instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Commonplace wisdom

EWTN isn't my thing. I doubt the time I've spent watching that TV channel adds up to two hours since it went on the air. Almost everything I know about Mother Angelica I learned second or third hand, and almost all of that has been in the context of the Great Catholic Culture Wars, a context I find makes almost everyone involved pettier.

So I was not thrilled to find Mother Angelica's smiling face gracing the cover of a review book I was sent. The title -- Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality -- is about as close as they could come without actually asking me for the name of a book I would never want to read.

All that said, it's a pretty good book.

Raymond Arroyo, who published a biography of Mother Angelica in 2005, has drawn short passages (ranging from a few words to a few pages) from her interviews, conversations, and broadcasts over several decades, arranging them by theme. The result is a kind of commonplace book of commonplace wisdom.

[Disclosure: As a thematically sorted collection of thoughts, it's not the sort of thing you sit down and read all the way through. And I didn't. I've read bits here and there, maybe half of it altogether.]

The value in a book of commonplace wisdom is that many or most of us live commonplace lives. We could stand to be reminded again and again of things we know, and to be told things we should know. Mother Angelica's Little Book does this, in bite-size samples, on topics ranging from "Living in the Present Moment" to "Saints and Angels" and "The Last Things."

Her style is plain and straightforward, with an occasional elegance like
The world is not starving from a lack of money. It's starving from a want of love.
There are also some insightful distinctions, such as the one between recalling the past (necessary for prudence in the present) and reliving the past (always imprudent). And her "everyday spirituality" of being present to God and accepting the call to become a saint is presented in very clear and practical terms.

Now, I don't regard this book as an instant classic of spirituality. Mother Angelica's ideas aren't particularly original -- and I should make clear that she doesn't claim they are, and that Raymond Arroyo calls attention to the sources, such as Brother Lawrence and Jean Pierre de Caussade, who have influenced her.

Neither are her words particularly deep. As I said above, most of us aren't particularly deep, either, so that's fine as far as it goes. Just don't expect to find much on the depths of the spiritual life available to the Christian, even the commonplace Christian, in this life.

I could quibble over some of the selections included, starting with the opening epigraph (Luke 10:21, "Thou has hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father, for so it hath seemed good in Thy sight."), which strikes the "just a simple nun" chord her fans are fond of a bit too hard. A fair amount of the material seems to have been chosen to play up Mother Angelica's personality, rather than her wisdom or counsel -- and, for that matter, not all of her wisdom and counsel is beyond criticism.

Overall, though, the book delivers what its title advertises, and if the editor is somewhat indulgent toward the author, chances are most of the readers will be, too. Those for whom EWTN isn't their thing may not be bowled over by the book, but it does give a flavor of the sound and simple spirituality that drives Mother Angelica and inspires her fans.