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Christian Life


There were days and there were cultures in which children were encouraged to be Mary or Joseph-like, with all girls given either a Marian first or middle name, and boys given the first or middle name of Joseph. I had heard of these cultures but never met one of them in these United States until coming to Illinois for a year as a guest professor at Lewis University in suburban Chicago. St. Andrew’s Parish in Romeoville, where I am happy to pray with the folks, has in the front offices: Mary the bookkeeper, Marian the secretary, Maria the director of worship, Sr. Maria the director of religious education, Sr. Mary Delores the principal, Bernadette Mary the stewardship coordinator, Marian the secretary for religious education, and a male Marion in maintenance. We are not far here from the reign of God.

And, speaking of the reign of God, the books considered this month are more volumes under the general rubric of spirituality.

In Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality (Orbis, 143 pages, $12 paperback), Michael Downey seeks to articulate the contours of a Trinitarian spirituality shaped by three insights of the late, esteemed Catherine LaCugna with whom he had collaborated on an essay for The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality. These insights include the assertions: whatever is said of the mystery of God begins with the Incarnate Word and the activity of the Spirit in human life; the relational mystery of God is expressed in the language of Father, Son and Spirit; the Trinitarian doctrine is a practical teaching expressing not just how we understand God but the human call of being created to glorify God by living in communion with God and one another through Christ in the Spirit.

Downey and LaCugna had planned to work together on a book of Trinitarian spirituality, but her illness and death cancelled those plans. This book is a different treatment of what they had first planned. In it, he looks to enunciate a “grammar of the Trinity” to speak to the deepest desires of the human heart, “the region of wound and wisdom wherein we long for loving communion with God and others.”

His book is intended for those who recognize the need for theological foundations in living the Christian life. To this end, Downey concludes that as we come to know the love of the Father through the Son in the Spirit, we come to recognize the magnitude of God’s love in human life and creation, in history, our own lives and the lives of others, in church and the wider world. His reflection on vocation is a model of spirituality not in service of private piety, but seeking a rich awareness of the life of the baptized in the communion of Christ’s Body in the Spirit.

Downey does not give directions or how-to steps about managing or improving one’s life. He notes that his is not a recipe book, but is intended for spiritual seekers with some theological formation, even if it is not formal theological education, as he aims to connect technical treatises with personal life. Here he reveals himself as the kind of pastoral writer much needed today: one who can effectively be an informed interpreter or mediator between the academy and the pews.

He wisely notes that his work is neither a comprehensive theology of the Trinity nor a systematic presentation of Trinitarian spirituality. His task instead is to call attention to the gift given in the Trinity so as to invite participation in the mystery of the Three in one Love. Trinitarian spirituality, he asserts, is nothing more or less than living both in and from this gift.

Chapter Six includes 15 points for prayerful reflection, which seem to be the logical conclusion of such a book. Each is intended to be of help in pondering the mystery of God’s love.

Those responsible for the academic formation of the church’s emerging lay ministers and those lay ministers seeking better formation in lived spirituality should be among the audiences who should appreciate this little volume.

I much appreciated Long Have I Loved You: A Theologian Reflects on His Church, by Jesuit Fr. Walter J. Burghardt (Orbis, 506 pages, $20 paperback), noted author and preacher, author of 18 books and 270 articles, and editor of Theological Studies for 44 years. His title recalls Augustine’s confession, “Late have I loved you.” I flipped first to his epilogue, “Grateful Memories,” which is devoted to the 27 men and women who have led him to the book’s conclusion and his own: “I’ve been blest.” And such a collection it is: of wit and wisdom and insight and blessing and grace, character after gifted character. The telling is an inspired litany of love and kinship, both intellectual and spiritual, and conveys no hint of name-dropping. But such a list!

I took this book when traveling on a plane and did not look up from it, even when stuck on a runway at O’Hare without explanation. This is not an autobiography, Burghardt insists, but a reflection on much of a century, one man reflecting after eight decades interaction with hundreds of other minds, faces, voices and hearts.

His chapters are shaped around areas of thinking and living that have engaged his attention: “I look back into a living past, I stare into my present, I peer into the future.” He hopes that his experiences may illuminate significant areas of human, religious and Christian developments.

Writing of his own technique for preparing to preach, he illustrates the attitude of awe to which believers are called: “on tiptoe of expectation, ready for every surprise of our surprising Spirit.” He helps us to understand Ignatian spirituality, which has clearly formed and sustained him, as an effort to find God everywhere, in all persons and things. This poetic sense of awe provokes the question, “How is it that more than 4,000 varieties of roses can grow and perfume our earth, giant redwoods stalk the California sky? Because an imaginative Christ gave them life.”

Burghardt is not afraid to criticize. He opines, “Most of our educated Catholics, including clerics, lack a sense of Catholic tradition.” But, he does not consider his own learning complete. He refers to a book by fellow Jesuit Thomas Rausch, Priesthood Today: An Appraisal, which “has compelled me to reexamine several aspects of priesthood I have taken for granted ever since my undergraduate years at Woodstock.”

Burghardt’s insights into feminism in his chapter, “From Eve to Mary to … ?: Women in the Church,” ought to be required reading for those who cannot or will not understand what is at issue: “Division, domination, subordination -- such is not God’s design, nor God’s desire.”

Who should read this book? Seminarians and young religious and those responsible for their formation, in hopes that they, too, will grow straight and strong and wise in service to the church. All those who seek holiness and wholeness. Those who look back pleased with a long life and who can rejoice in a fellow pilgrim’s wise observations. Those who seek to enter the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Those who struggle to see wisdom where first they perceive injustice or oppression.

Readers should also include those who wish to see wisdom at work in the human community. Those who wish to see the intersection of Christ and culture. Aspiring poets. Good preachers. Bad preachers. Indifferent preachers who want to shake off indifference. Readers of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Those who find Hopkins hopelessly obtuse. Those who seek the Lord. Those who appreciate a good read.

Finally, biographers who think that biographies and autobiographies have to begin with grandparents and crying babies.

Hard to think of those who should avoid this book. Can’t come up with a list.

Fr. William C. Graham is at work on a new book titled Clothed in Christ: A Spirituality for Lay Ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001