Faith Magazine January-February 2013
The Father's Tale
By Michael O'Brien. Ignatius Press, 2011, 1076pp hardback. Available from Amazon at £17.05.
At the risk of contributing to contemporary overuse of the word, I would make the observation that fatherhood is in "crisis." Secular culture has emasculated men, having sucked out of life the real drama, the conscious battle between good and evil. Society's obsession with making everything safe and risk-free has left Western man with nowhere to channel his natural love of adventure, danger and challenge. Perhaps only sport fulfils this now, but it is a shallow substitute for the full spectrum of reality, which we appreciate by reason of our Catholic Faith. Reality is full of the drama of salvation and damnation, love and hate, angels and demons, calls and opportunities for self-sacrifice - even to the laying down of one's life. There is a perennial call to arms to fight for what is good,to fight for goodness and truth, for God and the salvation of souls.
This continual spiritual backdrop to our "ordinary" lives is something the Canadian writer and novelist Michael D O'Brien grasps well. He is married with a large family and is also an iconographer and commentator on the deeper spiritual significance of world affairs and political developments. I have read all nine of his novels and several articles on contemporary affairs, and found them exceptionally insightful and deeply Catholic.
His latest novel, published last year, is a hefty thousand pages or more - but it's well worth its weight. The storyline revolves around the principle character -Alex, a Canadian widower in his late forties who runs a secondhand book shop and has two teenage sons of college age. He misses his wife greatly, but has settled into a quiet, dignified, fairly routine existence permeated by occasional contact with his sons and the clients who visit his shop. He is a religious man, practising his faith, but not given to great religious feeling or exceptional spiritual experiences.
One night he utters a prayer before the tabernacle in his local church which changes everything. His solitude is weighing on him and he feels a certain unease of soul. "I think," he whispers to the Presence in the tabernacle, "my life is over. Do whatever you want with me." Perhaps there is no more profound prayer a human being can offer; in this case God accepts the invitation and sets Alex on a path that will transform him. Alex has vague notions of his inadequacies as a man and as a father to his sons, but God knows what the root causes of these failings are and seeks to form him in love - divine love, a Father's love which will do anything for the sake of the well-being of his children.
The events which enable Alex to love with this kind of love come upon him in swift succession. He can only learn to love as he should by responding to the opportunities for love that are sent to him by God's providence. He saves the lives of some children but nearly dies in the process and has to lie up convalescing.
But that is only the beginning. He receives news that the younger of his two sons, Andrew, who was studying at Oxford, has gone missing. It transpires that he has become involved with a kind of cult and has disappeared with the members, who prohibit contact with family. This is the catalyst for the consequent roller coaster of events as Alex tries to track down his son and free him. He flies to England and picks up his son's trail in Oxford, encountering a slightly stereotypical English academic who helps him. The trail moves to Helsinki, then into Russia. O'Brien is very much a Russophile, and a large section of the novel is set here.
Alex suffers greatly, but also receives great spiritual enlightenment. Key truths of Christian discipleship are woven into the plot of this novel: suffering as a condition of following Christ and the hallmark of true charity; the helps that are available to us and the assurance that God never leaves us without help; the truth that God has placed us where we are for a particular purpose, and that He is able to draw good from evil; the truth that no one is doomed to mediocrity, because there is always the possibility of going deeper in one's relationship with God.
Alex even has a brief sojourn in China, encountering some underground Christians; I suspect O'Brien has hidden sources for his portrayal of Christianity in China, which was fascinating. Through it all God, the source of all Fatherhood, teaches Alex what it means to be a father in His image. I won't give the ending away. Suffice it to say that the book would make a great movie.
Fr. Stephen Brown
In this readable paperback, we get insights drawn from the two great encyclicals of Pope Benedict on love, Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate. The book had its origins in the meditations preached by Fr Cantalamessa (what a name! With a surname like that, you'd virtually have to become a priest!) to the papal household in Lent 2011.
Love: everyone needs it, everyone seeks it, lots talk about it, some sing about it, and people look for it in the wrong as well as in the right places. Here, Fr Cantalamessa explores the subject with wisdom, common sense, and a message of hope, and he is very much in tune with Pope Benedict.
The message of God's love for us, and the essence of that love in the Trinity -"God is love in himself, before time" - is presented with clarity and with insights from St Augustine, from St Catherine of Sienna, and from the philosopher Husserl. We get a glimpse of the hugeness, of the passion with which God loves us.
In looking at Caritas in Veritate, Fr Cantalamessa takes us on a brief tour of various trends of thought on social problems, looking at Marx and Nietzsche and at liberation theology. In exploring the message of love, he looks at the whole idea of service, quoting Christ's words (Matt 10:43-44) "Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant...". He notes that "service is a universal principle: it applies to every aspect of life - the State should be at the service of the citizens, politics at the service of the State, the doctor at the service of the sick, the teacher at the service of students", and he emphasises that service flows out from various virtues, especially humility and charity.
Of course, the role of Peter in the Church is essentially one of service, and Cantalamessa quotes Bl John Paul on this: "Peter, you are the floor on which others may walk to arrive there wherein you guide their steps - as a rock endures the noisy hoofing of a herd." Poignantly, he also quotes Pope Paul VI on the need for love in the Church: "The Church needs to feel flowing again through all its human faculties the wave of love, that love which is called charity, and which is precisely poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which has been given us."
I found this book stimulating, heartening, and in a very important sense refreshing. Fr Cantalamessa's style is a forthright and simple one: he writes and speaks with clarity. No cliches, no pomposity, and an absence of any apparent desire to appear more excitingly obscure than the next man. But he offers profound insights, looks at things from unexpected angles, and is infused with a joyful and infectious sense of enthusiasm for the Faith in all its richness.
There is quotable stuff here for priests to use in sermons, there is material to ponder for Lenten reading, there are insights for teachers, and there is inspiration for everyone. We do need to think more about love, to ponder the beauty and immediacy of God's love for us, to understand that love is literally at the core - the heart - of the Christian life, because God loved us first. Christ washed the feet of his disciples and taught them: "I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you" (John 13:13-15).