Francis Phillips reviews Spiritual Books for January 2007

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Francis Phillips reviews Spiritual Books for January 2007

Christian Living: the Spirituality of the Foyers of Charity. By Donal Foley. Theotokos Books. £7.95.

For those who have not come across them, the Foyers of Charity are one of the new ecclesial movements in the Church. Fr Ian Ker, author of a CTS booklet on this phenomenon, has also contributed the foreword to this slim book, a record of the spiritual conferences attended by the author at a Foyer retreat in France. The first Foyer was established in 1936 at Chateauneuf-de-Galaure by the mystic, Marthe Robin, and a young priest, Georges Finet, with the aim of providing 5-day, silent retreats for lay people. Since then, Foyer communities comprising a chaplain and consecrated lay and married members have spread around the world, offering their own unique brand of holy hospitality. It is to be hoped that Foley’s book will help speed the possibility of a permanent Foyer community in the UK. His themes of discipleship, holiness, prayer and the person of Jesus, garnered from the daily conferences, provide an intensive guide to Christian living which is reinforced by the silence and the duration. Such a structure is designed for sinners rather than shirkers; as Foley comments: “Our failures in life can lead to conversion” - and mediocrity won’t get us to heaven.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Bernard O’Donoghue. Penguin Classics. £8.99

Some may wonder why I have included this obscure poem, written in Middle English in c. 1380, in this column. Although I do not agree with the Romantic notion that poetry is a substitute for God, it is the art form that can bring us closest to him. “Sir Gawain”, with its potent fusion of Christian belief, legend, myth and magic, has an enduring popularity – not merely with undergraduates – that firmly rebuts Philip Larkin’s assertion that “the myth-kitty is empty”. To read it is to be filled with the excitement of encountering a compelling poetical drama which, despite its archaic penumbra, has an entirely modern psychological ring to it. It is also appropriate that a story which begins with a mysterious New Year’s Day challenge at the court of King Arthur should open this column for the year 2007. Sir Gawain himself is the very stuff of chivalrous knighthood: chaste, honourable, brave and devoted to Our Lady. His quest to fulfil his destiny can be interpreted as the spiritual quest of everyman. Bernard O’Donoghue states that “all great poetry is untranslatable”; although this is true, his translation well captures the rhythm and ironical tone of the original. What is missing, inevitably, is the sheer alliterative power of the Middle English, demonstrated in an appendix that includes the first 25 lines from part IV. Penguin Classics should consider a dual text, like the old Paget Toynbee edition of Dante, to acquaint readers more closely with the beauty of the original.


The Silence of Thomas. By Bruno Forte. New City: 020 8453 1558, £5.95.

The author of this short work, a priest in Naples, would agree with my assertion above: that poetry brings us closest to God (if in doubt, read the Psalms). He has composed a series of brief poetic sequences, interspersed by the facts of St Thomas Aquinas’ later life, on the theme of the saint’s celebrated “silence” between 6th December 1273 after he had celebrated Mass and his death on 7th March 1274. The foreword by Aidan Nichols OP elucidates the statement made by Thomas prior to his silence, that his writings were “chaff”. This does not mean that they were rubbish; rather, a “beginning” that could only be concluded and consummated in heaven. The translation by David Glenday suggests the awe that made Thomas dumb: The straw turns to ashes/but there still burns/the living flame/of Your love/You…last harbour of my humble heart.”


Meditations on Life. By Thomas Kala, £11.50

Taking as his starting point the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, the author attempts a comprehensive survey of man’s place in life, the universe and everything. This is a tall order, though undertaken with some panache by this determined Darwinian. Despite marvelling at the myriad aspects of planet earth, Kala, who is by his own reckoning “not a special creation but simply the most highly evolved primate”, does not lift his sights to the possibility of a Creator. Naturally enough he is a pessimist at heart, terrified by Malthusian nightmares of over-population, famine and the fear of global scorching. I diagnose a severe case of Faust-fever and would prescribe a daily dose of the Book of Genesis until symptoms abate, with convalescence at a Foyer retreat. After all, a life examined under the gaze of Christ is the most sublime worth living.

© 2007 Francis Phillips


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