Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer Hiatus

Now that my initial study of German-for-Reading is complete, I will be going to Milwaukee to play at two Irish dancing competitions. I return on Sunday to begin my retreat here in Chicago. Then, on the 30th, I'll head off to Omena for my vacation.

So I'll not be posting over the next two weeks, or at least not until the July 31st. Please pray for me as I make my retreat and know that I will pray for you.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Small Caveat

As many of you know, I'm doing several book reviews on this site. These are intentionally non-academic reviews. I have neither the space nor the desire to engage in systematic dissection of texts on my blog. In reviewing books for DoubleDay I choose to review those books that I think are pertinent and relevant to those who might read my blog. DoubleDay is not paying me and I won't review a book unless I think people might actually be interested (or warned against) reading it.

So a "lens" through which I read these texts is "Will this be helpful to one of my readers?" If it is going to help you pray, to understand your relationship to God better, or to become more knowledgeable about your faith, then I'll probably give it a good review. Since no one's career rests on my review, I can afford to be positive about various works. I don't want to give a book report or a synopsis; rather, I want only to say what I read, give the gist of it, and say something of why I liked it. Feel free to agree or disagree, but know that I am reading/blogging with an eye to what I think might be helpful to my readers.

Opus Dei

There are few organizations as polarizing as Opus Dei in the Roman Catholic Church. Made (in)famous in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code its membership of around 85,000 persons seems to attract a disproportionate amount of attention.

Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen has done, consequently, a great service to those interested in learning more about "The Work" in his estimable book Opus Dei.

Let me begin with a caveat: I began reading this book with a presupposition that I would come away thinking less of Opus Dei. Interestingly, Allen's balanced treatment highlights many of the positive qualities and characteristics of Opus Dei while at the same time acknowledging shadowy areas in its practices.

The book is partitioned into four main sections: the Essentials of Opus Dei, Opus Dei from the Inside, Question Marks About Opus Dei, and finally a Summary Evaluation. Each section relies heavily on information provided both by current and former members of Opus Dei. This has led to the accusation that Allen's research is compromised by lack of objective sources. While this may be true, I suspect that John Allen did the best with what he could get and, by the 400+ pages of the paperback, it appears that he did get quite a bit.

What I appreciated about the book is that it is the first time I've learned something useful about Opus Dei. At the core of Opus Dei is the belief that

holiness, 'being a saint,' is not just the province of a few spiritual athletes, but is the universal destiny of every Christian. Holiness is not exclusively, or even principally, for priests and nuns. Further, holiness is not something to be achieved in the first place through prayer and spiritual discipline, but rather through the mundane details of everyday work. Holiness thus doesn't require a change in external circumstances, but a change in attitude, seeing everything anew in the light of one's supernatural destiny. (17)
If this were the only thing people were to learn of Opus Dei, it would be a great gift. A human organization, it has, however, its shadow side. We are all familiar with accusations of abuse, secrecy, and manipulation. Opus Dei is often mentioned alongside the Jesuits as being interested in world domination (there are YouTube videos to back this up!). Allen takes these shadows and specters seriously and even-handedly massages the issues that both sides are often well presented. The end of the book, helpfully, offers something of an "action plan" to help Opus Dei more transparent and less mysterious to many Christians.

A Jesuit favorably reviewing a book favorable to Opus Dei? Yep! There are drawbacks to the text, to be sure: Allen can get somewhat repetitive, the book is long and, while written in an engaging style, it can plod at times. Still, it is quite worth the investment of time and energy in that it does provide a glimpse into the world of Opus Dei.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Newflash: The Pope is Meaningless! (It's news to me, too!)

For those of you who read, you'll have probably seen this charming little piece by journalist Roland S. Martin.

You really have to read the whole article for yourself, but it is really quite interesting. But the analytic part of my brain did a double-take at his line of argument:

Yet as I reflect on my years as a Catholic, it pretty much was a wasted experience, as there was more identification with the church, and not with Christ.

And that's why Pope Benedict XVI is meaningless, along with his decision to re-state the primacy of the Catholic Church.

Now, I think his whole piece is completely stupid. But tell me how this argument hangs together? Writing out of HIS experience, he feels that HIS experience of Catholicism led more to an identification with the Church than with Christ. THEREFORE, the Pope is meaningless.

In MY experience, I am a complete failure at tackle football. In MY experience, it led more to an identification with a Crash-Test Dummy than it did with Don Shula or Peyton Manning. And yet does it follow that football, or Roger Goodell (the commissioner of the NFL) is meaningless? While there are certainly some who will say that it is without meaning, I suspect there are enough Americans who might disagree.

My main point is that his argument just doesn't work, because there is no argument. He's writing more out of emotion than logic and while it makes for an interesting read, it makes him seem tremendously foolish.

And I'll forgo the discussion of his (woefully inadequate) use of scripture. Perhaps I should cut him some slack as he's ONLY had 13 years to understand the Bible sins break free from the fetters of Roman Catholicism.

But my favorite line of the text is this:

It doesn't matter what Pope Benedict XVI has to say, or for that matter, any other religious leader. A Christian believes in Jesus Christ and what He had to say, not what a man of God has to say. This is not an attempt to completely dismiss religious leaders, but is further evidence of what happens when ego is more important than the work of Christ.

I completely agree that we should harbor suspicion against potentially ego-maniacal religious figures. Egotists who would dare to make any sort of pronouncement, self-important individuals who want only the spotlight and attention, to have the whole world gaze upon them. We definitely must look askance at anyone who keeps "running off at the mouth mouth and making pointless declarations". I'm sure his publisher will agree, too:

Oh, perhaps my fatigue with German study has led me to be a little less-than-charitable. Believe me, I'm holding back a lot of venom on this post.

Again, as I tried to make clear when I wrote an analysis of Regina Brett's column several months ago, I'm not against dialogue and debate. I am against, however, shoddy arguments and appeals to emotion that go absolutely nowhere and are more displays of rhetorical skill than they are at sound analysis.

The theological debate that this calls for is inappropriate for my blog. The most I feel I can offer in this setting is just a quick appraisal of Mr. Martin's argument which I find to be completely erroneous. His assessment of the Pope as "meaningless" makes me question his skill as a journalist and leaves me even more grateful that I watch the BBC rather than CNN.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Book Review

For my first book review, I'd like to recommend "Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality."

This book finds its place in the long and venerable line of spiritual direction as exhibited by the Desert Mothers and Fathers. These wisdom figures would often receive visitors who would hail them with the greeting, "Abba, give me word of salvation." The Abba or Amma would then tell a story or give a short saying to the person. Such sayings or stories were not spontaneous aphorisms or Chinese fortunes, but rather the result of many hours of prayer and reflection.

Are you struggling with a long-held resentment over some slight you have suffered? Let us take this to Mother!

Gruge-Holder: "Mother, Give me a word of salvation! I am beset with a long-held grudge"

Mother Angelica: "Don't waste your time in life trying to get even with your enemies. The grave is a tremendous equalizer. Six weeks after you all are dead, you'll look pretty much the same. Let the Lord take care of those whom you think have harmed you. All you have to do is love and forgive. Try to forget and leave all else to the Master."

Struggling with being impatient?

Impatient Person: "Mother, Give me a word of salvation! I am most impatient with myself and with those around me!"

Mother Angelica: "Patience is adjusting your time to God's time."

Now it's obvious that this is no easy answer - nor should it be. The lessons and stories contained in this book are great material for prayer and reflection. Like the marrow bone that must be boiled for many hours to flavor a soup, many of these pithy statements and stories need to be reflected on in order for their lessons to penetrate deeply into the soul.

My only caveat: this is not a book to be read, necessarily, c0ver-to-cover. As it is helpfully broke up into sections such as "Sin and Temptation" "Living Prayer and True Spirituality" "Motherly Advice for the Family" "Everyday Holiness" one should bring one's struggles and questions to the text, open to the section addressing one's angst, and begin to read. Approach the text not as a How-To book of spirituality, but rather as a wisdom figure who has prayed and reflected for a long time. Come to the book and say, "Mother, give me a word" and ask your question. I have a feeling that she'll know just what to say.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Up to my eyeballs

Sorry for not posting more often; I really have been up to my eyeballs in German. We're heading into the home-stretch of study and with only 2.5 weeks to go, I'm hoping I'll have the energy to finish it out! My head is swimming with overloaded adjective constructions and modal verbs...oh, how I long for the easy days of Rahner!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

In From France

I just thought I'd post this link to a web page run by the French Jesuits. It is a page discussing the various ways Jesuits are using YouTube. You'll see a familiar face at the top of the page!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame