Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Best Books of 2019: Six through Ten

Continuing my list from yesterday: My ways of determining which books made this list were: 1) How much I enjoyed reading the book; 2) How much I learned from reading the book, especially as it added to knowledge I already had; 3) the author's skill in using sources and making an argument I could engage with; and 4) how well the book connected with other books I was reading or other events I was attending.

From May 2019:

Sweeney chose an appropriate motto for the book:

"To live at peace among . . . those who oppose us, is a great grace, and a most commendable and manly achievement." (from Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated and introduction by Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952, repr. 1979), p. 71)

Southwell's formation as a Jesuit, his experience living in Counter-Reformation Rome, his vocation as priest and avocation as poet, graced him with that peace even in the midst of torture and imprisonment, as reports of his trial and execution attest.

One of the parts of the book that impressed me the most was Sweeney's exploration of the effects of art in Rome on Southwell while he was studying there in combination with his formation with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola--referencing Between Renaissance and Baroque: Jesuit Art in Rome, 1565-1610 by Gauvin Alexander Bailey (University of Toronto Press, 2003). She elucidates how Southwell's formation influenced the brilliant imagery of his poetry, translating ideas into pictures, describing images to symbolize concepts, expressing the transcendent through earthly things in the imagination.

I highly recommend Snow in Arcadia to anyone interested in the era, Southwell, the English mission, Southwell's poetry, the situation of Catholics in England during Elizabeth I's reign, an understanding of the Jesuits in Rome, etc. 

Note, that at the same time I was reading Snow in Arcadia, I was awaiting the publication of a book review I had submitted to the Saint Austin Review of Southwell's Sphere: The Influence of England's Secret Poet  by Gary Bouchard:

As Gary M. Bouchard said, it is sad that Anne R. Sweeney died before she could continue developing her insights into St. Robert Southwell's poetry and his place in English literature. May she rest in the peace of Christ.

On a not so recent visit to Eighth Day Books, I noticed stacks of books by Patrick Leigh Fermor and picked up this one about his visits to monasteries, especially to the Abbey of Saint Wandrille de Fontenelle, and La Trappe Abbey (aka La Grande Trappe). Fermor is renowned as a travel writer and the New York Review of Books publishes excellent editions of his works . . .

In the chapters on the Benedictine Abbey of  Saint Wandrille de Fontenelle, and the Trappist La Trappe Abbey in France, Fermor demonstrates great sympathy and admiration of the monks. He stays as a guest in both houses for some time and gets used to the rhythm of the Rule through his observation and limited participation. While he is astonished by the strictness of the Trappist rule, he accepts the consolations that those monks allowed to converse with him describe. He enjoys the silence and the freedom he experiences in Saint Wandrille and Solesmes (which he barely describes because he found staying there so much like staying at Saint Wandrille); after having a hard time at the beginning getting used to the silence and the solitude, when he leaves and rejoins the busy modern world of Paris, he misses the monastery peace.

He manages to seem something more than a visitor or a mere observer. Through his contacts with the monks who interact with guests he goes beyond curiosity to acceptance. Therefore he defends the monks against the charges of uselessness and seeking escape from the world. In fact, Fermor almost seems to contradict the statement that Chesterton made in his essay "Why I am a Catholic"; at least in the monastic orders the Catholic Church has developed and approved, Fermor is "just to the Catholic Church" without feeling "a tug toward it":

"It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it, they feel a tug toward it. The moment they cease to shout it down, they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it, they begin to be fond of it."

He admires those who personify the monastic ideal and honors them through his admiration, but he does not imitate them. He goes to Paris and checks into the Hotel La Louisiane on the Rue de la Seine and soon gets used to the noise and distractions.

In March:

The first two parts of the book, "The Sacraments" and "Intercession" are the most successful demonstration of the premise of the book: that the images and architecture of Counter-Reformation Rome, starting with the reign of Pope Sixtus V helped the Church defend and revive the doctrines and religious devotions codified at the Council of Trent. The Real Presence, the Sacrament of Penance, Holy Orders, Baptism, the Communion of Saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, miracles, repentance, etc: Lev matches the restated doctrine to certain paintings exactly.

The third part, "Cooperation" did not explore the thesis of how Catholic Art Saved the Faith but how the Church continued our mission to preach the Gospel to the whole world. The hall of maps and Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers are at a remove from the work of the Church in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The chapter on "Faith and Empiricism" also deviates from the thesis as Lev explores the relationship between faith and reason; the Church and science. I don't think she clarified effectively the difference between Aristotelian/Scholastic Empiricism and the modern Empiricism of Locke and Hume.

The later chapters, on the martyrs, the dignity of women, and the war on sin get back on track, and Lev ends her analysis of faith and art with a discussion of Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. She also provides some good hints for making great Catholic art part of our lives; brief biographies of the major artists, photo credits, and a bibliography.

I did not actually review my ninth book on this list, but read it for the Christendom Academy class I attended at the Spiritual Life Center. It was the second work we read and discussed: everything after it seemed to reflect some of the tenets of Stoicism. From Oxford World Classics:

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is one of the best-known and most popular works of ancient philosophy, offering spiritual reflections on how best to understand the universe and one's place within it. In short, highly charged comments, Marcus draws on Stoic philosophy to confront challenges that he felt acutely, but which are also shared by all human beings--facing the constant presence of death, making sense of one's social role, grasping the moral significance of the universe. They bring us closer to the personality of the emperor, who is often disillusioned with his own status and with human activities in general; they are both an historical document and a remarkable spiritual diary. This translation by Robin Hard brings out the eloquence and universality of Marcus' thoughts. The introduction and notes by Christopher Gill take account of the most recent work on Marcus and place the Meditations firmly in the ancient philosophical context. A newly translated selection of Marcus' correspondence with his tutor Fronto broadens the picture of the emperor as a person and thinker.

My last book on the list is also my recommendation for Lenten reading to anyone who wants to supplement Sunday and daily Mass participation. I reviewed for Homiletic & Pastoral Review:

Among my annual preparations for Lent, amidst planning menus for Fridays, searching out schedules for Stations of the Cross (preferably with Exposition, Adoration, and Benediction) and other devotional opportunities, and deciding what charitable causes to support, selecting spiritual reading for the season is essential. Catholic publishers provide a wide array of choices from classic to contemporary, for different age groups or other demographics, with reflections, prayers, activities, and suggested penances, etc.

Father Thomas Hoisington’s new Reflections on the Sacred Liturgy from In Hoc Est Caritas Press offers readers an excellent alternative not just because of its focus on the lectionary readings for every day of Lent, but also because he includes all three Sunday reading cycles (A, B, and C). This one book will be beneficial for reflection and meditation from 2019 through 2032: I should live so long! It’s also a useful volume for priests preparing Sunday homilies or daily feverinos and for RCIA catechists in preparing catechumens and candidates for the Scrutinies and Holy Week.

With passing references to outside authorities (St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, Bl. John Henry Newman, the Catechism of the Catholic Church) Father Hoisington heeds his own counsel that “we should never underestimate the depth of Sacred Scripture” (45) when seeing how the readings at Mass connect with each other and with our lives as Catholic Christians. Each reflection makes connections within the lectionary readings for the day, or between those readings and common Lenten devotions like the Stations of the Cross, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, or between the readings and the Sacraments, especially of Baptism, Confession, and Holy Communion. The entire book is suffused with Catholic doctrine, devotion, and morality. For example, when describing how God can bring great good out of evil, he tells us, “If you find it hard to acknowledge this, pray an entire rosary without taking your eyes of the crucifix” (39), thus reminding us that God responded to the “happy fault of Adam” with the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery. . . .

I invite you to comment on your favorite books read in 2019!

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