Page 13, 17th December 2004

17th December 2004
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Page 13, 17th December 2004 — Spiritual books Francis Phillips
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Spiritual books Francis Phillips

Thomas Aquinas and the Liturgy by David Berger, Saint Austin Press, £8.95. This slim book of only 113 pages is a most thoughtful contribution to the seemingly endless debate over the liturgy. Its author, a German Thomist scholar, is careful not to instrumentalise Thomas for his own purposes. He points out that the saint had been educated in a Benedictine monastery, so had grown up immersed in ancient and dignified liturgical practice. What he is rightly at pains to emphasise is the saint’s response to the liturgy: Mass, celebrated or attended, was at the centre of Thomas’s spiritual life; he was often seen by his contemporaries to weep during the celebration and he often wept when singing the psalms in the divine office. As a poet and theologian, Thomas could appreciate both the beauty and the truth of the words expressed and he was often overwhelmed by the experience. His superb texts for the feast of Corpus Christi caused Pius XI to describe him as “the poet and panegyrist of the Divine Eucharist”.

For Thomas, the liturgy was regulated by the auctoritas of the Church in the spirit of tradition. Berger indicates from this study of the author of the Summa – who gave us the word “transubstantiation” – that true liturgy comes from above, not from below; thus it must be theocentric rather than anthropocentric. Karl Rahner is briefly cited as the chief proponent of the latter view. There is inevitably some implied criticism of modern liturgy in this book; Berger believes it does not so obviously lift the soul to God, nor does it address the contemplative side of human nature. New liturgical translations are afoot, as we know. In this fraught and delicate area it is good to recall the majestic – and magisterial – words of St Thomas and his attitude of profound adoration for the mystery of the Mass.

Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World by Dorothy Day, with Francis J Sicius, Orbis Books £12.99. Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker, houses of hospitality, soup kitchens and farming communes in America, is well known; her cause for beatification is being investigated. Peter Maurin, the French peasant whose whole life was dedicated to discovering ways to incarnate the social encyclicals of the popes, is less famous. But without her providential meeting with him in 1932, it is doubtful whether Day would have found her true vocation.

Frustrated in her wish to integrate her love for the Church, the sacraments and the saints with her deep concern for social justice for the poor, she needed the guidance of Maurin to make concrete her own vision. They both felt that Christianity had “made the world too safe for capitalism”; yet, as ardent Catholics, they rejected the communist alternative. Maurin’s long reflections on solidarity with the poor led to a deep-rooted conviction that there needed to be “a religious reformation of the industrial revolution”. Day, with her energy and her writing gifts, was the person he required to translate these ideas into action. This book, edited by Francis Sicius, puts Day’s own biography of Maurin in its context; italicised fonts indicate her passages. Those who knew her felt she was too humble in her acknowledgement of her debt to Maurin; but Day herself understood the important influence of this strange, mystical, eccentric personality, who never cared what he wore, worked with his hands and talked all night on park benches to whoever would listen to his vision of what the Mystical Body of Christ really meant. Responding to those who called him “holier than thou”, she commented: “Yes, he was holier than thou. Holier than anyone we ever knew.” Fasting by Carole Garibaldi Rogers. Ave Maria Press/Alban Books, £8.99. Pilgrimage by Edward C Sellner, Ave Maria Press/Alban Books, £8.99. Both these books are part of a new series, subtitled “Exploring a great spiritual practice”. Their format is to look at these practices from all the religious traditions, discuss the motivations behind them and provide first-hand accounts of those who have experienced either fasting or going on pilgrimage. Inevitably, there is some repetition: religious people fast in order to deny themselves, change their lives, encounter the divine and seek God’s help for specific intentions. The same reasons prompt people to go on pilgrimages. Of the two books, I found Fasting the more interesting. For those whose tummies rumble at the very title, Rogers provides a sensible account of why this practice is so ancient and so hallowed.

The individual stories are the best part of the book; a Jew, Catholic and Muslim all provide accounts of their own intentions and practice, and it is salutary to read how seriously some Muslims regard Ramadan and Jews Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. For Catholics, the new rules replacing Friday abstinence with acts of charity, instituted by Paul VI, have been largely forgotten. A Jesuit priest gives an honest and amusing account of struggling to give up lemon meringue pie. Alternative medicine approves of fasting because it eliminates “toxins” – such an anxiety for modern health and weight watchers. Pilgrimage, written by a Catholic professor of pastoral theology, seems to have surrendered to political correctness. BCE and CE have replaced BC and AD for no good reason; Carl Jung is quoted with reverence; Jack Kerouac, the American beat writer, shares the same page with St Ignatius of Loyola; and there is a curious list of “five great pilgrimage movies”, which includes Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, 2001:A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia. I am sure I could draw up an equally implausible list, eg Snow White: is the heroine not also on a pilgrimage to discover her romantic destiny, accompanied by seven little therapists? My caution against these books is that they come from the self-help school of comparative spirituality where we might encounter a “madonna figure, like the Buddha, [who] has a face that invites serenity, healing and contemplation” and which “represents the sacred feminine, which too often and for too long has been repressed and undervalued”. Quite.




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