Finding God in Community
Making Room for Others by Paul Graham, OSA, St Pauls, 125pp, £8.99
Father Paul Graham is an Augustinian friar and parish priest of St Monica’s in Hoxton, London. As the title of this book suggests, his quest is to find a way through the ever-changing times with their complexities, emphases and ups and downs to help prepare the way for greater stability, renewal and enthusiasm among the Lord’s disciples, especially within religious communities.
The book is a collection of some of the author’s talks, retreats and published articles between 1988 and 2011 in the UK, US, Belgium, Japan, Malta, Italy and Australia. There are also a valuable preface and postscript. Father Paul hopes that despite repetitions, a development of thought can be detected in the book. This I can affirm; the book is informative and thought-provoking, with deep insights which are at times more than a little inspiring. We are mostly left to draw our own conclusions.
As one would expect from a member of this great missionary order with a profound admiration for St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the author mentions many times the value of Christian communities. It is not so well known that Augustine encouraged mental prayer called wordless and ejaculatory prayer, sighing and groaning to God; he warned of the dangers of spiritual narcissism.
This great saint founded communities and wrote a rule for them. Father Paul, currently serving for a second time as provincial in Great Britain, mentions attempts by religious communities in recent years to live in smaller houses without religious dress.
Yet spiritual yearning remains for ever, wherever; we are reminded of Augustine’s great dictum that the human heart never rests until it rests in God. Religious life becomes poor when the transcendent is obscured by attempts to widen the notion of what is religious and spiritual. To do this is to put religion and the spiritual into the realm of what is finite, with a corresponding lack of depth.
Father Paul observes that there remains a post-Vatican II opposition to structured communities. Yet the movement towards seeing the importance of the spiritual has not, by and large, so far been reflected by a revival in church attendance. Rather there is the tendency towards “believing without belonging”.
We have sometimes put too much emphasis on the rational rather than on faith. Augustine combined faith and reason in a balanced way. Although in recent times there has been a decline in vocations to the long established orders and congregations, it is noticeable that the newly established movements like Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenate, Communion and Liberation, Youth 2000, Emmanuel Community, Sant’Egidio Community, Community of St John, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and many others have been much more successful in attracting followers.
The immediate post-Vatican II responses have proved to be inadequate for meeting our need to embrace mystery with its strong and vibrant stability; yet Opus Dei survives well. The author emphasises that a good understanding between the religious message and the ways of the world is vital. We yearn for something beyond materialism. More recently the emphasis has been less on action and more on conversion.
Time and again, Father Paul returns to Augustine’s great idea to find God in community. Here I am provocatively inspired; the Lord made a great summary of the Ten Commandments into two, with the second like the first. Yet of course the very vitality of that second commandment is utterly dependent on the first; there is no love of neighbour without personal movement towards our transcendent God.
I am further provoked to say that community is strong or weak according to the input and response of each member; without this, community has no meaning. Individualism vitally needs to have its good name restored. In itself it is in the heart of the call to renewal and repentance. Community can induce over-dependent laziness just as individualism can be selfishly independent. I recall Mahatma Ghandi’s (surely divinely inspired) saying that if he sees a pathway that needs to be taken, he follows it. If others join him he is happy; if not, he walks alone. Sometimes it is like that.
Yet the more the focus is God-centred, the more unhappy we are not flying exactly with the flock we keep in full view and never far away. Such was surely the way of Saints Augustine, Benedict, Dominic and Francis, and Blessed Mother Teresa, to name but a few, and is surely the way of Pope Francis too.
As he lay dying, Augustine was surrounded by the loss of so many communities from the invasions of the Vandals and Alans. Yet he knew that through greater individual growth into God’s intrinsically compelling, unitive grace, we unfailingly take the only pathway for the foundation of future communities. A similar truth is vital for marriage; it is the only way to make room for others.
Understanding, Not Harshness
Redeeming Grief: Abortion and its pain by Anne R Lastman, Gracewing,
Nobody likes to talk about abortion. At one level, it appears to be spoken about all the time – in the classroom, the debating chamber, the pub – but discussion seldom goes beyond platitudes, soundbites and emotionally charged rants. The core issues of abortion, like the very real pain it causes both men and women, and the effect on society of this daily, and legal, attack on human life, often remain untouched. That is why a sustained treatment of the subject is to be welcomed.
Redeeming Grief covers a phenomenally wide range of relevant aspects. It discusses the fear that can be in the driving seat in an abortion decision and looks at the suppression and denial that frequently follow such a decision, both symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which, thankfully, is increasingly recognised. It looks at the sexual revolution, the rise of contraception and the type of feminism these have engendered, together with a confusion of the role of the sexes.
Men, too, have been wounded in their fatherhood, and parental authority has suffered from a lingering sense of guilt that causes us either to neglect or to worship our children. Lastman takes a brave look at the inner forum too: the violation of our conscience, the mental processing involved in making an abortion decision and the de-humanising language we often employ as a society to assuage our conscience. All of these topics, and more besides, are given pages.
Nevertheless, the book as a whole has some significant weaknesses. The foreword and introduction tell the reader that in this book they will find real hope in the aftermath of abortion, a sympathetic ear, the offer of real forgiveness and a barely hoped-for freedom of spirit. Lastman counsels the reader (the main target audience is those who have had, or been affected by, an abortion) to hang on in there: the first few chapters are a tough read, but soon enough the consoling words will come through. There are consoling words for the wounded soul, for instance in the chapters that acknowledge that a woman decides for abortion under extremely straitened circumstances; that she often chooses it, not because she wants it but because she feels trapped into having it. And a chapter is dedicated to the beautiful words of Blessed John Paul II when he addresses suffering women in Evangelium Vitae. Another chapter speaks of regret as a positive force that can lead to energy and life and goodness and love. All of this is good!
And yet these sporadic chinks of light are couched in the context of heavy and unhelpful language in which abortion is variously referred to as an “abomination” (p87), “this moral leprosy”, “this savage beast” (p175) or “a violent and soul-destroying act” (p218), to name but a few. From the outset, Lastman writes that “abortion is ultimately not about rights, or about career, or reputation, or want, or not want. It is about hatred, especially spiritual hatred. It is about the hatred Lucifer bears for God and his creation” (p12). Please, let us be clear about this. I am very well aware that the pro-life cause is, at its heart, a spiritual battle of cosmic proportions. The establishment of religious foundations here in Britain and elsewhere in the world that have the Gospel of Life as their principal charism is surely an external expression of this spiritual battle in which we are all, in some rank or other, enlisted. Satan is, beyond question, at the heart of every attack on life. All of that said, it is not helpful to tell a woman shattered by pain and guilt that “the actual abortion was the culmination of a lifetime of desensitisation to the sacredness and dignity of life” and that they have “a history in which the Word of God has been totally absent” (p13). This is neither helpful nor, I believe, accurate.
A great many women (as some of her own examples show in the moving testimonies peppered throughout the book) reveal the truth that most of us sin through weakness rather than wickedness. When in a crisis pregnancy a woman feels trapped by her circumstances and incredibly frightened (as Lastman herself argues), the crisis and its accompanying hormonal changes make rationalisation very difficult; she is more susceptible than ever to the emotions and reactions of those around her; she knows in her deepest heart that abortion is wrong, but what else can she do? Is that a sin? Yes. Does she bear some responsibility for that sin? Yes. Is she in league with the devil? I really don’t think so. The words “abortion severs the permanent covenant imprinted in the human person” (p57) leave one with little room for hope. Suggesting that abortionists are no different from known terrorists (p218) leaves little room for conversion.
It is this inconsistency in her approach, in which she oscillates between profound understanding and a harshness that wonders periodically if it isn’t all heralding the final apocalypse, that make this book, lamentably, not terribly recommendable. Perhaps if Redeeming Grief concentrated less on our sinful and misguided approach to God and more on God’s desire to reach out to us with the blood of His beloved Son that “pleads more insistently than Abel’s” (Heb 12:24), this desperately needed message would be heard all the more.
Sr Andrea Fraile
Back to the Source
The Relevance and Future of the Second Vatican Council by Marc Cardinal Oullet, Ignatius Press, 187pp, £12.99
In his election to the seat of St Peter, Pope John Paul II asked this question about Vatican II: “Indeed, is not that Universal Council a kind of milestone as it were, an event of the utmost importance in the almost two-thousand-year history of the Church, and consequently in the religious and cultural history of the world?” (To the Cardinals and the World, 17 October 1978). This book answers with a resounding and clear yes. It is an interview by Fr Geoffrey de la Tousche, a priest of the Diocese of Rouen, with Cardinal Marc Oullet. The cardinal is the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. He is a priest of the Society of Saint-Sulpice and was Archbishop of Quebec.
The book’s format starts with a biographical interview of the cardinal. It proceeds to look at a number of core Christian truths through the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Many themes are addressed. Such vital realities as the People of God, the Church as sacrament, the Kingdom, the Resurrection and the Liturgy are discussed and probed. The discussion is deep and includes signposts to other ideas and explorations.
I was struck by two things reading this book. The first was that we sometimes hear about a “back to basics” approach. Certainly in the Catholic Church the Council itself sought a “return to the sources” (ressourcement). This work by Cardinal Oullet is a back-to-the-Source work, a work that seeks its centre in God and the mystery of the Trinity. It’s wonderful to see a work that starts from the Ultimate Reality and seeks to understand the Council from this depth in which we live, move and have our being. “The theological vision that underlies them [the texts] and is explained in them is rooted in the Mystery. It is not a question of a vision of a political or strategic type; it is truly a vision that seeks to renew, to rejuvenate the Church and each person in the Church…. This Trinitarian logic is at the heart of the texts of the Second Vatican Council” (pp41-2). It is so good to see here the faith expressed as the Mystery. This echoes back to the Pauline words regarding the Mystery of Christ, the Great Mystery, the Mystery of God (cf Rom 16:25, Eph 3:3,4, 5:32, Col 1:27, 2:2). And this Mystery is expressed so beautifully by St Paul as “this mystery of the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). How might our churches start to become transformed if this Mystery was preached and shared! After all, it is the purpose for which the Church exists.
Salvation is explained in this Trinitarian sense too. The Cardinal discusses how “salvation [is] understood not just a liberation from sin, not simply as human life that ends with heaven, but participation in the Trinitarian communion… Participation in the Trinitarian life is divinisation” (p73). This links to the energising insight that in discussing the Eucharist “we are not simply united with him [Christ/God], we are made one with him. This is really the mystery, because it is not a matter of ‘adding up’ God and ourselves. He is not just at our side, so that, with him, we are two. In the context of Communion, it is the gift of his substance that unifies so that all are now but one. It is the invitation to return to the mystery of the Trinity itself” (p44). We must experience and really know this in a life-transforming way. The cardinal says: “The Gospel is the living Christ, the encountered Christ.… We know that God is good, merciful, that he pardons our sins, but we must also experience this. … One must live out this wisdom that comes from God as an experience” ( p20). Once again the words of St Paul come through: “Do you not realise that Jesus Christ is in you?” (1 Cor 13:5). The faith and the experience must flow from each other.
There is much more of this on a range of themes. On ecumenism, where both impatience and confusion easily occur, there are the wise words: “But each effort made for unity is stored up for the Kingdom of God. It was Father de Lubac who said that. In the ecumenical search, every act of charity helps build the Kingdom of God” (p76). This is a book rich in theology and thought. There may be things some readers won’t agree with but there is much deep Christian exposition that will help our search and walk.
The second aspect of the book that affected me was the spirituality it shared. It made me think that this is not a book for reading. It is a book for meditation and spiritually pondering. Just reading this book is probably a waste as we will be likely to miss the deep spiritual treasures it contains. This is a book where we need to take a sentence or paragraph and let them unfold to us; to work with them in the silence of our hearts, where God is always present. We need time and silence for this book to work in us.
So this is a spiritual work. It offers an invitation to immerse oneself in the Mystery which is the Triune Glory. You will not be surprised, then, that I would heartily recommend this work to learn and spiritually grow, but not to just read. In these dual aspects of deep theology and spirituality lies the authentic relevance and future of the Second Vatican Council.
A FRANCISCAN ON HORSEBACK
The Galloping Nun by Sr Chiara Hatton-Hall, Paragon Publishing, 177pp, £14.99
This tells the story of Sister Chiara, the socialite who became a Franciscan nun. Born into a well-to-do military family (on the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 1930), presented at court and married to an army officer, Chiara Hatton-Hall set up a riding school, in the idyllic Kentish countryside, for the international social elite. Her students included the young Princess Royal, Princess Anne, and Virginia Leng, the three-time eventing world champion.
In 1973, at the age of 42, after the premature death of her husband, Chiara found her vocation as a Franciscan nun and exchanged her riding breeches for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. In 1984 she completed a postgraduate diploma in theology at Heythrop College, University of London, before being appointed an instructing judge on Southwark’s diocesan marriage tribunal.
Then, at the suggestion of an imaginative superior, she took up the reins again – this time to work for Riding for the Disabled, travelling the world to teach riding instructors how to bring confidence, self-respect and joy to mentally and physically handicapped adults and children.
The book has several parallel themes threading its way through it: the author’s childhood; her marriage to Nigel Hatton-Hall; her riding career; her travels; and her spiritual life. Religion had always played an important part in Chiara’s life. Being a cradle Catholic she was given catechetical instruction from a young age and was diligent in her prayer life. She was sent to convent schools, while her brother went to Ampleforth.
When Chiara met Nigel Hatton-Hall, he was working as aide-de-camp to General Sir Alec Bishop, director of North Rhine Westphalia, and came to the Catholic faith through the influence of Lady Bishop. They were married according to the rites of the Catholic Church, and it was Chiara’s faith that eventually led her to the convent.
With parents keen on horses, it was inevitable that Chiara was going to learn to ride from a young age. In 1948 her father opened the Benenden Riding Establishment at their home in Kent and in the same year, when Chiara was 18, she took her first riding exam from the recently established British Horse Society. It wasn’t long before Chiara started to take part in equestrian events: cross-country, show jumping and dressage. After her marriage on the 28 May 1955, at Brompton Oratory in London, she and her husband settled down in Kent where she ran her own riding school. Later in life, it was her love of horses that made her so suitable for her work with Riding for the Disabled.
In her role training instructors Chiara showed herself to be a true Franciscan. St Francis is one of the best-loved saints, not only among Christians, but also among environmentalists and animal rights campaigners: he loved nature, animals and every human person. Yet, until relatively recently his own teachings and writings were ignored. There was an abundance of stories about him, but no sign of his own voice.
He was viewed as a holy man wandering the countryside, preaching to the birds and at one with nature, but his teachings had become lost in time. What we have subsequently discovered is that he lived and taught the non-appropriation of any goods, be they material, spiritual or intellectual: we are to store up nothing for ourselves, but we can and should freely and gratefully use God’s gifts in a non-possessive way for the benefit of others.
This is what Chiara did, using her extensive knowledge and experience with horses, not for her own glorification, but for the benefit of the physically and mentally handicapped.
Similarly, in her earlier role as an instructing judge on Southwark’s diocesan marriage tribunal Chiara was able to bring together theology and her own experience of marriage to help others in pain – those whose marriages had broken down. After all, Chiara and Nigel’s marriage, like all marriages, had had its ups and downs.
This book is a fascinating account of a life of dramatic contrasts that were ultimately reconciled by embracing the spirit of St Francis. I highly recommend it, particularly for horse lovers and admirers of St Francis.