HUMILITY MATTERS FOR PRACTICING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, by
Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B. Continuum
Publishing. 188 pp. $19.95.
Reviewed by JULIE DONATI, a freelance
writer and teacher of theology at St. Agnes
Academy in Houston, Texas.
AND JUST WHY should humility matter?
Funk says, “It is at the core of our
experience of life in Christ...,” at the
center of what it means to
have purity of heart.
Sister Mary Margaret Funk
combines her vast experience
as a Benedictine nun,
retreat leader, scholar on
spirituality and prayer, and
former director of East-West
monastic dialogue in writing
this little gem. For Funk,
the human search for God is
unchanged, and early monastic
teachings are still
valuable, though often discarded
as incomprehensible or obsolete.
Her goal has been to write books “that retrieve, reclaim and reappropriate
the early teaching of the desert
elders on the monastic tradition for
The first two volumes in this trilogy
on the spiritual life, Thoughts Matter and Tools Matter, identify classic “thoughts” that distract us from God
and offer “tools” from tradition which
help focus better. Funk describes this
final volume as one that brings “the
spiritual journey full circle and offers a
simple and systematic rendering of
monastic teaching on purity of heart
and its human face: humility.”
Weaving the image imaginatively
throughout the text, Funk likens the
spiritual journey to a river. Similar
to a river, our journey toward God
has two dimensions: above the surface
(the external journey) and below
the surface (the internal and hidden
journey that no one sees).
Chapter One describes the classic
stages of the spiritual journey as comprising
four renunciations: to renounce
our former way of life, to renounce
destructive thoughts, to renounce limited
images of God and, finally, to
renounce thoughts of ourselves.
Chapter Two offers an abbreviated
version of her first book on renouncing
thoughts that impede spiritual growth.
The rest of the text is
cleverly structured as Funk’s
dialogues with spiritual
exemplars St. Teresa of
Avila, St. Thérèse of Lisieux
and St. John Cassian. In a
Funk explores each saint’s
thoughts on contemplative
prayer, loss of self in love,
and humility. I particularly
liked her technique of asking
each saint contemporary
questions, which gave
insight into their practice of humility.
This small book is a real treasure and
should be an immense help for those
on a serious spiritual search, either on
retreat, at home or even in a book club.
The appendices provide more suggestions
and scriptural references for
deeper meditation. For more information,
consult the author’s Web site,
You can order HUMILITY MATTERS FOR PRACTICING THE SPIRITUAL LIFE from St.
A CHURCH THAT CAN AND CANNOT CHANGE: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching, by John T.
Noonan, Jr. University of Notre Dame
Press. 312 pp. $18.
Reviewed by DONALD MILLER, O.F.M.,
who earned a doctoral degree in moral
theology from The Catholic University of
America and has taught at various universities
for over 25 years. In the spring of
2006, he taught at the Franciscan International
Study Centre in Canterbury, England.
He is presently the vocation director
for the Province of St. John the Baptist.
CLAIMING THAT in some instances
magisterial teaching has changed over
the centuries, John T. Noonan, Jr., presents
an argument for a dynamic development
in Catholic moral thought. At
first, Noonan’s proposal appears to contradict
the age-old “belief” that the
Catholic Church cannot change its
stand on moral issues.
But, in fact, the Church has changed,
and changed radically, with regard to its
teaching on the morality of Noonan’s
illustrative topics. Nonetheless, as the
author makes clear, it also has remained
true to the teaching of Jesus. It is in this
latter area that the Church must
remain, and does remain, ever faithful
and cannot change.
Noonan supports his argument that
change has taken place, and continues
to take place, by examining official
Catholic teaching on slavery, usury,
religious freedom and divorce.
In each case he offers a very detailed
historical account, plowing almost laboriously
through relevant ecclesiastical
and secular documents and citing
many examples. While the methodology
makes for somewhat tedious reading,
the overall experience is interesting
The reader is carefully led, step by
step, to an appreciation of how the
response of the Church has gradually
emerged in light of changing situations
and understandings of both itself and
society. It is interesting to note how
often the impetus for change arises outside
the magisterial Church as people
reflect on the nature and implications
of specific behaviors, and how the magisterial
Church then incorporates that
reflection into its official teaching.
For example, slavery had strong biblical
and ecclesiastical support. Scholars
argued from the Letter to Philemon that St. Paul approved slavery as an
institution, and many Church Fathers
and numerous Church statements supported
it as consistent with natural law.
Many popes owned slaves, and Church
documents exist stating clearly the
morality of buying and selling human
beings. Some even justified it as beneficial
to the slave. And yet,
in 1992 on the island of
Goré, Senegal, Pope John
Paul II declared the very
notion of slavery evil. How
did the Church’s stand
Briefly, the notion of the
dignity of the human person
gradually emerged in
both Church and secular
circles, gaining significant
prominence in the early
20th century. The idea then
appeared in Church documents such as
those of the Second Vatican Council
which, without fanfare, accepted the
then-prevailing understanding that
slavery was bad. The pope brought the
official teaching of the Church into
line with a still fuller understanding
of Jesus’ teaching on the sacredness of
the human person by stating that slavery
is an intrinsic evil.
Noonan does not try to twist historical
facts to show that the Church “always taught” such-and-such. To do
so would be both disingenuous and a
denial of the facts. Rather, his arguments
support the notion that there is
development in the Church’s understanding of Revelation, of itself and of
human nature. In its understanding of
these, the Church can and does change.
Where the Church cannot change
is in its fidelity to Revelation, especially
as it is found in the person and
teaching of Jesus. The Church must be
faithful to the fullest understanding of
that teaching, and that understanding
can and does develop.
With regard to Noonan’s second
example, usury, present-day readers
might find the earlier teaching of the
Church somewhat interesting, if not
almost comical. The argument against
using money to gain a profit was that
such gain was unnatural reproduction and, therefore, contrary to natural law.
Money was not meant by its very nature to reproduce.
One would not want to read this book
at the end of the day before falling off
to sleep. It is far too heavy for late-night
reading. But anyone interested in history
and the dynamism of the Church as a
living institution may want to take it up
in the light of day to appreciate
the Church’s ongoing
Noonan supports his thesis
of dynamic moral development
well by his use of
history. He also supports
well the Church’s fidelity
to its main task of preaching
the gospel of Jesus.
As humankind (the Church
included) grows in its understanding
of the teaching
of Jesus, magisterial
teaching must reflect the new understandings
and insights. The Church
remains faithful by changing. Thus, it
truly can and cannot change.
You can order A CHURCH THAT CAN AND CANNOT CHANGE: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching from St.
A TINY STEP AWAY FROM DEEPEST
FAITH: A Teenager’s Search for Meaning, by Marjorie Corbman. Paraclete
Press. 100 pp. $9.95.
TEENS SPEAK ON FAMILY MATTERS, edited by Laurie Delgatto. St. Mary’s
Press. 64 pp. $9.95.
Reviewed by MARK WILKINS, a 30-year
veteran teacher at St. Xavier High School
in Cincinnati, Ohio.
CORBMAN’S WORK is a powerful
reminder of what young people are
capable of when given the opportunity
to think reflectively. It’s hard to
realize that this young woman was 14
or 15 when she started writing this
deep spiritual memoir.
Marjorie Corbman lives in Randolph,
New Jersey, and has just completed her
first year of college. The book is the
product of her reflection on the great
questions of life with friends and family.
It shows the connections among the rational quest for truth, the neo-Wiccan phase connecting with nature,
returning to her Jewish roots and coming
out as a Christian baptized in the
Orthodox Church over a year ago.
The quality of Corbman’s writing
and the depth of reading and reflection
that preceded it are impressive. This
young woman has a mystical bent that
belies her youth. She writes with great
insight about what this generation
seeks. She sees young people not as
stupid, but as drowning.
One of her most compelling insights
is that teens reach out to
the flotsam and jetsam of
spiritual speculations and
grab whatever they can
because they are attempting
to reach a rope in the
midst of turbulent waters.
Their spirituality is not that
of rational beings, but of
It is not that they are
gullible and naïve to search
everywhere for answers. It is
more that so much is at
stake that teens seem willing to try
anything that provides some answer
or hope. It is Corbman’s own recognition
of her mystical bent that leads her
to St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St.
John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux
and Thomas Merton.
She links these self-selected choices
with leanings of the spiritually oriented
people of her age group. She notes that
no one tried to convert her. She came
to it slowly and on her own terms
through conversation, reading, thinking
Corbman’s most insightful chapter
might be the one on a teen’s feelings of
despair and abandonment. She writes
that she doesn’t know many happy people.
This bizarre epidemic of misery (her
description) leads to drugs and alcohol,
suicide attempts, self-mutilation and
promiscuous sex—attempts by teens to
assure teens that they are here,
that they feel and that their experience
is tangible and valid.
Members of the most affluent generation
have everything they desire and
yet still bump into the reality that no
material thing can conquer—the sorrow of the
world. The author compares
the intense emptiness, confusion
and loneliness of
adolescence to the time that
the great saints and mystics
have spent in the desert.
Meeting God does not end
sadness and despair, but
gives us a way to face it with
hope. The hunger for more
does not come from wanting
more gadgets and gifts,
but from wanting truth, beauty and purpose.
Through self-sacrifice and service,
Corbman discovers inner joy rather than
Corbman’s understanding of the
need and place for ritual is better than
most adults could give. Her turn from
Wicca and gnosticism came from a
sense of history and a sense that her
God was as small as she was. She
wanted something more. Traditional
Christianity became that
I only mention the second
book not because of its
depth, but because it gives
some intriguing prompts for
teachers and youth ministers
to engage teens in the
issues that they have the
most experience in—family
matters. Only four of the 30
essays were by boys. Overall,
these essays are not as profound
as the chapters in the
previous book, but they do show that
teens are capable of being insightful if
adults ask them the right questions.
Having been around teenagers for
the last 45 years, I can honestly say
that they continue to amaze me. Here
are two books which attempt to show
teens and adults alike that adolescents
are capable of great depth and wisdom,
even though their experience might
be limited in scope. Once the adults
in their lives show them the joys and
peace that come from committed faith,
then we can explain Christian doctrine
and the dogma. And even then, we
have to face the sorrows of the world in
which we live.
You can order A TINY STEP AWAY FROM DEEPEST
FAITH: A Teenager’s Search for Meaning and TEENS SPEAK ON FAMILY MATTERS from St. Francis Bookshop.
ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA!: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History, by
Pierette Domenica Simpson. Purple
Mountain Press. 312 pp. $18.
Reviewed by ANN TASSONE, an intern
at St. Anthony Messenger during summer
2006. Ann is a senior at Xavier University
in Cincinnati with a double major
in English and communication arts.
FIFTY YEARS AFTER the Andrea Doria shipwreck, survivor Pierette Domenica
Simpson has published a firsthand
account of the disaster. This book’s July
2006 release corresponded with a dive
to the shipwreck, the 50th-anniversary
survivors’ reunion in New York and
the launching of the same book in Italy.
This book is divided into two parts:
stories of survival and stories of the
ship. Part One’s nine chapters include
vividly told stories from survivors of
the collision. This allows readers to
paint a picture in their
minds of July 25, 1956,
when an unlikely collision
happened between Italy’s
luxury liner, the Andrea
Doria, and another ship, the
Information for this book
was drawn from various
nautical experts, government
admiralty lawyers and survivors
from two continents.
Since the Andrea Doria shipwreck,
the author believes that the
whole truth has remained untold.
Therefore, in this book, she strives to “change the minds of many people who for many years have portrayed
the historical account of the Andrea
Doria tragedy through the distortions of
pure journalistic fantasy. It is my strong
belief that this information will clarify
and correct history.”
The story of the Andrea Doria collision
is told from the point of view of
the survivors. Their stories of heroism
and courage are honest and inspiring.
Stories such as a teenage girl catapulted
from her bunk on the Andrea Doria and found alive on the bow of the
Stockholm, and a young man carrying
11 children down a rope ladder on the
inclined vessel are sure to touch the
hearts of readers.
Throughout the book, it is apparent
that faith remained steady in the midst
of terrible chaos. A priest who was on
board the Andrea Doria, Father Thomas
Kelly, found it interesting that, looking
back on his experience, “When faced
with trauma or a disaster situation, people
unite—regardless of their culture.”
Many of the firsthand accounts in
this book are about turning to God and
prayer in times of trial. The mother of a
passenger on the Andrea Doria, upon
hearing news of the crash, said that “prayer was the only solution.” As she
walked to the cathedral at the end of her
street to pray for the safety of her daughter,
she was pleasantly surprised as “people
began to come out of their homes
and join her. She began to lead, unintentionally,
a procession of townsfolk
making their way along the cobblestone
streets to the beloved cathedral. They
prayed together to the patron saint of
Vieste, Santa Maria di Merino—the protector
of sea travelers.”
Part Two’s three chapters outline accounts
of the ship itself. Many ships,
most notably the Ile de France, came to
the Andrea Doria’s rescue, allowing the
rescue of 1,660 passengers who survived;
46 were killed. The Andrea Doria’s
survival rate, compared with other maritime
rescues, is extraordinary.
This book’s amazing stories are supplemented
with pictures of the wreckage
as well as explanations of how the
collision occurred. It explores the
improvements in travel that have
resulted from this disaster, and the
unending quest to find out more.
It is obvious that Simpson did not
stop at gathering her own experience
with the Andrea Doria when compiling
this book. The memoirs of other survivors
give the book a personal touch. It is
easy to admire the survivors of the
Andrea Doria for their strength and faith
in the midst of what could have been a
great loss of life, but what ended up as
perhaps the greatest sea rescue in history.
You can order ALIVE ON THE ANDREA DORIA!: The Greatest Sea Rescue in History from St. Francis Bookshop.
THE IRISH MARTYR: Stories, by
Russell Working. University of Notre
Dame Press. 164 pp. $18.
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER HEFFRON,
an assistant editor of this publication. He
graduated from the College of Mount St.
Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1997 with
dual majors in English and communication
AUTHOR RUSSELL WORKING knows a
thing or two about the human condition.
Before becoming a reporter for
the Chicago Tribune in 2003, he spent
years as a freelance journalist, traveling
the world over. He specialized in countries
of unrest and writing about people
with lives shockingly different from
Those experiences with brave but
broken people have found their way
into The Irish Martyr—which won the
2006 Richard Sullivan Prize for short
fiction. In his 10 soulful stories, the
author dives headfirst into
the murky waters of his
characters’ damaged but
unforgettable lives. It’s a
breathtaking plunge that
the readers take along with
With a style that’s both
poetic and raw, Working
gives us characters from different
realities, yet each is so fully
realized and universal that
it’s as if we are sharing their
lives—and their hardships—for a brief
No two stories are alike, yet each
tackles themes that permeate culture
and time. In “Dear Leader” we meet
Eun-ju, a North Korean woman who is
sold into marriage; the fractured family
dynamic is brought to life in “Perjury.”
The best of the lot is the first story in
the book, about a young Egyptian
woman preoccupied with an Irish man.
In this Pushcart Prize-winning short
story (which is also the book’s title),
Working’s descriptive prowess and deep
understanding of clashing
cultures manifest themselves
Thin-skinned readers beware:
The Irish Martyr is not
a casual, lazy-day read. Nevertheless,
it should have a
permanent home on every
bookshelf in the country for
its unflinching treatment of
themes ever present in our
fragile, unpredictable world.
Working’s stories prove that,
though culture divides us,
there is much that unites us: War, fear,
family, tragedy and survival are each
sewn into our human tapestry.
Some may be aghast at certain passages
but, to Working’s credit, he aims
for—and hits—the right notes to present
characters who linger long after
the last page is turned.
It’s as if Working has shined a light
on our own bruised world. In this day
and age, understanding is a virtue not
often found. The news is dominated
by war and famine, poverty and unimaginable
realities. From the predicament
in Iraq to the endless horrors in
Darfur, we are bombarded with facts
but few insights.
With these stories, Working globetrots
to different countries and presents
diverse cultures, but also explores
deeper issues to which we all can relate,
proving we are all citizens of one
You can order THE IRISH MARTYR: Stories from St. Francis Bookshop.