Catholic Classics

NICK BAGILEO

Father Cameron has written an intelligible and timely introduction to fourteen Catholic classics on spirituality. In an age that is fast becoming de-Christianized, Cameronís book reminds us that in the lives and writings of the saints, we have reliable guides to a complete and holy life even in the most secular of times.

Father Cameron has written an intelligible and timely introduction to fourteen Catholic classics on spirituality. In an age that is fast becoming de-Christianized, Cameron’s book reminds us that in the lives and writings of the saints, we have reliable guides to a complete and holy life even in the most secular of times.

For those who have never read any of the classics, this book will enrich. For those who have not pulled these great texts from the shelves in awhile Fr. Cameron provides motivation to revisit them. In the much needed introductory chapter, “How to Read Classics of Catholic Spirituality,” the true classics are defined as “those that have stood the test of time by transcending cultural peculiarities and overly-specific interests.” Classics have the ability to “reach beyond the author’s day and age so as to speak cogently to the questions and concerns of people of every era.”

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The Classics of Catholic Spirituality
by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
Alba House, 144 pages, $5.95

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The genuine novice will benefit as Fr. Cameron offers guidelines for an advantageous reading. Details on the age in which the book was written and its specific purpose are provided. There are notes identifying the original audience the author intended to reach.

Sadly, today’s younger generation of Catholics are non-catechized and unfamiliar with the vast classical legacy of Catholic spirituality. Fr. Cameron’s explicit aim “is to provide a theological reflection on and practical guide to a number of great Catholic texts.” He subscribes to Chesterton’s notion that “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” It is a Catholic act to rely on “the model of holiness” brought to light by the past spiritual masters of the faith.

For those who have read the classics, this book serves as an enticement to return to them. These classics are meant to be read and re-read. Quoting Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Fr. Cameron highlights this fact:

There comes a period in life when, our wanderings all finished and our experiences all acquired, there is no keener pleasure than to study and deepen the things we know, to relish what we taste, just as when you behold again and again the people you love; purest delight of the mature mind and taste. It is then that this word classic assumes its true meaning.

The classics introduced in this book show the breadth of Catholic spirituality. There is not one model of holiness, but standards that govern the spiritual life. The masters of Catholic spirituality agree that the basis for the life of faith is fervent belief and acceptance of God’s love. Cameron notes that true spiritual life starts when we have “a heartfelt approach to the reality of God’s love in the way that he wills to give it.”

Many are hesitant to fully embrace God’s merciful love. St.Therese of Lisieux recognized this truth saying, “Jesus finds few hearts who surrender to Him without reservation, who understand the real tenderness of His infinite love.” Why? Those who are uncertain about giving themselves to God, or those who question God’s boundless love, do so because “we lack the essential self-knowledge that renders a right and authentic conception of ourselves.”

A correct vision of man is seen only “within the embrace of God’s love.” Failure to see love as the divine motive in creating man in His image and likeness leaves us unsatisfied and incomplete. St. Augustine reminds us in his lament: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” The saints constantly remind us to love God as He loves us. This type of love enriches man’s life because “such love enlightens our knowledge of ourselves and of God.” Fr. Cameron reminds us of Thomas a Kempis’ teaching on true devotion of God, that “by truly loving you I have found myself and you.”

Being a realist, Fr. Cameron emphasizes the teaching where upon when we accept God’s merciful love and come to a more complete understanding of ourselves, we know that sin disfigures the image we were created to reflect. This sense of sin is not to lead to despair.

Instead we are to embrace the medicine of the Divine Physician. St. Catherine knew the healing effects of God’s compassionate love when she related the Lord’s command: “I do not want the soul to think about her sins without calling to mind the greatness of my mercy” The Little Flowers of St. Francis expressed this revelation as, “you must always believe that God’s power to forgive is greater than your power to sin.”

Acknowledgment of our sins reminds us of our weakness, that we are not self-sufficient when it comes to sanctification. We need a living encounter with Christ. As Pope John Paul II teaches in Veritatis Splendor, “in order to make this ‘encounter’ with Christ possible, God willed His Church.” The Church, the Body of Christ, is instrumental in our salvation. The lives of the saints teach us that holiness does not happen in a vacuum. It is learned via the influence of holy exemplars. Sanctity comes by association with the saints. Cameron reminds us that nowhere is this better seen then in the conversion of St. Augustine who “came to faith as a result of his prolonged exposure to the life of the Church: the intercessory prayer of his mother Monica, the preaching of St. Ambrose, the actualization of Sacred Scripture, the enticement of the communion of saints.”

The saints show us that only through a committed prayer life is growth and maturity in the faith possible. “Prayer is the act of love that serves as the means of uniting ourselves to God.” St. Teresa of Avila concurs when she says that through prayer “the will becomes united in some way with the will of God.” It seems strange that for the greatest saints prayer is at times difficult and they struggle with spiritual aridity. Jean Pierre de Caussade experienced a spiritual advantage to these periods of abandonment. “The Divine will withdraws itself from view and stands behind the soul to push it forward. Nothing stimulates the desire for union with the Divine will so powerfully as this apparent loss.” Fr. Cameron shares the insight that “our struggles with prayer prepare us to deal with our struggles with life. As a result, every moment of the day should be lived prayerfully as a way of constantly worshiping God in all we do.”

For lay people St. Therese gives a discerning example. The spiritual life need not be obscure nor complex. The saint from Lisieux provided a simple guide for growing in the likeness of Christ. “I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new.” The majority of the faithful are married. St. Therese inspires us to see the extraordinary in the ordinary experiences of family life. Mothers staying home with their children to instill in them the love of God and practice of virtue. Fathers supporting their families through the toils of daily work are examples of the ordinary daily sacrifices that helps us grow in the likeness of Christ.

No matter what age or culture all the Catholic spiritual masters have a special place in their life of faith for the Blessed Virgin Mary. As mother of all the faithful Mary mediates for each one of us to her Son. As a tip for growth in holiness and purification, St. Therese of Lisieux lets us in on one of her practices, “When I am preparing for Holy Communion, I picture my soul as a piece of land and I beg the Blessed Virgin to remove from it any rubbish that would prevent it from being free.”

This book offers us a tremendous source of spiritual insight in a short space. As an introduction the book succeeds in its intent: it leads you to the originals. Fr. Cameron’s book would make a perfect gift from parents to children college bound, and, of course, parish study courses.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bagileo, Nick. “Catholic Classics.” The Catholic Faith 4, no. 2 (March/April 1998): 58-59.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

Nick Bagileo directs the Office for Family Life for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma city.

Copyright © 1998 TheCatholicFaith


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