FAITH Magazine September-October 2006
Sr Jordan James is inspired by some everyday reflections which foster a Catholic culture; Cyprian Blamires applauds a lawyer’s defence of the bodily resurrection of Christ; Peter Hodgson is both convinced and alarmed by a distinguished scientist's analysis of the devastating effects of climate change.
A Monk’s Alphabet. Moments of Stillness in a Turning World
by Jeremy Driscoll OSB, DLT,
While studying in Rome a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Fr Jeremy OSB. He was preaching a day retreat for the household of Benedictine sisters with whom I was living at that time. I remember him as a bright, engaging and very thoughtful retreat master. The opportunity to review this book has confirmed my first impression of him and deepened my appreciation of him as a spiritual guide.
The book is a small, slim volume (about 140 pages). It consists of alphabetically ordered thoughts, observations and questions inspired by the everyday world and the Benedictine vocation of the author. Both the size and format of this work are attractive; it is a convenient size to slip into a pocket, to take out for a quiet read (something I have done recently while on retreat) and the bite-size, non-consecutive entries invite one to dip in at random.
Therein also lies part of the book’s success: its approachable format belies the depth of its contents. One is tempted to ‘bite’ a small morsel, and finds one has a lot to chew over. This is one part of Driscoll’s genius as a teacher and sharer of the faith—he manages to engage the reader in such a way as to provoke one to think, to grapple with the issues oneself, and not just to gulp down the author’s own insights or reflections.
As Abbot Christopher Jamison has commented on the back cover, this style of meditation follows an ancient tradition, that of the “sayings of the Desert fathers”. These collections of stories, and wise sayings of some of the earliest Christian ascetics have long been recognised as an ideal form for meditating on the mystery of our life in Christ. Driscoll adapts this form by musing upon our, and his own, personal contemporary situations, relationships, observations, memories and insights. The result is a modern Pensées which also has a lightness and wit that delights and engages.
Apart from his own references to the fact, it is easy to see from his use of language that the author is a poet. He reflects with grace and ease upon such varied subjects as the ‘Inwardness of Things’, ‘Moose’, ‘Pimple’ and ‘Fear of the Lord’, to list just a few. Such variety creates a collage effect which is also imitative of our experience of faith in the business of our lives. Our ‘spiritual’ experiences are intermeshed with the more prosaic, earthy ones. Of course, in exploiting this, the author is teaching us again the mysteries of the Incarnation: God became man, and meets us again today in the gritty reality of our day to day ordinariness. Another effect of the randomness of subject and the directness of Driscoll’s questions and observations is that it allows us to be caught offguard, to be surprised, and this too is a way in which we can encounter the working of the Holy Spirit in us. In other words, this book is not a ‘how to’ guide; read with average curiosity and attention it is almost impossible not to get caught up and find oneself reflecting, responding, questioning and thereby ‘doing theology’, that is, ‘writing’ one's own alphabet, searching for God in one’s own life, and being drawn into a deeper personal relationship with Him as a result.
As the title of the book indicates, these are the reflections of a monk, and this fact is also writ large in the subject of many of the entries. As a fellow religious it is hard to guess if the average person would find this distancing; I do not. On the contrary, some of its ‘otherness’ may hold a mystique and attraction.
Typically for a Benedictine, Driscoll’s love of liturgy and nature is very evident. However, it is the entry ‘Listening’ that best expresses for me the heart of the man, and the spirit of this work. In this entry he reflects upon the injunction that begins the Holy Rule of St Benedict: “Listen.” He reflects, “Monastic life is a way of life devoted to the practised art of listening.” And this, he goes on, applies not only to spiritual instruction, but to all things, to where one is and what one does; to listen with the ears of the heart, to listen for God everywhere, finding Him above all in Scripture, but also hearing His message in all creation. This is an invitation of hope to us all: for we live our redemption in working, praying and creating a culture that speaks of what we haveheard. This small book is a valuable contribution to that proclamation.
Sr Jordan James
St Joseph’s Convent
The Jesus Inquest: the Case for—and Against—the Resurrection of Christ.
by Charles Foster, Foreword by Lord Mackay of Clashfen, Oxford & Grand Rapids, Monarch Books, 299 pp.
Forty years ago a teenager, brought up an Anglican, was finding the question of what to believe very difficult. Mulling over the nature of the Christian faith, he realised that the resurrection was absolutely fundamental. It was also very shocking to human reason and very difficult for an educated person to accept. This was his stumbling-block: could he ever bring himself to accept that Christ had really risen from the dead? Then it was that a marvellous book came into his hands, a book that he found totally convincing. It was the classic Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison, a lawyer who had gone out before the War to the Holy Land with the express aim of collecting conclusive proofs that the resurrection had not happened. However, patiently studying the evidence on the spot, he hadbeen driven to the opposite conclusion. He returned a changed man, and wrote this book to demonstrate that all the available evidence pointed to the truth of the claim that Christ had risen from the dead.
That teenager was me, so when The Jesus Inquest landed on my doormat recently, memories of my encounter with Frank Morison’s book forty years ago flooded into my mind. Once again a lawyer was entering the fray to argue the case for the resurrection: for although it looks at a huge range of objections, The Jesus Inquest ultimately comes down strongly on the side of resurrection. But I am not quite the same person that I was; twenty-five years ago I became a Catholic, and that brought a new fundamental factor into the equation for me—the Church. The decision to become a Catholic was an expression of trust in the reliability and truthfulness of the Catholic Church and what she taught, and this was now the foundation of my life and my faith. Charles Foster however is an evangelical Anglican,a member of the celebrated Alpha Course church, Holy Trinity Brompton, in London. Although I no longer stand in the place where he is standing, my experience enables me to understand all too well where he is coming from. For evangelical Protestants, the faith stands or falls on the veracity of the Bible text, so this kind of quest is of fundamental importance to ordinary believers, whereas for Catholics our priority is to enter deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the Church and identify with her as completely as we can, for she is the guarantor of our faith as well as the living presence of Christ in the world.
Charles Foster is a most remarkably gifted man, with expertise in both veterinary medicine and law and experience of expeditions all over the world. He is a barrister who teaches medical ethics and law at Oxford. It is an immense encouragement for ordinary folk that such exceptionally gifted individuals think it important enough to write in defence of Christian truths as a labour of love. They are not clerics paid to do a job or theologians who love this kind of argument, they are individuals so possessed by the Gospel that they must speak out in its defence. This certainly impressed me very greatly with Morison when I first read him. The question I was asking as I read Foster’s book was—do we need this when we already have Morison? Well, in the first place, Morison’s book is now veryold—a classic it may be but it was first published as long ago as 1930, so I think it is excellent to have a new updated version. We live in another world now and Charles Foster is extremely well qualified to address the world of the twenty-first century. He is an impressive combination of multi- talented academic and hands-on explorer, and this gives a special weight to his testimony. The book itself is divided into eight chapters; individual chapters are devoted to a discussion of the historical sources of information available to us, then to the death, the burial, the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances. Foster scores over Morison not just in being our contemporary but also in a number of other ways. In particular he is well aware that belief in the actual physicalresurrection of Christ has been powerfully challenged over the past fifty years from within the theological community. Large numbers of biblical scholars, mainly from within the Protestant community, have paraded their preference for the idea of a ‘metaphorical’ resurrection— Christ having risen in the hearts of the faithful—as against a physical one.
Foster shows a hugely impressive knowledge of the scholarly debates on this topic and addresses this audience as well as the wider non- Christian world. Furthermore, he is also aware of the wide-ranging studies pursued over the past century into the wider world of the time of Christ and the Early Church, and of the claims made by some that the resurrection accounts demonstrate the penetration of contemporary cultural influences into the early tradition of beliefs about the fate of Christ. In other words, where Morison’s book was addressed to sceptical laymen, Foster’s book is addressed both to them and to the theologically literate.
The Jesus Inquest can be read straight through as a narrative, but I think it will prove especially useful as a source-book for those looking for material for the defence where the evidence for the resurrection is being questioned. Interestingly, there is an appendix on the Turin Shroud, traditionally a ‘Catholic’ issue. Foster is clearly fascinated by the mysteries of the Shroud and feels that it is an additional piece of testimony worthy of consideration. His book is to be warmly welcomed as an impressive and indeed exciting addition to the range of apologetic material available to defenders of the reliability of traditional Christian claims about Christ.
The Revenge of Gaia
by James Lovelock, Allen Lane/ Penguin Books, £16.99
During the last few years there has been increasing evidence for the reality of climate change attributable to human activities. The steady rises in average world temperature and in the sea level, the shrinkage of the
Arctic ice, the retreat of glaciers, the spreading of deserts, the death of rivers and lakes, and the increasing frequency of the more severe hurricanes are just a few examples. In many cases positive feedback effects are increasing the rate of change, so that the changes are taking place faster and faster. We are destroying the earth on which our lives depend. Within a few decades this is likely to have devastating consequences; our situation has been compared by James Lovelock to that of people in a pleasure cruiser enjoying themselves just above Niagara Falls, unaware that the engine is about to fail. This looming threat to our very existence is far more serious than all the other problems that face humanity. It urgently demands our full attention. It is very probably too late to avoida catastrophe, but at least we can try to reduce and postpone it. There is of course no hope of raising the standard of living of the poorer peoples of the earth to that enjoyed by the affluent nations. To tackle this situation detailed scientific studies are essential, and there is no better guide than James Lovelock. He is a very distinguished scientist who has made detailed studies of the physics, chemistry and biology of the earth, and of the ways we are destroying it. He is responsible for the concept of Gaia that sees the earth behaving “as a single self-regulating system, comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability”. Lovelock hasalready written several books on Gaia, and this one provides an up-to-date and detailed account of the effects of our activities on the earth and the possible ways of mitigating them. It makes compelling and horrifying reading. The very existence of humanity depends on an adequate supply of energy, and in all but the poorest societies this means electricity. Lovelock evaluates all possible sources of energy and shows that only the fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and nuclear can supply energy in the amounts needed. However the fossil fuels are responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions that are poisoning the atmosphere and bringing about climate change, so that leaves nuclear as the only viable possibility. The renewables can do no more than supply a few per cent of our needs as well asbeing costly, unreliable, dangerous and destructive of the environment. He therefore comes out unequivocally in favour of nuclear power as the only way of saving the earth. This has dismayed the Greens, who had long admired him as a guru, and he appeals to them to be realistic in their laudable desire to save the earth.
This is a situation that deserves the urgent attention of the Church. It is a moral problem and Church leaders are in a strong position to affect the way we live our lives. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences arranged a study week in 1982 where over
thirty very distinguished experts on the relevant fields studied all aspects of the problem of supplying the energy we need. Most of what they said, notably the necessity of nuclear power, is still valid today, though the increasing evidence for climate change has given their work increased urgency. The result was published in a massive book entitled Humanity and Energy: Needs—Resources—Hopes. This was given additional authority by being chosen as the submission of the Holy See to the International Conference on Energy in Vienna in 1982. This valuable study has since then been almost entirely ignored by Church leaders and the Press. Subsequently Pope John Paul II again and again emphasised the importance of conserving the environment, but again almost nothing has been done to put hiswords into practice. All those who still suffer from this suicidal myopia and want to do what they can to save the earth should read this book.
P E Hodgson,
Corpus Christi College