Francis Phillips reviews Spiritual Books for January 2009

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Francis Phillips reviews Spiritual Books for January 2009

The Mystery of Faith, by Fr Tadeusz Dajczer, Eucharistic Renewal Books. £6. 50 inc. postage. Distributed by Fr Bryan Storey, Bossiney Road, Tintagel, Cornwall PL34 OAQ.

This book, which has already sold many copies in Poland, focuses on how the faithful can increase their openness to the graces of the Eucharist. These “do not spiritually force their way into us”, as the author makes clear.

Often speaking in the first person in order to show his personal difficulties and dryness – “without Faith I’d despair” is one such example – he is at pains to help readers renew their awe and reverence for “the greatest miracle in the world”, which takes place at the Consecration. Familiarity with this miracle often breeds a mechanical response (as an atheist friend is fond of pointing out to me, “If you Catholics actually believed that you were receiving Christ, wouldn’t it totally transform your lives?” etc).

Fr Dajczer describes the behaviour of the Angel of Fatima, witnessed by the three seers, and his profound obeisance and adoration in the presence of a vision of the Host. This, he implies, should be our own attitude; we need to cut out our distractions, recalling that “God gives Himself only to those who are desperately needy”. We all reflect at times the careless profligacy of the prodigal son or the unloving self-righteousness of the older brother. Many saints are cited as examples of Eucharistic devotion: Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Therese of Lisieux.

I am reminded of a homily I once heard, describing St Thomas Aquinas’ week: three days of devout preparation before the celebration of Mass, followed by three days of ardent thanksgiving. “Christ”, says the author “is the answer to every inhibition or wound”.

Finding Happiness, by Abbot Christopher Jamison. Weidenfeld & Nicolosn. £12. 99.

Following on from the successful 2005 television series “The Monastery”, the Abbot of Worth brings the riches of the Christian tradition to thoughtful readers, people outside a religious faith yet who still yearn to make sense of their lives. Pointing out that some people are prepared to be “vicious rather than virtuous in order to be what they call happy”, Jamison emphasises at the outset that goodness and virtue are integral aspects of happiness.

Relying mainly on the writings of the Desert Father, John Cassian (AD 360), he explains how the theology underpinning monastic life can be adapted fruitfully to life outside the monastery’s walls. How can ordinary people cope with legitimate freedoms and not be overrun by them? The results of such an “overrunning” are too numerous to mention in our society; according to Jamison, if we can understand the phrase of the Desert Fathers: “purity of heart” (translated in modern language as “freedom of the spirit”) we will begin to see that such freedom involves self-control if it is not to lead to mere licence.

The “Eight Thoughts”, similar to what the Catechism calls the “Seven Deadly Sins”, are gluttony, lust and greed; anger, sadness and acedia; vanity and pride. Jamison analyses each of these in turn, in order of importance, showing how they can and must be combated by their opposing virtue, if we are to be happy. The framework of the 12-step programme of AA is utilised; a familiar reference for books like this, suggesting the perennial usefulness of the psychology behind the success of the AA format.

“Acedia”, defined by Jamison as spiritual apathy (according to Cassian “acedia is full of mockery”) is more common today than we realise: that generalised scorn for the things of the spirit that is endemic in the media. Gluttony, the obsession with food that can cause obesity and anorexia, is also pervasive. On lust the author remarks mildly that respect for the traditional boundaries placed around sexual activity “has something positive to offer us”.

Jamison is indebted to a school of psychological thought called “Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapy” (REBT) that “refuses to allow the takeover of our inner world by irrational outbursts of feeling”; we must cease to be victims and take responsibility for our lives. This again can be usefully harnessed to Cassian’s insistence that we have to be responsible for our own virtue.

The book is full of helpful insights, including the author’s frank acknowledgement of his own need to overcome anger when he was once badly let down. I would recommend that WH Smith removes the mumbo-jumbo of its “self-help” shelves and replaces them with Jamison’s wise and practical prescriptions.

© 2009 Francis Phillips

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