Wednesday, 21 December 2005

The Paul Quest by: Ben Witherington III


The Paul Quest by Ben Witherington III.

Witherington structured this book into 8 nearly equal chapters dealing with what he sees as the essential elements of a quest for the historical Paul. Along with a very brief introduction and conclusion, he includes a very informative appendix, “Timely remarks on the life of Paul,” which attempts to devise with a timeline for Paul’s life. The eight areas that Witherington considers foundational are as follows: 1) On Constructing an Ancient Personality, 2) The Trinity of Paul’s Identity, 3) Paul the Writer and Rhetor, 4) Paul the Prophet and Apostle, 5) Paul the Realist and Radical, 6) Paul the Anthropologist and Advocate, 7) Paul the Story teller and Exegete, 8) Paul the Ethicist and Theologian.

This book is second in sequence to The Jesus Quest and, in some ways, is also a continuation of Paul’s Narrative thought World. As Witherington states the quest for this historical Jesus, leads us to Paul since he is one of our greatest sources about Jesus. It is, therefore, logical to leave The Jesus Quest and embark on a new search that leads to The Paul Quest. As a result, it has many aims and goals. Those goals are best summed up as follows: a short study on the four sources for Paul, exposing readers to new developments in the quest for the historical Paul, and an examination of Paul’s different roles and how those would have shaped him. Witherington also proposes to sample relevant Pauline literature in each of his eight foundational areas.

I have often heard it asked, “Why another book on Paul?” With the quantity of books published yearly, it appears that no one in the publishing industry is asking the same question. However, I would say this is a book of great value to the large canon of Pauline literature. It is a very good book written in a fun and engaging style. Witherington tends to present a few of the different opinions on each topic and then states his personal view. He uses the Scriptures as his primary starting point, but then supports his views and premises from a historical perspective.

I found it invaluable to have Witherington begin with his study of the ancient personality, specifically in regards to the three aspects of Paul: Paul as Jew, Paul as Christian, and finally, though of lesser import, Paul as Roman citizen. This sets all readers on a level playing field for the rest of the work. Each reader has a very clear view of how Witherington is approaching Paul, why, and where he intends to lead us as we search for the historical Paul.

In presenting his different topics, Witherington draws upon numerous sources that include both modern and ancient. When criticizing an outside source, he does so in a fair way, evaluating both the strengths and weaknesses of a particular book or theory. He then goes on to support his opinions with Pauline sources or other contemporaries.

I believe this would be an ideal book for a new student to Pauline studies. It has a strong historical approach. It includes a valid use themes and archetypes; not those of modern psychology, but instead those of the ancient world, Prophet, Storyteller, Jew, Greek, etc. It raises many of the contemporary issues in Pauline theology, as well as those necessary for an understanding of the man himself. It deals with the opposing views in a balanced way, presenting both sides of an argument fairly. For example on women, it presents both views of Paul as liberator and feminist, and Paul as the patriarchal repressor of women.

In Paul’s Narrative Though World (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), Witherington was hard to read and even harder to understand. However, in this effort he is a masterful wordsmith who leaves you hungering for more. It was hard to put the book down; it is such a compelling read. Through its many referenced sources, it also allows you to continue further into any area that piques your interest in an easily accessible way.

The greatest strength of the book is its balanced approach and equal treatment of the different topics and views. I was very impressed that he did not over-focus on the storyteller or “narrative thought world” given his previous writing in this area. The greatest weakness is the last chapter. In my opinion, Witherington does not do a good job of presenting Paul the theologian, or of presenting a clear view of Paul’s theology. It appears that Wirtherington does not wish to tackle this issue, or that he has not come to his own conclusion. The other possibility is that he things that a quest for Paul, or the historical Paul is not the place for this issue. Since he has made such a strong presentation in every other section, I would still say that this is an excellent book which is a good read, and well worth anyone’s time and money to pursue it.

I believe this book achieved its stated aims. Much like a gemologist working with a raw diamond cuts and shapes the stone into a beautiful thing that radiates and reflects light from its many facets, so too has Witherington shown each of the differing views of the separate facets of Paul, and through them brings clarity, light and vision to the reader.

(First written for RS393 Selected Reading’s Paul’s Life and Letters Winter Term 2001)

Monday, 12 December 2005

The Road from Damascus Edited by: Richard N. Longnecker

The Road from Damascus Edited By: Richard N. Longnecker

This book is an almost ideal start to a selected reading course on Pauline Theology. However, with all of its inherent strength, it does have some weaknesses. In the paper that follows, I will examine some of the strengths and weaknesses. The book’s focus on the theological issues in Pauline writings is well rounded and sagely approached. It does have the problem of being intended as an “introduction to concerns of Christians today” (Back Cover) while it is seemingly written more for the academic than for your common theologian. Some of the articles are superbly written and are self-contained papers on individual topics. Others make too many references to other articles or books by the authors, thus leaving gaps in their arguments or presuppositions.

One of the major issues I have with the book is that it is published and/or marketed for the average Christian today. The book is many things, but this is not one of them. As an undergraduate student and lay theologian, I struggled to work through this text the first time, and even the second read still required hard work. The back cover states that the book is “Written in a style easily accessible to ministers, students and lay people … while also speaking directly to the pastoral needs of people in today’s church.” A student in the MTS program at McMaster where the papers were given at a symposium stated: “I was about the only graduate student in attendance, and there were never any undergraduates.” This series was focused on the academic at the doctoral or post-doctoral level. The result is a book that generally will be out of reach of the intended market as stated on the book itself. Though it is an excellent book, it is not an introduction to Paul, His thought, and his theology, or the effects of his conversion on his thought and his theology.

The book is subtitled The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on His Life, Thought and Ministry and therefore focuses on the results of the Damascus experience. Some of the contributors offer a strong, well-balanced examination their topics within that framework. Others over stretch the boundaries, and take too much license in the interpretation of events, or in establishing Paul’s pre-conversion beliefs.

Judith M. Gundry-Volf writes one of the weaker articles in this book, from my perspective, on “Women.” Much can be said about Paul and his views on women, however Gundry-Volf bases her thoughts on those changes on comparisons to other Jewish authors, in particular Sirach, and Philo. To do a comparison of Jewish writings, and suppose that Paul’s pre-conversion views would be similar sounds reasonable, but it is speculation. She looks primarily at the Jewish background, yet Paul would have also been strongly influenced by Hellenistic ideas. We cannot know with complete certainty where in the range of Jewish or Hellenistic thought Paul’s views would fall. While the topic of Paul and women is a valid and important pursuit in Pauline studies, in my opinion, this article does not fit within the boundaries of this work.

The strongest article, in my opinion, is Bruce Corley’s “History of Interpretation.” His strong use of a broad historical impact is what intrigued me most. He uses a very wide scope of vision to include literature, plays, sermons, and artwork, as interpretations of the work of Paul. Corley uses modern psychology to analyze both Paul and the Damascus experience. This allows him to present a broad range of opinion in the field of the history of interpretation. His use of archetypes in interpreting and relating to Paul resonates with my own wide range of interests.

In his paper on ‘Christology,’ from my perspective, Richard Longnecker raises some of the most important questions in Pauline studies at this time. I appreciate his strong concentration on Paul’s focus on Jesus the Messiah as well as his clear outlining of Paul’s rejection of Jesus based on preconceived pre-conversion Christology. Longnecker states: “That what Paul experienced in that event was a change of commitment, values, and identity that was sudden and unexpected” (p.26). This launches us into the whole area of “From Damascus.” Paul’s writings and actions were thus shaped by his changed attitudes. This premise forms the basis for the whole series of lectures on the results of the Damascus experience. Longnecker, as the organizer and coordinator of the series, sets the tempo and mood for the rest of the papers that follow. Longnecker touches on each of the topics in this collection except the issue of women. It is a masterful essay, showing the strength of a true wordsmith. It is unfortunate he does not write a second to tie the book back together at the conclusion.

What I appreciate most about Marshall’s contribution is its conservative bent, and the premise that while Paul’s theology did grow and change, the basic framework is there from the beginning: “So of the key elements of Paul’s thinking are already present in his earliest writings (p.44).” I strongly agree with his opinion that while the Damascus experience had a strong and immediate impact on Paul’s thought that took time to process and develop, the initial change was large, quick and the direct result of having met the risen Jesus. Marshall’s view is best summed up by: “To the extent that there was a change in emphasis as we move chronologically through the letters of Paul. That is to say, the prominence given to the parousa is 1st Thessalonians is not found in later letters. There is, therefore, development but not transformation” (p.51). An idea with which I agree most wholeheartedly and have observed from my own readings. (Steve, unless for some reason you feel you really need to include this quote I would leave it out. The line of thought is stronger without it even with the longer version. If you still want to include a comment that makes reference to your own other readings, you could revise the sentence before it to say: My own readings lead me to strongly agree with his opinion that while the Damascus … etc.)

In the area of omissions, I believe the biggest gap in this series is dealing with Paul’s perception of self in light of the Damascus event. I believe that the issues of conversion, transformation, alteration, calling, apostleship, mission and ministry are all key issues in Pauline theology and thought. However, this collection barely touches any of these topics. If the book was written as an introduction to Paul meant for laity as well as clergy and academics, than this is a great omission. The idea that many believe Paul left the Jewish faith at Damascus while just as many argue He remained a Pharisee till his death leave us with ‘blanks’ in relation to understanding these articles. It is the necessary framework that allows the other articles to become the flesh in creating our view of Paul.

In conclusion, I offer the title of this review: ‘Introduction & Insight, or Overload & Overlooked.’ Each of these four words represents a portion of my view of this work. It is a great introduction for a selected readings course on Paul but, in most cases, it will be overload for the average undergraduate or lay theologian who picks it up to get a grasp of current issues in Pauline theology and thought. It does however provide great insight into many of these issues from a more academic perspective. It is well thought out and well rounded in the issues it presents, and in the interpretations of the individual authors, but there are some items that have been overlooked. In order to make this work more accessible to the larger audience for which it is supposed to be intended, I would recommend a new introduction dealing with the issue of “What was the Damascus Experience?” as well as a concluding paper that brings together the academic issues with the reality of daily Christian living.

(First written for RS393 Selected Reading’s Paul’s Life and Letters Winter Term 2001)

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Preface to the Study of Paul by: Stephen Westerholm


What Ever Happens to Herbert?

Preface to the Study of Paul by Stephen Westerholm is a very unique book. It is short, easy to read. Yet it takes an in depth look at Paul the Apostle, his times, his world view, and how Moderns or Post-Moderns can relate to or apply Paul. I will be looking at this in relation to a few specific area's, firstly Herbert whom we are introduced to in the introduction, secondly "Bent nature" of minds and it as a definition of "Sin Nature". Finally, I will then look at the inconsistencies in the work. Does Westerholm open up Paul to the uninitiated?

In the introduction we are introduced to Herbert, "But one can well imagine an outsider - a Herbert, if you will-wanting to pose what seems an obvious question: 'Why Paul?'" (Page ix) Westerholm goes on to introduce Herbert's doubts, and Herbert will go his own way, unless he is drawn in by the Pauline Industry. Interesting there is a reference to "Herbert" in a Star Trek episode called "The way to Eden" that aired February 21st 1969, In the episode there are a group of space hippies who are searching for Enlightenment, for the planet Eden, which in their Mythology is the source of all life. To them a "Herbert" is any one who is an outsider, unenlightened, authoritarian, or oppressive. In sum, anyone who does not understand the way. In Both, "Herbert" just doesn't get it.
So the "Herbert" in out introduction is someone who doesn't understand Paul, or Paul's significance to Western Thought. So this book sets out to Give "Herbert" all he needs to make up His own mind about Paul. I believe in the first half of the book that the opening up of Paul to "Herbert" is well accomplished. Paul's view of himself is explained in the book. The world at that time. As well as situational applications of Paul today are well presented.

However from chapter 7 on the focus is on Paul's teaching. We lose "Herbert" here because we lose the situational examples of "Jack and Jill" p.11, "Bill and Barb" p. 23-25, and the "Modern Parables" and "abc, Ashely, Brandon, and Crystal" Examples on p. 41 and 51. These examples opened up "Herberts" (and our eyes) to Paul's intentions and directions. However "Herbert" appears to get lost in the fury of activity in getting to the end of the book of Romans.

We will now look at a term Westerholm uses for the "Sin Nature". Bent used on pages 75, 104 and else where. "Apart from a divine transformation, humanity's bent for
sin is incorrigible" p.74 "Paul never attributes humanity's bent towards sin to
divine action." p.104 This is similar to C.S. Lewis' description of fallen non-Christian men in "Out of the Silent Planet" as seen on p.77 "No, he had come with two others of his kind-bad-men ('bent' men was the nearest hrossian equivalent) who tried to kill him, but he had run away from them." and again on p. 91"Bent hnau (men) of his own kind from Thulcandra (Earth) are following him, he should go to Oyarsa. If they find him anywhere else there will be evil.". C.S. Lewis continues this though throughout this book and "Perelandra" it's sequel, on p. 188 "Where he gave up his will and reason to the Bent
Eldil (Angel)". In my extensive reading of Christian literature, I have only come across the term "Bentness" in Lewis and Westerholm. It fascinates me and also is a very good illustration of what sin is or of its effects. It communicates very clearly Paul's view of sin and how it affects our world and us. It is powerful and convicting. Westerholm does a good job of presenting Paul, his worldview and he breaks Romans down into digestible pieces. He gives a clear perspective on who Paul though he was and what his "Call" or "mission" in life was. He explains Paul's writings in terms of their relation to the Law, to Paul's thought, to the Greek world and even in sections to the modern world. These comparisons or contrasts between different views on subjects like goodness, faith, freedom, evil and sin, causes the reader to think, to reflect, and hopefully to act, change and grow. There are however faults with the book. Foremost is the lack of consistency of style. For the beginning part of the book, he uses examples or "Modern Parables" as he calls them to stress points. On pages 10-11, he stresses differing views of relationships that are in the process of development in the case of "Bob and Barb". Again in pages 23-25 he stresses character flaws, "sin nature" or "bent people" through examples of "Brandon, Ashley and Crystal". Then on page 41 he gives examples of real and false guilt through similar examples. And finally on page 51 -- Back on the topic of relationships-- This time, on the awakening of love and faith. The parable style is well written and works well.

But then it the next 6 chapters, half of the book, we never again have these examples that draw us into the discussion, and the author shifts his style. That makes the reader make decisions either in support of or in opposition to the teachings of Paul presented, and that which Westerholm is explaining.

This lack of consistency is confusing to the reader, who wants to get back to Herbert or to the examples which they can relate to. It seems as if the first 6 chapters were written for Herbert and to enlighten him, and as though the last 6 were written for a bible study group or theology class. This change of approach, lack of consistency, and methodology causes a break in the book and I believe a failure in it's purpose of opening up Herbert to
Paul's though world.

There are other inconsistencies as well. Chapter 12, on living the good life is a good summary of Paul's purpose, especially his letter to the Romans. However it is not a conclusion to the book. There is no wrap up, tying together of the Romans complete view, or of Westerholms own purpose in the introduction. It fails to reach the conclusion. The thesis is clearly stated: "The issue remains why. What (as Herbert himself would put it) is 'so big about Paul'? What have people seen in Him? Why did he make such an impact? Fair questions, all. To satisfy Herbert, we must dig a little deeper." p.x Though this starts out well, it fails to fulfill this goal. Herbert gets lost along the way and what starts off as "Paul for the Layman" ends us a theological discourse.

This book is facile to read. It is challenging of one's worldview and principles. For the Christian, or Theology or Religious studies student this book is a fun, quick read that can be revisited like an old friend to freshen up on the complexities of Paul and his world. For the non-initiated, however the book looses steam and probably interest and the end of the 6th chapter. Herbert who is mentioned by name 13 times and over 25 times including pronouns in the introduction; is lost and Westerholm never returns to him.

Unless of course is Westerholm view's all of the readers as "Herberts" in relation to Paul and Westerholm intends that by the end we are Non-Herberts. Therefore, Herbert is missing from the end. I believe that is the examples, "Modern Parables" were spread through the last 6 chapters and a 13th chapter returning to Herbert were added this book would be complete and achieve it's objectives.

(Originally written for RS209 Paul’s Life and Letters Spring Term 1998)

Friday, 9 December 2005

That Elusive Story

Haunting, that is the only way I can describe the short story. I read a short story years ago, back in the late 80's I had a collection of short Catholic Fiction, I read it ad enjoyed it, but there was a particular story that has haunted me. I can only describe it that way. Yet I no longer had the book. It was lent out and not returned back in the early 90'’s and yet this story would come to mind again and again over the years. I did not know the author of the story, the editor of the book, all I could remember was that the book had a black cover with yellow writing.

A few weeks ago I was at a retreat at Mount Carmel Monastery in Niagara Falls, and this story came to mind again. So I decided to try and find it. I did searches on Amazon.ca and Chapters.ca and tried to find the book. I searched 'Catholic' and 'fiction' also 'Catholic' and 'Short Story' and tried many other searches. Nothing matched what I remembered but there was a book from 1984 that they did not have a cover image for The Substance of Things Hoped For edited by John Breslin S.J. so I interlibrary loaned the book at school, and found the story I was looking for. It was called, The Warm Sand by J. F. Powers and was very much what I remembered. I also found out that it had been made into a novel that won the National Book award in 1968 so I am now reading the book Wheat That Springeth Green of which the short story is chapter 6 in the book almost exactly. I have posted the Short Story as the post before this one and would love your take on it. I have my prie-dieu and at times it has been used, but not as much as it should. Check out the story and tell me what you think.

The Warm Sand (Posted With Permission)

My Reviews and Articles on Powers:

1962 - Morte d'Urban - novel
1963 - Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories
1988 - Wheat that Springeth Green - novel
1991 - The Old Bird, A Love Story - Illustrated Edition
1999 - The Stories of J. F. Powers
J.F. Powers Selected Bibliography
J.F. Powers Book Covers
That Elusive Story
The Warm Sand
Meme Booked By 3 May 2007
Meme Book Meme
Meme Booked by 3 February 2007

RS398 Directed Reading - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers
Essay - Why J.F. Powers
The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories
The Presence of Grace
Morte d'Urban
Look How the Fish Live
Wheat that Springeth Green
Essay - J.F. Powers Literary Life and Legacy

Thursday, 8 December 2005

J.F. Powers The Warm Sand

J. F. Powers The Warm Sand

Once as well liked as any guy in his class, Joe was generally avoided during his last years at the seminary—sometimes referred to as a gadfly, which he didn’t mind; sometimes as a pain in the ass, which he did. His unpopularity was flattering in a way—in the light of “If the world hate you, know ye that it hath hated me before you,” but that was pushing it in Joe’s case. Besides, too many freaks and losers took comfort in Scripture, and Joe didn’t see himself as either. He came from a family more than just well-to-do, and, unlike most of his classmates (but like St. Augustine), he had lived some before discovering his vocation to the priesthood. So he couldn’t be looked down on, nor could his views be gainsaid on the ground that it was a species of pride for him to cite Doctors of the Church in support of them, though this was often tried by his critics. “Pride?” he’d replied. (He’d replied a lot at the seminary.) “I’d cite you guys if you ever said anything worth citing.” That was his style.
It wasn’t so much his all-around unpopularity as something said to him in the confessional (“We have to watch ourselves. A holier-than-thou attitude toward others doesn’t become us in the sight of God”) that made Joe decide, about a month before ordination, to show more charity toward others. Maybe there hadn’t been time enough for others to notice the change in him, though, for he was still generally avoided.
About a month after ordination, at the class’s first little get-together, to which he had to be invited (he did see it like that) and which was held in a private room in a restaurant, Joe watched himself (that is, shut up) and listened to the clerical shoptalk. He enjoyed it, too, though not
as much as some of the others at the big table for twelve. Mooney and Rooney gloried in it. But it went on too long, and thinking, Oh-oh, here I go again, Joe said, “W. G. Ward. That name mean anything to you guys? No? Well, Ward, and not Newman, was the first convert from the Oxford Movement. He says any priest without personal knowledge of Christ, which knowledge can only come from contemplation “—Joe had supplied and stressed that part to make his point better—”ought to seek out some desolate island so as to live alone and do no harm.”
“Words,” said Cooney, once Joe’s best friend but cool to him since Joe had got religion, as Cooney told it. (Joe hated the hillbilly sound of that, as he did Cooney’s worldlier-than-thou attitude.) “Hard words, Joe.”
“No harder than those of Our Lord to Martha,” Joe replied.
“But you’re not Our Lord!” cried a couple of deep thinkers at the table. Joe ignored them. He quoted from Luke 10, where Martha complains that she has her hands full serving Our Lord and the Disciples and could use some help from Mary, her sister, who sits listening to the conversation, and Our Lord replies, “Mary hath chosen the best part.”
“Try telling that to the Chancery,” said Rooney, who had earlier been complaining or bragging about having to do all the work in the parish where he was the assistant.
“Contemplation’s all very well,” said Mooney, whom Joe regarded as none too bright and pretty lucky to have been ordained. “Some of the saints, I know, went in for it. But it’s still an extra. We have to make a distinction, Joe, between following the counsels of perfection and doing the job—and a mighty big job it is—we’ve been ordained to do. How many of us can do both?”
“That so-called distinction is the biggest out in all theology,” Joe replied. “Why not do both? At least try.”
“You’re doing both at Holy Faith?” said Rooney.
Cooney cut in, “According to Lefty Beeman” (a problem priest, always on the move; formerly at Holy Faith, he was now an assistant at St. Isidore’s with Cooney), “the assistant at Holy Faith does the job, the pastor does the contemplating.”
Joe replied, “Well, of course, I haven’t been there as long as Beeman was. How long was he there? Six months?” This was not only cruel but wasted, and Joe, regretting it, shut up and listened to the others discuss the situation at Holy Faith.
“Two oddballs in one parish.”
“Certainly an odd appointment.”
“Crazy.”
“Not fair to Joe—as a new man, I mean.”
“Not fair to the pastor, you mean.”
“Not fair to the parishioners.”
“The Archbishop’s slipping.”

His appointment to Holy Faith, as assistant to Father Van Slaag, the only known contemplative in the diocese (among pastors), was not crazy, Joe believed. No, the Chancery must have heard of his hard times at the seminary, where he’d been the only known contemplative— he didn’t really qualify as such, he knew, unless maybe by desire, but he did have that reputation—and the Archbishop must have decided to make it two of a kind at Holy Faith. It was an odd appointment, perhaps, but it appeared odder than it was to those who recalled the efforts of the old Archbishop to strike a balance in parishes by pairing athletes with aesthetes, scholars with dunces, fat kine with lean. The new Archbishop was known to have said that his priests had enough to do without working out on each other; not that it was his policy to accommodate everybody—poker players, hi-fi’ers, photographers, astronomers, activists, liturgists—and not that some of his appointments didn’t smack of old-fashioned therapy: a lush in the suburbs who’d lost his driver’s license could find himself walking the corridors of a five-hundred-bed hospital in the city as a chaplain under the thumb of nuns; a big spender could find himself operating under the buddy or commissar system, with an assistant empowered to act for him and the parish in all money matters over two dollars and fifty cents.
Joe believed that his appointment, in a similar way—not, of course, in the same way—showed special concern on the part of the Archbishop, by whose wisdom and grace both pastor and assistant at Holy Faith were spared that heckling suspicion that is the lot of contemplatives, and even more of would-be contemplatives, in the modern world. With no need to apologize or explain, as each would have had to do with any other priest in the diocese, they could get on with or, in Joe’s case, down to the job of working and praying for their personal sanctification and salvation (and their parishioners’). And that was what they were doing, though not everything was perfect at Holy Faith.
There was the problem of the housekeeper, Mrs. Cox, a plump toughtalking TV fan, who called Father Van Slaag Van to his face and Slug to
her friends on the phone. (And Joe was pretty sure he was the one she referred to as Shorty.) There was the problem of Mrs. Cox’s dog, Boots, a female bull terrier that would go for your ankles unless you carried a weapon. (“She’s all right,” the housekeeper would say with a hearty laugh. “She just hates men.”) Joe had found a cane in the umbrella stand and took it with him whenever he left his bedroom.
There was also the problem of Father Van Slaag. Joe, for his part, had hoped to spend most of his free time in the church, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but Father Van Slug was already doing this— the man practically lived in the church. Pastor and assistant at first were absent from the rectory for long periods, until Joe asked himself, “Shepherd, what of the sheep?” This question, which could have come from Satan (who would doubtless employ any means to get a priest off his knees and out of a church) or from the Archbishop, was resolved for Joe after he discovered that he couldn’t concentrate, let alone contemplate, when Father Van Slug was in the church, as he was whenever Joe went there. Not wanting to ask when his free time was, or when Father Van Slug’s wasn’t, Joe moved an old prie-dieu, which had been serving as a plant stand, into his bedroom. He now carried on from there with his spiritual exercises, and also—not the least of his duties—answered the phone there, more often than not while kneeling at the prie-dieu.
So, though not in the church much, Joe was on his knees a lot. When he considered the state of his knees, however, which were only lightly callused (nothing like those he’d once seen on a visiting Trappist monk in the showers at the seminary—horny gray growths like the chestnuts on the legs of a horse), Joe felt he had a long way to go. The question was whether a diocesan priest—not the really rare one, like Father Van Slug, but the merely unusual one, like Joe—with his ministry in and to the world, which would rub off on him, could ever go very far; whether in time, after constant, close association with parishioners and coming under their subtle influence, he wouldn’t cease to be spiritually, perhaps even mentally, an adult. What was true in other fields of human endeavor at the highest level, in the arts and sciences and sports-namely, that success involves a hell of a lot of slogging—just had to be true, Joe believed, in the field of spirituality: not a crowded field but the trickiest of all to get anywhere in. The notion, so popular nowadays, that the best kind of spirituality just happens, and is the by-product of routine apostolic activity, or, as some of Joe’s critics at the seminary had
claimed, is actually the same thing—well, Joe hadn’t believed it then and didn’t now.
“The priest’s life,” Joe said at the class’s next little get-together, to which he’d received what had seemed to him a last-minute invitation, “any priest’s life, anybody’s life, in order to be fruitful in this world, to say nothing of the next, has to be rooted in contemplation. This is especially true of our life, which otherwise becomes one of sheer activity
—the occupational disease of the diocesan clergy.”
“Look,” Rooney said. “I don’t want to listen to that stuff tonight. I’m here to relax. You guys don’t know what it’s like to run a four-hundred-family parish all by yourself.”
“That so?” replied Joe. “Happens to be what I’m doing at Holy Faith.”
“Another parish heard from,” said Cooney.
“Bob,” Mooney said to Rooney, “we all have our crosses to bear.”
“I still don’t want to listen to that stuff tonight,” Rooney said. “I had a tough day.” So Joe shut up, and the clerical shoptalk, which he’d only cut into because it had gone on too long, continued.
At the very end, when Joe was leaving the restaurant for the parking lot, he was approached by Rooney. “Sorry, Joe,” Rooney said. “But I had a tough one today.”
“Bob, I know what you mean.”
They went out to their cars together.

In the weeks that followed, Joe and Bob saw more of each other than they ever had before, except for a short time at the seminary when Bob had embraced the contemplative life. Joe hoped that Bob was having second thoughts about the active life, that it wasn’t only their plight as overworked assistants that had drawn them together again, but in any case he had a friend in Bob. They knew each other’s phone number by heart, and frequently met in the course of their duties—Bob pausing at Holy Faith on his way home from downtown, Joe at St. John Bosco’s, Bob’s parish, after visiting the hospital nearby.
St. John Bosco’s, unlike Holy Faith, was a new plant, with paid secretaries, the latest in equipment, and programs and organizations galore, many overlapping. The parish was too much for one man—even for him, Bob said, unless he was there every minute, which he couldn’t be. The pastor, Monsignor McConkie, or Mac, as Bob called him, a handsome silver-haired glad-hander, who had long ago joined every-
thing joinable and now acknowledged when he got up in the morning, if he did, that he was in too deep and had a serious drinking problem, expected Bob to “represent” him and the parish at functions that Mac was under both doctor’s and confessor’s orders to stay away from. The worst ones—worst because there was no end to them—were service-club luncheons at downtown hotels. Bob attended three or four of these a week, and it was usually after one of them, in the middle of the afternoon, in high spirits or low, that he paused at Holy Faith.
Joe, usually in the office at that time of day—he’d moved the old pnedieu down there—would make a drink for the visitor, as was the practice at St. John Bosco’s, and they’d discuss what was uppermost in their minds: Boots, if she’d gone for Bob on the way in; Mrs. Cox, if the TV in the living room was coming through well; or problems of universal concern. One of these was church finance, a subject that Bob had ideas about and that Joe, though he’d scorned it and clerical bookkeeping at the seminary, now felt he should interest himself in. To judge by some correspondence from the Chancery in the files, nobody else at Holy Faith had done so in recent times. What could be said of the take at Holy Faith—not enough—could also be said of organizations: only two, the Holy Name Society (men) and the Christian Mothers (their wives). Reluctantly, Joe would agree that something should be done about Youth or, anyway, about Young People and Young Marrieds—Bob had ideas about all these—but then Joe would renege and say he didn’t want to bite off more than he could chew: a veiled reference to the situation at St. John Bosco’s.
“Heaven forbid!” Bob said. “Still, we’re in the same boat, Joe.”
That they were in the same boat (a commonplace in their discussions) and that Bob was having a rougher ride Joe would accept, but he couldn’t agree that there was so little to choose between those responsible for their plights-between, if you didn’t count the Archbishop, a mystic and a drunk—as to make no difference. One afternoon, Joe told Bob that it was the Father Van Slaags, oddly enough, and not the Monsignor McConkies, who kept the world going, who, by their feats of prayer and abnegation, stayed the hand of God. This, though he didn’t like to hear it—non-contemplatives never did—Bob knew to be the accepted and time-honored belief of the Church.
Joe would have made his point even better had he spoken of what he’d seen the night before, when he’d gone to Father Van Slaag’s room to complain about Boots and Mrs. Cox’s TV, only to change his mind
and ask permission to order Sunday-collection envelopes trom another supplier, and then to retire to think, as he’d been doing ever since, on what he’d seen through the gaps in the old, almost buttonless cassock that Father Van Slug wore for a nightshirt—the horny gray growths on the knees, the dogtooth wounds on the ankles. Dear God! What Joe had wondered about ever since coming to Holy Faith was clear to him then:
why Father Van Slaag did nothing about Mrs. Cox’s dog and TV. He was using them, these crosses, as a means to sanctification and salvation
—making life make sense, which it otherwise wouldn’t. Out of prudence, and out of reverence for Father Van Slug, Joe didn’t tell Bob or anyone else what he’d seen that night, but thereafter, whenever Bob said that their pastors ought to be put away—Mac in a sanatorium, Van in a cloister or cave-Joe was silent, brooding on those ankles and knees in awe and humility. He had decided that Father Van Slug was—and not just in the sense that the word applied to anybody in the state of grace but in the sense that it applied to the big-time mystics and martyrs-a saint.

Before that night in Father Van Slug’s room, Joe had tried to do the job he’d been ordained to do for God and humanity while also trying, for the sake of the former, to preserve himself to a degree from the latter, but afterward there was a change in him. Without exactly going ape, Joe let down the barrier and no longer distinguished as he had before, sharply, between the religious and the social demands of parishioners. Mrs. Cox noticed it. “What?” she would say. “Stepping out again?”
In this change in him there was a certain despair, a giving up on himself and the contemplative life. Why not? When he tried to look down as God must and saw one man fending off Boots with a cane, the other allowing himself to be savaged by her, amortizing the world’s great debt of sin a little, deferring foreclosure—really, there was no comparison. In that kind of company, Joe just didn’t figure. Still, you never knew where you were in the spiritual life; that was the hell of it— only God knew. Joe’s hope had to be that he was, without knowing it, a sleeper. He thought of Cardinal Merry del Val, who, as Pius X’s secretary of state, was another overworked assistant to a saint, and perhaps one himself; among his personal effects, after his death, had been discovered (a shock to his friends in high places and low, these instruments of penance) two barbed-wire undershirts and a scourge with dried blood
on it. But that sort of thing, though still nice to know—edifying—was discouraging if dwelt on, intimidating, like Father Van Slaag’s ankles and knees. Joe took more comfort in Scripture—in “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it,” in “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” though this, too, was pushing it in his case. The truth was, he hadn’t sacrificed his spiritual life-it had been done for him, by his appointment to Holy Faith. All he’d done since then, and might deserve credit for, was to stop grudging the time spent in doing the routine work of the parish, the time he might have spent in prayer. The old prie-dieu, which he’d been carrying back up to his bedroom one morning when the office phone rang, was still where he’d left it then, on the stair landing where he’d first found it, and since Mrs. Cox had come along before he could get back to it, it was serving as a plant stand again. He didn’t mind. Though praying a lot less these days, he prayed harder when he did (as recommended by Merry del Val), and though working harder and seeing more people, he had more appetite for them. The truth was, he’d always had a weakness for people, a weakness suppressed at the seminary but now indulged and transformed into a strength, a virtue.
He was good with people when he wished to be, as he did now. He sparkled in maternity wards (“Bring us another round of orange juice, Sister, and this time put something in it”); sparkled at parish meetings, of which there were more since he’d decided to come to grips with Youth, Young People, and Young Marrieds (“What are we waiting for? I’m here”); sparkled at home (“My compliments to the chef, Mrs. Cox”). Occasionally, he even sat with Mrs. Cox in the evening if there was a game of some kind on TV; at first he had to get her to switch channels and to instruct her, but now he had to do neither, and it was gratifying to see her interest in sports quicken and to know it was genuine (with so many women it wasn’t)—to come in from a meeting and find her and Boots watching the Twins. With Boots, however, Joe was still persona non grata, and still went about the house with his cane, which he left on the back porch when he stepped out and picked up when he returned.
But the best times for Joe were those times when he could be of real use to people as a priest—those times of trial, tragedy, and ordinary death—into which he entered deeper than he had before. “After years of trying to walk on the water, you know,” he told Bob, who was
increasingly impatient with parishioners (and Mac), “it’s good to come ashore and feel the warm sand between my toes.”
This was not to say that Joe couldn’t get enough of people. He could. And when he did, after a tough day, or when he just craved faster company, he went to play poker with Cooney and the gang at St. Isidore’s, a hard-drinking rectory, and the next morning it wasn’t easy for him to get going. (He did not believe in Beeman’s solution: “Weak drinks, more of ‘em—that way you get more liquids into your system.”) All in all, though, he felt better about himself both as a priest and as a person, as others appeared to these days—certainly Mrs. Cox, and even Cooney, who was becoming his best friend again.
“Joe,” Cooney said one night at St. Isidore’s, “know who you are?”
“Who?”
“Lemme put it another way. Know who Van is?”
“Who?”
“Mary. You’re Martha, Joe.”
Only now and then, late at night before he got to sleep, or early in the morning before he got going, did Joe look back and regret the change in himself.

A tough day. During breakfast, Joe had simply said, “Somebody ought to poison that bitch,” meaning Boots, and now Mrs. Cox wouldn’t talk to him. Later that morning, while trying to sparkle in a maternity ward, he’d simply said, “So that’s the little bastard,” and had been asked to leave by its mother. That afternoon, he had a visit from a young lady in real estate whom he’d just about enticed into fleeing the world and joining the Carmelites, and learned that she’d received a big promotion and therefore would be staying in the world after all. Early that evening, two converts in the making, Tex and Candy, who’d been taking instructions with a view to marrying Margie and Mike, failed to show, and it developed after a couple of phone calls that they’d eloped together. While Joe was working this out for Margie and Mike in the office, on hold in the living room he had an old parishioner who was upset over a nine-dollar error in his account—under Joe’s new system, actually Bob’s, receipts were mailed out to contributors at the end of the fiscal year—and who, though Joe tried everything, even offering to reimburse the old devil on the spot, wouldn’t go away until he’d seen the pastor.
“He’s in the church,” Joe said, and fled.
Later, Joe went over to St. Isidore’s for poker, and it turned out to be a tough night, too. He was there to relax, but the others wouldn’t let him. Bob, who had just come from driving Mac to the sanatorium (and felt a little sad about it, though it was all for the best), kept after Joe to talk to Van about checking in to a cloister. Beeman, not for the first time, advised Joe to just look Boots in the eye, which was what he’d always done at Holy Faith. “And don’t let her see you’re afraid of her,” he said, and suggested (though he admitted he had only heard about this, hadn’t tried it himself), “Chuck her lightly under the jaw. Try it.” When Joe mentioned the nine-dollar bookkeeping error, Beeman advised him in future just to say, “We all make mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on lead pencils,” which was what he always did in such a case. “Try it,” he said. When Joe mentioned the young lady who’d received a big promotion and let him down, Bob said, “Hell, you can’t blame her,” and then had the nerve to say, alluding to his two weeks as a contemplative, “In my case, after trying to walk on the water, it was good to reach dry land and feel the warm sand under my feet,” as if these words were entirely his own. Joe felt better after he heard Cooney’s comment, “Bob, you never went out without your water wings,” but a moment later he applied it to himself, with remorse. And Cooney, perhaps sensing this, tried to do his “Know who you are?” business with Joe again, but Joe foiled him by answering right away, “Martha.” Then Cooney’s pastor, one of the few really good poker players in the diocese and m.c. of its weekly TV program, said to Joe, “Found y’self, baby,” and asked him if he’d ever considered how much he owed the Arch for sending him to Father Van Slaag at Holy Faith. Joe said he had, but unfortunately didn’t leave it at that.
“Just one thing wrong with Van,” he said. “Not doing his job.” Joe bad never said this, or anything like it, before, and immediately regretted it. Only the truth, yes, and they all knew it, but from him a betrayal.
From that point on, Joe, who hadn’t taken a pot, won steadily. Later, much later, after a lot of standing around, though Joe himself was sitting down, and a lot of talk about cars and driving, Joe left St. Isidore’s with Bob, he thought, and the next thing he knew, not counting a bad dream—”Mrs. Boots, come and get Cox!”—he was in bed and it was morning. He couldn’t remember how the night had ended, and didn’t want to, but had the presence of mind not to phone the police after he looked out the window and saw his car was missing from its usual place in the driveway. He took a hot bath, and in the course of it,soaping himself, he discovered and examined the marks on his right ankle-superficial wounds, five in number. They made him think but otherwise didn’t hurt. He painted them with antiseptic, dressed, and went downstairs, armed only with a ruler, and got going again.

(Posted with permission from K. Powers for the Powers Family Literary Property Trust, with thanks.)

For a story about why this story has haunted me click here!

My Reviews and Articles on Powers:

1962 - Morte d'Urban - novel
1963 - Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories
1988 - Wheat that Springeth Green - novel
1991 - The Old Bird, A Love Story - Illustrated Edition
1999 - The Stories of J. F. Powers
J.F. Powers Selected Bibliography
J.F. Powers Book Covers
That Elusive Story
The Warm Sand
Meme Booked By 3 May 2007
Meme Book Meme
Meme Booked by 3 February 2007

RS398 Directed Reading - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers
Essay - Why J.F. Powers
The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories
The Presence of Grace
Morte d'Urban
Look How the Fish Live
Wheat that Springeth Green
Essay - J.F. Powers Literary Life and Legacy

Friday, 2 December 2005

The Wisdom of the Desert: by Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert
Thomas Merton
Shambhala Library
2005

No, this is not a book for a ‘Survivor’ wannabe, nor is it a guide for those who dream of crossing the great deserts of the world. But it is a guide of sorts, or more a companion for our pathways in life. This is a new reprinting of a collection of sayings from the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century.

You might ask, “Who are the desert fathers and mothers, and what written in the fourth century could be of any use to us today?” and they would both be good questions. The desert fathers were people who felt Christianity was losing its way, so they decided to return to a simpler life and went to the desert to seek solitude and god. However to some extent their plan failed; soon people realized these men and women had wisdom and guidance if one could ask them. So some of them developed great followings.

This collection is unique among those I have seen. in that it does not sort the sayings by author, or by subject, but rather it is a random smattering that the reader can meander through in order, or randomly flip open and read whichever one they come across. Merton in his introduction states, “This collection of sayings from the Verba Seniorum is by no means intended as a piece of research scholarship--this book is designed entirely for the reader’s interest and edification.” I believe it lives up to that goal.

At just under 200 pages, this book is short and sweet. Some of the more obscure sayings have been omitted and what is left is a collection of thoughts, meditations and reflections that can help us examine our lives. A few examples of the wisdom are:

“XLVI
Abbot Pastor said: ‘If you have a chest full of clothing, and leave it for a long time, the clothing will rot inside it. It is the same with the thoughts in our heart. If we do not carry them out by physical action, after a long while they will spoil and turn bad’.”

And

“XLVII
He said, again: ‘Malice will never drive out malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice’.”
For more, pick up the book and check it out.

(First Published in Imprint 2005-12-02 as Words of wisdom from the sands'.)

Thursday, 1 December 2005

Racism & Anti-Racism

Infected Chrisianity: A Study of Modern Racism
Alan Davis
McGill-Queen's University Press
0773506519

A few weeks ago I mentioned reading trends, while I find
myself in yet another one. I finished my course for the term yesterday, RS100L the History of Evil. In it I encountered again and again writings on racism. One of the books recommended by the Professor was Infected Christianity: A Study in Modern Racism by Alan Davies so I tracked down a copy of it and have been reading it. All I can say is WOW, this book will blow your socks off.


The Skull Measurer’s Mistake
Sven Lindqvist
Translated by Joan Tate
The New Press
182 pages

I have also over
the last few years been reading a Swedish author in Translation Sven Lindqvist, I have now read a number of his books and just finished today The Skull Measurer's Mistake: And Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism It is an amazing history of those who spoke out against racism. From 1764-1899 is a journey around the world, and the stories of those who spook out again racism. Both are books that will challenge the heart of a person to think differently.