AN OCEAN FULL OF ANGELS. By Peter Kreeft (St. Augustine’s Press: South Bend, IN, 2011); www.staugustine.net; 374 pp. HB. $37.50.
A copious work that abounds in a multitude of moral themes and religious questions, the book assumes the form of a fictional autobiography of ‘Isa Ben Adam, the son of a Muslim father and Catholic mother who studies philosophy atBostonCollege. The fictional “editor” (Peter Kreeft) has collected Ben Adam’s writings and published them, the work of “the most remarkable man I have ever met.” The editor forewarns that the various parts of the work give the first impression of lack of unity, appearing “messy and diverse” because of myriad digressions on topics like the history of Nahant, Massachusetts (“one of the best kept secrets in New England”), “The Great Blizzard of ’78,” the fate of the Boston Red Sox and the game of baseball, and the Viking presence in New England. Woven with the autobiography and the digressions are engaging theological discussions on the part of a motley group of characters who represent Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim beliefs and live at Mother’s “The House of Bread,” an image of Holy Mother Church in her universality.
Despite the appearance of haphazard organization, the diverse parts of the book cohere as the chapter, “Tying Up Destiny’s Threads,” illuminates the providential order that underlies reality and explains the story. Ben Adam argues, “Either everything is, ultimately, chaos, or else everything is, ultimately, divine providence.” This is a truth Adam learned by examining the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament, one of these “threads” concerning Joseph’s coat. : “ … all Jews in history owe their existence to Joseph’s cheap Egyptian tailor”—the mantle that ripped when Potiphar’s wife seduced him and accused him of adultery—an imprisonment that revealed his gift of prophecy that saved his family from famine. Life, then, consists, of these tiny threads whose presence is not accidental: “If one thread of protoplasm had impeded the sperm cell that carried half of your genetic code before it entered the taxi of your mother’s ovum, you would not exist.” The small threads at the beginning of the story are woven into a tapestry that captures the mysterious design of a person’s life.
One of these recurring threads is the image of the waves—the waves of Nahant beach: the image of angels riding the waves and “ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder;” the waves resembling conversation “simple and free and flowing like the sea;” the waves corresponding to the “relentless, unceasing heartbeat of love;” and also the waves hinting of God’s almighty power “barging into your life, interrupting, rearranging everything, killing and bringing to life.” The story of Ben Adam, in both the common episodes and in the tempestuous events, follows a pattern symbolized both by the little waves and the great waves that barge, interrupt, and rearrange everything.
One of these great interruptions—that come like a wave from an ancient sea—is the life-changing event of Ben Adam’s romance with Mara, a Muslim man in love with a Jewish woman: “What has she done to my soul? What a hurricane does to the sea: a sudden, violent upheaval, a glorious revolution.” Like a gift from the sea, Mara enters Ben Adam’s life like high tide, like the message of an angel (“angels are Heaven’s high tides”). To Ben Adam, the discovery of Mara is not an accident but an example of “The Discipline of the Interruption”—“the Great Other breaking through,” that is, God speaking: “He speaks. He acts. He creates. He judges.” Ben Adam compares his beholding of Mara to Dante’s vision of Beatrice, a woman both coming from God and leading to God, “a hole in this world through which divine light entered.” The visible world is a thread that leads to the invisible world.
However, as the blizzard of 1978 illustrates, the human condition also brings other kinds of “interruptions” in the form of tragic deaths and wanton destruction, dark forces that signify the presence of Satan, symbolized by the Sea Serpent seeking to devour souls. The vehement storms, with gusts of 125 miles per hour, tides 16 feet above normal, and 60 foot swells, signify a diabolical power: “As I escaped the wave, I had the scary feeling of being watched by the water, fingered for destruction, pursuedby some alien force in the wave.” These violent disasters at sea are not mere chance but willful evil, the same furious malice that foreshadows the tragedy of Ben Adam and Mara’s love—a love marred by lust that leads to pregnancy that ends in abortion.
These tempests and tragedies hint of the Apocalypse as the characters sense that the atrocities of the twentieth century—genocides, abortion, and world wars—presage a final great battle, one that demands a unity on the part of believers of all religious faiths to counteract the ancient strategy of the Devil to divide and conquer: “The war on earth is looking more like the war in Heaven.” From the beaches of Nahant, to the accounts of hurricanes, to the tragedy of love, Peter Kreeft leads readers to the heart of reality, and the mystery of good and evil, in a compelling work of great moral power.
Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Thomas More College
Merrimack, New Hampshire