Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

A Noble Project

The Radiance of Being: Dimensions
of Cosmic Christianity by Stratford Caldecott, Angelico Press, 304pp, £10.95

Part One of this synthetically reworked collection of essays is introduced with some words of E I Watkin from 1947. The quotation captures the noble project of the book in this way: “The old Catholic religion-culture of Europe is dead … the inheritance of classical culture … has been destroyed, overwhelmed by a vast influx of new knowledge, by the scientific mass civilisation of the modern world. … The abiding and immutable truth of metaphysics and revealed religion must be reclad in new garments woven by a scientific and historical knowledge incomparably vaster than was ever before possessed by man.” This book makes an impressive contribution towards meeting this challenge.

It is a grand and unique attempt to synthesise modern science with the history and philosophy of science of neo-scholastics such as Etienne Gilson, the metaphysics and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the mysticism of Eckhart, and Henri de Lubac’s retrieval of the pre-Augustinian tripartite (body-soul-spirit) anthropology. Caldecott convincingly shows where the broadly neo-scholastic metaphysical template of the real distinction of essence and existence is going. It is naturally, if unfortunately for this writer, a different direction from that of the major contemporary developments in post-Popperian scientific realism. But in Part I Caldecott does interestingly incorporate some modern reflections upon quantum mechanics, the concept of infinity, and epigenetics among others. He is appropriately widely read in both science and theology, and demonstrates a great ability succinctly to summarise salient points.

In the Faith movement we believe we can make creation appear more coherently a unity if we see its fundamental being as being known by the absolute mind of God. 

This is an important and helpful book for the Catholic community as it struggles to respond appropriately to the challenge outlined by Watkin – and by Ronald Knox two years earlier in 1945 (see the first part of his God and the Atom, summarised in Faith Magazine Nov/Dec 2012). For this reason I would engage now in more detail with his presentation of a prominent philosophical tradition from the point of view of the different one presented by the Faith movement.

Searching for a Coherent Anthropology

Caldecott has in fact turned his astute eye upon the Faith movement’s Unity-Law idea, giving it a thought-provoking place within his survey of Catholic attempts to synthesise modern science and religion. His fairly accurate overview contains an important criticism, namely that the “new synthesis makes the human soul an exception to the process of evolution, but without explaining how this does not render the whole account incoherent” (p51).

Making the human soul coherent has of course been a real challenge for second millennium Catholic philosophy in general. For, as Caldecott highlights, the Catholic tendency, from Thomas Aquinas through to the contemporary Catechism (one might also add St Augustine and the 14th-century papal Encyclical Benedictus Deus) has been to emphasise that the human soul is not physical, but rather spiritual, in the image of God’s divine nature, and directly created at conception. Today this teaching is rarely regarded as easy to defend coherently, and even more rarely does it have an essential place in catechetical schemes, or in defences of human dignity, freedom and immortality. Readers of this magazine (and of our “Reasons for Believing” pamphlet What Makes Man Unique?) will know that we, somewhat uniquely, do regard it as a crucial doctrine which desperately needs an updated defence.

Caldecott’s push for anthropological coherence involves placing man on just another “ontological level” of the metaphysical hierarchy he proposes. This is a special level in as much as it is open to the very life of God. He associates this with the “spirit” dimension of the “Renaissance-Platonic” view of the human person as body-soul-spirit, as retrieved by de Lubac. The book acknowledges that “there is still much confusion” in this anthropological tradition (p208). Thus it downplays the traditional ontological duality of physical and spiritual, and interprets the magisterial affirmation by Humanae Generis (1950) of the soul’s direct creation as being “open to a conveniently wide range of interpretations” (p43).

The Faith movement’s push for such coherence involves affirming, in a neo-Augustinian manner, the dynamic relationship of spiritual mind (whether of the absolute God or of the human soul in his image) with the objects of its knowing, as a metaphysical first principle. As such being-known-by-mind is a relationship constitutive and causative of a creaturely thing. It is foundational to the Unity Law as it applies across the whole of the created cosmos, across the explicitly acknowledged, discontinuous but complementary existence of matter and spirit. It is only in this sense that the soul is an “exception to the process of evolution”.

For the complementarity of spiritual mind (eg human soul) and physical matter (eg human body) is foundational to all cosmic existence. And we argue that the direct creation of the spiritual soul falls directly under the principles of the Unity Law, which also govern evolution (see above mentioned pamphlet and elsewhere).

Metaphysical Starting Points

For the Unity-Law vision the dynamic of “being known by distinct spiritual mind” is foundational to the existence and essence of creatures (and perhaps of the Triune Creator). This is our metaphysical starting point, validated by the core of all human experience of being a mind-matter composite engaging with our material environment.

Caldecott’s metaphysical starting point is in line with the scholastic tradition. It assumes that the “essential” realm of “horizontal causation” is founded in the “vertical causation” of the act of existence. This actus essendi transcends the definitive intelligibility of created things. For Aquinas it grounds creaturely existence in the absolute creator and sustainer of all, which Aristotle in his analysis of essence and causation did not need. Even Aquinas’s enhancement of Aristotle’s foundational/“primary” “final cause” and his attempt to apply it to God was still was not enough to affirm God as creator and sustainer of every bit of cosmic existence. This is because the other causes (formal, efficient and material) were intelligibly distinct from finality, and conferred definitive intelligibility on things. For this writer the resultant confusion of agent causation (from spiritual mind) with physical teleology (ie from physical matter) has been a big problem for scholastic thought.

This is contrary to our vision, in which anything’s (analogical) existence is directly dependent upon a creative mind; this dependence is thus intrinsic to its essence, that is to its definitive intelligibility. Aristotelian final causation is for us just an aspect of the matter-energy hierarchy of unities, while agent causation is an equally existential and intelligible grounding of all.

As ever Caldecott cuts to the heart of his metaphysical subject matter, affirming of the traditional Catholic vision of the existential: “Only within this vertical dimension does it make sense to seek for God, and for a divine influence upon the unfolding of evolution. Any other attempt to combine religion and science will lead to a process God so identified with all creation that he loses all transcendence” (p49). He calls the scholastic existential principle “the depth dimension of being”.

Our Difference From Animals

At this point Caldecott traces for us a couple of very tricky manoeuvres within neo-scholasticism. First, this depth, this “interior” dimension, of every creature is proposed as the principle of the human observer’s consciousness and of science in its “contemplative” fullness. This attempts to make the soul-spirit distinction piggy-back upon the “real” distinction of essence and existence; to maintain not only man’s essential transcendence from the creator but the existential possibility of him becoming one with God. In this book it leads to this affirmation: “This is the uncreated and unfallen element in man which makes it possible for him to be united with God in his own ground. It is the source of his freedom and identity from which he is exiled by sin” (p278). The “unfallen” reminds one of the semi-Pelagian affirmation opposed by Augustine, but one needs to remember that de Lubac tried to rescue some aspect of this heretical anthropology. For us the term “uncreated” contains a bigger possible Trojan horse.

Yet it seems that the “spirit” of man is Caldecott’s only qualitative distinction of man from animals. At the very end of the philosophy of science in Part I of this book Caldecott simply affirms, without adducing evidence or argument, the crucial importance of such an “intrinsic difference”. We are told that the personhood of man is “a unique individual with a unique destiny” (p95). The answer to this seems to come in the reflections upon the revelation of the divine nature (Part II) and of the “uncreated … element in man” (Part III). Like Professor David Jones’ The Soul of the Embryo, man’s distinction from animals, in this contemporary Catholic synthesis of science and religion, can only be shown by revelation. They are at least surely right not to fall back on the Catholic proofs of the soul from abstract knowledge adduced before the arrival of modern science.

Science: A Special Type of Observation?

Second, the metaphysical depth dimension, which is meant to transcend essence, is for numerous neo-scholastics the principle of contingency as well as of final and formal causation. This is the root of a philosophy of science from Gilson to Caldecott (possibly including Pope Benedict XVI in his Bundestag address) which argues that modern science methodologically excludes formality and teleology from consideration. This reduction of the nature of modern scientific methodology is hard to maintain in the light of most contemporary philosophy of science, as Stephen Barr for instance has shown in this magazine. Caldecott does highlight (p38) C S Lewis’s urgent call, in the Abolition of Man, for a “new natural philosophy”, which appears to lend him some support, while also, this writer would say, adding some significant qualification.

Conclusions

The metaphysics that has been sketched is claimed to give a Trinitarian and sacramental pattern to cosmic reality. Yet it extends across many “ontological levels”. An image of God himself can be the way in which mathematics has depicted infinity as “always passing beyond itself”. Thus the world which “has some real existence of its own, an infinity in it own degree, by virtue of its participation in Gods actus purus” “can achieve in [God] an eternal existence” (pp23‑4). Indeed God himself is always surpassing himself. As per Balthasar, God is always “surprising himself”. This is the dynamic of Gift which infuses all reality (p111). In a very Transcendental Thomist conclusion we are told that “the world is in God …. subsisting in God”.

In the Faith movement we believe we can make creation appear more coherently a unity if we see its fundamental being as being known by the absolute mind of God. This is the only way intelligibly to maintain radical contingence of creature and radical transcendence of Creator without falling into the panentheism that seems to await so much contemporary development of the essence-existence distinction. It is a metaphysics that is more obviously supportive of Church doctrine, and more fully supported by the contemporary philosophy behind the success of the scientific method.

This book clearly shows the inevitable trajectory of a metaphysics that posits a radical metaphysical priority of existentiality over essential intelligibility, of being over being known, of existence over mind. It always means having to bolt on the concept of mind, and losing an intelligibly clear distinction between the being of the creature and the being of the absolute. It is time we allowed this foundation to be realigned, and to recover the Augustinian emphasis.

Hugh MacKenzie

A second volume in this project by Stratford Caldecott, Not As the World Gives, will be published this year.


 

Catholic Middle Earth

A Hobbit Journey by Matthew Dickerson, Brazos Press, 260pp, £10.99

The Power of the Ring by Stratford Caldecott, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 238pp, £10.68

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular novels of the 20th century. It has sold over 150 million copies, been translated into dozens of languages and reached an even wider audience with the film trilogy. It generates great loyalty among its readers, many of whom discover the book in adolescence and are inspired by the nobility, heroism and beauty with which, unusually in modern literature, the book is charged. Tolkien’s popularity is at once a blessing and a curse for critics. The line between scholar and fan, always somewhat tricky to navigate in literary criticism, is well and truly blurred, and the problem is exacerbated by a desire on the part of his admirers to defend him from the snobbery of some in the academic world who, distracted by his popularity (and influenced perhaps by some of his less impressive successors in the fantasy genre), still echo the opinion of Edmund Wilson, one of Tolkien’s early critics, who thought the books were no more than “juvenile trash”.

'Caldecott, in a lyrical, elevated tone reminiscent of Tolkien’s own writing style, goes deep into Tolkien’s spiritual vision, showing how this led him to create a work that is illuminated throughout by a faith at once fully orthodox and profoundly personal'

Tolkien’s unfinished, sprawling corpus of work is so vast, so rich in detail, so full of wide-ranging moral and philosophical issues, drawing on so many different sources, that the possibilities for discussion are endless.  The temptation for any lover of Middle Earth is to write a book which becomes “Everything I Ever Wanted to Say about Tolkien”. These two books by Matthew Dickerson and Stratford Caldecott demonstrate respectively how to fall into, and how to avoid, this trap.

Both books are revised editions of originals. Dickerson is reworking his previous book, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and Caldecott is updating and expanding his earlier edition entitled Secret Fire. The difference in approach and style between the two writers is apparent from the very beginning.

In A Hobbit Journey, the reader has to plough through 17 pages of a rather diffuse introduction before Dickerson explicitly states the purpose of his book, and even then it is somewhat vague: it will explore the question “What can we learn from hobbits and from their vision of the Good Life, and how does that apply to our own present situation?” (p17). This is not a critical question but one which treats LOTR as moral teaching material. In contrast, Caldecott states in the first line of his preface: “The book is about Tolkien’s spirituality, by which I mean his religious awareness and experience, the things he believed about life and death and ultimate truth” (p xi). He makes it clear that his book is part of the wider body of scholarly criticism: “Secondary works, like this one, are written to help others to understand the writer and his background” (p xi).

Judging by the title of Dickerson’s previous edition, his older book was more focused, with an emphasis on the role of war in the trilogy. The first four chapters of the new edition retain this focus, and it is these that are the most original and interesting. Questions such as whether torture is permissible in Tolkien’s world view, whether war is glorified (with a side-debate about how the films differ from the books in this respect), and how victory and defeat are characterised, are worth considering and will encourage readers to think more deeply about LOTR and appreciate how nuanced Tolkien’s treatment of these issues is.

The book becomes increasingly generalised as it goes on, with later chapters having such titles as “Human Freedom and Creativity” and “Moral Responsibility and Stewardship”. There is much good content, but the author is trying to cover too much under headings which are too broad, and the book loses focus. The writing throughout is very accessible, and any Tolkien fan will enjoy reading it, but I suspect it would not persuade a sceptic to take LOTR seriously, nor do I think the author is saying anything particularly unique.

In the final chapter, the author quotes a line from one of Tolkien’s letters: “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Dickerson does not go into specifics about how Tolkien’s Catholicism affected his writing, referencing Caldecott’s book as a deeper exploration.

Caldecott, as a Catholic philosopher, is perfectly placed to understand Tolkien’s faith and how it is expressed in his work. However, anyone, particularly a partisan Catholic, will be disappointed if they open this book expecting a nice easy list of how characters, events and objects in LOTR correspond to items of Catholic dogma. This is not how Caldecott thinks, and certainly not how Tolkien wrote: he made his distaste for this kind of obvious allegory very clear.

Instead Caldecott, in a lyrical, elevated tone reminiscent of Tolkien’s own writing style, goes deep into Tolkien’s spiritual vision, showing how this led him to create a work that is illuminated throughout by a faith at once fully orthodox and profoundly personal. This journey is not for the faint-hearted: the reader’s full attention is required as Caldecott takes us beyond LOTR to explore Tolkien’s entire fictional corpus, as well as many of his critical writings and a number of personal letters and biographical details.

Caldecott draws on a range of Catholic writing from Hildegard of Bingen to Newman to Flannery O’Connor to the Catechism itself, showing the rich tradition in which LOTR should be located, and demonstrating the influence of what Tolkien himself called “a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know”. On the way he uncovers some treasures which have been underused in criticism, such as Tolkien’s description of a mystical experience he had while attending a Forty Hours devotion, an experience that fed into his vision of angels and subsequent characterisation of the Elvish in LOTR.

Another fascinating moment is Caldecott’s identification of the date on which the ring is destroyed with the feast of the Annunciation, the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, and his analysis of the implications of this for the book as a whole. It this kind of detail which shows how profitable it is to have an informed Catholic perspective when approaching Tolkien. Caldecott manages to achieve a difficult feat in this book: covering a vast range of sources and going into detailed textual analysis while still maintaining a specific angle.

About the last third of the book consists of an appendix of short essays, each of which focuses on a single issue in LOTR, and it these that constitute the main difference between this book and the previous edition. This is an excellent way to cover a wide range of different approaches to Tolkien in a single book without losing overall focus. Different readers will enjoy different essays depending on their personal interest: I particularly enjoyed the essay on the influence of the King Arthur legendarium on Tolkien’s writing, and also Caldecott’s analysis of the films.

The sheer amount of criticism that exists about Tolkien is overwhelming, and for a critic to stand out as worth reading he or she has to do something unique. I believe that Stratford Caldecott has achieved this, and I thoroughly recommend his book to anyone who is committed to deepening their understanding of LOTR, and to all lovers of Tolkien who return again and again to the book to experience, in Caldecott’s words: “the glimpse of high Elvish beauty that inspires heroism, whether in the Third Age or this, the Seventh Age of the Sun” (p 146).

Lucy Nash
 

 

War on the Unborn

Culture and Abortion by Edward Short, Gracewing, 277pp, £14.99

Marie Stopes sat under a yew tree outside her house in Dorking one day in 1922. There she claimed to have received a directive from God to tell the Anglican bishops assembled for the Lambeth Conference that the primary purpose of intercourse was not the procreation of children. The audacity of the prominent campaigner for reproductive rights illustrates the kind of changing of attitudes that would lead to the 1967 Abortion Act.

Culture and Abortion, rather than forming a continuous narrative, is a selection of reflections on the impact of literature, the arts and politics on the culture of abortion. It is a look at British and American cultures now compared with the centuries before the passing of the Abortion Act and Roe v Wade. Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae is used as a key text, particularly as Short describes the Polish pope as the “greatest historian of abortion”. For the reader, a basic knowledge of English literature is useful as the writings of authors such as Charles Dickens, G K Chesterton and the poet Anne Ridler are explored. A little knowledge of philosophy is also of help, particularly as Descartes’ theories are presented as throwing doubt on the nature of human identity.

Several striking hypotheses for why abortion was thought to be acceptable are put forward. Edward Short considers the ill treatment of children in Victorian Britain. Far from being regarded as a great gift, they were sent to the mill houses and up chimneys at an early age. Slavery may have been abolished, but it was still going on in the factories and mill houses.

However, while highlighting the poor quality of life of children in stories such as Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, authors at that time did not follow today’s pro-abortion attitude – namely that it is cruel to let children be born into squalor. There might be poverty, but God-given life is also found in this hardship. Short argues that if Dickens were to have lived in a pro-abortion culture, his audience would never have stood for Oliver’s mother dying so that the young boy might live.

Short finds no evidence of explicit complaints against the demands of motherhood in the 18th century, nor any foreshadowing of a call for “reproductive rights”. In fact, he claims  here were no pro-abortion women in any century prior to the late 20th century. But later, he shows how just one generation of women, who are now mothers, grew up with widely available birth control. In a rapid change of culture, they were pressured to find their true womanhood in the bedroom.

As a consequence, the false promises of feminism have damaged families and neglected children. Not only this, but abortion has put women’s health at risk. In a chapter dedicated to the work of the Life charity, studies on the link between abortion and breast cancer are discussed, as are findings that show rates of suicide and binge drinking are higher among women who have had abortions.

The shocking attitudes of the main players of abortion culture are exposed. Marie Stopes rowed with her son when he got engaged to a woman who wore glasses. She could not cope with having a woman in the family with defective eyesight. Dr Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls abortion “a blessing” because it helps women to enjoy a healthy sexuality without the risk of pregnancy.

However, Short contrasts these astonishing attitudes of the powerful towards the weak with many signs of hope. In perhaps the most intriguing chapter, “William Wilberforce and the Fight for Life”, he follows the sketch portrayed in William Hague’s biography of the 19th-century Hull and Yorkshire MP who heroically led the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Short compares the economic interest in the slave trade with the massive profits made by the abortion industry. The story of the abolitionists’ victory, in the face of great opposition, offers much hope to the pro-life cause. It is an example of how persistence and a conviction of serving God in politics can change hearts and minds.

Former abortionist doctors Aleck Bourne and Bernard Nathanson are presented as personifying the change of heart that must happen if abortion is to be ended. But the greatest sign of hope in the battle against abortion is Our Lady. In Evangelium Vitae, Blessed John Paul II says Mary is the “living word of comfort for the Church in her struggle against death”.

In short, Culture and Abortion is addressed to the committed pro-lifer who seeks to understand more about the social, historical, political and literary influences on the “barbarity of abortion”.

Richard Marsden


 

A Father in Context

Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, edited by Paul Foster and Sarah Parvis, Fortress Press, 274pp, £25.99

In the course of this learned work – 18 chapters preceded by an Introduction by the editors – an impressive amount of accurate scholarship is devoted to exploring Irenaeus in three parts: his life, his writings and his legacy. The precision of the writing is impressive, and the book is clearly intended for an academic readership. It is a collection of 18 papers delivered at a conference held in Edinburgh in August 2009. Each can stand alone: there is no overall thesis. Arguably the most useful part of the book is the introduction by the editors, which offers a helpful summary of the papers.

The opening chapter by Paul Parvis provides a compact introduction to the life and writings of Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons. Our main source for knowledge of his life and works in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, Book 5. The influence of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, himself a disciple of Saint John the apostle, is dealt with, though chapter 7 by Sebastian Moll questions how far this influence went, largely because in his Letter to Florinus Irenaeus never mentions the name of Polycarp. However, Moll’s critic Charles Hill in the next paper regards Moll’s position as misplaced scepticism (cf pp101ff).

The Church owes a good deal to Irenaeus, above all in his argument for there being four and only four gospels, a position based on his understanding of the four corners of the world and the four beasts of the Apocalypse in Revelation 4:7 (see Adversus Haereses, Book III, chapter 11, para 8) – a view which became popular and is cited by Primasius, bishop of Hadrumetum in north Africa in the sixth century in his Commentary on the Apocalypse (Part I, chapter 4). Indeed, one of the gaps in this learned work is the failure to address the question of the use made of Irenaeus by writers in later centuries.

Chapter 18, by M C Steenburg, entitled “Tracing the Irenaean Legacy”, addresses this problem. He admits that whereas it is relatively easy to trace the legacy of Athanasius and Basil, the fourfold gospel apart we find in Irenaeus teaching of great importance, above all in his opposition to Marcion, a near contemporary, his doctrine of recapitulation and his treatment of Mary as the second Eve in his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching 32 and 33. His influence can be traced in Augustine, Eusebius and Epiphanius. Augustine, the first western writer to use Irenaeus, cites him and mentions him by name; in his treatise Contra Iulianum he refers to him as “an ancient man of God”.

It is a pity, therefore, that in chapter 6, “Irenaeus’ Contribution to Early Christian Interpretation of the Song of Songs”, by Karl Shuve, despite the fact that he does mention Hippolytus, no reference is made to Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, both of whom wrote extensively about the Song of Songs. Nuptial imagery is dealt with in the second letter of Clement of Rome and by Justin, but the main interest of the author is looking backwards rather than forwards.

In general terms the central purpose of this impressive collection of lectures is contextualisation, rather than textual analysis. To people like the present reviewer, who were lectured by scholars who discouraged this practice in favour of getting to know the text of a work, for example the Republic of Plato, without bothering about the background, the approach of most of the papers in this volume is novel and challenging. Contextualisation and content are not easy bedfellows.

With the possible exception of the first chapter, by Paul Parvis, none discuss either the Adversus Haereses or the Demonstration in any detail. Reference is indeed made to Irenaeus’s opposition to Gnosticism, to his discarding of the Marcionites’ attempt to get rid of the Old Testament, to his argument for four gospels and four only and to his doctrine of recapitulation, but there is no independent treatment of these issues.

Anthony Meredith SJ


 

The Nun From Hollywood

The Ear of the Heart by Mother Dolores Hart OSB and Richard DeNeut, Ignatius Press. 539pp, $24.95, Also available via Amazon

Dolores Hart was a highly successful screen and stage actress. She made her Hollywood debut in 1957 in a film with Elvis Presley, Loving You. Described as “beautiful, bright, witty and down to earth”, she starred in 10 films and earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the Broadway production The Pleasure of His Company.

Suddenly in 1963, though engaged to be married, she left Hollywood and entered the Benedictine abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She had first gone there in 1958 for quietness and prayer. The Ear of the Heart is her answer to the oft-asked question “How could you throw away a promising acting career for the life of a cloistered nun?”

The book is both autobiographical and biographical. Early in 1997 Mother Dolores was discovered to have sensory peripheral neuropathy, which impeded her ability to write. To overcome this she had to make 225 tape recordings. These were carefully transcribed. The result is a book revealing her persona in a very personal and readable style. She is clearly a cultured lady, and The Ear of the Heart has a frankness and trust that brings Dolores Hart – star actress and dedicated Benedictine – very personally to the mind of the reader.

Linked with the biographical contribution of a friend of many years, Richard DeNeut, the book is thought-provoking, informative, a pleasure to read and in no way superficial. It records a wide variety of life experiences – the happy and the difficult – from her youth and Hollywood years to her service to the world as a Benedictine contemplative. It took 10 years to write.

It is a book to read, to keep, to dip into and to enjoy. Hollywood names she mentions – Karl Malden, Gary Cooper and their families, with Myrna Loy, Loretta young and Anthony Quinn among a host of others – are spoken of as part of her wide circle of friends and associates. Two generous sections of photographs, spanning her early Hollywood and Benedictine years, complement the vividness of the written word.

Dolores had become a Catholic when baptised shortly before her 10th birthday. She wanted this, and her parents had no objection. She was instructed in the faith by one of the sisters at her school in California; and her Catholic faith was further deepened through her study of the Baltimore Catechism. Her autobiography reveals her in her younger days as a prayerful person, devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and insistent on living out the principles of her faith. Her Catholic culture is evident in the religious and moral management of her Hollywood years. Rightly did she insist that, in writing about her, “her person was to be kept within a virginal integrity”.

What is clear from The Ear of the Heart is that Mother Dolores has maintained a continuity with many of her friends over the years. Far from her being cut off from such people in her consecrated state, as readers might readily assume, the sharing of her Benedictine spirituality has proved an enrichment for the many whose hearts she has touched with renewed hope and Christian joy.

Mother Dolores eventually became prioress of the community and also dean of the sisters’ education. She is a thinker and a good listener. This ensured that every community member could contribute freely to all matters pertaining to their life and mission. The Mother Abbess noted how Mother Dolores “loves to take on new challenges” with “real reverence and real tenacity”.

At the end of the book Mother Dolores writes: “Many people do not understand the difference between a vocation and your own idea about something. A vocation is a call – and one you do not necessarily want. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress. But I was called by God.” The Ear of the Heart presents the life of a person whose character, faith and love continue, after some 50 years, to respond with self-emptying generosity to such a God-given call.

Canon Brendan MacCarthy

Faith Magazine

May - June 2014