Tag Archives: books

Win Bigly: A Spiritual Autobiography

51uMQm2ICmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

This post is about Scott Adams’ recent book on the art of persuasion, titled Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. Warning: longish.

I.

This was an impulse borrow from my local library, and I checked it out without any preconceived notions or a plan to review it. I was intrigued by Adams because he was one of the few public figures who made a very early prediction that Donald Trump would become president, and maintained this posture through the end of the election (at great risk to his career and public image). However, this post is not about the President or the election, or much about  the art of persuasion, but rather the spiritual or metaphysical issues Adams touches on, intentional or not.

I will preface this by saying that I am a sinner and mediocre Christian, and it is very difficult to truly know what is going on inside another person, particularly in their spiritual life. However, I found Adams to be admirably open and transparent in writing this book. Without his confessions this type of review would not be possible.  For purposes of this review, I am going to assume everything he says is true, and see where that leads us.

Adams lets us know that the book is about more than the art of persuasion on the very first page:

I’m a trained hypnotist.  And I’m going to tell you about the spookiest year of my life. It happened between June 2015 and November 2016. Okay, that’s a little more than a year.

Everything you are about to read in this book is true, as far as I know. I don’t expect you to believe all of it. (Who could?). But I promise it is true, to the best of my knowledge.

(emphasis added)

Adams starts with the topic of “filters”, or the way a person interacts with the world. He  repeatedly states that “A good filter is one that makes you happy and helps predict the future.”  He identifies the filters he has tried so far in his life. He describes how he used the “Church filter” from the age of six to eleven. He was a practicing Methodist and attended Sunday school every week. However, he found that stories such as Jonah and the Whale strained his credulity to such an extent that he stopped believing and going to church.

He then transparently discusses the other filters he tried and discarded, including the “Alien Experiment” filter (e.g. that humanity is an experiment or computer simulation run by aliens), the “Atheist filter” and the “drug filter.” I find it interesting that there are a number of  very intelligent, successful people who subscribe to the computer simulation theory. Each of these proved unsatisfactory.  He finally arrived at the “moist robot” filter.

In the moist robot filter, human beings do not truly have free will or a soul. The brain is a machine that can be trained to develop useful habits, improve happiness, and predict the future (e.g. If I do A then B will result). The “persuasion filter”, the intended subject of the book, is a subset of the moist robot method. Adams argues that most of our decisions or opinions are not based on reason, but on emotional reaction to a stimulus. Persuasion is a tool to get others to do what you want that does not rely on evidence or reason. If you can identify a “Master Persuader” like Trump, you can get an edge on others in predicting what may happen next.

II.

The second part of the book goes on to discuss errors in reasoning, such as confirmation bias, and cognitive dissonance, which is a symptom of holding contradictory beliefs. He provides multiple examples of these from the election and other historic events.

In the third part, he breaks down what persuasion actually is, its elements, and how Trump and Clinton used it, to greater and lesser effectiveness, respectively. In the fourth part, he provides advice on how to use persuasion in business and politics.

Much of this is of little value to a Christian in carrying out the work of evangelization or simply providing a good witness through acts of faith, hope or love. I think Adams does make a good point about the futility of directly attacking others’ belief systems. I am very doubtful of the ability to argue someone out of their beliefs, particularly if it is atheism or agnosticism. Apologetics has a valued place, and we should tell the Truth if asked, but the Lord and the Holy Spirit are what changes minds. Like the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, God always makes the larger move.

III.

Part five is the most interesting, and probably the most unbelievable for many readers. However, as I said, I am going to accept everything he says as true to arrive at the question I asked myself after I finished the book.

He begins by condemning tribalism, which results in people making decisions based on group loyalty as opposed to the truth, or evidence.   Tribalism can be political party membership, but it can be excessive attachment to ethnicity, gender, cultural traditions, etc.. I think the best identity is to see yourself and everyone else as part of the Body of Christ (whether they have been baptized or not).

The last pages are the most interesting: Adams gets to the “spooky parts” and meets a ghost in the machine of his moist robot mind.

Adams talks about his dreams or how he imagined the events of the election taking shape.  Regardless of the scenarios, he had an unshakeable hunch that Trump would win. He shares his past experiences of having “visions” that came true. He claims to have had one at age 6 that he would grow up to become a famous cartoonist. He had others that he would later move to San Francisco, and also that he would become a well paid public speaker. All happened. He describes the visions as being different than a memory or an exercise in imagination. He claims to have had about a dozen of these spontaneous visions that came true.

He goes on to wonder whether his prediction even contributed to the Trump victory. The idea of our world being a simulation comes up again, and he includes an entire appendix on the topic.

This little bit that follows is for anyone reading this who is an agnostic or atheist, but is intrigued by the idea that our world is simulation. In a way, the idea that your life is a simulation is not contrary to the Gospel. What follows is an extended excerpt from a book about St. Therese by Von Balthasar:

The Christian needs to be “crucified to the world” (Gal 6:14) with the Lord, to undergo death and be buried with him (Col 3:3; 2:12), and then be sent back to the world as the leaven in the mass.

If he is to fulfill these demands and realize the mystery of his station, he needs also a veil of protection. United with Christ’s death and burial, the Christian now shares in his Resurrection, is even enthroned with him above the heavens (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12, 3:1);

In truth he lives in heaven and is a stranger here below. But so as to be able to bear this heavenly life without dying, without losing his earthly mission in the abyss of God’s mystery, his own life has, so to speak, to be withdrawn from him until his earthly mission is complete: “You have undergone death, and your life is hidden away now with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). *

Through baptism we receive a share in Christ’s death. Your real life, life to the fullest, awaits you in Heaven (John 10:10). The existence below is the “shadowlands”, which was the title of the last chapter in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. Thinking this way also helps makes sense of Christ’s proclamations such as “Not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:18), or “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you” (Luke 10:18-20). Terrible things happen to people every day, but your true life is preserved in Heaven.  Your life in Heaven must be hidden for now, for a single full glance would kill you. Maybe you get to take a peek in your dreams, and your true self gives you glimpses of the future.

IV.

I am not providing a recommendation on whether to read or buy the book, and I do not have an opinion to share on his analysis of the election or the art of persuasion.

My main interest, as should be clear by now, is the mystical element. Are the spooky parts (e.g. the visions) true? I do not know. We have a baptized Christian that is not only not practicing their faith, but has apparently rejected it. Can the gifts of the Holy Spirit (of which prophecy is one) be operative in such an individual? We might think no, that faith and the gifts are a package deal. But this would negate the divine freedom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bestow their favors where they like. For example, we have the figure of Balaam from the Book of Numbers, a non-Jew who God used to prophesy to the Israelites.

So how shall we categorize Scott Adams then: Cartoonist, businessman … and prophet? He stuck to his guns on his Trump prediction despite all evidence that it would not come true. He acknowledges that there were some others who made similar ones, but in my view they were very late to the game, or lesser known figures with nothing to lose. Maybe his dreams are God’s way of trying to shake his self-reliance and open him to other possibilities?  A man with his talents could do a lot in service to the Lord.

I will continue to watch what Mr. Adams says (and pray for him), for as we often say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.   Discernment is important. Balaam, despite his initial obedience to God,  later preached wickedness and met a bad end.

*Two Sisters in the Spirit, Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity, Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Ignatius Press, 1992)

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

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

strangers

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.

guardini.jpg

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Going to the Margins with Georges Bernanos in Mouchette

41805ek3el-_sx308_bo1204203200_

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Under Satan’s Sun by Georges Bernanos

51aedkjw-5l

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.

under-the-sun-of-satan

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Shusaku Endo’s Deep River

deep_river

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

Kali_lithograph.jpg

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.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

A Review: Kiku’s Prayer

kiku

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews

Looking for Leslie Burke

adrienne

Adrienne, off to Terabithia (1918)

After writing about childhood and atheism the other day, I had a feeling it’s finally time for my Adrienne post. Specifically, Adrienne Von Speyr, the only subject I have in my blog roll. This is a very long and meandering post, as I am knitting together the threads of several different,  proto-posts that never went anywhere.

I.

I read Bridge to Terabithia when I was a boy.  I have not read it since, but it made an impression, as I could remember the story reasonably well years later. After I saw the film adaptation in 2007, fragments started coming back to me, about names that could go either way, and the feel of a sweater button pressed into your face. I would think about the book from time to time, and why I still remember it when so many other books from my youth have gone away.

In hindsight, I think it must have been the alien abduction quality of the friendship at the core of the story. Jesse Aarons, an artistic 11 year old boy, becomes best friends with … a girl, his classmate Leslie Burke.  Maybe things have changed, but based on my school experiences, I think on a subconscious level this required more suspension of disbelief by my eleven year old self than E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

It is not a casual friendship. She is the shy Jesse’s only friend, and they spend just about all their free time together. She is the more mature and developed personality. And an atheist of all things too, in contrast to Jesse’s church going family. I do not recall any sexual tension in the book, and Jesse’s budding romantic affections seem entirely channeled into a crush on his pretty art teacher, Miss Edmunds. But the friendship with Leslie, however brief, has a profound effect on Jesse. She teaches him how to love, and to live life despite its hardships.

Bridge_to_Terabithia

The book’s author, Katherine Paterson, was the daughter of Christian missionaries, and had intended to become a missionary herself before she turned to writing.In an interview she acknowledged that we live in a post-Christian culture, but that we write what we are, and so she writes stories that convey messages of grace and hope for the reading public that we have, and not the one that perhaps we would prefer.

Looking back, I feel a certain jealousy for Jesse, because I never had a Leslie Burke in my life at that age. And once a boy becomes a man, it is difficult to have a strong, platonic friendship with a woman. J.R.R. Tolkien put it very well in a letter to his son that’s worth reading if you can find it (#43). An excerpt:

This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life, when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may be accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by ‘falling in love’. But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does.”

Terabithia is Eden before the fall, when love was undimmed by lust or possession. There is no real sin in Terabithia, but Leslie suffers a fall at the end, and it means her death.  Jesse was on the precipice of puberty, and Leslie was alone at the end because Jesse chose to go on an outing with his crush. Is “growing up” a kind of death? And death a return to childhood?

 

II.

Contemporary imagination is haunted by women like Leslie Burke, impressive women who lived young, and died hard. A few examples: Bernadette Soubirous (St. Bernadette), Marie-Francoise Therese Martin (St. Therese of Lisieux), and Elisabeth Catez (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity). The Church calls them Saints, but for the Modern World they might as well be ghosts, because it does not believe in them.

Bernadette_soubirous_1_publicdomainTheresePortrait_d'Elisabeth_de_la_Trinité_à_l'age_de_20_ans

(Bernadette, Marie-Francois, and Elisabeth, before the convent life)

While there were a fair number of these young female saints in the Church of Antiquity (pre-500 A.D.) and Middle Ages (500 to 1500 A.D.), very little is known about most of them. The more famous female saints tended to be the longer lived scholars or founders and reformers of religious orders (Clare of Assisi, Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Scholastica, and Teresa of Avila).

One exception is Joan of Arc, who died at 19 in 1431. And in a way, I see her as almost a bridge from the young visionaries of the past to those of the present age. And we arguably need a bridge, because the world before Joan seems to have been more accepting of mystic possibilities.

The mystery of Joan has been on my mind the last few years. Why would God care about a dynastic conflict between two Catholic countries? There was no great religious question tied up in the 100 Years War.  And her death did not bring a swift end to the war or reconciliation between England and France.  The war continued for another twenty years, and England and France remained bitter rivals until the 20th century.

the-trial-of-joan-of-arc-2

From the French film, The Trial of Joan of Arc.

 

While I like the poster above, I think an even better portrayal of her situation is Norman Rockwell’s painting, “The Jury.” I post it below to show how a contemporary image may better explain the question of Joan.

13214017

The Jury, from Saturday Evening Post, February 14, 1959

 

The painting seems to illustrate her dilemma very well. She was pressed in on every side, with her accusers making appeals to reason, as well as appeals to authority. Today’s Christian must face the same appeals from the modern world. The reddish room and smoky air call to mind what she was threatened with in this life and the next if she did not recant. And is that the Devil on her left shoulder, all in red?

While Joan was charged with heresy, she was not executed for her visions. Technically, she was executed because she was a repeat offender against the Biblical clothing rule prohibiting cross-dressing, the only thing they could actually prove. Leslie the tomboy would smile at that.  But the major reason she was not spared was that she would not give in to the demands of her accusers. They wanted her to renounce her  visions of the saints. If she had, she would have been allowed to live. So, she was put to death for keeping faith with what Modern World thinks of as ghosts. Burnt to ashes, and cast in the river. Leslie’s sacrifice was the reverse, drowned and then cremated.

And which saints were they? None other than St. Michael the Archangel, and St. Margaret and St. Catherine, two virgin martyrs who died at 15 and 18, respectively. That’s our Church in the world’s view: Girl ghosts and invisible angels all the way down. All the way back to the Blessed Mother and the angel no one else ever saw.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

Joan’s conviction was set aside by the Church after a retrial a few decades later. Those who die for their faith are deemed to be saints, but she was not canonized until the 20th century.  But again, what was Joan’s mission?  She said it was to “Save France,” and many have puzzled over the years as to why God would care about this war. Some have theorized that by saving France, Joan preserved the Church through the struggles of the Reformation. If England had conquered France, it might have become a Protestant nation later on. Perhaps there would have been no Counter-Reformation, and none of the great French saints and theologians of the past few centuries would have come to be.

Let me suggest a set of additional or alternative missions for Joan: Perhaps Joan’s message to the world was her great “No” to secular authority, which was really a disguised “Yes” to God. Joan was trying to teach the Church how to say no to the comfortable position of political power it enjoyed at the time. The English influenced branch of the Church did not learn this lesson and killed her. Exactly one hundred years later the same branch was unable to say no to Henry the VIII (at the Convocation of 1531), and then it died.

On a personal level, she was the model for the mystics and visionaries of the Modern World, an age in which God has been declared to be dead, and even the Church rightly looks with caution on those who claim to talk to the saints. Perhaps Joan of Arc had to die so that the Church would always pause and take notice of the Maid of Lourdes, the Little Flower or a Sister Faustina before it made a decision.  Joan gave them room to breathe and be believed. Joan also gave our girl ghosts a model for courage, a pattern to follow. And hope, that even if they were killed, providence would take care of them in the end.  If Joan could do this, so can I.

 

III.

When Hans Urs von Balthasar died in 1988, his funeral eulogy was given by his friend and mentor, Cardinal De Lubac. The Cardinal, in his opening remarks, quoted theologian Ludwig Kaufman’s observation about the missing man of the Second Vatican Council:

… It is disconcerting that from the first summons of the Council by John XXIII, it did not seem to have occurred to anyone to invite Hans Urs von Balthasar to contribute to its preparatory work. Disconcerting, and – not to put a tooth in it- humiliating, but a fact that must by humbly accepted. Perhaps, al in all, it was better that he should be allowed to devote himself completely to his task, to the continuation of a work so immense in size and depth that the contemporary Church has seen nothing comparable.

Von Balthasar died two days before he was to be made a Cardinal . The theologian’s life long case of shyness had finally turned terminal. He had refused the honor before, but finally acceded out of obedience to his friend Pope John Paul II.

Who was Hans Urs Von Balthasar? Cardinal De Lubac also referred to in his eulogy as the man “most cultivated of his time.”

balthasar with mickey

An eternal child, and apparently his favorite picture of himself

He said he never planned on being a priest as a young man. His first love was music. But on a retreat in the Black Forest, the call came to him like lightning while standing under a tree. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1929 and was ordained in 1936.  He went on to become one of the most prolific Catholic theologians of the 20th century, and received many awards. He was appointed to the Church’s International Theological Commission in 1969, and founded the theological journal Communio with his friend and future Pope, Benedict XVI, in 1972.

So why wasn’t he at Vatican II?  Well, he left the Society of Jesus in 1950, and was without a job for six years. He had effectively given up what was likely to have been a very secure, comfortable and prestigious career in academia. And all over a woman.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

 

IV.

Adrienne von Speyr was born in 1902 in Basel, Switzerland into a Protestant family. Her father was a successful doctor, and she had three siblings. Her public life was very ordinary in many respects. Interesting, honorable, and marked by the kinds of hardship and setbacks that many of us face, but ordinary.

Her father died of a sudden illness when she sixteen, and the family had to adjust to a much reduced standard of living. Worn down by school and taking care of their home, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis in both lungs in 1918. She spent the next three years in a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, and initially, was not expected to live. Her mother visited her one time in those three years. If you ever read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Adrienne lived that book in a way. She met a number of interesting people, and picked up Russian from the many Russian refugees in Switzerland.

After her recovery she decided to go to medical school, contrary to her mother’s wishes. She persevered, and worked her way through medical school and was admitted to the profession.  She was not supported by her family, and tutored many students to pay her way. She married a widower with two young sons in 1927, and started her own medical practice in 1931. She was a very busy, respectable physician, and much commended for her care of the poor. Unfortunately, her husband, who she had come to love very much, died in an accident in 1934. She married again in 1936. She never had any children of her own.

All this time she was searching for something, dissatisfied with her spiritual life. She had a significant interest in Catholicism, but could never find a bridge in her largely Protestant circle of friends and associates. She finally met Father Von Balthasar in 1940. She formally converted later that year under his guidance. This conversion was something of a shock to those around her, and resulted in alienation from her family and some friends. Father Von Balthasar became a good friend of Adrienne’s family, and they provided a room for him in their own home during his years in the wilderness.

Adrienne stayed very busy with her practice throughout the 1940s, but her health did not hold out. She had a severe heart attack, and then developed diabetes. By the mid-1950s, she was effectively housebound, and had to give up her medical practice. Her remaining years were marked by significant suffering. She was functionally blind by 1964, and died of colon cancer in 1967.

While her health had been declining, Adrienne had taken up the pen to write books of scriptural commentary and spiritual reflections, despite no formal training in theology or philosophy. Her first book, Handmaid of the Lord, was published in 1948 by a company, Johannes Verlag, that Von Balthasar had founded. Additional works about scripture, prayer or the sacraments were published every few years until her death. Adrienne’s published works garnered no great attention and were not widely available in English during her life. T.S. Elliott did provide a favorable jacket blurb for her Gospel of John commentary, which was published in 1949:

“Adrienne Von Speyr’s book does not lend itself to any classification I can think of…. there is nothing to do but submit oneself to it; if the reader emerges without having been crushed by it, he will find himself strengthened and exhilarated by a new sense of Christian sensibility.”

 

V.

The thing about giving your consent to God is that He will pay you the compliment of accepting and running away with it for the rest of your life. You will find yourself dragged along, no matter how tired you get.   You might find yourself, like Adrienne, writing pages and pages of a letter, and mailing it off to a friend, not realizing that the ink had run out because you were blind.

Blindness to hope can also lead a soul to a very dark place. You might find yourself, like Adrienne in her younger days, staring into the beckoning depths of Rhine River from a railway bridge at the darkest moments of your life.

Despite all this, she was described by Von Balthasar as a lively, cheerful and fearless woman:

She was marked by humour and enterprise. She was like the boy in the fairy tale who sets off to experience fear. At her mother’s instigation she had to leave high school but secretly studied Greek at night by the light of a candle, so she could keep up with the others. In Leysin she learned Russian. After her transfer to the high school in Basel, she quickly learned German and at the same time took a crash course in English to catch up with the rest of the class. As I said, she paid for her medical studies by tutoring. Then there is her courageous readiness to stand up for justice. When a teacher struck a boy in the face with a ruler, she rushed forward, turned the teacher to the face the class, and shouted: “Do you want to see a coward? Here’s one!”

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

After she died, Father Von Balthasar gradually revealed the mystery of his own career path for the prior twenty years, and the mystery of Adrienne’s life. What was learned was a great surprise to her family, friends and the larger world.

Adrienne wrote a partial biography of her life through her first 24 years, in which she revealed she had visions of the saints since she was a child. She had experienced significant emotional turmoil, and considered suicide twice, once over her family relationship, and the second time after the death of her first husband.

She had suffered stigmata on a regular basis after her conversion, and she had dictated about sixty works of scriptural commentary and spiritual reflection to Father Von Balthasar between 1945 and 1953. He had published only a small portion of her output during her life, and the ones that would be the least controversial.

Her mystical experiences had increased tremendously after her conversion in 1940, and Von Balthasar had attempted to have the Society of Jesus take over the mission of evaluating and caring for her mission. For reasons too complicated for me to explain, they refused, and he was given a choice of either staying in the Society or leaving to be her personal spiritual director. He felt that Adrienne had been called to a special mission by God, and left the SJ in 1950 to be her confessor and publisher for the next seventeen years.

After her books became better known, some in the Church were impressed enough that a scholarly conference was held in her honor in Rome in 1985, at which Pope John Paul II spoke approvingly of her work. But overall, there was no groundswell of acceptance for her work between her death and Balthasar’s in 1988.  However, he maintained to the end the importance of her influence on his own theological output in various statements:

“[O]n the whole, I received far more from her, theologically, than she from me.”

“Today, after her death, her work appears far more important than mine.”

He wrote his last book about her, Our Task: A Report and Plan, with one purpose: “… to prevent any attempt being made after my death to separate my work from that of Adrienne Von Speyr.”

While Von Balthasar received great praise in the last few decades of his life, and which has endured to the present day, he is not without his critics. His theology has offended and been subject to criticism from various points on the x, y, and z axis of the theological spectrum.  I am not a scholar or theologian, so I have no opinion worth mentioning on these issues.

Nor has his endorsement of Adrienne been widely accepted, at least publicly. I once read a 400+ page review of his theology that included eighteen different chapter commentaries by theologians of various denominations.  In the introduction, the editor warned that one must come to terms with Von Balthasar’s insistence that his theology was derived from hers. The vast majority of the contributors proceeded to ignore that guidance, and the few that mentioned her gave her only passing references.

There have been three books written about her, a number of Ph.D dissertations, and a large number of scholarly articles in various journals. Yet, for me at least, the silence speaks volumes.  With a handful of exceptions, you will not find any Cardinals, Bishops or famous theologians opining favorably about her work. Possibly its polite embarrassment. A number have openly said they have no idea what he saw in her work.  A more benign view is that the Church is, like Mary did once, keeping “all these things within her heart,” and watching to see whether any fruit ripens.

There are certainly very public negative criticisms of her work and her relationship with Von Balthasar, and they are easy to find. And in this age of scandal, it should not be a surprise that they are made against a man and woman who spend such a large quantity of time in each other’s company, even when there is no evidence of any impropriety.

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

 

VI.

One of the benefits of being a sinner, layperson, mediocre Catholic and anonymous blogger is that you have no great reputation that needs regular care and maintenance. So I am free to offer my non-scholarly and uninformed endorsement. Adrienne has made a big difference in bringing me back to the Church, and if you are looking for something, perhaps she will help you too.

If you are curious, I would recommend The Passion from Within as a good starting point. Adrienne was relentlessly Christocentric, and you may find yourself developing a closer connection with the Lord after reading it.

You might even think about going to confession again (if you have not been), and even on a regular basis (not yearly, slacker!). Her book on this topic, Confession, is very insightful.

The magnum opus is the four volume commentary on the Gospel of John. This is a line by line exegesis, and her longest work. All the themes of her bibliography are touched  on in way one or another there.  Fair warning, it can be a heavy read, and you will want to take breaks regularly.

Lastly, I will mention the Book of All Saints.  This book is about the contemplation and prayer life of the saints, and Von Balthasar called it a “great gift to the Church.” I think it is the book that will ultimately make or break many people’s view of Adrienne.  I will quote from the section about Joan of Arc, as she was at the end:

She is soft and gentle and bears what is given to her to bear: before, she had borne things for the Christian king; now she understands that her mission is expanding and that she has to bear things for all believers. The end is not “heroic”, but completely pure, without blemish, as simple as only a childlike faith can be, and perfectly trusting. 

Blessed is he who is not scandalized by Me.

A veil is always drawn over a confessor and the sinner, and a spiritual director and his charge.  While there is some portion of her work that remains to be published, a large share of Adrienne’s mission will have to remain a mystery to us.

And there will always be doubt about its authenticity. If you listen, you can almost hear the sigh of disappointment from many of the learned and wise in the Church:

“Hans, Hans, why did you have to run off to Terabithia with that girl?  You were meant to be the great navigator for the Church between the bastions of the past and the shoals of modernity. And yet, like Odysseus, you seem to have tied yourself to the mast to listen to the siren call of some mystic. Why, why?”

And if you listen closely, you might hear the answer, however partial and incomplete:

“She was my friend.”

4 Comments

Filed under Spiritual Reflections