This book surprised me, firstly, that a woman could write so convincingly of men’s experience over three generations. I was surprised to find that itThis book surprised me, firstly, that a woman could write so convincingly of men’s experience over three generations. I was surprised to find that it is written in the form of a journal during the last days or weeks of a dying man, and that as such it has no chapter breaks, or none with titles. I was also surprised by what becomes the central drama or dilemma for the dying man—the return home of another man’s prodigal son, toward whom the journal’s author feels his own fatherly impulses. Finally, I was surprised—and impressed—at the way 150 years of American history are woven through three generations of the Ames family, based in their small Iowa town of Gilead.
The book deserves an A rating, but my reading gets an incomplete, because about halfway through I began to realize that there are layers on layers here. Gilead is a remarkable architectural achievement. I hope to read it again, to dig deeper, but first I have added Robinson’s “Home” to my must-read list. It is a parallel story of the same prodigal son told from within his own family. ...more
Begun in 1969 and eventually issued at the rate of nearly one per year when it got cracking along like a man of war under stunsails, the Aubrey-MaturiBegun in 1969 and eventually issued at the rate of nearly one per year when it got cracking along like a man of war under stunsails, the Aubrey-Maturin series was not meant to be binge-read, I don’t suppose. It is more like a long and leisurely serial, carried along less by cliff-hanging climaxes than by the passionate interest of its main characters: a bulky ship’s captain weighing in at 17 stone and his small-statured ship’s surgeon and bosom buddy, a sort of reverse Quixote and Panza.
But I have binge-read (or listened to) my last three and perhaps that’s why my attention waned in the long middle of #13, with Jack and Stephen and the captured Diane standing out to sea while a desultory diplomatic negotiation led by the unlikable Mr. Fox takes place on a fictional volcanic island in the South China Sea. There is no dramatic naval action here, only a climactic monsoon that leads to one of Jack’s best lines and here the last line.
Meanwhile, much goes unresolved. Did the bank crash at home sink Jack’s fortunes—again? Did Diana give birth to the baby girl Stephen has been so dearly expecting? And what happened to the Sophie, under the firm hand of Tom Pullings, which was to have made rendezvous with the Diane?
Of course, I will have to read #14 to find out. But probably not right away. I may wait something closer to a year for my thirst to intensify again. ...more
Jean Vanier walks the walk in a way that few Christians do—at least to judge by Christians I know and know of. For more than fifty years, the founderJean Vanier walks the walk in a way that few Christians do—at least to judge by Christians I know and know of. For more than fifty years, the founder of L’Arche has lived directly, intimately, and like a good father with people with intellectual disabilities. Doing so, Vanier has found Christ in the poor and marginalized exactly as Christ said we might—if only we truly walk with them.
Consequently, this entry in Orbis’s “Modern Spiritual Masters Series” upends many “spiritual” tenets of our times, beginning with its organization. As Carolyn Whitney-Brown notes in her long and useful introduction, “Many current spiritual and self-help books assume that we must do deep inward work first to change ourselves and reach a certain level of self-awareness, and then move outward into engagement in wider society. The problem is that many people do not move beyond their inner-work stage . . . ”
Vanier’s life and thought have moved from outside in: from an engagement with the world and its striking iniquities, to a strong advocacy of community, to a bounty of self-discovery. And so this book, organized by Whitney-Brown and drawing on written work of Vanier since the 1960s, features three main chapters on:(1) Transformation of Society, (2) Transformation through Community, and (3) Transformation of the Individual Person. It ends with a shorter chapter on The Christian Life and a brief epilogue featuring two letters written by Vanier to friends in L’Arche in 2008, his eightieth year.
Among the many treasures collected here are Vanier’s previously unpublished eulogy for Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who famously spent his last decade as the pastoral director of a L’Arche community in Canada after a career of acclaim as a spiritual writer and guide.
I am a lifelong underliner, a habit that usually only helps me engage more actively with texts as I read them. In this case, I have already reviewed my underlinings, using several as meditation starters.
“Essential Writings’ is a great introduction to Vanier and L’Arche, thanks in large part to Whitney-Brown’s biographical sketch of the founder and her summary of L’Arche’s development since 1964. The introduction takes up nearly one-third of the book and is very well done. ...more
This extended conversation between a journalist and the remarkable cardinal from the West African nation of Guinea is a testimony to the vitality of CThis extended conversation between a journalist and the remarkable cardinal from the West African nation of Guinea is a testimony to the vitality of Catholic Christian faith, especially in non-Western nations. As Sarah notes, in 1900 there were 2 million Catholics in Africa; today there are nearly 200 million—while Western Catholics bemoan the failings of their Church.
Inspired to become a priest by white missionaries in his tiny village in the mountains of Guinea, Sarah has risen to become a close confidant of popes Benedict and now Francis. He offers the challenging perspective that colonialism is alive and well in Africa. Where once Western nations dominated and exploited Africans with military force, now the damage is done by ideology. So much about today’s postmodern, liberal thinking is anathema to Africans—from our disrespect for life, particularly the lives of older citizens, to the sudden revolution imposed by gender ideology. But these points of view are indeed colonizing nations that Sarah himself characterizes as “helpless” in the face of them.
Sarah also reminds us, however, that ideologies come and go while truth remains.
There is something stilted about the language in this book, an oddness that is probably a combination of Sarah's dignified ways of speech, the fact that the book is translated from French, and a lot of over-editing. Many times Sarah will say, “How can we ever forget the words of—?” followed by a long quote from the source, so long that it could not possibly be from memory.
While other books based on interviews with the likes of Benedict and Francis have seemed refreshingly off-the-cuff, this one sounds like an overworked thesis, which is too bad. Because the back story of Sarah’s rise from a tiny village, through years of political oppression and even terror in his home country, to the courts of the Vatican is an astounding one; and I’m sure it would be even more astounding to hear Cardinal Sarah tell it in person, in his own idiom.
Nevertheless, this book will give the Catholic reader renewed hope for the present and future of the Church. A keynote is struck with a (long) quote from Romans 5, which includes this excerpt (all I can remember!): “Suffering brings endurance, endurance brings character, character brings hope.”
The 12th in the Aubrey-Maturin series offered me so much pleasure that I have added it to my list of G/R favorites, alongside #9, “Treason’s Harbour.”The 12th in the Aubrey-Maturin series offered me so much pleasure that I have added it to my list of G/R favorites, alongside #9, “Treason’s Harbour.” It seems a while since Jack Aubrey led a dramatic naval action (and can anyone pronounce the word “action” like narrator Patrick Tull, who packs all the force of “attack” into “ac”?).
Here Jack plans and executes the “cutting out” of a French naval ship, literally hijacking it from a standing start at a French pier. And poor lovelorn Stephen pursues Diana to Sweden.
Both Jack and his Catholic doctor-buddy-spy Stephen Maturin are rescued from on-shore woes, at least temporarily. But will Jack ever set his finances straight? Will Stephen and Diana ever live happily ever after, even for a few months? I guess I’ll have to read #13 (or listen to Tull’s version) to find out!...more
In many ways the most useful book about L’Arche that I have read, this is a straight chronological history of the movement started in 1964 by Jean VanIn many ways the most useful book about L’Arche that I have read, this is a straight chronological history of the movement started in 1964 by Jean Vanier. While others I have read focus on the spirituality of communities in which people with and without intellectual disabilities live together, this “Ark” stresses the concrete difficulties that Vanier and company have overcome and still continue to face.
How is it possible to be L’Arche in a non-L’Arche world, one in which government regulations have grown up like privet hedges around the care of the disabled? What is the exact religious identity of L’Arche, which began as Catholic but has become not only interdenominational but even inter-religious? (In India and elsewhere, L’Arche communities include Hindus, Muslims, and Jews.)
Vanier confesses—though he was lauded by the like of John Paul II: “The Roman Catholic Church can view us as a bit of an exceptional oddity. Other churches can see us as being too Roman Catholic. To whom do we really belong?” More than fifty years past its founding, L’Arche remains a remarkable movement that may never come to rest. (Indeed, hopefully not.) Here is its history: short, concise, and inspiring. ...more
This book disappointed me, probably because I was expecting some grand synthesis of Aristotle and L’Arche, of which Vanier is the founder. Maybe thisThis book disappointed me, probably because I was expecting some grand synthesis of Aristotle and L’Arche, of which Vanier is the founder. Maybe this “Happiness” was only someone’s (some publisher’s?) idea of pulling together Vanier’s (pre-L’Arche) PhD thesis on Aristotle into something salable. In any event, I skimmed the last half, which tells you what began to feel about it, or not feel.
Still, as a non-philosopher myself, there are some very worthwhile points I will take away, perhaps because they resonate most with my own view of the world:
• Aristotle’s ethics, according to Vanier, are an “ethics of desire”—not what we should do, but what our hearts, at their deepest, long for. “According to Aristotle, to adopt an ethical approach supposes that we set about listening to what it is that profoundly attracts us” (akin to the Ignatian notion of discernment).
• Aristotle’s ethics push us outward—toward others, toward service—in contrast to Plato’s teaching that the truth and the good are to be sought within oneself. “In order to realize his full potential, to be fully alive and conscious of living and existing, man needs an object outside himself.”
• And so happiness is not a state, “but a vital activity proceeding from within each human being.”
• “Nothing pushes us quite as radically beyond ourselves as friendship.”
My attention began to lapse in the long middle section of the book, where Vanier lectures on Aristotle’s ideas about virtue. Although these ideas leaked into Christian ethics, I began to see that maybe the old academic philosopher, which Vanier was before L’Arche, had been resurrected to explain virtue point by point, as in a good survey course, without the synthesis I hoped for.
Then in the last 10 percent of the book, Vanier explains most of what was wrong with Aristotle’s ethics, including Aristotle’s misogyny; his focus on the ethical, wise, wealthy male; his eugenics, effectively; and his belief that those with mental disabilities (Vanier’s life’s calling) are not worth a snap. Vanier concludes with a half-hearted apology for these “shortcomings” of Aristotle, urging us readers not to dismiss Aristotle’s “notion of a natural law, but, rather, deepen it.”
I confess that my understanding of Greek philosophy has always been superficial. I regret that it was not deepened by this disappointing book. ...more