMN IS my daughter's favorite time of year. So when I asked her to help me review The Pumpkin Fairy, she jumped at the chance.

The story is about a fairy in a pumpkin patch who must find the right good deed to earn her magic powers. When a coyote pack shows up ready to eat the pumpkins, the fairy flies into action.

The illustrations, by Mary Jo Roberts, are rich with color, expression and detail. In fact, Maddie quickly noticed that the scarecrow's expression changed depending on what was happening in the story.

The book's only drawback is the artistic font used for the text. Maddie had difficulty recognizing some of the letters and words.

According to the author, the book attempts to "rediscover some of the lost innocence of Halloween." Judging from Maddie's reaction to the book, I think he's done just that.

You can order THE PUMPKIN FAIRY from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

 

Book Briefs

This October 16 marks 25 years for Pope John Paul II's pontificate. He is among the most prolific of writers and most photographed of men.

• GO IN PEACE: A Gift of Enduring Love, by John Paul II (Loyola Press, 244 pp., $19.95). Edited by Joseph Durepos, these selections from Karol Wojtyla's written documents and speeches answer two questions important to lay believers: "What does it mean to be a Catholic and a Christian today?" and "Why do we believe as we do?"

• EVERY CHILD A LIGHT: The Pope's Message to Young People, edited by Jerome M. Vereb, C.P. (Boyds Mill Press, 48 pp., $16.95, U.S./$26.99, Canada). This book with spectacular four-color photos captures the special bond between the pope and children. The fatherly words of spiritual advice presented here were selected by a former member of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

• POPE JOHN PAUL II: Reaching Out Across Borders, by the journalists of Reuters (Prentice Hall, 184 pp., $29.95, U.S./$46.99, Canada). These stunning photographs and essays by Philip Pullella (Vatican correspondent for 20 years) and Tom Heneghan (chief political correspondent for 25 years), among others, present a full and revealing picture of the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.


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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