Tag Archives: book review

Book review; Lay Siege to Heaven Louis de Wohl

lay-siege-to-heaven2248lgI think Lay Siege to Heaven is the best of de Wohl’s books. He has always done his homework on the historical context for any of his books and there’s a great deal of history here, but in this book he seems to have a strong understanding of Catherine Benincasa and her mother which gives a strong, three dimensional figure to both women. The books isn’t really about Mona Lapa Benincasa but she is there and you can’t help getting to know her.

Louis de Wohl does not give us a sloppy plaster saint, but rather a woman of fire and energy driven by her love of God and His demands on her.  He treats her relationship with God well and seems to have a good grip on the miraculous happenings from her intersession. I particularly love the way she seems to tell the hospital doctor off for being lazy lying dead in bed. Up he gets – plague free and alive again – and sets about his work with the same gusto she had with her care of the plague victims crowding the hospital and town of Sienna.

De Wohl does not shy away from the terrible mess the Church was in, with weak, comfort loving Popes keeping the Bride in her Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. The greed, simony and vice of the whole Avignon set up is made clear by de Wohl who has his information from history, the writings of St. Catherine’s friend Fra Raymond Capua and from Catherine’s amazing and at times rather shocking letters.

For the last ten years of her life (she died at the age of 33) Catherine ate nothing but the Eucharist. She is not the only saint who has been a living proof of the life of the Bread of Life. There’s a touching scene in the book in which the Pope, to test Catherine’s obedience, asks her if she would eat something should he command her.

She says she would obey him and eat whatever he commanded, but she could not obey him if he asked her to keep it down. She had eaten less and less over the years as food immediately came back until she stopped eating altogether.

There is a great deal of historical and biographical information on St. Catherine of Siena as well as the historical record of the years of her life. De Whol has been faithful to this giving the book it’s authenticity.

He touches briefly on her relationship with St. Bridget of Sweden and her daughter St. Katrin of Vadstena (aka St Catherine of Sweden). There’s a moment when she had asked Katrin to negotiate with the awful Queen Joanna of Naples and Katrin still smarting from what had happened to her older brother Karl, refused.

The Church has produced a few very great saints and St. Catherine of Siena is one of the greatest.

A chapel built on a rock in the grounds of the St. Malo retreat centre is named for her and was visited by Bl. Pope John Paul II. Recently a massive flood and mudslide destroyed a lot in the area although the floods came right up to the rock the chapel remained untouched. Catherine weathered the storms that hit the Church in her era, and those storms were great as the Popes were so weak. But she prevailed and at last the pope returned to Rome where he belonged and the beginning of the renewal could take place. There are many times over the 2000 years since Christ established His Church on Peter -Kephas- the rock and the apostles that the storms and flood waters looked to destroy her; but His promise stands firm.

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Book review: A Postcard from the Volcano by Lucy Beckett

imagesHoliday reading time and I’ve just finished A Postcard from the Volcano by Lucy Beckett. It tells the story of a young Prussian Count Max von Hofmannswaldau as he grows up and reaches adulthood through two world wars. Max makes friends with a Polish aristocrat and the story is woven around their different paths towards truth and the wholesale madness that takes over Germany as the country slides with ever increasing speed into the horror of Nazism.

Beckett’s knowledge of history is deep and profound. She has been criticized by some reviewers for using her characters to explain the history and philosophy that ended Prussia and brought poor Germany to such a terrible place. But I liked the way the characters argued with each other over what had happened and how the wise Classical Tutor kept his boys thinking right up to the point where all minds were closed and made Nazi.

Rather alarmingly there are far too many parallels with today’s media and Government approach. New laws in America in particular (as well as less obvious laws here in the UK) are very similar to those that came out in Germany before the Second World War in which people could be arrested and detained without trial or hope of justice.  As Pro-life and pro-family people around the First World are targeted by police today, so pro-life and pro-Jewish people were targeted then.

The history of the world wars is a vital part of our human history in that it really can teach us and warn us. It is with sadness that so much of what Beckett writes in her rich truthfully historical novel is still happening and repeating today.

Some of the men are offered scientific research posts in which they are to prove the Aryan race is superior and the Jews are less human. Just as today scientists are rewarded for “science” that helps the Government and Insurance industry wash it’s hands of sick people, so it was then.

Three wise men hold Max’s life together as he negotiates the pitfalls of growing up and learning love. His tutor at home Dr. Mendel is wise but too saddened and perhaps too influenced by the pagan Roman culture he teaches. Max’s grandfather Dr. Meyer who builds a harpsichord showing that in good music there is still hope and in Bach there is still a soul for Germany.

I am sure I read or heard once that someone had said that the music of Bach was a proof for the existence of God. Bach does shine gently throughout the story, an old portrait of the great musician and composer being a sort of presence in Max’s life, along with the violin that Max plays.

Finally there is the very wise Dr Fischer who is the tutor at the Gymnasium Max attends.

Breslau is a city full of a mix of people, Jews, Germans from all over old Prussia, Austrians and Poles and more. It could have been a wonderful cultural sharing space for music and art and learning.  The people are like people everywhere, good, bad, saintly and evil.

One thing that interested me was the realization (I hadn’t known this) that the economy of Germany was already on the mend when Hitler came to power. The people didn’t need to blame the Jews or the Poles or the Catholics. They were on the way up already. But something was already “rotten in the state of Denmark” as Max’s friend Zapolski who plays Hamlet while they are at University notes.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a backdrop to the thought that runs through the book. Playing the role has a profound effect on the Nietzsche loving Zapolski for Shakespeare’s worldview is diametrically different from Neitzsche’s.

While there’s a lot in the book that points to how a good culture based on fine thought like Goethe, Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson and of course the wonderful Bach can steer a person around the banality of evil, there’s some points that are missing in the story.

Beckett talks about the beliefs of the local parish priest, one a true Christian, another a Nationalist and anti-Semite, but she never mentions the Vatican Document Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Zeal) which was and is the only Vatican document to be written and promulgated in German. All documents are usually made in Latin and then translated. This document was given out on Passion Sunday (Mar 14th) 1937 and spoke strongly and clearly against the rise in Hitler’s National Socialism. I think it’s a strange thing to leave out when she was clear about the Concordat, which of course Hitler signed but reneged on. I personally don’t have an issue with the Concordat that some people have. The Holy Father saw what was coming, he’d warned the Bavarian people against voting for Hitler and in very large part they didn’t. He was trying to save his people as best he could. That seems a good thing to me.

Becket traces the culture of evil that in some ways made Hitler inevitable from Nietzsche through social Darwinism, runaway materialism and all this built on fear and loss for Germany. Luther is condemned but Darwin let off the hook somewhat.  I am not sure what I make of that.

If you want to get to understand how those wars came about, reading this book straight after the Head of the House of Coombe and Robin is a really good way to learn. They are very different books, written with a different style but they both show facets of the culture and thought that made the 20th century into such a century of slaughter.

I wish we would learn. But we don’t.

Book Review: Shadows and Images by Meriol Trevor.

shadows-images-novel-meriol-trevor-paperback-cover-artI get the sense that Meriol Trevor is making a come back and I am glad she is. Many, if not all, of her books were out of print but thanks to some good American publishers they are making it back into both print and ebook format.

Shadows and Images is a gentle novel based around the fictional characters of Clem and Augustine and their families; while the over riding character is the very real John Henry Cardinal Newman of the Birmingham Oratory (now Blessed). Trevor’s knowledge of the life and times of Newman is deep and broad so although the book is “historical fiction” it’s very factual historical fiction.

Trevor touches on the industrialism of the Midlands, particularly around Birmingham and the Black Country; Bilston even gets a mention! There is the underlying issue of bad practice and unjust wages for the workers. But she spends a little more time on the surge of anti-Catholic feeling since Emancipation, including some of the violence.

She doesn’t mention this, but here’s a bit of my history to add. I was baptised in one of the first Catholic Churches to be built and opened after Emancipation was finally granted in 1829. SS Mary and John’s in Wolverhampton was opened in 1850, but just beforehand as the Church was completed a baptist minister from somewhere else (nowhere near Wolverhampton – can’t remember where) gathered a load of people to cause a riot against the church. Their attempt failed, partly because local protestants wouldn’t support him (good for them).

The church was opened on 1st May 1855 by Newman’s friend Cardinal Wiseman (who was pretty saintly himself). Wiseman is in Trevors book and his work during the dreadful cholera outbreak is noted.

Clem follows her friend Newman through his conversion, his difficulties over the Idea of a University, his uncomfortable relationships with Ward and Manning and the bizarre trial and attack on him by Charles Kingsley.

I found Kinglsey’s slander sad, especially in light of the good he had done to raise the issue of child labour.  Surely a good Christian should not have stooped to telling great big porkies about a fellow Christian, or anyone. But Newman took it in style and quietly forgave.

Trevor brings her story to an end as the elderly Clem continues her friendship with the even older Newman and those who worked with him such as the great Cardinal Ullathorne. She sees the end of an era that brought some little light to England before the great darkness of the First World War descended.

The children have read and loved Meriol Trevors Letzenstein Chronicles; The Crystal SnowstormFollowing the Phoenix, Angel and Dragon and The Rose Crown

The Rite by Matt Baglio. Book review (and some thoughts)

Matt Baglio follows the training and formation of American priest Fr. Gary Thomas who has been sent to Rome to learn the art of exorcism. It comes across as a very straight forward non-sensationalist account of the events and in that, some reviewers have been disappointed. For me this was rather refreshing. The subject matter is difficult enough and must be very difficult for those who suffer from oppression or possession and those who know and love them.

Fr. Gary begins his training with no interpreter and struggling to find his feet in the college and with senior exorcists when he had so little Italian. Any Catholic who has been part of the Church and her workings will smile at the usual chaos. Apparently there’s a bumper sticker which says “I hate organised religion” to which the only reply must be “so be a Catholic.”

ehem. I digress

Finally, Fr. Gary gets to apprentice with a very hard working priest, who has much God given stamina and who is the local exorcist with just enough English to communicate and Fr. Gary picks up just enough Italian that they can work in some middle pigeon ground.

The book is somewhat let down by its skirting over some aspects of possession, such as the different types and differences between hauntings, oppression and possession. He also says far too little on how people get into this pickle in the first place although the usual suspects are mentioned; dabbling in the occult and getting into superstitious practices.

He does mention curses, but doesn’t go unto detail about how these work and how they might fit into God’s permissive will.

Baglio describes some of the mental illnesses that must be assessed first before a consideration of possession can take place. This is a good solid overview but again is let down by Baglio’s own obvious lack of knowledge of psychiatry. He talks about somatisation as though this can be a valid diagnoses. There is no scientific or medical evidence that somatisation or as some call it conversion disorder actually exists. It falls under the same shadowy made-up dx as Munchausen and borderline personality disorder. There’s not real evidence for any of these labels. I think when trying to seek the truth about a person who presents with serious health problems it is important to seek the truth, about what is happening. Sadly I was left wondering how many people with spiritual problems were left with pseudo-diagnosis to palm them off.

After observing some exorcisms Fr. Gary recalls his own lack of personal experience of serious pain until he fell off a mountain and was severely injured. He remembered that it was the depression that came as a result of his injuries that was far more painful that the physical pain he felt. This reminiscence came shortly after the heart rending exorcism of a nun called Sr. Janica.

If you ever thought exoricism was just about being scary and weird and that you would never feel deep sorrow for a possessed person, her short story of longstanding suffering will change your mind.

In Fr Gary’s on painful experience he remembers how the Sacraments of the Sick and healing Masses helped him so much. This is something I truly wish the Church in the UK and elsewhere would take seriously. Far too many sick people are left without the healing ministry of the Church because it is simply not made available to us. It is hardly surprising in those situations that so many Catholics and other Christians turn to more dodgy ministries that in themselves have lead some people to require an exorsist when there is so little at parish level.

There are a number of questions that must be asked, and answered, which I think the book skips over too lightly. Why does God allow a person to be cursed so that they end up with some form of demonic possession having done nothing themselves to invite it?  I assume there’s some answer along the same lines as why God allows innocent people to be harmed or even killed by evil people.

The other question I had was on why some exorcisms took so long and why some people couldn’t be healed at all?

Overall the book is a good insight into one man’s training and how exorcists can and do work. It’s clear on many points and approaches it all very sensibly.Not all my questions were answered, but it was a good solid introduction to the subject.

Book Review: Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen

Just before we get down to term and begin the more formal learning, I finished reading Anthony Esolen’s book  Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child that Esolen writes on are:

1. Begin by rearing children almost exclusively indoors. He then goes on to show how his own childhood was spent exploring and discovering the wonders of his local world. How this taught him and inspired him so that he could wonder at the world. Some reviewers have noted this and believed it needed a good Editor to snip away at these passages. Having finished the book now, I disagree. The whole point of his apparent rambling is because he was allowed to ramble and in so doing learned to live. Those of us who follow Charlotte Mason’s philosophy know that nature study and exploration are core to her appoach in helping children learn.

2.Never allow children to organise their own worlds or exploration of that which is interesting or challenging. Living in a culture that schedules, timetables and controls every waking moment of a child’s life, this is easy to do. Simply allowing children to do their own thing occasionally, pick up a book and sit and read it; actually get bored even, has become anathema these days. Esolen again shows his own childhood was quite different and that he was allowed to collect rocks, peer into holes, stare at bugs and that he grew to love learning in that way. Not many children I know love learning.

It’s all part of what Dr. Ray Guarendi so aptly calls the Do-do-go-go-get-get culture. It seems to me to be at the root of parents being horrified at the prospect of having their own children around them all summer. They seem to think that the children must be timetabled and expensively entertained at all times, and if not then they must be put in front of the TV or video game for hours on end.

3. Don’t risk allowing children to explore machines or encounter those who know how to use them. This is easy to do if you drown them in ‘elf’n’safety paperwork. They’ll never get to use a cooker much less muck about with a bike engine if you follow all those rules. I am afraid with Ronan’s love of cooking and the fact that their dad is often in the shed messing about with tools, we are failing miserably in this area. Ronan even borrowed a hammer and built a wooden aeroplane last week, with nails and everything! Oh no!!

4. Replace fairy tales with clichés and fads. I was astonished at the very narrow education so many of the people I taught at University had been subjected to. They knew nothing about the traditional fairy stories or even Winnie the Pooh. Now you might say, well you don’t need to know Sleeping Beauty to do a degree, but the lack of foundational knowledge had made them so very narrow in thought, and quite frankly in maturity. It did make me wonder what children’s stories they did read or had read to them. Esolen points out that the traditional tales, often full of frightening imagy, not only helps form imagination, but offers heroes who must love against the odds or face fiercesome beasts with courage and a small sword. Children’s books that offer political fads and banality are bound to deaden both imaginarion and virtue – and there are so many such books to choose from, only they are all the same.

5. Denigrate or discard the heroic or patriotic. Children need heroes. If you want to destroy their imagination and soul then make sure they don’t have real heroes to emulate. Make them like that astonishingly damaged teenager on Jamie Oliver’s Nightmare School who wanted to be like Katy Price. I have failed in this already as my children loved the story of Beowulf and already have some horribly traditional fairy stories told to them thanks to the Andrew Lang books. Worse still they are presently reading along with Under the Grape Vine, C.S.Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Ah well, I am sure I can fish out a Philip Pullman to crush them.

6. Cut down all heroes to size. Don’t allow hero worship unless it’s of the shallow bling wearing kind. Undermine as many aspects of kindness, courage and perseverance as possible. Make the good look weak and those who have a Christian faith must be mocked or made to look bad. Then you can push this message over and over. Easy enough with TV and other media. (And it worked so well for Hitler and Stalin).

7. Reduce all talk of love to narcissism and sex. Instill the mantras of “do it if it feels good for you” “don’t force your morality onto me” “Do it if you have a condom” and then before you know it the unholy trinity of me-myself-and-I will be the basis of life.

8. Level all distinctions between man and woman. Or as some have put this spay and geld. Boys in particular, Esolen says, must be restrained from manliness at all costs. Girls should not be feminine in any way.

9.  Distract the child with the shallow and unreal. – plenty of substandard TV and pseudo-educational stuff should help this process, as well as hours of gaming. OR take them to the library and let them get those teen novels that will help tick 7, 8,9 and 10 all in one go. If that’s not enough teen magazines can help. In fact start them early. While looking for books for Heleyna I came across a whole pile of shiny, sticker stuffed books to teach a girl how to primp and fuss and be a massive consumer of make up, high heals and anything pointless.

10 Deny the transcendent – Christians are so very good at this. Unfortunately for Catholics with the New Mass and stricter observance of the GIRM the transcendent has a real danger of breaking through. But you could always invest in that book I was told about where it was proposed that churches should all become mini monocultures about the people who went there and with almost nothing at all about God. There are plenty of those places so they are easy to find.

The book is written in the form of paradoxical intent, (obviously) and other reviewers have noted the Screwtape nature of the book. so the answers to the horror of dumbed down, inert children is in the warnings of things to avoid in order to destroy their imagination as well as the things to do to ensure the destruction. He packs the book with plenty of wonderful authors and ideas for truly inspiring children and allowing them to grow as good people.

This excellent book echoes the same unheard message that has been written and spoken since the Enlightenment darkened our culture. From Mason and Montessori, through Chesterton, Belloc and more recently Gatto and now Esolen, – and of course from Popes Leo XIII to Benedict XVI -we have been warned that our children’s lives are being flattened to the point where they are men without chests. We have been warned that deconstructing the family with collapse society and all the time the NOISE continues so no one hears the message.

There is a great deal of excellent literature pointed to within the book, and a good bibliography at the back. I was saddened to see a father review the book with a one star because he hadn’t read the books Esolen suggests and did not understand the way the book was written. Now, I am a great believer that a writer should avoid silly big words where a plain one will do and that if he can’t say something plain and clear chances are he hasn’t understood the subject himself, but Esolen is writing for the ordinary person, who has just a modicum of imagination left.

Professor Esolen wrote this article as he was writing his book.

Here is an article from Classical Teacher at Memoria Press.

Book Review: Lourdes by Robert Hugh Benson.

I think the first book I read of Benson’s was “Come Rack, Come Rope” which I confess to have found difficult at the time. But I have come to love the way this man writes. If you have never read Lord of the World for example, you have missed a treat.  But the book I am reviewing by Mgr Benson is Lourdes which I think was published around 1914, but there may have been earlier editions.

This is not the story of St. Bernadette. It is the observations that Benson himself made while there on pilgrimage. He was in the privaliged position of being able to directly observe the investigations that took place (and preumably still do) at the medical centre where those who have a claim of miraculous healing would come to have their case scrutinized.

At the beginning of the book he touches on the infamous behaviour of Emile Zola who had refused to believe anything miraculous could happen even when a miracle happened right in front of his eyes. I had heard this story over the years but Benson added a detail I had been unaware of. Zola wrote a book saying the girl who had been healed had relapsed some time later. This was untrue, she remained well, but as Zola wanted to believe that any healings were about some kind of hysteria, it would not do for the girl to have a normal happy life after her healing – so he lied. I was quite shocked to read that, partly because I thought Victorian times-preWWI were more innocent perhaps, and this was so “modern”.

Benson explains some of the healings and gives us a view of the immense suffering and stoical acceptance of suffering that he saw there. He touches on the mystery, that I battle with so often, of how some people are healed and others are not. How is it, he wonders, that God chooses one and passes by another?

He does say he believes that even those who are not physcially healed, receive the spiritual consolation, even healing, required to continue to carry that cross. One thing he seems to have been surprised and perhaps confirmed by, was that the healings tended to take place during Benediction. I suppose we all tend to think that the healings would take place at the grotto, or the baths, but Benson saw the vast majority of the healings that happened while he was there happened as the priest walked among the sick blessing them with the Monstrance containing the Holy Eucharist. It is of course, Christ who heals. This had a sense of the Wedding of Cana for me as I read. Mary asks her son to provide the miracle and then she gives the one commandment we ever see from her “Do whatever He tells you,” and when they do, the miracle occurs.

I was brought up with the story of my grandfather’s extra five or six years that he won through the water of Lourdes. He was given less than a few weeks to live as his throat cancer was in his lungs and elsewhere. After drinking some water from the grotto he began to feel better and went on to live another five to six years – long enough to make an impression on me, who might never otherwise have known him. I took St. Bernadette as my Confirmation saint in gratitude. (My grandad was never Catholic – he was CofE).

Benson discusses some of the theories of his day as to how healings might take place and notes that although there were many people who seemed indeed to have received miraculous cures, that very few such cases met the rigorous standards of the medical board set up to investigate them.

The story that stands out the most to me is the one of the girl with the severely damaged spine. Doctors had been surprised she was even alive with such terrible damge – but she was healed and got up and walked compleltely free of pain.

I went to Lourdes when I was 14. I remember a lot about the place and Benson’s description was strange in its familiarity. I hope one day I could go back…who knows?…