Four Fast Fomentations to a Fuller Faith

Pick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Catholic Discipleship - Becoming a Disciple of ChristPick Up Your Cross and Follow Me: Catholic Discipleship – Becoming a Disciple of Christ by Dcn Ralph Poyo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a quick one-shot book to remind you of what’s important in your Christian life and–hopefully–to light a fire under you that will make you pursue God all the more.

Deacon Ralph Poyo very quickly (25 pages!) runs through the four pillars of Catholic life: (1) community, (2) prayer, (3) Scripture, and (4) sacraments. Developing yourself in these areas, says Dcn. Ralph, will lead you down a path to stronger faith and a closer relationship with God.

The brevity of the book is one of its strongest points. You don’t need a lot of words to remind people about what’s important in their lives, about what they should be making time for. Even a slow reader can get through this book in under an hour. But it’s pithy. It strikes at the heart of the conversation and challenges the reader to take it seriously. Then there’s a little practical advice, and the last page of the book is reserved for a mark-off sheet for each of the four pillars, to help you get started (and, hopefully, keep going).

Personally, I like a little more meat to my theological reading. There are also more than a few grammatical errors, which is painful in a book so short. I also think that Dcn. Ralph is likely a better presenter than writer; this book reads a little bit like the notes for a fantastic presentation, but we don’t get the presentation, just the notes.

On the whole, I think it works, but that conclusion may be colored by its effectiveness in the men’s group where I read it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good little book.

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A Primer on Virtue

Boys to Men: The Transforming Power of VirtueBoys to Men: The Transforming Power of Virtue by Tim Gray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book as part of a morning men’s group. For that purpose, it definitely had a lot of value, but I probably would not pick this book up to read it again for my own edification. Having said that, I think that my complaints about this book may be unique to me.

So, good things first: it covers the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. It addresses each carefully and in accordance with the tradition of the Catholic Church. It encourages the reader to pursue each virtue in his life, to strive to attain these virtues, not only for his own benefit, but for the benefit of everyone around him. The discussion questions provide both further reading (throughout Scripture) and further thought (on both practical and theoretical levels). Definitely a solid book for anyone new to theology or the virtues.

My problem is that I’m not new to those things. For me personally, much of this book was treading water–covering old ground–reviewing things I already knew. It still had value–it provided the backdrop for discussing issues in the men’s group, and it provided practical reminders on how to move forward in my pursuit of virtue–but I wanted to go deeper, really dig into the details, which is appropriate for my level of education.

Definitely recommend for anyone with little or no foundation in theology or the study of virtues. It’s also just fine for the fully-initiated who are involved in a discussion group–but for such a one reading it on his own, it may not add much to your knowledge.

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A Rationalist Reviews a Mystic: What Could Go Wrong?

The Interior CastleThe Interior Castle by Teresa of Ávila
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book took me a really long time to read. It’s not especially dense or complex (although it does get convoluted in some places). The real problem was that, for most of the book, I had little to no common ground with the author’s experience. I kept putting the book down and only decided to finish it in 2016’s Lenten season (which I did not even do, ultimately, missing Easter by about a week).

The reason for this disconnect between me and St. Teresa is this: I’m a fairly practical person. I’m not prone to much in the way of spiritual experience, which has the upside of making my faith pretty rational, and the downside of making it pretty unemotional. So while I readily admit that mysticism is a valid Christian experience for some people–like Teresa of Ávila–it’s not something I have any significant experience with.

So if, like me, you’re looking to read this book as a guide to deepening your faith, it may prove a non-starter if you’re not already open to a more mystical faith.

With that starting caveat, let me present the positives and negatives to this book. (Keep in mind that my negatives may not mean much for you mystics out there.)

Two parts of this book struck me as very good: First, on page 116 of my edition, Teresa provides and important perspective and reminder during the dry periods of our faith. The Lord gives us dry spells as a reminder, she writes, to make us realize that all the good things we have come from Him, which endears us to Him all the more and brings us closer in communion with His will. Too often, we feel abandoned during such times, as though He has left us to suffer to no purpose and with no end, but rather, His distance calls out to us and brings us to pursue Him all the more.

Second, on page 133, Teresa gives us a glimpse of the pain of condemnation, not caused by the torments of hell, but by the sight of our Lord: “I can tell you truly that, wicked as I am, I have never feared the torments of hell, for they seem nothing by comparison with the thought of the wrath which the damned will see in the Lord’s eyes–those eyes so lovely and tender and benign.” That image struck me deeply; God is Love so completely, and in His love, the wretchedness I have done brings forth from His tender eyes such wrath as I cannot imagine. This is a tremendous example of perfect contrition.

A third point works in Teresa’s favor, by my reading, but less well than these first two. Throughout the book, Teresa generally recognizes the philosophical principles of personhood in a way that many people (especially ancient Gnostics and modern pseudo-philosophers) fail to grasp: we are not embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, but a full combination of soul, spirit, and body. The only problem I have with her representation of this is that the parts seem almost divested of one another; a spirit or a soul acting separately from the other, without impact on the body, as if she were sharp enough to divide joints and marrow (Hebrews 4). But this is a small complaint.

Now for my negative points.

Teresa seems to have a general disdain for priests, especially as confessors. At one point (p100) she does laud “learned confessors,” but in general terms (p99, p115) she seems to think very little of what a confessor can offer to someone who is striving to improve his relationship with God–possibly because her confessors frequently were much less mystical than she, and being not mystical, they worried about mystical experiences, since (especially from an outside perspective) it seems very easy to misjudge things mystical as demonic (or vice versa). At any rate, I thought the opinion of priests that came through this text was pretty negative, and I didn’t like it.

Reading this book would have been so, so, so much easier if she had only used the first person when talking about herself. The translators and editors were always quick to point out when the subject of Teresa’s stories was actually herself, usually through reference to her other works, though she denies it at least once (p112). The real issue is that Teresa’s prose (presumably in the original Spanish, though it may be purely a translation problem) becomes so convoluted and twisted that reading it becomes a chore–when she could have shortened the paragraph by ten lines and simplified the whole of it by saying, “I said or thought or did such and such.” It was as though the entire book was spent saying, “Oh, not me! I’m… asking for a friend.”

Frequently, Teresa will comment on how unqualified she is to be writing this book. From a rational perspective, I agreed with her repeatedly. Her grasp of Scripture was even troubling, as accustomed as I am to writers like Augustine and Aquinas, whose references are often spot-on. She waffles constantly, and in several places says things like, “Someone said this in the Bible, I think.” And if she does guess, she has almost equal chances to be right or wrong about it. Raised a Bible-believing Protestant, I instantly doubt any spiritual advisor who doesn’t know his Scriptures.

On a related note, at one point, she claims that there is no greater love than when Jesus prayed for his disciples’ union with God (p154); the translator even used that phrasing (“I do not know what greater love there can be than this”). This flies directly in the face of Jesus’ own use of that phrase in John 15 (and her assertion is not helped by the fact that she does not know where in Scripture Jesus prayed this prayer).

The last thing that bugged me enough to mention was her position on marriage. Granted, most of those who are in celibate vocations, especially in Church history (I’m looking at you, St. Jerome), have negative opinions of marriage, but Teresa’s bothered me at the time. In describing the spiritual journey from isolated sinner to Christian united with Christ, she made an analogy to matrimony (the same analogy that St. Paul made outright in Ephesians 5, and numerous saints and popes have made since), but describes it in shallow terms. It is only “a rough comparison,” but she can find no better; the “spiritual joys and consolations given by the Lord are a thousand leagues removed from those experienced in marriage.” Perhaps I am overreacting, but the Church has vocations to marriage even more than to the priesthood and to holy orders, and with good reason: the grace and joy that accompany the sacrament of Matrimony are no meager things. Even so, I may be reacting too harshly; Catholic favor toward married life has taken a long time to come to fruition, and I cannot blame Teresa too much for being a product of her time.

All in all, this is an important work that may be beneficial to some, but to me–and to perhaps to others of primarily rational faith–it provided little direction or comfort.

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Discerning Boundaries

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your LifeBoundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My wife asked me to read this book, so that she could get my insights on it. I ended up liking the book; I think that it includes valuable information about taking ownership of your own life and divesting yourself of the notion that you can control others, or that your life somehow depends on others. At the same time, the book wasn’t without its problems.

Like (almost) everything I review, there were a few typos–mostly the sort of thing that can’t be caught by spell-check software (a B instead of an M in “my,” for example), and all of them minor (context clues provided the correct meaning easily). But I feel obligated to mention them, all the same.

I found the lack of references in the book particularly jarring. In a lot of ways, “Boundaries” purports to be a scholarly work, something focused on psychological healing and spiritual development, but it doesn’t mention any papers, or studies, or journals, or scientific inquiries. The endnotes in the book are reserved for “see also” suggestions. I gather that the authors were working from their own practice, but a few references to a little research would have gone a long way to earn my placidity.

The book contains a very large number of what I call “pastor stories.” Probably, these vignettes come from actual examples in the authors’ private practice, with the names and details changed to protect patient confidentiality… but they come across as those stories used by pastors to prove a point. You know the ones–anecdotes about people who only have first names, with no clear evidence to suggest that they are factual, but they perfectly (and conveniently) encapsulate the message that the pastor is trying to get across. I don’t trust stories like these, and while the clinical experience of the authors lends a little credence to them, I’m still not a fan.

The authors have, in my opinion, an incorrect view of both love and marriage. They assert that love is primarily a feeling, rather than an action (indeed, that action without feeling is worthless in the case of love); this may correspond with their experience, but it implies that a marriage without “that loving feeling” should end. Marriages, while I’m on the subject, are also not relationships of unconditional love, according to the authors. (I do not mean only in practice, for definitely there are countless marriages that are not based on unconditional love, but I mean the authors suggest that marriages should not be so.)

There seems to be a misapprehension of why “work” is “bad” in the modern mind. The authors insist that work existed before the Fall (in a probable misreading of the poetic structure of Genesis 1-3, but I digress), but I am reminded of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes: “It’s not work unless somebody makes you do it.” The reason “work” is unpleasant is that we define unpleasant tasks as “work.” To fill the earth and subdue it may have been a great challenge, and an enormous task, but it wasn’t “work” until the Fall. (You may find this a minor nitpick, but you get what you pay for with these reviews, and I don’t recall being paid anything.)

In the vein of their “pastor stories,” the authors also supply every story in the book with a happy ending. This strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely. Even moreso, I’m surprised that doctors with clinical experience would suggest this result. It’s simply not possible that every story ends happily, but the authors imply that, no matter your circumstances, if you simply say “no,” to your spouse/friend/parent/self, that person will eventually respect your “no” and become the person you’ve always wanted them to be. “Emotionally abuse husband? Tell him ‘no’ a few times and he’ll realize what a wonderful person you are and treat you better!” Of course, because no emotionally abusive husbands become physically abusive when their victims exhibit signs of resistance. “Susie told Jack to do his own job and stop making her do it. Her boss figured out that Jack was the problem and told him to shape up. Jack did so, and everyone is happy.” Of course, because no one has ever been blamed for somebody else’s shoddy work, right?

I just don’t see it being possible in every case.

Perhaps my biggest struggle is the authors’ tendency to blame absolutely every poor character trait on the parents of the unpleasant person. No one ever made a bad decision for themselves, it seems, but everything bad about you is your parents’ fault. Only you can fix it, of course, but they’re the ones that made you this way–they didn’t teach you good boundaries, or they tried to control you with guilt or anger, or they only looked out for themselves and did not respect your needs or boundaries, or… the list goes on. As a child myself, I can recall times that I made my own bad decisions, and I cannot trace my current problems to my parents. They weren’t perfect, of course, but they aren’t to blame for all of my hardships. As a parent myself, I find it hard to believe that every bad decision my son makes will rest on my head when judgment day comes–it’s just not a reasoned position to take here.

As I said, I eventually ended up liking the book (which may be hard to believe, at this point, but it’s true). The final few chapters, especially, have very good points that are important to internalize if you have any boundary problems at all (and most people probably do). The practical advice finally starts kicking in and the nebulous examples take a backseat to a more informative style. There are a lot of insightful directions to help you set boundaries in your life, and it really is useful.

Yet, I must admit sadly, there are even problems in these final sections. For one thing, there are a few glaring omissions from their practical advice and examples–extended family and in-laws come to mind most readily. Both extended family and a spouse’s family can be tremendous violators of boundaries, but since they had no effect on your childhood development, they don’t get their own chapters (unlike parents, friends, spouses, and self, which can all be traced back to poor parenting by your own folks). The second major problem in this section is assumptions: “Go to your support group,” they write, as if support groups were in every church, or grew on trees, and could be trustworthy and reliable wherever they may be found. Assumptions like these make the practical advice more difficult, but other, simpler advice must first be sought out (like How to Find or Develop a Support Group 101).

As I said, I did like the book. I think it’s a good resource–but you don’t have to read every page and paragraph, either. Look for the good; if you start getting bogged down in it, I don’t think you would miss much to skip ahead a few paragraphs, or a chapter. Look for what is most relevant to your situation, and I think you would do well.

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Devotional Point of View and Authority

My Daily BreadMy Daily Bread by Anthony J Paone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was given this book as a gift, and–in need of a daily devotional–I gave it a shot. In a lot of ways, Fr. Paone’s work here really delivers. Many of the readings are convicting and encouraging, warning and uplifting at the same time. Frequently, I set the book down, and I was enlivened to face the day with vim and vigor, to turn a phrase.

But the book was not perfect. Fr. Paone frames the book as a dialogue with Christ–a dialogue in which Christ rarely quotes Scripture, occasionally speaks in the Person of the Father, and does not always present himself in the pattern of Our Lord, according to what we know through Scripture and the Church. Through Christ as a mouthpiece, Fr. Paone encourages spiritual behavior that has widely varying levels of success, and should only be pursued under the close guidance of a wise spiritual director (such as flagellation, for example). Fr. Paone (as Christ) also grants only grudging acceptance of anyone who pursues anything less than the contemplative life; while it is true that a life wholly dedicated to God may be holier than one drawn in multiple directions by the worries of this world, that does not make the rest of us second-class citizens. After all, we are obeying God’s commands, too–to be fruitful and multiply, and to reflect the love of the Godhead through holy matrimony and devout family life.

Most of the book is just fine, but I think Fr. Paone would have done better if he had not purported to be transcribing the words of the Living Word, but only his own spiritual advice. Alternatively, he could have used Scripture passages as the basis for each prayer, showing how–through the Written Word–God does intend for us to behave in the ways that Fr. Paone has encouraged.

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