Book Review: The Kingdom of Heaven Within You–The Teachings of Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart was a medieval, Dominican theologian and mystic who stood trial as a heretic during the Inquisition. He died before his sentencing during a controversial tribunal. His reputation was not fully restored by the Vatican until 2010, after a lengthy behest from the Dominican order. Despite the taint of unorthodoxy from this murky past, Eckhart’s writing–especially in this highly accessible translation by C.M. Vega–is spiritually rich and inspiring. The theological language is penetrating in a way that reminds me of reading Thomas A Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. It is a brief and profound meditative journey into the soul, where we find Christ, our savior.

For example, consider the question of why our sins must be purged before we may reside in eternity with the Lord. So often, such discussions gravitate toward a focus on punishment for wrong-doing or the need for good works in order to enter Heaven. Instead, Eckhart reminds the reader of the purity of Heaven. Worldliness simply cannot coexist with its perfection. He writes, “Understand this! Heaven receives nothing foreign to it. Nothing may attack it and throw it off course. And so in order for the soul to recognize God and be strengthened and confirmed by God, she must not be affected by anything—neither hope, nor fear, nor joy, nor sorrow, no love, nor pain, nor any other thing that could make her dismayed” (location 48).

These words remind the reader that surrender to Christ and the battle of wills it demands is a matter of spiritual physics. Our Creator sent us a savior so that we may be cleansed for life in the Kingdom. Judgment is not a legal verdict on our behavior, but a return to the Creator His creatures, who have been perfected by His grace.

According to Eckhart, this perfection takes place in our souls. He proclaims, “The soul has been created for such greatness and such majesty that she can never rest and will be perpetually unhappy until she passes beyond all things into the eternal goodness that is God, and for which she was made” (location 123).

When the language of the contemplative is deftly translated, the poetic beauty of God’s promise speaks and lifts the reader with joy. Discipleship is not an unbearable burden, but instead our destiny. I felt this way after reading The Imitation of Christ for the first time, and I feel this way after reading Vega’s translation of Meister Eckhart.

 

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Book Review: Paul: A Biography

N.T. Wright is an Anglican theologian and bishop of whom I have spoken on this blog before. I read Paul: A Biography in part because I think Wright successfully delves deeply into theology and Christology without losing focus on the main thing–God’s plan for our salvation. Beyond that attraction, I was also interested in St. Paul, the Evangelist. His writing in the New Testament challenge me in ways I can not ignore. His writings are characterized by such zeal for Christ that I consistently wonder if I can surrender to the call of Jesus as Paul did, especially when it comes to preaching the word to others.

Wright too seems particularly interested in Paul’s zeal and its implications for us as Christians. He uses his scholarly skills to flesh out a biography of the saint that brings the man to life in ways the Pauline writings can not–in Wright’s words “to get inside the mind, the understanding, the ambition…of Paul the Apostle” (6). At the heart of this biography is Paul’s struggle to bear his own cross and how it can inspire us to do the same, not by imitating Paul’s life, but by using our own God-given gifts in service of the Lord.

For example, using his scholarly knowledge of the factious first century Jewish culture, Wright explains the nature of the zeal Paul demonstrates first as Saul of Tarsus, the persecutor of  early Christians, and after his conversion as Paul the Missionary, who risked everything to propagate the Christian faith for Jew and Gentile alike. Wright grounds his explanation in this perspective:

So when…Paul talks about “advancing in Judaism beyond any of his age, the word “Judaism” refers, not to a “religion,” but to an activity: the zealous propagation and defense of the ancestral way of life. From the point of view of Saul of Tarsus, the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth were a prime example of the deviant behavior that had to be eradicated if Israel’s God was to honored. Saul of Tarsus was therefore “zealous” (his term, indicating actual violence, not just strong emotion) in persecuting these people…Everything possible had to be done to stamp out a movement that would impede the true purposes of the One God of Israel, whose divine plans Saul and his friends believed were at last on the verge of a glorious fulfillment–until, on the Damascus Road, Saul came to believe that plans had indeed been gloriously fulfilled, but in a way he had never imagined (7-8).

Of course, that un-imagined fulfillment refers to a crucified and resurrected Messiah named Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth. Wright’s biographical detective work turns Paul’s conversion and missionary work into a compelling drama that reminds readers we are all made for a purpose. Paul’s inclination toward zealous action and theological debate made him the perfect evangelist to grow the Church. In reading his story, I am both inspired and assured that God has made me for a purpose as well, just not as the revolutionary leader that was Paul’s calling.

To some degree, every book I recommend here at Peace in the Word I judge based on this question: Does it help me live and grow as a follower of Christ? The answer to that question regarding Wright’s biography of Paul is a resounding “Yes!” At 465 pages in length, this book is worth the time to read.

Book Review: The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise by Robert Cardinal Sarah with Nicholas Diat

Robert Sarah is a Cardinal of the Catholic Church from Guinea in Western Africa. His appointment by Pope Francis as the  prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014 makes him uniquely qualified to speak to the importance of recovering the preciousness of silence in a noisy world so as to better hear the Word of God.

The book offers both scholarship and insight into understanding and recognizing God’s presence in silence. It draws inspiration from a visit to the Grand Chartreuse, the French home of the Carthusian order, whose members are dedicated to the rules of solitude and silence . The book’s introduction recalls a visit from the authors (Sarah and Diat) to the deathbed of a mute, Carthusian monk with multiple sclerosis, Brother Vincent, whose friendship with Cardinal Sarah was a powerful example and moved him to speak about the merits of silence. Later, in the fifth chapter, journalist Nicholas Diat and  Sarah interview Dom Dysmas De Lassus, the Father General of the Carthusian Order, so that readers might hear firsthand the insights from one who lives as a complete contemplative in silence.

Much of the book is to be read–and from this comes its value to lay readers–as a series short devotional readings for mediation. To this end, Diat numbers Sarah’s observations as series of short statements that  can prompt meditation. Pithy and profound, they probe the sacredness of silence in contemplation, prayer, and worship. Consider this sampling.

On why we need silence to know God:

2. At the heart of man there is an innate silence, for God abides in the innermost part of every person. God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man. In God we are inseparably bound up in silence. The Church can affirm that mankind is the daughter of a silent God; for men are the sons of silence (p. 21).

On the perils of a noisy existence:

34… Modern man is capable of all sorts of noise, all sorts of wars, and so many solemn false statements, in an infernal chaos, because he has excluded God from his life, from his battles, and from his gargantuan ambition to transform the world for his selfish benefit alone (40).

On the Marian example of a quiet life, quoting theologian and mystic John Tauler:

74… Mary lived in retirement and so must the soul espoused to God retire, if it will experience the interior regeneration (55).

On the example of the prophets:

105. All the prophets went off to the desert to meet God. The experience of God is inseparable from the experience of the desert (65).

From these three examples of the 365 statements for meditation, hopefully readers can  sense the book’s ability to help us see differently both our quiet time in prayer and the moments of silence during the mass so as to embrace them more fully.

I like books that are rich in language and propel me to further reading with their words and rhythms. This does not have that feel. Instead, the book moves the reader to be silent and consider God’s word only.

With that in mind, I leave readers with this reminder  from meditation 78:

[W]e cannot hear the Word if we have not previously been transformed by God’s silence (57).

The Power of Silence is an important book for our time.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis by Carrie Gress, PhD

I read The Marian Option because I am an advocate for Marian devotion. At some point in my return to the Church I began to pray the Rosary regularly and have found help and peace in that practice, which was foreign to me through much of my earlier life. So I was intrigued by the title and interested in what Dr. Cress had to say about Marian devotion as a solution to a civilizational crisis. According to her website, Carrie Gress earned a PhD in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is a faculty member at Pontifex University in Atlanta, Georgia. Not surprisingly, she is also a member of the International Marian Association. She is clearly orthodox in her views and approach.

On the one hand, the book is so thoroughly researched on all that has been written on Mary through the ages that it reads as a collection of Marian lore. And yet, this in-depth research is done to support her argument that petition to the intercession of Mary through traditional devotional practices will renew a Christian civilization that is in crisis.

The book begins by reviewing the recommendation by journalist and author Rod Dreher that the answer to a civilization in crisis is the “Benedictine Option”—that is a retreat to life of secluded prayer as St. Benedict and his fellow monks did in the fifth century in a response to a crumbling Roman civilization. She then offers a critique of this suggestion by pointing out such a retreat is unrealistic for most contemporary Catholics. Instead, she contends that a revival of the long Church tradition of Marian devotions among a dedicated minority is the perfect mechanism for renewal because it requires no change of location or physical retreat from the secular world. It is an interior renewal that joins the faithful in prayer.

The book then traces a long history of Marian intercession in our world. She takes the reader through the invocation of Mary by Christian soldiers in battle and the appearances of Our Lady at Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima.

Gress then takes a theological and doctrinal approach to explain why the practice of asking Mary for help invites the grace of the Trinity into our lives and offers the Lord’s providence.

She finishes with a more specific explanation what it means for Catholics to live the “Marian Option,” especially in a time of personal and civilizational crisis. This part of the book has an interesting case study on Pope St. John Paul 2, whose devotion to Mary began as a young man in Poland and continued throughout his tenure as pope.

Gress’s book is surely a worthwhile read in its depth, breadth, and recommendation. My appreciation for the role Mary plays in our salvation deepened as a result of her argument. For a few years now, I have marveled at how when I struggle to sense the presence of Christ in my life, the Rosary has a way of refocusing me on His story through Mary’s humble eyes and opens my heart to Him. Gress impressively explores the truth of the fourth mystery Glorious mystery of the Rosary, which reflects on the Assumption of Mary to Heaven and promises a path “to Jesus through Mary” as spiritual gift. A good example of this logic is when Gress quotes St. Louis de Montfort on the efficacy of the Rosary. He points out,  “Children copy their parents through watching them and talking to them.” Mary, who as the mother of Jesus is spiritual mother to us all, provides a model for imitation and inspiration through our dialogue with her, so that we too may enter fully into a relationship with Jesus as humble servants of God’s will.

At times I was uncomfortable with some of the book’s references and implications. She leans heavily, especially in Part 1, on stories of Christian soldiers winning battles through Mary’s help. While she maintains an objective tone, the message comes close to a celebration of the role of the Christian in war, which I don’t find in the gospel. Likewise, I am at times uncomfortable with the notion we are in the midst of civilization crisis. I do not deny the proliferation of sin, death, and decay throughout the world; yet it does not appear any worse to me now than it has been throughout the history of the world. Laying the blame for the collapse of Christianity on contemporary generations smacks of the sort of doom and gloom preaching–which motivates through guilt and fear–that so many who come to church seeking comfort and hope find off-putting and unbearable. I think it is enough to simply recognize a world marred by sin and selfishness will not make any of us happy or offer hope for eternal life. It has not in the past, and I don’t think it will not now.

My personal comments aside; the book celebrates a rich trove of spiritual pathways to happiness and hope in the renewal of Marian devotions. I can say from experience how helpful this is. Gress masterfully puts the untapped potential of this tradition on full display. I recommend reading the book and a pursuit of any or all Marian devotions, which are recommended in the appendix.

 

Book Review: Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” With a Short Discourse on Hell by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

August 1st, 2018

Dare We Hope was published in English in 2014 by Ignatius Press. It was originally published in German in 1986. The recent translation is a service to English speakers who are interested in thinking deeply about soteriology—that is salvation—and contemplate really difficult questions, specifically: Is Hell filled with sinners? Or may we hope that Jesus will save all? The answers to these questions come to bear on the attitudes of Christians and non-Christians alike toward a faith that calls us to love all, even our enemies, and to evangelize.

I was unable to find a detailed account of the origin of this book, which is actually two short publications combined; but it appears the book was intended to be a response to a few theologians who criticized Balthasar’s claim that we may have hope, though not certainty, posited in a previous publication. With a brilliantly thorough and logical argument, Balthasar carves out a small, yet rock-solid, foundation that allows Christians to have hope that all might be saved through Christ. He makes it abundantly clear it is not a certainty; he fully acknowledges the scriptural references to Hell and damnation. Still, he adamantly refutes the “certain knowledge” of his critics that many will be damned.

His defense of a lively and luminous Christian hope is dense and scholarly. Nevertheless, this translation is readable and filled with the kind of theology that pops off the page. After addressing the charges against him, Balthasar begins with a thorough examination of the New Testament statements that both support the reality of Hell and those that refer to Jesus’s mission as to save all. While the juxtaposition of these statements seem to produce a stalemate on the question and logical dilemma, Balathasar notes that that statements refer to ‘saving all’ are made after Easter, especially those in the Pauline letters.

He then reviews how the Church Fathers treated this issue, noting that the influential statements of Augustine on the certainty of Hell were not the norm among the early Doctors of the Church. Next, he explores the writing of contemporary theologians, examining different perspectives on the dilemma, including the challenges of understanding what the images of the Book of Revelation may have to tell us about the question. The first part ends with the observation that if the Lord’s justice and mercy are both infinite, it is illogical to place limitations on the Lord’s mercy and His ability to save all.

In the shorter second part of the book, Balthasar introduces the writings of saints and mystics who prayed to the Lord that they might be damned in order to save others from Hell. Once again, we are struck by the incongruence of those who are most certainly residents of Heaven, like Saint Paul, willing to sacrifice their own salvations so that others may be saved. Could these petitions come from anywhere other than the Holy Spirit itself?

The charge of ‘universalism’—an easy salvation for all—troubles any conscientious person. Are we comfortable with the Judases and Hitlers of the world getting off easy in eternity? Most of us are not. However, I have yet to examine my conscience and find myself anything but a sinner. That knowledge can be disheartening and an impediment to faith. Many have left the church because the message of hope sometimes fails to penetrate the demands and purity of the “narrow gate.” Balthasar’s book manages to balance the message so we may embrace the hope of Christ’s salvation for ourselves and others, in spite of the ubiquitous possibility that those who reject Christ consign themselves to Hell. I recommend Balthasar’s book to any Christian who takes his or her faith seriously.

A New Direction for Peace in the Word

Greetings Readers,

As I explained in my last blog, I took some time off to reflect on the purpose of this blogging site and its focus on Sunday gospel interpretation. After some prayer and contemplation, I have realized it is time shift direction. Originally, I planned this blog site to include posts on both gospel reflections and book reviews. As it turned out, the schedule for posting once a week on the Sunday gospel was all I could manage. I only have done three book reviews in the site’s three-year existence. It’s not because I haven’t been reading books related to Christianity, Catholicism, and theology. In fact, I have a long list I would passionately recommend to those interested in exploring their faith through reading. I just never got to writing the reviews.

Given this unfulfilled purpose and the fact there are an abundance of outstanding  gospel reflections already available through social media–my favorites are Bishop Barron’s email blasts from Word on Fire and USCCB’s video reflections–I am changing the blogging format to a monthly book review that will be posted on the first day of the month.

The reviews will only be recommendations. At this time, I do not intend to review books that have not moved me spiritually; therefore, there will not be negative reviews advising against reading as is common in mainstream media. Readers can expect a synopsis of the book as a preview followed by a thoughtful mix of insights and excerpts that offer readers a taste of why I think the book is worthwhile and, therefore, recommended.

Is this useful? Obviously I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think so. I believe it is because I am a player in the game of sifting through lists of titles, selecting books that speak to my interests. Sometimes I am quite disappointed that I have spent time and money on a book that does not engage me intellectually and spiritually, so I often follow the lead of readers I respect in choosing new books to read. I recognize, however, my opinions about which books are engaging may not be mainstream enough to be helpful to a wide-range of readers. Still, I would be happy if a few readers benefit because they have similar tastes to mine. Furthermore, I am open to the idea of readers leaving comments with their views on the books I recommend or making recommendations for me to review books about which they are passionate. I will be excited if the blog goes in a more dialogic direction. So off we go!

To whet your appetite and tune you into the new schedule, here are the reviews I have planned for the next three posts:

August 1st, 2018- review of Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? by Hans Urs Von Balthasar

September 1st, 2018- review of The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis, by Carrie Gress

October 1st, 2018-  review of The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, by Robert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat

November 1st, 2018 and beyond- To Be Announced

I sincerely hope readers will check out this new focus of Peace in the Word; in addition, I highly encourage them to comment on the books or suggest their own.

Blessings and peace to you all.

A Bookish Catholic

The Future of “Peace in the Word”

Dear Reader,

Recently I passed the 100 mark for posted blogs. On the one hand, I was happy to reach a milestone with this endeavor. I guess it speaks to consistency and follow-through. On the other hand, these moments make one reflect on the value of the work itself.

I really don’t know how many actual people read this blog. Typically, I average about seven visitors per week, but I don’t know if those are any more than robots. To some degree, it is not that important, since I knew from the beginning my most important audience would be myself. I am trying to find peace in Jesus Christ by reading and contemplating the gospels. The act of writing blogs with those reflections helps me with that spiritual journey. However, the hope of an imagined internet audience who might also be helped by the insights of my work has always been a consideration.

So if I have an audience, I want to thank you for reading and let you know I plan to take a few weeks off to reconsider the future of the blog–a retreat, if you will. The format of writing about the Sunday gospel for over two years now may need to be changed. I have started to sense I am repeating myself and relying too heavily on the influence of Bishop Robert Barron from WordonFire.com ministries. Perhaps it is time  for me to change the frequency or focus (or both) of my blogging. I will stay true to the original concept of simply writing about scriptures and interpreting them in a personally meaningful way. Nevertheless, there are many perspectives and approaches that could be pursued within that concept that I have not previously tried or considered. It is time for my  to pray and think about this.

I will be back in July one way or another. I hope you come back then. In the mean time, feel free to leave comments about suggestions for the direction the blog should take.

Peace be with you all.

A Bookish Catholic

The Gospel for Sunday, June 17th, 2018: Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Gospel for June 17th, 2018: “Seed Grows of Itself” and “The Mustard Seed”

Mark 4: 26-34

Reflection: Both Participation and Surrender

Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come” (26-29).

Today’s gospel frames an important theme for me personally in Jesus’ brilliant use of analogy and parable. The theme is our role in the bringing to bear the Kingdom of God requires both our participation and surrender.

Each of us has been given unique gifts to spread God’s love to others. The salvation plan invites our participation; therefore, we must discern and use our gifts to serve the mission of uniting God’s creation in love (even our enemies—the kicker). However, it is a usurpation of God’s omnipotence (thus a sin) when we try to control the outcome or fret over if the outcome will happen. We must surrender the outcome to the Lord, having the complete faith we observe in Mary that God’s will shall be done in His time and by His design.

In the above quotation from Mark’s gospel, Jesus says man’s role is to first “scatter seed.” This is using our gifts to serve and witness for the Lord. After that we let those seeds “sprout and grow,” even though we ‘know not how.” We must let God be the creator and lord.

Finally, when the grain is ripe “he”—that is God—“wields the sickle” and brings the “harvest” to bear.

Some are born with a natural gift of faith that all will work out; others, like me, struggle to accept this outcome when they cannot see how. Yet faith is the cornerstone; it is strengthened by every act of using our gifts for good and then following that participation with the act of surrendering the outcome to God.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, June 10th, 2018: Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

The Gospel for June 10th, 2018: “Blasphemy of the Scribes”

Mark 3: 20-35

Reflection: The Sin of Protecting the Ego

I have in the past simply shared a reflection on the weekly gospel that I feel is more complete and useful than anything I have to offer. Today is another one of those days. Bishop Robert Barron’s daily e-mail reflection exposes the insight that the blasphemy Jesus condemns in Mark’s gospel is, at heart, a sin of protecting the ego. This speaks to me, so I share it with you all in my reflection today.

Bishop Barron (wordonfire.org) writes:

Friends, in today’s Gospel, relatives of Jesus claim that he is mad, and scribes blaspheme him, charging that he is possessed by Beelzebub. You know, in cases like this, the basic problem is always the fearful ego. Ego-addicts know that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If you want to protect the ego and its prerogatives, you must oppress and demoralize those around you.

There is a very unsubtle version of this method: you attack, put down, insult, and undermine those around you. This is the method of the bully. But the religious version is much subtler and thus more insidious and dangerous. It takes the Law itself—especially the moral law—and uses it to accuse and oppress. “I know what’s right and wrong; I know what the Church expects of us; and I know that you are not living up to it.”

And so I accuse you; I gossip about you; I remind you of your inadequacy. Mind you, this is not to condemn the legitimate exercise of fraternal correction or the office of preaching. But it’s a reminder to not be sucked into the slavery of ego addiction. We must stay alert to this and avoid it at all costs.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

The Gospel for June 3rd, 2018: The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

Reflection: The Eternal Truth of the Eucharist

“Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

–Mark 14: 25

After consecrating the bread and wine for His disciples Jesus proclaims He will not drink the fruit of the vine again until the day He drinks it new in the kingdom of God. Mark’s version of the Institution of the Eucharist contains this perplexing line on this feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ.

As I reflect on its meaning, I stand in awe of a holy mystery beyond my intellect. There is something more than surviving in this life. There is something more than meeting the bodily needs of a temporary existence. That something more is eternal life. Eternal life in Jesus is the ultimate reality, which awaits those who believe.

When we partake of the Eucharist, we know this truth and are filled with hope. Time stops just as it did two thousand years ago when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with His apostles. The kingdom of God will not be marked by the restrictions of time; it will be new and eternal. The ravages of time—of sin, death, and decay—will be no more.

The feast of Corpus Christi is a day filled with hope and joy. And yet Eucharist is available, every day if we just seek it out. O amazing grace! O merciful God!