Winter Reading for February 2016

The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today. John Michael Talbot with Mike Aquilina. (New York: Image, 2015) 203 pages; $22.00. (Reviewed by Ken Colston)

Richard John Neuhaus (A Life in the Public Square). Randy Boyagoda. (New York: Image, 2015) 480 pages; $30.00. (Reviewed by Clara Sarrocco)

The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture). Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV. (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) 361pages; $22.99. (Reviewed by Matthew Rose)

Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. Susan Windley-Daoust. (Hope Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC, 2014) 255 pages; $36.00. (Reviewed by Rev. Jeffrey L. Dobbs)

The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.
John Michael Talbot with Mike Aquilina. (New York: Image, 2015) 203 pages; $22.00.

What happens when you combine patristic wisdom with glimpses of a country rocker turned Catholic commune leader?  The resulting book is premised on a noble stretch of imagination, but it leaves the reader wishing to learn more—and, at times, much more—about both subjects.

The author’s humility prevents him from going into much detail about his own life, but the fruit of a modern day St. Anthony (or St. Francis) conversion, the Arkansan Franciscan community of the Little Portion Monastery, calls for more attention, perhaps, for more than the publisher had room for, perhaps, because the story is told more fully in one of Talbot’s other books. Talbot’s own bare-bones personal narrative doesn’t confront—nor does his quick, but well-organized, tour through the Church Fathers—the essential question that contemporary rich young men (and women) most want answered: How, specifically, can radically following Christ make my life better?  Their number is legion, and they include many former Catholics. To use the metaphor employed early in the book, borrowed from Abba Joseph’s response to Abba Lot, the “flame” is in the book, but not the light, heat, or fire.

Putting it another way, the book won’t convince a skeptic that the ancient path is a way out of the contemporary mess, and even a believer might find the patristic categories forced upon the personal story.  Or, yet another: it claims that ressourcement was behind Talbot’s aggiornamento but fails to demonstrate the connection.  The early Christian sources, East and West, are proclaimed as still relevant, but how, specifically, did and do they influence Talbot and the Little Portion?  We get a little introduction to the Didache in the third chapter, for example, which Talbot said he was reading on an extended retreat preached at first by Francis Shaeffer, but leading eventually to reception to the Catholic Church. But how the two fit together is unclear. It’s post hoc without propter hoc. That Talbot might discreetly discuss his divorce and annulment of a “childhood marriage,” and subsequent marriage to a former religious sister is understandable and courageous (I certainly do not impute or suspect any insincere motives, or irregular post-conversion behavior), but he doesn’t connect his reading of the Church Fathers to either of these major life events.  Christ saves, we know already, but how?

Similarly, Talbot claims that the Fathers emphasized worship even more than moral conduct, which was surprising to me, but he doesn’t illustrate that point from either early liturgy, or that of the Little Portion Community. Right in the place that he mentions that the orthodox Fathers complained that Arius succeeded because he had “better, more memorable music,” he jumps to a couple of paragraphs about the formation of the New Testament canon. What a musician might have been able to report on Church music! He encourages cantors and music ministers to know that to sing is to pray twice, but is he calling for a reform or offering a model?  He switches topics before we can find out.

In some places, good opportunities to fuse the two subjects better together are missed.  He mentions that his community scrupulously followed St. Ignatius of Antioch’s dictum, “Do nothing without the Bishop.” He turns that into a strong claim that paternity adds stability, but in the case of the Little Portion, the specific evidence for it is mostly that Bishop Andrew of Little Rock presided at, and blessed, the author’s and the former Incarnate Word religious sister’s wedding. How did episcopal paternity affect the community, more generally, and how did it make theirs different from, and better than, other communities not so aligned with their spiritual father?  We don’t learn.  Likewise, Talbot informs us that works of charity were essential to early monastic communities, but the specific corporal works of Little Portion receive little attention.

In one case, Talbot does show clearly how the ancient path can bring about a new life.  He plumbs the Fathers to see them as proto-ecologists, overcoming Manichean rejection of matter, emphasizing divine lordship of creation, calling for human stewardship, warning about the disorder of sin, and affirming Christ’s healing kingship. The Little Portion’s response to this call is a heroic return to the common life of Acts 2 with their practice of voluntary poverty, voluntary community of goods, and asceticism, even among families, to repair the tear in creation caused by the “throwaway culture.” We are told that, through crafts, gardening, and shepherding, they offer a “School for Simple Living,” but what does their agrarian life look like so that we can learn, perhaps, a joyful anticipatory response to Laudato Si? The community rule at Little Portion offers a practical little way to contemporary eco-followers of the ancient path:

Keeping in mind the legitimate needs of the family unit, simplicity and moderation are maintained even in the home, both as an environmental aid to nurturing interior poverty, and as an external manifestation to others of that interior poverty. Every home is called to reflect the peace of God through neatness and order, establishing a sacred space which manifests the fruits of the Spirit.    

One can’t leave this book without praising the intentions, effort, and work of a community whose charism renews ancient practices for modern times, sorely in need of a collective countercultural witness: a chaste, ordered, radical, and small restoration of “neatness and order” 50 years after a serious protest for peace, gone wild, has institutionalized profligate drab riot, with humble lay monks as the new hippies. Its story doesn’t end with a tragic fire that destroyed its library, but sends its founder on an ongoing musical tour to sing for the eternal, simple sanity of Christ. But this noble story and its “back story” in early Christianity are incompletely related.
-Kenneth Colston
Catholic writer
Reviews and essays:
New Oxford Review; LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; Commonweal; St. Austin’s Review; The New Criterion; and First Things



Richard John Neuhaus (A Life in the Public Square). Randy Boyagoda. (New York: Image, 2015) 480 pages; $30.00.

“… I’ve been frequently asked about my intentions in pursuing this book: was I writing a hatchet job or a hagiography? This biography is neither. Instead it is a sympathetic, critical-minded effort to explore the life and work of someone who spent decades praying, preaching, speaking, organizing, and writing about American democracy and Western Christianity and, in the process, lived out his vocation as a thorough-going man of God in the public square.” 

With these words, Randy Boyagoda describes his personal evaluation of his major biographical work.

Boyagoda is an accomplished author, and his narrative reads with fluency. He begins Neuhaus’s biography in the United States, but Clem Neuhaus answered the call to serve a rural parish in Pembroke, Canada, and thus, that is where his children were born. Richard John went through his rebellious phase until he saw his way to the Lutheran Concordia Seminary. In 1960, his ordination was presided over by his very conservative father. His first assignment was in Messina, New York, a very quiet area in rural New York State. After a year in Messina, he accepted a call to a church in Brooklyn. St. John the Evangelist on Maujer St. was in a troubled neighborhood. The demographics had changed and the parishioners were no longer the original German population.  Boyagoda wrote:

And leaving behind his seminary life and early years, this was exactly where, and what, Neuhaus wanted to make the axle point of his always moving, always turning ministry.

Part II of the book: “From Brooklyn to Africa, and Many Points in Between, 1961-1974” takes us through Neuhaus’s New Left liberalism. He fought for Civil Rights, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, and he spent his (Neuhaus’s) anti-war phase, marching and encouraging draft avoidance during the Vietnam War with the Berrigan brothers. In 1972, he wrote in Worldview magazine:

Here I am, a Canadian-reared, Texas-educated, Missouri Synod Lutheran writing from black Brooklyn where I have lived almost the whole of my adult life.

The more Neuhaus became enmeshed in the New Left, the more his disillusion grew. “Part III: From Hartford to Rome via the Naked Public Square, 1975-1990” thus explains how his association with his Maujer St. parish grew less and less, and his association with Catholicism grew stronger. After the publication of his book, The Naked Public Square, he gave a talk before an audience of Catholic bishops. He was asked if he was leaning toward entering the Catholic Church. Neuhaus smiled and said certainly not. As things developed, Richard John Neuhaus was received into the Catholic Church by John Cardinal O’Connor in 1990. Under the tutelage of Avery Cardinal Dulles, he was ordained a Catholic priest a year later.  In Boyagoda’s words:

… Neuhaus left Pembroke for New York, and Missouri for Rome.

“Part IV: First Things First: A Catholic Priest in the Public Square, 1990-2009”  takes the reader through Neuhaus’s work as editor of First Things magazine, his many writings, his brush with death, the influence he exerted among the influential and famous, and his numerous appearances and speaking engagements around the world. After an incredibly full life, Richard John Neuhaus succumbed to the original cancer he had fought so valiantly in the past. He worked to the very end until his body refused him any more strength. In the words of Shakespeare:  “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. He died as one that had been studied in his death. …” Richard John Neuhaus died January 8, 2009, in New York City. 

Randy Boyagoda has written a well-researched biography. His footnotes, quotations, and sources leave no doubt as to the authenticity of his claims. Fr. Neuhaus was larger than life, always fighting for the truth. As was Boyagoda’s stated intention, his picture of Richard John Neuhaus is, not without its difficulties, but also with its great accomplishments. The missing factor in the historical narrative is the picture of Fr. Neuhaus as a compassionate priest, pastor of souls, devoted friend, and expert theologian—the things that would be dearest to his heart.
-Clara Sarrocco
Graduate, Fordham University
Secretary, New York C.S. Lewis Society
Catholic writer (articles and reviews): Touchstone; New Oxford Review; Saint Austin Review; Gilbert Magazine; The Chesterton Review; Catholic Historical Review; The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly
Instructor, classes on C.S. Lewis, Institute for Religious Studies, St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, New York; Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, New York;  President, Long Island Chapter, University Faculty for life.

The Gospel of John (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture). Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV. (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) 361pages; $22.99.

One of the greatest gifts to the Church from the Second Vatican Council is the reinvigoration of Catholic Scripture studies. Whole institutions, such as the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, have sprung up over the last 50 years with the sole purpose of fulfilling the instruction of Dei Verbum, namely, to teach the faithful about the Word of God, and make their relationship with Christ a real, concrete relationship. Part of this promising trend has been a burst in popular and academic Scripture commentaries, and the writers and editors of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture write in this vein. They present the Scriptures in a scholarly way, yet the prose and structure of the work is accessible by laymen. 

This balance between scholarship and approachability is clear in the series’ recent volume on the Gospel of John. Coauthors Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV have a strong grasp of both ancient and modern commentaries on the fourth Gospel. St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Thomas Aquinas are included, along with more modern writers such as Raymond E. Brown, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quoted frequently. Many of the quotes from the Church Fathers, other saints, and Church’s Magisterium are included as part of the “Living Tradition” sidebar of the commentary, one of the many aspects of the commentary that make the entire series an excellent tool for preparing homilies and classroom lectures. 

The entire text of the Gospel is included in bold, for easy reading on the page.  Rather than jumping between the biblical text, and the authors’ commentary, the reader can examine the comments and text as one. This gives the book a smoother feel than other commentaries where the author’s comments appear as footnotes to the Bible text. It helps the reader process the thoughts and reflections of the commentators better than a full study Bible might. Also helpful is the glossary of important terms, found at the end of the book. Words included in the glossary are marked with an asterisk in the main commentary text. 

The commentary is a classic example of using both literal and spiritual senses of Scripture. All sections of the Gospel are first examined in their literal sense, that is, what the text describes.  Recent archaeological discoveries and historical articles concerning the people and places of John’s Gospel, contained within the “Biblical Background” sidebars, bolster the reflection. Like the “Living Tradition” sidebars mentioned earlier, the sidebars buttress the commentary, providing more detailed information which is related to the discussion at hand, but would not flow smoothly into the main body of the commentary. Once the literal sense of a passage is established, the authors examine the text in light of its allegorical, moral, and eschatological senses. This is extremely important in a commentary on the Gospel of John, as there are many phrases which seem strange out of their contexts, both historically and theologically. After some main sections of commentary, subsections entitled “Reflection and Application” draw even more spiritual depth from the precious words of the Gospel. 

The Gospel of John is one of the more controversial books in the New Testament. In that light, any commentary of John’s Gospel requires a discussion of these controversies. For example, in the Introduction to the commentary, Martin and Wright discuss the prevalent views regarding the authorship of John’s Gospel. They reject the more radical view of authorship, namely, that the Gospel was written in the middle to late second century, and that the Gospel was later attributed to St. John, but they also hesitate to embrace the Patristic view that it was written by St. John, one of the Twelve Apostles. They take a sort of middle ground, suggesting that, if the Gospel was not written by St. John himself, it was written by his immediate disciples who wished to record in writing their spiritual father’s teachings (see p. 17-18). 

Overall, the book provides fantastic insights into the fourth Gospel. The commentary is, at the same time, both scholarly and popular. It is spiritually rich, so priests and deacons could draw homiletic material from this commentary. It is well researched, so Catholic universities could use the book as a textbook for New Testament courses. The language of the commentary is easily readable, without too much technical jargon, and so, appropriate for laymen. For anyone seeking an orthodox examination of John’s Gospel, no matter his or her state in life, this volume of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture is an excellent choice.
Matthew B. Rose
Instructor, Roman Catholic theology and history
Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Arlington, VA
BA, History and English Language & Literature, Christendom College
MA, Systematic Theology, Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Follow him at his blog:

Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying.
Susan Windley-Daoust. (Hope Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC, 2014) 255 pages; $36.00.

Windley-Daoust, in her thought provoking book, takes the principles of the “Theology of the Body” and applies them to the experiences of birth, impairment, and dying in order to show how they are spiritual signs that have the capacity to draw us into deeper relationship with God. It is posited by Windley-Daoust, and rightly so, that the bulk of the popular presentations on the “Theology of the Body” have focused on the second half of the general audiences which address the topics of sexuality, marriage, and continence for the kingdom, but that few popular presentations have focused on the first half of the general audiences which address more the general topic of what it means to be human.

This book does an excellent job of extending the teachings of the “Theology of the Body” beyond sexuality, marriage, and continence for the kingdom to the human experiences of birth, impairment, and dying. Indeed, St. John Paul II acknowledged, in one of his general audiences, that the “theology of the body” could extend beyond the areas of sexuality and marriage. St. John Paul II states: “One must immediately observe, in fact, that the term ‘theology of the body’ goes far beyond the content of the reflections presented here. These reflections do not include many problems belonging, with regard to their object, to the theology of the body (e.g., the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message)” (Theology of the Body, #133:1).

Windley-Daoust’s book begins with a thorough, succinct, and reader-friendly summary of phenomenology, and Carmelite Spirituality, two of the main influences on St. John Paul II’s thought. After establishing the influences that impacted St. John Paul II’s thought, Windley-Daoust addresses the theology of giving birth. The section on birth starts with an overview of the history of how and where women have given birth over the centuries. Originally, birthing took place at the family home with the aid of other women in the family, or the community teaching and coaching the pregnant woman on how to give birth. Over time, giving birth began to take place in the setting of a hospital with the aid of doctors, nurses, and drugs that eased the physical pain of giving birth. Moving birthing to hospitals had the negative consequence of leading people to see giving birth as something that required the help of medical experts, rather than as “part of the normal, but very real, mystery of life.”  Windley-Daoust states, “In the worst hospitals, every birth began to look like, and be treated as, a medical emergency rather than a natural act of life” (p. 45).

Natural childbirth, on the other hand, gives a woman a unique opportunity to learn and grow in her relationship with God by yielding to God, and trusting God, in the very act of giving birth. It is in this context that Windley-Daoust introduces an important term in her book, “disponibilité,” which means: an attitude of availability. When giving birth naturally a woman needs disponibilité in order to yield to the contractions and progress in the birthing process. Yielding to God’s invitations, helps a woman to relax, and not have as much pain in the birthing process. The opposite of disponibilité is encumbrance or crispation, which is a turning in on one’s self in fear. Windley-Daoust remarks that crispation “is a word that describes the fear reaction that results in the resisting of the opening of the cervix: a bracing or hardening of the uterine muscle that results in real pain” (p. 47).  Windley-Daoust acknowledges that there are times when the aid of a doctor and drugs for pain relief are needed when giving birth, but that they need not be promoted as the norm.

Impairment is the next area in which Windley-Daoust extends the wisdom of the “Theology of the Body.” Impairment is “when human beings experience their bodies as unexpectedly limited” (p. 107). The experience of impairment gives one the opportunity to experience in his body that he is limited, and that there is only one who is not limited—God.  Knowing and experiencing limitedness helps one to remember that earthly life is temporary, and that it is all the more important to be humble before God, and live in such a way that eternity is the motive for actions, rather than the passing things of earth. Jesus Christ, in taking on human flesh, in becoming fully human, united himself to our limitedness, and taught us to how to totally give ourselves in love to the Father in a form of kenosis, or self-emptying love. Even just seeing others who have disponibilité when living with impairments and disabilities can help us to yield to God loving us in our limitedness.  Windley-Daoust remarks, “People living with disabilities call all of us to acknowledge our human weaknesses and, in so doing, open us to receiving the grace of God” (p. 130).

The last section of the book moves to the experience of the ultimate limitedness for human beings, that being death. The dying body given in love is a “bodily and spiritual sign that points to God,” (p. 191), and thus, an extension of the “Theology of Body” to the human experience of death.  Windley-Daoust chooses to focus on the ars moriendi tradition of the Catholic Church, and the Hospice movement, to consider how the dying person may give himself in love to God, and how loved ones can both assist, and learn from the dying person. Jesus ultimately teaches us how to give ourselves in love in the act of dying, because he gave himself in love in his passion, and his death bore the ultimate fruit of the redemption of the world (p. 208). Jesus teaches us how to die, how to entrust ourselves to our Father in heaven for eternity. Windley-Daoust relays some words of wisdom widely attributed to St. John Bosco about how we might speak to others to help them die in the peace of Christ: “I urge the patient to abandon himself to him, just as a child does with his father, and to be tranquil. This allays the patient’s fear of death. He is delighted by the thought that his fate is in God’s hands, and he peacefully waits for God to do as he wills in his infinite goodness” (p. 227).

Windley-Daoust has written an excellent book in Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. There are few who have responded so boldly to St. John Paul II’s invitation to extend the “Theology of the Body” beyond the topics of sexuality, marriage, and continence for the kingdom, to other areas. This book would be of interest and beneficial for anyone with a serious interest in the “Theology of the Body,” whether it be an academic ,or someone simply interested in growing in the life of faith. Numerous and varied examples are given throughout the book to help the reader to see clearly how the “Theology of the Body” applies to the phenomena of birth, impairment, and dying. Particularly thought-provoking and touching are the various examples of people’s experiences of impairments, most especially Windley-Daoust’s own experience of dealing with the impairments of hearing loss and vertigo. Windley-Daoust’s book is well worth reading, and I highly recommend it.
-Rev. Jeffrey L. Dobbs
Director of Spiritual Life
Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, Winona, Minnesota

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