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The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer

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Father Louis Bouyer

This is a review of The Memoirs of Louis Bouyer: From Youth to Conversion to Vatican II, the Liturgical Reform, and After.  Father Bouyer was a French Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism in 1939, and then became respected priest and scholar who served as an advisor to the Second Vatican Council. He prepared these memoirs during his retirement in the 1990s, and died in 2004.   They were not published until 2014.

I have read the ebook version. The work is meticulously endnoted, with hypertext links that allow one to jump back and forth from notes and text with ease.

This book will be most enjoyed by those already familiar with his body of work, who are familiar with the history of Vatican II, and have an interest in the history and reform of Catholic liturgy. I do not fall into any of those categories, but I will share my thoughts for those who may be interested in reading it.

About half of Father Bouyer’s non-fiction bibliography is available in English, though you might have to buy used copies.  He also wrote four novels under pseudonyms. Those books have never been translated into English, and may even be out of print. He developed friendships with a number of other writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien.

Father Bouyer reminds me of another Catholic priest, writer and scholar:  Father Andrew Greeley. Both were scholars who wrote novels, though Greeley much more so. Bouyer’s career was more consumed by teaching duties than Greeley’s was.  Both men seemed to have a lot of energy, were inquisitive, and had a certain cheerfulness (at least in their writing), and had a tendency to speak their minds and thus get into scrapes with their peers in the Church.

The most charming part of the book is the first few chapters, regarding his family, youth and early crushes.  He had a great eye for detail and characterization. and I would have liked to read one of his novels. His mother died when he was 11.

The weakest part (though not bad) of the book is the middle part, covering his career during the 1940s and 1950s. Its a whirlwind of all the characters he knew and met, and the various places he worked and studied. Friends and historians will probably find this more useful.

The last part involves his role at Vatican II, and for a period of time in implementing it. Its good basis for a belief that the fewer the big conferences there are in Rome, probably the better.  He also covers some friendships and favorite places.

Two friends he singled out are a testimony to his generosity of spirit. One was Julian Green, an American, Catholic convert. He was a diarist, novelist and translator who lived most of his life in France. He also struggled with a homosexual orientation, and Bouyer seems to have been a good friend and confidante.  The other was an English writer, Elizabeth Boudge. Though she was not a Catholic, they struck up a deep and persistent correspondence that lasted many years.

Now, the themes:

The Mediocrity of the Church’s Institutions and its Leaders

It is suggested in the introduction that the long delay between the writing of the memoirs and their publication was deliberate, to perhaps protect Father Bouyer in his retirement, and to spare many of the targets of his criticism while they were still alive or holding high positions.

It is difficult, as with Greeley’s memoirs, to read about priests criticizing others under Holy Orders. However, Paul rebuked Peter once, so as long as it is done in Charity, it must be done when there is error or failure.  The Church, in its institutions and members, comes across in these memoirs as a sprawling university system. We meet “tenured” priests (e.g. isn’t Holy Orders the ultimate tenure?) who loaf and don’t do much work, administrators who have been promoted beyond their competence, or aging leaders who should have been retired and can’t keep up anymore. There is envy for other’s accomplishments, an unwillingness to consider new ideas, hiring decisions based on personal favoritism over merit, etc.

Bouyer sometimes names names, sometimes he doesn’t. He is not nasty about it, he offers his assessment, and moves on. I am reminded of an anecdote from Father Benedict Groeschel, where he relates a conversation he had with Mother Teresa. She asked him why God chose him to be a priest, and he replied with a joke. She answered “You were called by the humility of God.” He chooses very frail instruments to work with, so we should not be surprised when they fail.  Fortunately, we have great servants like Groeschel, Greeley or Bouyer to make up for the masses of mediocre Catholics (myself included among them).

Pre-Vatican II Church Dynamics

These memoirs confirm what I have read elsewhere about the pre-Vatican II dynamic.  The controversy and confusion that followed Vatican II didn’t just fall from the sky. It had been building for a few decades among silently warring camps.

On the one hand, we had the confident, established Church. It was orthodox and resistant to any change, perhaps more out of fear of modernity than willful close-mindedness.  And on the other hand, there was a large camp that fully subscribed to the modernist project, and wanted to conform the Church to the world.

In the middle it seems, were perhaps the smallest, least powerful group. Some reformers who wanted moderate change to the liturgy, Church organization, teaching methods, etc. This includes men like the future Pope Benedict, Bouyer, Henri De Lubac, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.   They thought they had some good ideas for how the Church could respond to the problems of modernity

These reformers were criticized as dangerous radicals before Vatican II, and then criticized as out-of-touch conservatives in the decades after Vatican II. In fact, they never changed their position on anything.

What happened is that there was a rupture, and the modernist camp largely won, and imposed a lot of change very quickly. One of the stranger things I learned reading this was that during the Vatican II conferences there was a strong consensus at one point to abolish Ash Wednesday. It would have been moved to the first Sunday of Lent.  It narrowly survived. And it is one of the few times a lot of Catholics see the inside of a Church other than on weekends.  Many will skip Holy Days of obligation, but will go to Ash Wednesday services. This is an example of the kind of mentality that was at work at Vatican II.

One of the villains in this drama was Annibale Bugnini (may he rest in peace). He was a Catholic priest and important administrator given a position of great authority at Vatican II, and a staunch modernist.  When he ran into obstacles, he would pull out his trump card, “The Pope Wills It!” Bouyer and others later found out he was making it all up, the Pope did not will it. He was later punished by being named the Vatican’s delegate to Iran, where he finished his career.

Bridges between Catholics and Protestants

Though a convert, Bouyer retained his strong belief that Protestants had often outdone Catholics in both their study of scripture and their emphasis on a personal relationship with the Lord. I tend to agree, though I think the Church has made great strides in recent decades, particularly with emphasis on new devotional practices (e.g. the Divine Mercy), and Pope Benedict XVI’s great example in his series on the Gospels.  Bouyer felt these two areas should be ones the Church should focus on in its pursuit, perhaps vain, of reconciliation with our Anglican and Lutheran brethren (which were the focus of his ecumenism).

Based on my reading of his memoirs, I do have an interest in trying at least one of his books.  I am more focused on poetry now, so it may be a while before I read one. I will post a review if I do.

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Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World

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Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

In the movie adaptation of The Two Towers, Theoden chants a portion of the above poem  as the darkness closes in. He then asks aloud: “How did it come to this?” Archbishop Chaput, in this survey of contemporary America, proposes to answer this question, among some others, including, “What Comes Next?” While he is writing primarily for a Catholic audience, I think Christians of other faiths grappling with the current problems may find it very helpful.

The book’s title comes from Exodus 2:22, where Moses names his firstborn son, particularly the King James Version:

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

It is thought that this was a reference to Moses time in Egypt, a “strange land” for a Hebrew. Moses later leads the Hebrews out of Egypt after he accepts a mission from God. America is arguably the “strange land” now, where man has taken the place of God, and we build large monuments to ourselves.

Archbishop Chaput may be the closest thing to a “public intellectual” among the American Catholic Church’s leadership.  After reading the book, I can tell he is extremely well read, and conversant with the ideas and arguments of artists, scholars and activists from all corners: Alexis De Tocqueville, Saul Alinsky, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, etc. He is also very conversant with all the more recent big thinkers in Catholic theology, as would be expected (De Lubac, Balthasar, etc.).

I am often interested in writers’ last names, specifically their origin. Chaput is a French name, and apparently means the “wearer of a distinctive cloak or hat”, and is derived from the French word for “chapel.” Certainly an appropriate last name for  a Catholic Bishop.  He should probably be made a Cardinal, but he is a little too forthright for that to happen anytime soon.

Chaput’s purpose is try to and help Catholics and other Christians (its not just for Catholics) understand how we got to this point. He argues that the roots go far back beyond the upheavals of the last fifty years. Essentially, he agrees with De Tocqueville’s observation that democracy is only as good as the people who live there.  Our ancestors, regardless of their party, accepted that they were sinners, were accountable to God for their actions, and accordingly went about governing this country with greater humility, caution and tolerance for those who disagreed with them.

That has changed. While the vast majority of people still believe in a higher power, more people than at any other time have substituted the worldly project of utopia for faith in God. When you don’t put God first, you make a God of other things.  Thus political candidates, parties and public policies have substituted for Jesus, Church and the Sacraments. God is a means to the worldly end, and not the End. The great joke about building utopias is that the word means “nowhere”, as St. Thomas More invented it in his semi-satirical exercise in imagining a perfect world.

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter summary. The first chapter is a particularly strong overview of the current situation. The next several get into “How did it come to this?”

The later part of the book is focused on “what to do”, and “what comes next?”.  Chaput may not agree with the ideas laid out in books like “Resident Aliens” (a chapter title), and is probably not a fan of what is known as the “Benedict Option”, referring to the monastic community of St. Benedict.   In those ideas, Christians sort of withdraw from the world and public sphere and focus on living prayerful, purpose filled lives. Sort of like islands in the storm of barbarism.Rather, I think Archbishop Chaput would prefer us to remain engaged, part of the world, even if we don’t expect solutions from the political process. He gives examples and encourages us to stand fast.

So, what does come next?  A lot of heavyweight Catholic philosophers and theologians have wrestled with a theology of history over the past century or so: Romano Guardini (The End of the Modern World), Josef Pieper (The End of Time), and Hans Urs Von Balthasar (A Theological Anthropology), for example. Pope Francis in particular seems to like Guardini, and is particularly fond of the novel Lord of the World, a fictional exercise in imagining the next phase.

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Guardini, writing after WW2, argued that the great Modern project had failed, and that something new must take its place. Guardini hoped that a new man, fully converted, would be able to:

… see through the illusions which reign in the midst of scientific and technological development: the deception behind the ‘liberal’s’ idolatry of culture, behind the totalitarian’s utopia, the tragecist’s pessimism; behind modern mythicism and the hermaphrodite world of psychoanalysis. He would see and know for himself [that] Reality is simply not like that!”

I don’t think that’s happened. Rather, the world seems to have tired of postmodernism’s irony, and are interested in rebooting Modernism 2.0. Thus the great interest in Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Genetic Engineering, Virtual Reality, Life Extension, etc. Modernism failed because Man was not Modern, but now he can be remade through a trans-human ideology and technology. This helps explain in part why the transgender issue is so hot right now. Its just part of Modernism 2.0. Elon Musk seems a particularly prominent spokesman for Modernism 2.0, watch him to see how the new narrative continues to develop.

So, what we are left with is just plain old witness, and the readiness to stake everything on God. But as Chaput notes at several points, its not enough to ignore the world, or hope for a separate peace. You will not be allowed to disengage and retire to a monastic community.  You may not be interested in Modernism 2.0, but its interested in you. It wants your affirmation and approval, not acceptance. It will keep pushing on all fronts: public  education, workplace rules, health care, public expression, the role of parents over their children’s upbringing, etc. Chaput encourages us to continue our witness in the public square, and all that we do, even if we do not put our faith in political processes.

I will cite someone even more blunt than the good Archbishop. Writing on the same issues in the last chapter of his The Moment of Christian Witness, Hans Urs von Balthasar scripted an imaginary conversation between a commissar and an anonymous Christian under interrogation. The title of this chapter was Cordula, the name of a young girl allegedly martyred by the Huns. The catch is Cordula initially tried to hide, but after everyone else was killed, came out and gave her final witness and received the crown of martyrdom. Balthasar writes that in the end, all we have to offer is our defenseless exposure to the world, like Christ.

Hopefully it will not come to that.  And as Chaput writes, we must be hopeful, but not optimistic. Chaput likes the poet Peguy, and cites to his long poem on the second theological virtue. Hope is something we receive through God’s grace, optimism is a belief in Man and his sand castles.   I would bet on grace, not man.

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Going to the Margins with Georges Bernanos in Mouchette

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This installment in my ongoing review of Georges Bernanos bibliography is about his novel Mouchette, published in 1937. In the French publication it is titled as Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette. Bernanos decided to reuse the name of a female character from his first novel, Under the Sun of Satan, for the title of this book and its main character. Unlike much of the Bernanos bibliography, Mouchette is in print and available through bookstores.

I will introduce the review with following Bible passage:

If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1 John 3:20

One of the expressions that Pope Francis is known for is “Going to the margins” of society. That is, we must reach out and help the poor, the mentally ill, the imprisoned as part of our love of neighbor. Those most difficult to reach should deserve special attention. Another popular expression of the Pope’s is that the Church must “accompany” those in particularly difficult situations.

The story begins with Mouchette at school, and her discomfort  with singing along with the rest of her class. They are singing the lines from a French poem, Three Days of Christopher Columbus. The first two lines, translated to English:

“Hope! … No more Hope!”

Three Days, Columbus told them, and I give you a world.

The lines apparently describe a conversation with Columbus and his despairing crew. I think Bernanos was alluding to the three days in the tomb and the Resurrection.

Mouchette has no such attention or accompaniment in her life. She is a fourteen year old girl in rural France. She is poor, and the daughter of an alcoholic father and terminally ill mother. She wears her older brother’s oversized wooden clogs everywhere, and the clopping sound they make might as well be the nails going into her very own Cross. She has no friends, and really, by the end of the novel, no hope. She can’t wait three more days. Again, deliberately, I think Bernanos chose to break up this novel of 127 pages into only three chapters.

Overall, it is a meditation on the pity of God for those on the margins, those whom God does not seem to help out of respect for our free will in ordering the affairs of the world.  Bernanos deliberately gives the reader a God’s eye view, and invites us to accompany this person on the margin of society.

A brief except to give you a flavor of Bernanos’ style in this book:

Her attention was so absorbed and so tender that it seems to be an extension of her own life. It did not occur to her to find Arsene’s face handsome. It was simply that it was made for her, and seemed as easy and natural in her gaze as the handle of her old knife in her hand, the old knife which she had found on the road one evening, and had shown to no one, and which was the only thing in the world which she possessed. She would have liked to touch his face, but its golden color, as warm as that of bread, was enough to make her happy.

 

This is a particularly good book if you are (like I hope I am not anymore) a little too quick to judge people based on the worst day of their life or after the biggest mistake they might ever make.  We don’t really know how they got there. Only God does. My local newspaper has gone mostly electronic, and its home page is steadily updated throughout the day with an endless list of crimes, deaths and various misadventures.  The people who comment on these stories are often rather cruel, criticizing the person or their family for what happened. It is far better to say a prayer for these strangers you never knew in this life … you might be the only one who does.

So you can accompany those on the margins through prayer, if nothing else is possible.

The novel was adapted into a film by the highly regarded French director Robert Bresson in 1967. The screenplay is largely faithful to the plot, though the story has been shifted forward a few decades to post-WW2 France. Bresson uses his familiar, minimalist style and relied on locals and unknowns to fill out the cast. Most of the bad stuff is not directly shown, but still, it’s not for children. It is available with subtitles. I don’t believe it won any major awards, but it was well regarded enough that the Critetion Collection decided to restore and reissue it in 2007.

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Under Satan’s Sun by Georges Bernanos

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With this post I continue my reviews of stories written by non-English speaking Catholics which may be unfamiliar to an Anglophone audience. Here I review Georges Bernanos’ novel Sous le soleil de Satan, which was translated from French into English as Under Satan’s Sun (some translations use Under the Sun of Satan). It was Bernanos’ first novel, and published in 1926.

Most of the translated versions of Bernanos’ work are out of print, and will not be found at your local library or bookstore.  Unless you want to buy a used copy for $100 on Amazon, you may need to make use of the “interlibrary loan” process, in which you can ask your local lending library to request his books from a university library. This is a free service, and I have found it to work quite well.

I.

In Under Satan’s Sun, Bernanos explores what a real saint might think and experience. This is not a dry, matter of fact or even reverent biography of a saint we have probably all read at one time or another.  Rather, Bernanos tries to imagine the interior suffering and day to day experience of a saint, their flaws and even their mistakes. The role of the saint in the world and Church was an endlessly fascinating subject for Bernanos, and the topic of several long essays.

The protagonist of the book is Father Donissan, a priest living in the French countryside. No dates are given, but the events of the book roughly overlap the late 19th century and early 20th century. Donissan is of peasant background, and somewhat rough around the edges in appearance and personality. He struggled in the seminary, and is having difficulty in his first assignment.  Bernanos very loosely based him on John Vianney and, to a lesser extent, Therese of Lisieux, who along with  Joan of Arc, were probably Bernanos’ three favorite saints.

However, Donissan is not present in the book’s first act, which instead tells the story of Germaine Malorthy, later nicknamed “Mouchette” (meaning “little fly”). “Malorthy” appears to be a made-up last name, perhaps suggesting both “sick” (Mal in French) and “straight” (from the Greek Orth). Bernanos may have intended to allude to the concept of original sin with this name.

Mouchette is both antagonist and victim.  As antagonist, Bernanos illustrates the banality of evil, and how a series of mistakes, misunderstandings, and emotional turbulence can lead one to a very dark place. It is intended to be a compassionate portrait, and it is Bernanos speaking when he later has Donissan tell her  that her great crime was no sin in God’s eyes, because her freedom had been compromised by Satan.

But she is also a victim of Satan, the clown prince of the world, and a real presence in the book.  Bernanos accepted that the devil was real, and an omnipresent foe of humanity. The idea may seem strange to the contemporary reader, but the suffering of Donissan, much less the mystery of evil in the world, doesn’t make much sense without this. If I may borrow from the language of software, Satan is a bug, not a feature.  Bernanos’ Satan primarily manifests as a mental presence weighing the soul down at every turn. This is not The Exorcist, and Bernanos’ Satan wages a campaign of interior, spiritual warfare to lead his enemy, us, into doubt, despair and self-hate. Satan is eager to intervene during Mouchette’s confrontation with Donissan:

But then help – a help never sought in vain – came to her from a master who grows more attentive and harder with every day that passes; a dream she could scarcely distinguish from other dreams, a scarcely more bitter desire, a companion and tormentor now real and living, in turn plaintive and languid, the source of tears, more pressing, brutal, and eager to compel, and then, at the decisive moment, cruel and ferocious, fully present in a laugh full of pain, bitter, once a servant and now a master.

Mouchette is sixteen, and sort of an infernal version of the Virgin Mary. She is a savage child, striking out at everyone in her spiritual revolt. Bernanos describes her as a “bride of hell” in the making, and I will simply say it is a photo finish as to whether she consummated her nuptials with God or the Devil.

II.

But the key spiritual struggle is between Donissan and Satan, which is begun during the second act of the book, titled “The Temptation of Despair.”  The two have an encounter of sorts during a long walk Donissan makes on a cold and miserable night to a remote parish. If you have ever had one of those sleeps where you wake up ten or more times, and seem to drift from one dream fragment to the next in a night that does not end … well that’s what happens to Donissan in a way.

Donissan has been gifted with the supernatural charism known as cardiognosis, or the reading of people’s hearts. St. John Vianney apparently had this, and became a famed confessor because of it. Because of his gift, Donissan is subjected, or allows himself to be subjected, to a particular temptation: despair. The weight of seeing so many people’s sins and their lack of repentance torments him. He makes a wager of sorts, offering his happiness and even salvation in an effort to save souls.  Donissan is also overly scrupulous and prone to unnecessary acts of mortification and penance. His opponent plays on this and his combative nature to draw Donissan away from reliance on God’s mercy into a cycle of self-hate, despair and doubt. Thus an interior tug of war begins that will last his whole life:

What he was about to turn against so foolishly, however, was the mysterious joy still awake in his mind, a small, clear flame scarcely flickering in the wind. His arid soul, which had never known any other consolation than a mute and resigned sadness, was first astonished, then frightened, and finally irritated by the inexplicable sweetness. At the first stage of ascension, vertigo strikes, and the fledgling mystic struggles with all his might to break out of the passive contemplation and inner silence, disturbed by its apparent idleness … The Other, who had interposed himself between Donissan and God, concealed himself with utmost skill, advancing, withdrawing, advancing again, carefully, sagaciously, and attentively leading him on.

Donissan is not a follower of Therese’s “Little Way.” He chooses to meet his foe head on.

If you yourself have tendencies to scrupulousness, you might see yourself in him, and have a new insight as to where these feelings come from … not somewhere good.  For self-hate is really another form of pride, an unwillingness to humbly accept whatever flaws or limitations God has allowed us to endure. There was much of the young Bernanos in this book and character, and the older man later reflected on overcoming this in his usual, very quotable way:

The hard thing is not loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s loving yourself enough so that the literal observance of the precept will not do harm to your neighbor.

III.

The third act, titled “The Saint of Lumbres”, takes place some years after the conclusion of the second act. Donissan has been placed in charge of a small parish in a rural part of France, and is no longer a young man. Like John Vianney, he has acquired a reputation as a gifted confessor and miracle worker.  Bernanos uses this part to illustrate how a saint must walk much the same the same path that Jesus did while on earth.  Donissan is besieged by parishioners and visitors, like Jesus was surrounded by crowds.  He is looked at with skepticism and suspicion by the Church, much like Jesus was doubted and questioned by the religious authorities of the day. Donissan, tired and worn down by the unending demands and sins of others, undergoes one last, severe crisis of faith near the end of the book, like Christ on the Cross asking if God had abandoned him.

In terms of style, I find that Bernanos writes in a way very different from contemporary authors. There are long, discursive paragraphs of dialogue or a character’s thoughts. I think much of it is quite beautiful, but one may find him, justifiably, long-winded at times.

In later years, Bernanos referred to the novel as the “fireworks display” of a young man. While this book portrayed the saint as a hero, his later works presented the saint as a more ordinary sort of fellow who is fully cooperative with God’s grace. The confrontation between good and evil is less dramatic, and more in line with the normal day-to-day choices and temptations of the typical person.

IV.

The novel was adapted into a movie by Director Maurice Pialat, and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. Gerard Depardieu played Father Donissan. It was well reviewed, but I have to admit feeling a bit disappointed with the film. But I usually am with adaptations of books I like. The director clearly had a respect for the source, and the adaptation is reasonably faithful to the plot. However, given that half the book or more is about what’s going on inside people’s heads, I found it somewhat fragmentary.  The actress who played Mouchette, who was 20, also seemed too old for the part of a sixteen year old girl.

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Donissan and Mouchette. Under the Sun of Satan (1987).

If you read it and like it, a far more insightful and in-depth of treatment of the book is given in Bernanos: An Ecclesial Life, in which Hans Urs Von Balthasar reviews and analyzes the spiritual themes of his entire bibliography.

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Shusaku Endo’s Deep River

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This is a review and analysis of Shusaku Endos’s 1994 novel Deep River, his last. I started reading Endo recently, and reviewed his Kiku’s Prayer a few months ago. Endo’s controversial novel Silence has also been getting more attention lately due to the Martin Scorsese film adaptation currently playing in theaters.

Deep River may be interesting for those readers who read or saw Silence, and are looking for more from Endo, or are simply trying understand his point of view. Alternatively, it may be of interest to those who ponder why the faith seems to have flourished in some parts of the world, but not taken root in places like Japan. This is a longish review, and includes details that may spoil the story in case you prefer to read it first.

Deep River follows parts of the lives of five different people leading up to their meeting on a trip to India in 1984. Three of them are elderly Japanese men coming to terms with suffering.  The two main characters are a Japanese man and woman engaged in a spiritual duel of sorts lasting several decades.

The three older men, Numada, Kugachi and Isobe, are to some degree biographical sketches of Endo or the men of his generation. Numada, like Endo, is an author who never quite got over the divorce of his parents, and has suffered from significant health problems later in life. Isobe is a representative of the traditional Japanese salary man who realized he never fully appreciated or loved his recently deceased wife. Kugachi is a WW2 veteran still trying to make sense of his and his fellow veterans’ experiences.

The main characters are Otsu, a Japanese Catholic who becomes a priest, and Mitsuko, an acquaintance from college who wrestles with alternative impulses to destroy and understand him. Mitsuko is trying to find herself, while Otsu is trying more and more to submerge himself into the Man of Sorrows.

In terms of style and structure, this is very different from Kiku’s Prayer. That book was almost a documentary about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the late 19th century. Deep River is more an examination of the interior states of its characters as they confront modernity and their own suffering.

Endo almost seems to be asking here  whether any of the suffering explored in Silence and Kiku’s Prayer has been worth it, or why the sacrifice of so many martyrs has borne little obvious fruit. The Christians of mid to late 20th century Japan are considered odd by their compatriots, and Otsu is the butt of jokes and mockery by his fellow students. Endo tries to explore this issue, and offers his own thoughts through the words of Otsu and Mitsuke. Western Christians may not like the message.

Endo went to France as a young man to study French Literature. He alludes to this experience through Otsu’s time in a seminary in France. Endo appears to believe that the Scholastic, Aristotelian influenced mode of Catholic Christianity dominant since the Reformation simply does not work for many Asians. I am no theologian, but briefly, a key criticism of Scholasticism is that it is too rigid, too focused on using reason or logic to approach God. A more recent version of it, “Neo-Scholasticism” was the dominant mode of philosophy and theology within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th century. Some European theologians felt that this approach was limiting, and introduced ideas in the mid-20th century, often called Nouvelle Théologie (“New Theology”)  that relied more on the writings of the Platonic influenced Church Fathers to address the problems presented by Modernism. Please note that this philosophical debate does not neatly fall into “liberal” or “conservative” categories, and there are no good guys or bad guys in this dispute.

Otsu voices Endo’s criticisms of “European Christianity” in a number of passages in which he describes his difficult seminary experience:

For three years I’ve lived here, and I’ve tired of the way people here think. The ways of thinking that they’ve kneaded with their own hands and fashioned to meet the workings of their hearts … they’re ponderous to an Asian like me.

I can’t make the clear distinction that these people make between good and evil. I think that evil lurks within the good, and that good things can lie hidden within evil as well. That’s the very reason God can wield his magic. He made use of my sins and turned me towards salvation.

Again, its beyond my ability to well articulate Endo’s theological or philosophical view.  He is not a heretic, but I think he views the logic, argument based form of Christian evangelization or Christian apologetics as not suited to Asia, or perhaps modernity in general. I think this is why he focused on the “failure” of several Jesuit priests as a key point in Silence.  Rather, I think he is trying to encourage a focus on the more mystical, experience based approach of God’s mercy as often symbolized in devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was the main symbol of faith in Kiku’s Prayer.

Otsu manages to become ordained, but is viewed with deep suspicion by his colleagues.  He eventually winds up in India, where he ministers to dead and dying Hindus in a solo mission of mercy. He carries the bodies of the dying to the Ganges, the “deep river” of the book, which represents God’s deep and unending love for all people. The final wish of many Hindus is that their remains be placed in the Ganges, either whole or after cremation.  The poor that Otsu serve cannot afford cremation, so he carries them on his back, like Christ carrying the cross.

Earlier, I referenced the “duel” between Otsu and Mitsuko, the book’s sole point of view female character, and really a stand in for all of us. Mitsuko and Otsu meet in late 1960’s Japan, and she is a liberated college student who drinks, studies and sleeps around.  She is given the nickname “Moira” after a character in a French novel she has read. Moira is derived from an Irish version of Mary, and Mitsuko is a sort of “Mary Magdalene” figure.

She and her fellow students are amused by Otsu’s Christianity, and they egg her on to test and seduce him.  While watching him pray one day, she makes a bet against the ugly Jesus on the cross that she will steal Otsu away from him. She seduces him into a sexual relationship, and then dumps him after a few months. Otsu is devastated, but later says that he hears Jesus speaking to him to “come to him,” and he interprets this as a sign to become a priest.

Mitsuko goes on to marry, but finds no peace.  She tracks down Otsu to his seminary while on her honeymoon in France, and his determination to keep his faith she finds unsettling.  She eventually divorces and becomes a volunteer at hospital, where she cares for the sick and dying. Years later she joins the trip to India after learning that Otsu has moved to India.

This dual repulsion and attraction is symbolized by Mitsuko’s interest in the various Hindu goddesses she learns about on her trip, such as Kali

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The goddess Kali trampling her husband, as Mitsuko tramples Otsu, and we trample the Lord

In Endo’s view, we are all, like Mitsuko, Kali to an extent, wounded by original sin, and trampling Jesus with our resistance. The theme of a trampled Jesus was the key image at the conclusion of Silence.

Endo studied the French Catholic writer Georges Bernanos while he was a student in France. I have also been reading Bernanos and reviewing some of his work at this blog.  Deep River reflects this influence in the struggle between Otsu and Mitsuko. Bernanos’ stories were ones of spiritual combat, often reflected in a confrontation between a priest and a female character. This was a deliberate pairing by Bernanos; not because of misogyny, but because all souls are feminine in relation to the first and second persons of the trinity. We are part of the Church, which is the Bride to Jesus’ Bridegroom. In his novels, the male priests, in a mystical way, often endure suffering to allow the female character to respond to God’s grace.

Otsu is trampled by Mitsuko in her original sin stained Kali form through her insults, her seduction, and eventual rejection of him. The modern hatred of priests was also a theme of Bernanos’ work, best described in his Diary of a County Priest. There a variety of women slander, mock, and tempt the unassuming, gentle protagonist, a character not too different from Otsu. And despite this almost instinctive revulsion, Mitsuko keeps circling around him, and thinking about her sterile life and the promise of the Christian God.  The duel comes to a head when they encounter each other on the banks of the Ganges at the end of the novel. Otsu offers himself as a sacrifice, and in my view, it leads to a spiritual breakthrough for Mitsuko. The ending is not clear, but my interpretation is that she has been given an opportunity to respond to God’s grace.

The positive feminine symbol that Endo offers in contrast to Kali is that of the Hindu goddess Chamunda, a mother goddess who as described by Endo symbolizing the suffering and abiding of India. Chamunda is not beautiful, and her image is worn down by pain and toil.  She is a Virgin Mary figure who shows the wounds of humanity’s suffering in her image. As Mitsuko thinks about Chamunda, she increasingly becomes drawn to the  river Ganges, which Otsu compares to the deep and all accepting love of Jesus.

In the end, I think Endo is making a plea to acknowledge the feminine, motherly side of God, which bears all suffering, and accepts everyone, regardless of their stated faith. As a member of a very small Christian minority in Japan, Endo had come to accept that God had ways of reaching people of all religions.  This feminine side of God is made present in the appearance of several nuns of the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the book, the order led by Mother Theresa. I think the reader is invited to speculate whether Mitsuko, a nurse by training, stays in India and joins the order.   I would also like to think that Endo would welcome some of the developments in Catholic devotion in recent decades, including a new focus on the mercy of God, as described by St. Faustina Kowalska (canonized in 2000), and Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation.

 

 

 

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The Marriage You Save May be Your Neighbor’s

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Poster of the 1959 film version

 

I just read Georges Bernanos’ screen play,  Dialogues of the Carmelites, which was also his last work. It is a fictional account of the lives of the Martyrs of Compiegne in the years and months leading up to their execution during the Reign of Terror.  The characters are very loosely based on the actual nuns.  I found it to be well written and enjoyed it very much.  Francis Poulenc later adapted the screen play into the better known opera, and it has got me thinking about marriage and divorce, which may seem an odd connection to make.  Thus this post.

The protagonist is Blanche De La Force, the young daughter of a French nobleman whose wife died giving birth to her. Blanche seeks the Lord, but has a serious flaw in her temperament: she is afraid of the world and its dangers to a marked degree. She takes the name Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ, a foreshadowing of the particular nature of her suffering. Blanche wishes that the cup of martyrdom pass her by, like Christ asked that his own cup pass him by during his Agony in the Garden.  It is Blanche’s mission in life to share in this agony of fear and doubt.

The theme of the story is that Blanche, on her own, is not strong enough to pass the test. It takes the sacrifice of three other of her fellow sisters to give her the strength to make the walk to the scaffold. First, the Prioress who accepts her entrance into the convent suffers an unexpectedly painful and emotionally turbulent death. Next, her best friend, Sister Constance, allows herself to be publicly humiliated to conceal Blanche’s cowardice from the other nuns. Finally, the subprioress, Marie de L’Incarnacion is separated from her sisters while searching for Blanche (who has fled the convent) and misses out on their martyrdom, which causes her great spiritual suffering.

Bernanos’ argument is that we are witnessing a mysterious performance of a communion of Saints in the making. These three sisters who had been gifted with greater strength of character have taken on a portion of Blanche’s fear, humiliation, and shame. By doing this, they allow Blanche to respond to the Lord’s call to martyrdom with courage and a song at the scaffold of the guillotine.

This particular operation of the Communion of Saints is described as “vicarious representation and substitution” by Cardinal Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his analysis of Bernanos’ life and works. Blanche is not solely a beneficiary however, as her own natural weakness and the corresponding suffering is a ransom paid for other members of the Body of Christ.

So it is that Blanche is carried over the threshold by the willingness of these three nuns to take her place… However, none of this should make us forget that all these works of willing, vicarious substitution have found their foundation in Blanche’s weakness and derive their efficacy and power precisely from the way Blanche herself represents the essential weakness of all men before the ultimate challenge: Blanche drinks the cup of fear to the dregs both for herself and in substitution for all others.

“Communion of saints” happens when every member of the Body surrenders his whole being and opens it to becoming but a part of the whole, when he allows his integrity to suffer wounds that make possible the passage through him of the Blood circulating throughout the whole.

Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1996).

The Carmelite nuns who were martyred had intentionally offered their lives to God in atonement for the Terror and for the restoration of peace to France.  The Reign of Terror did end ten days after their executions, and even secular historians have acknowledged that their great courage and docility made an impression on the public.

Turning to marriage, I once read a post by a religious describing how marriage is truly a martyrdom on its own.  It often is “for worse”, but we like to forget that. We all know of or have experienced (or are experiencing?) marriages that seem to be cursed by the world: poverty, health problems, infertility, difficult in-laws, etc. Some of these marriages fail, and we might ask, why did God allow it to be so hard for that couple? Some particularly good and strong couples endure hardship after hardship.  If we find ourselves in a difficult marriage, we might be inclined to give up. What does it matter anyway we might say.

And yet, the data suggests that divorce is contagious. If your friends and neighbors get divorced, its more likely you will too. In his Diary of a Country Priest, Bernanos wrote that a communion of sinners exists side by side with a communion of saints.  Might our sins against marriage make it harder for others to persevere? By withdrawing, do we prevent the Blood of Christ from circulating to all members of his Body?  But if that is so, then our obedience might in some way help others endure, like Blanche’s sisters helped her to stay true to Christ to the very end.

If you are in a marriage that is hard, seems pointless, or is burdened by great hardships, one way to find meaning is to accept that you may be going through it for someone else in the Mystical Body of Christ. Like the Martyrs of Compiegne, you can offer up your suffering for other married couples, like Sister Blanche, who might not have a natural disposition towards strength and endurance of hardship. If you seem to gifted with great reservoirs of strength, like Blanche’s sisters, it may be to bear the burdens of others, even if you will never meet them in this life.

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A Review: Kiku’s Prayer

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This post is a review of the novel, Kiku’s Prayer, by Shusaku Endo. Mr. Endo was a Japanese Catholic writer whose novel, Silence, has been adapted for film several times in the past and in a soon to be released film by Martin Scorsese.

If you are planning to see Silence, and read the book, you might be interested in Kiku’s PrayerSilence is about the suppression of Christianity in 17th Century Japan by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is Endo’s most famous work. The persecution, as measured by worldly metrics, was largely successful. Many Christians were killed and forced to renounce their faith, and the teaching of Christianity and public worship was outlawed for about two centuries.

Kiku’s Prayer is about the events that led to the end of the official persecution, which occurred during the late 19th century after the restoration of Imperial rule during the Meiji Restoration. It could be called a work of “historical fiction,”  in which real people and events are used as the basis of a novel.  Mr. Endo helpfully includes endnotes at the end of each chapter to better identify the real people, places and events referenced in the novel.

However, the main characters are not based on real people. Rather they are ordinary Japanese, Christian and non-Christian, who lived in the Nagasaki region of western Japan.  Kiku is a young woman from the small village of Urakami who moves to town for work, and falls in love with Seikichi, a young man, and secret Christian. So unlike Silence, the main characters are Japanese.

A secondary character is Father Bernard Petitjean, a young priest who has come to Japan to help build the first Catholic church in centuries (to serve foreigners), but who initiates a secret mission to make contact with the “Kakure Kirishitan“, or “hidden Christians”, who have practiced their faith in secret and passed on the traditions for two centuries.  He is successful in meeting them, and this sets in motion a chain of events that leads to their persecution but opens the door to the free exercise of religion in Japan.

I do not speak Japanese, and the book has been translated by Van C. Gessel. This is the same translator used for all English versions of Endo’s work. Accordingly, I cannot comment on the writing style or “literary” quality of Mr. Endo’s work.   The novel is very plot driven, and heavy on dialogue and brief descriptions of what the characters see and do. Mr. Gessel’s translation seems fairly straightforward to me (I am not a literary critic).  This is not a “post-modern” work of fiction, nor does it involve long descriptive paragraphs of what’s going on inside people’s heads or around them. It’s a brisk read.

If you are curious why Christianity had so much trouble making headway in Asia, Mr. Endo effectively uses the local government officials to voice a criticism of how European powers and their colonial predation, sometimes with Church assistance, tainted the faith in the minds of many peoples.

The title of the book is an intended irony, as Kiku is not a Christian, and her prayer is more in the nature of a complaint to the Blessed Mother statue she visits from time to time. In this book, as in books written by Georges Bernanos that I’ve reviewed, it is often the people with no faith, those who renounce the faith, or even persecute the faith, that have been given the greatest crosses to bear in life. If you are a Christian, it is largely an accident of birth whether you were baptized and raised in the faith. Imagine the cross you had to bear if you apostatized under torture or threat of torture. Those people probably felt a sense of despair and very distant from the Lord the rest of their life. But in fact He drew very close to them, and they were drawn into the mystery of the Cross in return.

In this vein, one of the more powerful scenes involves a confrontation between Father Petitjean and a Japanese official, Ito, responsible for persecuting the Japanese Christians:

““I’ll bet you don’t know the first thing about the pains of those who are beaten. And you know nothing of the torment of those who administer the torture!”

Then Petitjean said something completely unexpected. “No, I don’t know those pains. But I do know that God loves you more than he loves Lord Hondō.”

Itō looked up at Petitjean’s face in amazement. He thought perhaps he was being mocked, ridiculed. “You say this God of yours … loves me more than Hondō? A man who’s tortured and inflicted pain on you Kirishitans?”

“You are suffering. But Lord Hondō feels no anguish in his heart. His heart is filled with the dream of taking advantage of the mounting opportunities in this age of Meiji and making a success of himself.”

“And what … what’s so wrong with that? I’m … if anything, I’m jealous of the success Hondō is having.”

“But it’s your jaundiced, wounded heart that God is trying to penetrate, not Hondō’s. God has no interest in a man like Lord Hondō, who is inflamed right now with the lust for success. He is drawn instead to a heart like yours.”

Hatefully Itō said, “I really despise the kind of nonsense you people use to trick the hearts of men. You prey on a man’s weaknesses, but no matter how hard you try to charm me with your Kirishitan babble, I’m not falling for your lofty words and schemes. I see exactly what you’re up to.”

“You’re wrong.” Petitjean shook his head vigorously. “Someday you’ll understand. By inflicting pain on the Urakami Kirishitans, you’re splattering your own body with blood.””

In closing comments, Endo notes his thanks to the City of Nagasaki, which was the location of the last use of an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the intended target for the second bomb, but the primary target was obscured by smoke and clouds.  When the bomb was dropped it drifted somewhat away from the urban core and landed in the Urakami Valley, where the story of Kiku’s Prayer begins. The surrounding hills prevented higher casualties, but the Urakami Cathedral, the first built in Japan, was destroyed and all those attending mass for the Feast of the Assumption were killed.

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Book Review: The Resurrection by Fabrice Hadjadj

Here I will review/summarize a new book by Fabrice Hadjadj, titled The Resurrection: Experience Life in the Risen Christ. It is a series of commentaries about the Resurrection. Each chapter begins with a quote or quotes from scripture, and Mr. Hadjadj offers some reflections that can be applied to every day life.

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First, some background for Mr. Hadjadj. After reading this book I experienced a new regret: I cannot speak French (nor any of the other languages of the Continent his works appear in).  This is his first book to be translated into English.

Mr. Hadjadj is a father and husband, philosopher and teacher. He is of Jewish, Tunisian background, and converted to Roman Catholicism after a long tenure as an atheist.

According to a website about Algerian Jewish culture, the surname Hadjadj apparently can mean “one who argues with God.” A good name for a philosopher.

I am somewhat disappointed this book hasn’t received more attention. It came out in May of this year, and I have found a handful of reviews on the web.   If you google his name you can find a few interviews that have been translated into English.  Artur Rosman has offered some commentary on his books at his Patheos blog.  While he is a famous figure in France, he is virtually unknown in America.

I want to do my part to increase his profile in the Anglosphere, thus this review. I am a layperson with no training in philosophy or theology, so there may be a lot of mistakes. However, you might never catch me at them as you do not need to be a philosopher or theologian to enjoy this book. His audience is the general public. You will find references to Miss Marple, the Superbowl, Disney’s Frozen, etc. throughout. Generally, I found Mr. Hadjadj’s book to be charming, witty, and a pleasure to read.

Now, onto the contents:

Introduction

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia writes the intro and calls this a “a brilliant little book” and compliments Hadjadj for his “extraordinary reflections” on scripture. He also calls him “… one of the finest Catholic minds in decades.” I include these comments to show that the book has been reviewed by the Church, and there is nothing problematic in it from this Archbishop’s perspective.

Chapter 1  Your Money or Your Life

Matthew 28:11-15 is the source of reflection. In those verses, the soldiers that had been guarding the tomb are paid by the priests of the Temple to spread the lie that the Apostles stole Jesus’ body.

I had always thought of Jesus commentary on money as a warning against excessive love or pursuit of it. All things in moderation, right?  However, Hadjadj examines how even the ordinary, every day use of money may be problematic at times. Hadjadj explains that money’s three functions as “measure of value,” “store of value” and “medium of exchange” can imitate and supplant the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity if we are not very careful.

Chapter 2  The Myrrh-Bearing Women

The subject verses are Mark 16:1-8. Here, three women arrive at Jesus’ tomb to anoint him and instead find it empty.

Doing one’s duty in the face of despair can lead to great things. The Resurrection was not dependent on Mary Magdalene and the other women going to the tomb. We can imagine an alternative history in which, out of despair or fear, the women stayed home and cried their eyes out.  Jesus would have then appeared in a different circumstance to, perhaps, a different group of people. But it seems that something good would have been lost.

This chapter touches on several topics and questions. One, how we have lost touch with death. We don’t care for and bury the dead like our ancestors. Two, why did Jesus appear to women first, given that their testimony would be subject to doubt? Three, reasons some should be scared by the Resurrection.

Chapter 3   The Head Cloth in Its Place

John 20:1-8 is reflected on. This is John’s version of the discovery of the empty tomb, which includes Peter and his footrace.

The key phrase of this chapter is “After You,” a reference to John letting Peter enter the tomb first, despite outracing him. Hadjadj then applies it to the Lord himself. The Resurrection is the ultimate “After you.” His disappearance from the Tomb makes room for us and the rest of creation. He is invisible but totally present. He carries us along in his wake as he breaks the waves of time and space.

Chapter 4   Go Down and See If I’m There

The verses under discussion are John’s description of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in John 20:11-18.

Hadjadj explores the mystery of Mary’s initial non-recognition of Jesus, and his command to her not to touch him.  The suggested solution is that the body of Christ is to be found in your neighbor, no matter how annoying he or she may be. You must go forth as part of being a Christian.

Chapter 5   Do You Have Something to Eat?

Hadjadj provides three different verses that mention Jesus eating after the Resurrection, and asks, why does the Risen One eat? In short, to do poetry. To expand, eating is democratic, universal, and reminds us of our dependence.

Chapter 6  In Accordance with the Scriptures

The subject verses are from Luke, in which Jesus comments on Scripture. Hadjadj explores the importance of scripture in understanding the Resurrection.  In reading the Bible, we should strive for a personal understanding that can be lived in our own life, and not a pedantic interpretation.

Chapter 7  Out of Breath: Saying Good Day and Forgive Me

The subject verses are John, 20:19-23, where Jesus appears to the Apostles and breathed the Holy Spirit on them.

Hadjadj contrasts the Resurrection of Christ with the sci-fi reanimation of a corpse. There must be joy in living for us to want to return to it.

He discusses how the Lord’s words are Shalom, or “Peace be With You”, which in our times has become “Good Day.” Saying “Good Day” every day and meaning it is the great reset button, a forgiveness of the prior days slights and sins. Forgiveness is even more key in the family context, where we are particularly vulnerable and exposed to the truth of our sins.

I am going to include a long excerpt here, because my descriptions cannot do justice to what a fine writer and thinker he is:

If I make some affectionate gesture toward her, my dear and tender wife can’t keep from getting everything off her chest. In order to become completely receptive to my affection, she has to dump out on me all the grievances weighing on her soul. This is a legitimate way of proceeding, and a sign of great confidence. For her it is a matter of accepting my bouquet of flowers by pouring out onto my head a whole cartload of trash – my own trash, I admit – and for me it is a matter of continuing to hold out those flowers even though they are no longer that fresh and my desire to offer them is completely gone.

A “no-fault” divorce culture never requires us to learn or practice the forgiveness required for the ordinary heroism of married life.

In short, the woman of my life has to become the death of me before she can become the woman of my resurrection.  I therefore have to forgive this woman who torments me by asking me for her forgiveness. To communicate with her not just through our facades but also through our cellars, our pits, our dungeons. Nevertheless our faithfulness in these little trials is what enables us to withstand the big ones.

This is offered without the slightest bitterness on Hadjadj’s part, and I am sure he would say the reflection would be equally applicable if the sexes were reversed.

Chapter 8   Place Your Hand in My Side

The subject verses are the description of Thomas’ doubts and recantation in John 20:24-29.

I said in my Amazon review that this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Hadjadj dives in and provides a very intriguing analysis of Thomas’ character and conduct, based on all the instances in which Thomas is quoted or described in the Gospels.

Why was he not with the Apostles when Jesus appeared to them? Hadjadj posits that Thomas was a hothead, and perhaps the bravest Apostle in terms of taking physical risks. Rather than hiding from the Jewish and Roman authorities, he was parading around in public as if daring them to kill  him too.  He wanted to be crucified, and is perhaps suffering from survivor’s guilt.

Thomas cannot wrap his head around a cross and glory combined. The Resurrection threatens to make light of what has gone before. Hence he objects to the good news. Hadjadj compares him to that gloomy friend always going on about the suffering in the world.

Jesus takes Thomas up on his bet, and appears and breathes the Holy Spirit on him. Hadjadj claims that Thomas’ response (“My Lord and My God”) is the first time in scripture that an Apostle referred to Jesus as “My God” as opposed to “Messiah” or “Son of God.”  I wonder if this sort of makes Thomas the first recorded witness to the Trinity. He has received the Spirit, and now perceives both the Son and the Father as one.

The lesson here is that we should honestly approach our doubts. We should be hot or cold, but not play the part of a firm believer if we are lukewarm. Our very doubts expose our hunger for the whole Truth, one that can transfigure “all the wounds of history.”

Chapter 9  Back to Fishing

The lead verses are John 21:1-8, which describes Jesus’ appearance while the Apostles are fishing on the Sea of Tiberias.

Hadjadj asks a question about this verse I never considered. Why are the Apostles off fishing again after they have received the Holy Spirit? Shouldn’t they be preaching somewhere? He acknowledges traditional interpretations, but offers a novel one.

This goes to the question of why so many Apostles, including the inner three (Peter, John and James), were fishermen. Why not shepherds, or hunters, or farmers? It was no accident he suggests.

Chapter 10   Papal Indignity

The lead verses are John 21:15-22, which includes Jesus’ three-fold question to Peter, and the final “Follow Me!” command.

Hadjadj explores why Jesus seems so hard on Peter, or perhaps, why the Gospel writers felt necessary to document his failings more than the other Apostles. Peter’s repeated failures and rebukes opened him to true humility. He would no longer trust on his own strength, and thus would build the foundation of a new Church on the Lord’s strength.

Hadjadj relates that the world would be so fortunate if we all had the same insight that Peter was dragged to acknowledge: we are not worthy. Or as he says it, that we have “concave worthiness.” The more we acknowledge we are empty, the better we can receive.

Chapter 11  To All Creation

Hadjadj opens with Mark 15:15-18, which is Jesus’ commandment to go into the world and preach the Gospel to all creation. He takes the word “creation” literally, and emphasizes the cosmic nature of this, something that cannot always be reduced to a purely human to human interaction.

Hadjadj humorously relates the advantage of seeing your fellow man as a “creature” and not specifically a human being:

… if you tell yourself that this someone is a creature, just like a pig or worm, then you are obliged to recognize that, for a worm or pig, he is nevertheless a fantastic pig or an absolutely fabulous earthworm.

The point being that in returning the focus to the literal command, “all creation”, we can move away from our sometimes particular disappointment with our fellow man, and see Jesus in everything.

In the reference to preaching to the world, he reminds us not to neglect our own family and ourselves. Our own hearts are “wilder than the Amazon jungle.” And “since the earth is round, the remotest end of the world is right here.”

Chapter 12   Laying One’s Head on the Chopping Block

The martyrdom of St. Stephen at Acts 7:55-60 is the inspiration for this chapter.

Hadjadj notes that true martyrdom comes from a zest for life, not a death wish. And that the true martyr has no other power but prayer. And that they will accept martyrdom because they love so much, they even love their persecutors. “After you,” Hadjadj says again.

Epilogue

In his epilogue Hadjadj offers an apology of sorts for his style, which some may find too lighthearted. He hopes that while he have been “whimsical” he doesn’t believe he has been “frivolous.” He says “Times have changed,” and new approaches are required.  I will share a very Chesterton like paradox of his that expresses this point:

And while the engineer designs a superman, God creates man and woman. This is why the Church today is waging countless battles on unexpected fronts: inspired by the Spirit, she glorifies the flesh; as the depository of the supernatural, she becomes the guardian of nature; calling people to be holy, she defends sex. And this is why it is no longer enough to say, as in the past:  “God became man so that man might become God.” It must also be added that God was made man so that man might remain human, and so that in being divinized he might still be even more human.

 

Well, this has been a very long review and summary of the book. I hope you found it useful if you are considering a purchase.

Finally, thanks to the publisher Magnificat for making this available in English. I hope we see more translations of Mr. Hadjadj’s books in the future.

6/22 update: One correction. I did learn that Hadjadj has authored one other book that is available in English. It is about the Ghent Altarpiece, and was published by Magnificat in 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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