THE INTRODUCTION to Not Less Than Everything reads like it was ripped from recent Vatican headlines about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in the midst of deep troubles at the core of the Roman Catholic Church. This book’s editor and all-around ring leader, Catherine Wolff, is well aware of those troubles. In fact, she was moved by the dysfunction at the core of her beloved billion-member Church to organize this series of 26 fascinating profiles, subtitled: Catholic Writers on Heroes of Conscience, from Joan of Arc to Oscar Romero. Collectively, this is more than a series of inspiring mini-biographies. This book is an effort to revive our appreciation of another source of authority in worldwide Christendom—something that Catholics and Protestants alike call “the communion of saints.” If our official religious leaders have led us astray, as Wolff argues, then it’s our fault for giving those elected officials too much authority in the first place.
These stories are not only uplifting—they are challenging. You’ll enjoy some of the profiles; others you’ll want to read twice, perhaps arguing with both the writer and the subject of the profile. If that sounds like your kind of book, then grab a copy now. Imagine discussing this book in your small group or Sunday school class. No shortage of spirited discussion here!
T.S. Eliot’s Warning of the Ultimate Cost: ‘Everything’
The title of the book comes from the end of poet T.S. Eliot’s spiritual tour de force, Four Quartets, in which Eliot peered deep into the nature of faith and fear, life and death, hope and doubt. Eliot wrote this huge cycle of poems at an earlier, historic moment of despair—the midst of World War II and the fire bombing of Great Britain by Nazi planes. Eliot wrote his final poem in the cycle “in the uncertain hour before the morning,” hoping that the world was on the verge of “the ending of interminable night.” Eliot kept asking: How can anyone who cares about humanity keep going? His answer was as long and complex as his 50 pages of poetry. But it involves making a total personal commitment to life. Or, as Eliot puts it—a commitment “costing not less than everything.” That’s a steep cost!
An obscure reference for the title of a new book? Perhaps. Yet, many of us are thinking of Eliot at this point of transition in Christianity. In Time Magazine, journalist and historian Jon Meacham published his post-mortem essay on Benedict’s resignation—and the road ahead—by citing Eliot, as well. The theme Meacham drew from the Quartets is the circular nature of life through seasons of birth, death and rebirth. “For T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, the way forward is the way back,” Meacham writes. Perhaps Wolff’s choice of Eliot for her front cover was prophetic in these times.
REDISCOVERING ‘THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS’
In her introduction, Wolff explains that millions of grassroots Catholics are discouraged when bishops and Vatican officials claim that their flawed and limited view of the Church is the sum total of the Christian faith. In fact, many Catholics “yearn for other spiritual leaders,” she writes. If that is the case, she argues, we need a new way back into the faith: “Where better to look than the communion of saints? The Catholic cosmos is crowded not only by those present but also by those who have gone before. As Saint Augustine said, it should not seem a small thing to us that we are members of the same body as these. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson … writes that ‘their adventure of faith opens a way for us,’ that we together form ‘an ongoing river of companions seeking God.’”
Dorothy Day, the tireless peace activist who devoted her life to the poor (and who also is profiled in Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers), is covered in Wolff’s new collection by journalist Patrick Jordan. He was Day’s associate in the Catholic Worker movement and Jordan’s 10 pages in this new book vividly capture Day’s larger-than-life spirit. Jordan jokes that her personality was so potent that an encounter with Day could feel like being hit by a Mack truck! Talk about throwing “Everything” into one’s life!
SHORT, TROUBLED (& INSPIRING) LIFE OF GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
This book certainly is not Chicken Soup for the Catholic Soul! The Dorothy Day profile is occasionally amusing and, overall, is a moving story about the quirky activist. But other profiles in this book show us tortured souls, caught in impossible situations, nevertheless throwing themselves completely into their lives of faith. My favorite chapter in the book, one that I read more than once, is Colm Toibin’s 16-page profile of the 19th-century Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. While Hopkins certainly isn’t a household name, his star definitely is rising these days. Richard Rohr just named his latest book—a book that Rohr calls one of his most important works—with a line from a Hopkins poem.
As overall Editor, Wolff explains why chapters like the Hopkins profile appear in this book: “Many of these official or unofficial saints have been in situations similar to our own in Church history. They have spoken or acted in ways that challenged the prevailing authorities, knowing they risked reputation, livelihood, sometimes their heads—all the while remaining faithful. How did they do it? Why did they not just leave the Church or go on to another calling? What disposed them to dissent while remaining faithful to principles, to community? What was the source of their strength?”
As you watch the news unfold out of the Vatican in 2013, if you’re feeling anxious about the future of the world’s biggest organized religious body—switch gears and buy a copy of this terrific new collection. Pour a cup of coffee or tea, sit back in a comfortable chair with this volume—and enjoy learning about these dozens of men and women who still are quite capable of stirring hope in our hearts.
REVIEWED BY READTHESPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM
MORE STORIES ABOUT THIS CATHOLIC MOMENT
FATHER THOMAS REESE on the Next Pope: Who will elect the next pope? Europeans form the majority of the voting cardinals.
DAVID BRIGGS on Catholic Growth: Is the Catholic Church fading in America? No! It’s booming and church leaders need to plan for that growth.
TERRY GALAGHER on Catholic Critics: As Catholics, should we stay? A week-long series of OurValues columns exploring the push-and-pull felt by millions of American Catholics.
GREG TOBIN on Pope John XXIII: The inspiring story of how an Italian farm boy rose to surprise the world in his brief reign as pontiff.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.