Fall Books
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 6, 2006

By John Garvey
Templegate Publishers, 124 pages, $12.95
A rich spirituality to be savored


For years I have maintained a subscription to Commonweal magazine in order that I might read the essays of John Garvey. They are nourishing and flavorful like a piece of good chocolate. When some months ago, I saw that a collection of his essays was being published, I bought the book through the mail. When it arrived, I sat down and read four essays without stopping. Result: mental indigestion. These essays offer so much food for thought they need to be savored, not swallowed whole.

If there is a common theme to these disparate essays on spirituality, it’s the need for great humility when it comes to religion. “Concepts create idols. Only wonder comprehends anything,” Fr. Garvey writes, quoting the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

In an essay called “Making Use of Religion,” Garvey discusses the tendency of people to use religion and religious ideas to bolster their own ego. Absolutist views of religion do not necessarily represent a search for truth, he points out. In line with this idea, another chapter of Fr. Garvey’s book is titled “Religion, Morality and the Need to Be Right.”

Many spiritual writers write as if everything in life is hunky-dory. Fr. Garvey, a priest in the Orthodox church in America, is sobering yet comforting in his acknowledgement that life is difficult. He writes that we don’t own God, that faith is hard to live, and not absolutely certain. “Trust in God is nothing like a claim on him or ownership or a sense of absolute certainty,” he writes.

One of the most beautiful essays in the book is “Suffering and God’s Compassion.” Garvey writes that the Christian God is not the God of the Deists but an incarnate God who through his great compassion for man becomes incarnate and suffers with us.

This mystery at the heart of suffering is central to Fr. Garvey’s thinking. He carries within him the anguish of both the nonbeliever and the believer and has the ability to see both sides of any problem.

This is reflected in his discussion of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov in his essay on “Choice, Freedom and the Mystery of Evil.” Fr. Garvey empathizes with Ivan Karamazov, who is so revolted by suffering that he refuses to believe in God. Ivan describes the torment of a child and says the mother has no right to forgive the suffering of her child who was torn to pieces. “I want to remain with unrequited suffering and unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong,” he declares.

Fr. Garvey’s comment is “Any believer who has never felt this way lacks a human heart. It is a grace to feel the horror of our true condition.”

But later Fr. Garvey says that there is someone who can forgive. It is said like a quiet melody in answer to a huge complex symphony of pain. I was left wondering, sorrowing why the voice against faith seemed so much louder than the voice for faith.

Fr. Garvey’s ideas reflect the Russian Orthodox tradition he serves. In that tradition, God is rarely defined or described but is adored as the unknowable, loving presence of a father.

I suggest that you read each essay slowly as though you were sitting down with the author over a cup of coffee. Fr. Garvey is never dogmatic; rather he provides some new perspectives on current ideas.

One great value of this book is that each essay is 12 pages long at the most and can be read separately from the others. For those with little time, the easy access to Fr. Garvey’s thought is precious.

Kate Oglebay White worked for 17 years at La Maison d’Ananie, center for the catechumenate in Paris.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org