The Latest Book Reviews

Late Summer Reading For August 2013


Reviews for the following books:

A MYSTICISM OF KINDNESS: The Biography of “Marie Christine.”  By Astrid M. O’Brien. (Scranton: Scranton University Press, 2010). (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.).


DRAWN FROM SHADOWS INTO TRUTH.  A Memoir.  By Ray Ryland. (Emmaus Road, Steubenville, OH 2013), xiv + 234 pp.  PB $15.95. (Reviewd by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., Editor Emeritus)


HOLY SPIRIT 101: Present Among us.  By John L. Gresham. (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri Publications, 2011), 142pp.  Paper $11.99. (Reviewed by Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J.)


 ON THE MEANING OF SEX.  By J. Budziszewski (ISI Books, Wilmington, DE, 2012), 162 pp.  HB $27.95. (Reviewed by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., Editor Emeritus.)


THINK AND BELIEVE. By Frederick W. Marks. (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing) 232 pages, $19.95. (Reviewed by Ken Colston.)


A MYSTICISM OF KINDNESS: The Biography of “Marie Christine.”  By Astrid M. O’Brien. (Scranton: Scranton University Press, 2010).

Until recently, spiritual biographies have tended to focus on the lives of members of the clergy or religious orders.  Many of us acquired our first knowledge of the tripartite division of the spiritual life (purgative/illuminative/unitive) through reading the autobiography and biographies of two Carmelites: Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.  But the application of these virtuoso lives, and their accompanying spiritual theologies, often seemed problematic to married laypeople.

In her biography of Mathilde Boutle (1844-1908), Fordham philosopher, Astrid O’Brien, provides the first scholarly biography of this middle-class, French homemaker, and mother of five.  Working from Boutle’s extensive spiritual journal, and other papers archived at the Parisian convent of the Adoration Reparatrix nuns, O’Brien diagrams the extraordinary spiritual journey led by a woman who seemed quite ordinary except to her perceptive spiritual director, Father Eugène Grieux.  Shortly after her death, the Jesuit theologian, Auguste Poulain, publicized the unusual mystical graces granted Boutle when he published extracts from her spiritual journal.  But due to the demands of the Boutle family, Poulain referred to Boutle under the pseudonym “Lucie Christine.”  Evelyn Underhill would later praise the author of the journal as one of history’s preeminent mystics and spiritual writers, but the actual life-context of this unnamed person remained a blur.

It is the merit of O’Brien’s study to illuminate this long-hidden context.  Boutle’s profound experiences of purgation, illumination, dark nights, union, and the prayer of simple regard are now rooted in her distinctive vocation as wife and mother.  Her experience of the cross is tied to her struggles with an alcoholic and increasingly violent husband.  The cultivation of patience proved difficult in the presence of a mother-in-law, who externally was considered a living saint due to her generosity toward the poor, but who became venomously sarcastic in the privacy of the home.  Boutle’s hope of eternal life became fused with the certitude that she would be reunited with her beloved daughter, Elisabeth, who died at the age of 14.  Her growing union with Jesus is a union marked by experiences shaped by gender and marital status.

O’Brien also highlights the stormy social and ecclesiastical context of Boutle’s life.  Boutle’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of a piece with the piety of French Catholicism in the late 19th century.  Already wounded by the anti-Christian campaigns of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871, the French church witnessed with apprehension the growing anti-clericalism of the Third Republic. Catholic schools were abolished, and religious orders expelled.  Practicing Catholics soon learned that they could not hope for promotion in a hostile public school system, civil service, and officer corps.  Boutle’s prayer is increasingly marked by intercession for a France which was quickly renouncing all traces of her Catholic heritage.  Her experience of a supernatural peace rests uneasily with bewilderment over the virtual disappearance of Catholic belief among her nation’s urban elite.  Controlling her anger at the anti-clerical remarks made by relatives and acquaintances over the dinner table became a serious ascetical task. Her close affiliation with the Parisian convent of the Adoration Reparatrix nuns also reflects the spirituality of the period.  The emphasis on reparation during the perpetual adoration practiced by the nuns, and their lay associates, was very much a social reparation for the apostasy and persecution represented by a newly secularized France.

O’Brien’s scholarly biography of Mathilde Boutle provides a distinctive spiritual guide for those called to the office of wife and mother, especially in moments of suffering related to spouse and children.  It is also a very modern guide for dealing with Christian bewilderment arising from a powerful religious indifference in a society where a once-vital church has quickly collapsed.

-Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.  
 Loyola University Maryland
 Baltimore, Maryland                     


DRAWN FROM SHADOWS INTO TRUTH.  A Memoir.  By Ray Ryland. (Emmaus Road, Steubenville, OH 2013), xiv + 234 pp.  PB $15.95.

This is a conversion story of a serious Protestant who grew up in Oklahoma and, through a long pilgrimage in search of the truth, finally ended up as a priest in the Catholic Church.  He is one of the few married Catholic priests in this country with a large family of 24 grandchildren.

Fr. Ray Ryland started his journey home as a member of the Disciples of Christ in his home state.  He wanted to be a minister; but after Pearl Harbor, he decided to join the navy and serve his country before becoming a minister of Christ.  While in the navy, he did a lot of reading, thinking, and praying on board a U.S. carrier in the Pacific Ocean.  On that ship, he met a chaplain who encouraged him, and helped him on his way.

At the end of the war, he married the woman he had known for a long time, and they had five children.   He studied theology and Holy Scripture in several colleges and universities.  In the process, he became a Unitarian.  Eventually his desire for serious worship of God led him to the Episcopal Church in which he served as a priest for about ten years.

Ryland mentions several times that he was raised in an atmosphere of anti-Catholicism.  The basic principle he learned was that, if something is Catholic, it is not Christian, like devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the rosary, the pope, and so forth.  It took him a long time to get over that.

The author makes many references to Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.  Like Newman, his further study of the Fathers of the Church changed his attitude towards Catholicism.  He started to pray the Rosary.  Eventually he came to see that the Catholic Church is the only church founded by Christ. So, he and his wife and children joined the Church in 1963.  He earned another degree in theology at Marquette University, and then taught theology at the University of San Diego until 1993.  After that, he did some teaching at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where he now lives with his wife.

This book is not just an autobiography.  It is that, but it is also an account of a theological pilgrimage from the shadows of Protestantism, to the light of the fullness of divine revelation in the Catholic Church.  While telling the story of his conversion, he gives an excellent analysis of the Protestant mind—what Protestants think, and why they are so opposed to the Catholic Church.  I found his explanation of “reconstructionism” very enlightening (p. 169 ff.).  By that, he means that all Christians who are not Catholic have constructed their own church according to their own ideas and desires.  That is why there are more than 20,000 versions of Protestantism.

Like Newman, Ray Ryland had a passionate desire for the truth about Jesus Christ and his Church.  That desire, that pilgrimage, finally led him to the Catholic Church when he was about 40 years old.  When the Church opened up the possibility for married Anglican priests to be ordained, and function as Catholic priests, Ray Ryland applied and was immediately accepted.  Since that time, he has done admirable work as a theologian and Catholic priest.  His love for the Church stands out in the course of the whole book, because there, he found the truth he was looking for, and the absolute certainty that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ.

-Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., Editor Emeritus
 Tacoma, Washington


HOLY SPIRIT 101: Present Among us.  By John L. Gresham. (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri Publications, 2011), 142pp.  Paper $11.99.

Dr. John Gresham is a professor of theology here in Saint Louis at the Archdiocesan seminary, Kenrick-Glennon.  Most recently, he is also the author of Jesus 101: God and Man (also with Ligouri Press).  He is a Catholic convert, a serious thinker, and a top-notch educator.  All of these gifts come through his writings. His most recent work on the Holy Spirit serves as an excellent introduction to Pneumatology—explaining not only what the Church teaches about the Holy Spirit, but also how she came to this revelation, and why it should matter in Christian lives today.

This is a short book divided into four chapters.  The first chapter, The Mystery of the Spirit in Names, Titles, and Symbols, serves as an introduction to how sacred scripture speaks of the Spirit.  Gresham combs carefully through our tradition, with special attention to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) here, to show how the names used most often for the Spirit usually stress the Spirit’s role as the conjoining love between persons: between the Father and the Son, between God and man, and between members of God’s Church. The next chapter, The History of the Spirit Through Sacred Scripture, treats the Spirit’s activity as depicted differently throughout the Old Testament, the various Gospels, the Pauline epistles, as well as in the other New Testament books.  This chapter has the advantage of isolating particular books or authors of the Bible to focus on the unique portrayal of the person and activity of the Spirit found therein.  Chapter Three, The Presence of the Spirit in the Church, serves more as a history of Pneumatology, beginning with St. Irenaeus, and ending again with the Catechism.  This is, perhaps, the richest chapter, providing wonderful insights into the Spirit’s role in the Church’s liturgy, in personal prayer, and in the Church’s missionary activity.  The final chapter, The Gifts, Fruits, and Charisms of the Spirit in Our Lives, is certainly the most theologically dense section, explaining how the Spirit sanctifies the created soul, and what it means to receive the 12 fruits (cf. Gal 5:22-23; CCC §1832), 7 gifts (cf. Isaiah 11:1-2; CCC §1831) and myriad charisms, bestowed on Christ’s Church for the Father’s glory, her own edification, and for the salvation of the world.

Each of these chapters closes with a half-dozen “Reflection Questions” which are aimed at facilitating discussion amongst its readers.  As such, this short book would prove a very helpful reading for book clubs, Bible studies, and prayer groups.  It is accessible, accurate and, overall, very prayerful.  Dr. Gresham aims to take his readers from perhaps a vague awareness of the Holy Spirit, into a more perfect and a more personal understanding of both the Spirit’s personhood, as well as his presence in each of our lives.

-Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J., HPR Editor
St. Louis University
St. Louis, Missouri


 ON THE MEANING OF SEX.  By J. Budziszewski (ISI Books, Wilmington, DE, 2012), 162 pp.  HB $27.95.

The author begins by asking, “Does sex have to mean something?”  The question comes from a statement of one of his philosophy students, who said in class that sex does not mean anything.  Obviously, that is a confused statement, since everything that exists means something.  But it stimulates the author to reflect of the meaning of the sexual powers, of sexual differences, of sexual love, of sexual beauty, of sexual purity and, finally, on the transcendent significance of sex.

The author stresses the obvious fact, so often denied today, that sex is for babies.  Sexual difference consists in the fact that what makes a man a man is his potentiality for fatherhood, and what makes a woman a woman is her potentiality to become a mother.  That is the root of the difference between men and women.

Love is what makes the world go around, and sexual love is just one form of that love.  It is necessary for the continuation of the human race.  When sex is thought to be for pleasure only, also common in our culture, then nations begin to disintegrate because of its disastrous effect on the family.  This is now evident in most of Europe, and also in America, where fewer people are getting married and raising a family.

A key idea in this book is that erotic love has two dimensions or two aspects.  The first, and most obvious one, is that true sexual love unites, emotionally and physically, a man and a woman.  But in the last chapter, the author stresses the fact that no two human beings can be perfectly happy just with each other.  The reason for this is that man is open to all beings by reason of his mind and will, and is not satisfied with any created thing.  Thus, sexual love may satisfy for a time, but since man is imperfect, it cannot provide perfect happiness.  Perfect happiness is found only in God, who is absolute goodness and beauty.  That is what man is seeking, ultimately, even though most men do not seem to realize it.  But sexual love, when properly understood and experienced, can open one up to the higher, perfect love that is to be found in God alone.

The author is dealing with some very important ideas, but he does it in a way that is quite easy to understand.  He presents some basic truths of the natural law, and the perennial philosophy, in clear language that anyone can understand.

Since we are all sexual beings, and since, therefore, all are interested in sex, this little book is an excellent guide for both single people, and those who are married.  There is much false information abroad today about the meaning of sex, with some holding that it does not have any meaning.

Priests have to deal with sexual questions and problems all the time—in the confessional and in counseling.  This book is a true intellectual gem that will be of great help for priests who have to instruct both men and women on the true meaning of sex.

-Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., HPR Editor Emeritus
 Tacoma, Washington

THINK AND BELIEVE. By Frederick W. Marks. (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing) 232 pages, $19.95.

Sometimes you love a book for its notes.  Almost a third of this robust defense of the Catholic faith is endnotes, appendices, and index.  Some of the single endnotes are short essays, a page long, with ample detail.  In an appendix on contraception, you will learn that Hildegard von Bingen, James Polk, and Grandma Moses came from families of ten children, and Catherine of Siena had twenty-four brothers and sisters. In another appendix, you will find eight separate arguments from Scripture for the doctrine of Purgatory and, in yet another, you will discover the Church’s doctrinal developments on usury and capital punishment.  Throughout the book, there is scarcely a single paragraph that does not have a note that makes a further point, traces a source, or offers more clarification, or depth, or suggestion for reading.

It would make a terrific go-to manual for the priest who is challenged casually on the street, or by testy parishioners. To give reasons for his hope, Marks credits his street preaching with the Catholic Evidence Guild for informing and refining his apologetics.  Thus, his style is straightforward and blunt-edged, with short, punchy sentences backed up with data, followed quickly by rebuttals of anticipated refutations, irenic but not mealy-mouthed.  Chapter by chapter, he makes “the case for God, for God’s word, for Christ, and for God’s church”—and this last brief Chapter Four is expanded into the final four chapters. This is my favorite part of the book, in which Marks makes a defense against the contemporary, popular attacks on Roman Catholicism: accusing Catholicism of having promoted centuries of bloody religious wars against Moslems and Protestants, its hierarchy has been corrupt, it has been the enemy of political and religious freedom, it has naively promulgated childish superstition, it has brutalized native populations almost to extinction, it has been deeply misogynistic.  The charges are perennial but especially hostile today, and Marks makes a stout defense, chock full of detail.

You will learn, for example: (1) the Spanish Inquisition torture employed a 15-minute rule, supervised by a doctor (an endnote credits the secular historian Henry Kamen from Yale University Press for this finding), whereas torments visited upon Queen Elizabeth I’s enemies went on for days; (2) many of the Jews expelled from Spain, for being apostate conversos, rather than innocent Jews, fled to the protection of Rome, often seeking a ghetto enclave for self-protection; (3) the Moslems had razed 30,000 Christian churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, by 1014; (4) the “persecuted” Galileo, who had a mendacious character, lived not in a prison, but under “house arrest,” with a church pension while staying in the home of a cardinal, free to  receive visitors like John Milton; (5) most members of Queen Isabella’s privy council were Jews; (6) the Popes had eliminated slavery from most of the world by the 12th century, but it made a comeback during European colonization when the papacy was weak; (7) miscegenation was generally accepted in the Catholic new world; (8) monks developed the mold-board plow, and blast furnace; (9) medieval Catholic women, such as Trotula of Salerno, and St. Boniface’s traveling companions, Lioba and Walburga, practiced medicine; and, (10) the French Huguenots, who suffered 6,000 deaths at the infamous St. Bartholomey’s Day Massacre, themselves destroyed 20,000 churches and, in Dauphiny alone, burned 900 towns, killing almost 400 priests and religious.

Much fascinating, but less in-your-face, support for perennial Church teaching also appears in the first half of the book.  For instance, contraception and abortion by poisonous drugs were condemned by Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine.  A New Testament euphemism for contraception was “using magic or drugs,” which may have been the meaning behind Paul’s (Galations 5:20) and John’s (Revelation 9:21) prohibition against pharmakeia. The list of prohibitions in the Didache seems to confirm this linkage: “You shall not use magic.  You shall not use drugs.  You shall not procure abortion.  You shall not destroy a new-born child.”  Also, the Gospel account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection may find confirmation in the Talmud: it dates both an opening in the bronze door separating the Court of the Women, from the Court of the Israelites, a “rip in the veil of the temple,” and the perpetual failure of the scarlet thread, hung by the high priest on Yom Kippur, to turn white, a sign that the sacrifice was acceptable to God, to AD 30, one of two likely dates for the New Covenant Paschal atonement of Christ.  A three-hour blackout on Good Friday occurring in Bithnyia, Rome, and in Egypt, is mentioned not only by the early Bishop of Athens, Dionysius, but also by the Roman historians, Phlegon and Thallus.

Marks is strong on miracles.  Fatima gets several pages, the Shroud of Turin merits a three-page long endnote.  You will learn (in another long note) that the Loretto sisters of Santa Fe credit St. Joseph himself for a mysteriously engineered convent staircase in the 19th century, and that Juan Diego’s famous tilma, a coarse fabric cloak made from the  maguey agave plant—in which he presented his bishop with flowers and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe (itself of an as yet unidentified pigmentation)—should have disintegrated in 20 years, but still exists, after nearly half a millennium, having also survived a terrorist’s bomb in 1921.  And there’s more mirabilia.

The first intended audience of this book is probably the growing number of the so-called “nones,” the 20 percent of Americans (and increasing in number), who claim no religious affiliation, but they are hard nuts to crack.  I don’t think the early chapters of this book of natural theology, and certainly not the latter chapters of Roman Catholic triumphalism, will do the trick.  For them, the best poetic book of popular apologetics remains, in my opinion, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and the most lucid is C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but they are demanding reads—even though they don’t have endnotes.

The second intended audience is the also growing number of evangelical and disappointed mainline Protestants which Marks has a lot to offer to this group in his latter chapters, explaining and defending the Roman Catholic Church.  He is convincing that the Western world would be more just, more peaceful, less harsh, and a lot more fun, if the Protestant Reformation had not split us in two. You can tell he has had to face this group in robust, live debate, although at times his defense might come off as  “Yes, we’ve been bad,” but the Protestants have been even worse.  One defense of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, is that if it executed only 2,000 heretics in northern Europe, burned over a 1000,000 witches—cold comfort to secularists.

The third audience, which probably was not intended so much, but may end up being the one that actually reads it the most: the already committed defenders of the faith who seek a fresh suit of armor in our intensifying Kulturkampf, and faithful companionship in our joyful, rational love of Holy Mother Church.

-Ken Colston

David Vincent Meconi, SJ About David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.


  1. […] Late Summer Reading For August 2013   Reviews for the following books: A MYSTICISM OF KINDNESS: The Biography of “Marie Christine.”  By Astrid M. O’Brien. (Scranton: Scranton University Press, 2010). (Reviewed by Rev. John J. Conley, S.J.). __________ DRAWN FROM SHADOWS INTO TRUTH.  A Memoir.  By Ray Ryland. (Emmaus Road, Steubenville, OH 2013), …read more […]