Want to nudge someone toward holiness?
It is rare that I find a new and simple book aimed at spiritual development which I really believe will be of much use to anybody at all. The pitfalls are legion, but the two most common today are the twin temptations to break things down into baby concepts and baby steps, as if God’s approach to the spiritual life is to write self-help books. The path to holiness must be attractive and inspiring in the first place, and challenging in the second.
But when I finally got time to glance through the latest dozen new books that had landed on my desk, I actually found not one but two small books that I can very strongly recommend—each for the right group of disciples—without fear of more advanced souls taking one look at them and sadly shaking their heads. Here, then, are my discoveries.
Fledgling Catholics eventually discover the Rosary, but very often they haven’t much idea of what to do with it. Perhaps the best gift you can give a neophyte who has just developed an interest in the Rosary is EWTN’s brand new guide, The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila, by Dan Burke and Connie Rossini. This book can also give a real boost to old hands who have never learned to add meditation to the Rosary, and to even older hands who have, mostly without realizing it, slipped into bad Rosary habits.
The authors begin with an explanation of meditation, drawn mainly from Pope Saint John Paul II, and an explanation of contemplation, drawn mainly from Saint Teresa of Avila. Their idea of “The Contemplative Rosary” is to use meditation on the mysteries not only for personal growth in spiritual understanding but as a kind of continual readiness for those moments when the Holy Spirit may draw us a little deeper into the Divine life through His own initiative, that is, through contemplation.
Perhaps I should mention that I like this presentation not just in general but for a particular reason: The word “contemplation” is often bandied about today as if it is a kind of human exercise we ourselves control, a demand on God we can initiate at any time. Properly understood, however, contemplation is always initiated by God. It is a kind of Divine self-giving to be distinguished from the human effort of meditation (or mental reflection), which we can apply by our own powers to any subject we seek to understand more deeply.
Burke and Rossini are of the school that all persons are called to contemplation. That is certainly true with respect to our eternal destiny, but it is not necessarily true with respect to whether we will actually be drawn into contemplation in this life. Even their model, Saint Teresa, understood that some of her sisters were never going to be drawn into contemplation; but that does not mean that they were the poorer for striving in prayer to be ready for it, to be open to it, by overcoming restlessness and resting in the Lord.
It is this deliberate readiness that is the key, and it fosters spiritual growth whether God responds in precisely this way or not. Hence, theological arguments over the frequency of contemplation need not detain us; the authors’ notion of “The Contemplative Rosary” remains precisely on target. To this end, the book briefly and simply covers staying close to Jesus in prayer, attention and distractions, the relationship between vocal and mental prayer, and a brief guide to the contemplative method as applied to each stage and prayer of the Rosary itself—including instructions on how to say the Rosary for those who may not know.
After this, the book morphs into something more typical (but no less valuable). It goes through all four sets of mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious), offering a Scripture passage and suggested points of reflection for each mystery, along with a spiritual fruit to consider as appropriate to each mystery, including a versicle and response focusing on that fruit to close the mystery. A beautiful full-color work of art graces the opening page of each mystery. (The artists and titles are given on the book’s last page, immediately following the list of the fifteen promises Mary has made to those who say the Rosary.)
A Saint’s Work Is Never Done
The second book that caught my eye is an Ignatius Press offering by J. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B., entitled Humility Rules, and subtitled “Saint Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem”. As you can gather from the title and subtitle, Fr. Wetta has not only considerable insight but a sense of humor. You may recall that the key to Benedictine spirituality is St. Benedict’s “Ladder of Humility”, which Fr. Wetta reconceives here as the kind of original and quintessential 12-step program. The titular outcome, self-esteem, is most apt in this context of humility. For humility without self-esteem leads to despair, whereas humility rooted in God—the very author of authentic self-esteem—leads to holiness.
Unlike The Contemplative Rosary, which is aimed primarily at what we might call Catholic novices, Humility Rules is set forth, albeit with plenty of humor, as a serious challenge for the rest of us. It is nothing less than a life-long guide to Christian growth—to knowing who God is and who I am, and reveling ever more deeply in the spiritual illumination this knowledge invariably provides. When I say “life-long”, I mean it. The rungs (or “steps”) of the Ladder of Humility are: Fear of God, Self-Denial, Obedience, Perseverance, Repentance, Serenity, Self-Abasement, Prudence, Silence, Dignity, Discretion, and Reverence. Fr. Wetta offers three pointed reflections on each rung, applicable to thought, word and deed.
Like Burke and Rossini, Fr. Wetta uses artwork. Something of an artist himself, he has hijacked depictions of monks from the internet, often from illuminated manuscripts, and humorously repurposed them with various modern symbols, beginning with the skate board held, along with a crozier, by the Benedictine who graces the cover of the book. There are also light-hearted personal reflections throughout the book, but you should not be fooled. In the midst of the creativity and engaging humor, the challenge of each rung of the ladder is not only perfectly clear but translated into deceptively simple “homework assignments”, such as: “Laugh with someone who laughs at you.”
The twelve steps are shaped by Fr. Wetta to knock us a little off balance. The message, I think, is that we are not seeking pious facades here but true humility, which runs clean counter to our fallen nature. The first step toward this disruption of our complacency is the author’s alternative names for the rungs of the ladder: Be afraid, Don’t be true to yourself, Don’t follow your dreams, Suffer fools gladly, Put your worst foot forward, Be someone’s doormat, Have a poor self-image, Think inside the box, Don’t speak up, Laughter is not the best medicine, Be unassertive, and Keep your chin down. Match these with St. Benedict’s names above, and you will begin to get the point of each.
I leave to each reader to discern whether the author has violated St. Benedict’s rule on levity (write 500 words on the difference between humor and mere sillness). Either way, in a small (and beautifully crafted) book with noble intentions, the reader may be surprised at the lightness of the author’s style. What I can say is that this lightness conceals a rapier wit which can do us enormous good. For example, in discussing the “fear of God”, which is the first rung and seriously misunderstood today, Fr. Wetta points out:
So yes, it’s better to love God; but when you are not feeling the love, at least try to feel the fear. As the Book of Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). It’s not the ideal, but it’s a start.
I suspect it is quotations such as this that will sell the book, which has an excellent benefit-to-time-taken ratio—especially, perhaps, to old hands who have gradually convinced themselves that they have all this “taped”. Here is a quotation to close on, from the ninth step, “Silence” or “Don’t speak up”:
“Will the axe boast over the one who swings it?” asked the prophet Isaiah (10:15). You may be sharp, but give credit where credit is due. And if you want your creation to last, don’t build it around yourself. Build it around Christ (1 Cor 3:11).
Now for the homework assignment: The next time someone compliments you, give God the credit.
Ah, but how? Not, I think, by insisting that “God gave me this great work to do.” Those who have already attained some spiritual maturity should be able to spot at least a few of the many pitfalls in such assignments. Learning how best to complete Fr. Wetta’s assignments consistently well should fill a lifetime. To me, this is the whole point. Section after section in this delightfully deep little book contains words (and attitudes) for Catholics to live by.
And now you know the full truth about this commentary: My title was a tease. This book’s for you.
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