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Contemplative Provocations: Brief, Concentrated Observations on Aspects of a Life with God
by fr. donald haggerty
ignatius, 200 pages, $16.95

This book of spiritual guidance is concerned with the way in which the spiritual life is “a path of paradox,” a deepening yearning for a God who insists on concealing himself. Following St. John of the Cross, Fr. Donald Haggerty writes that this concealment is not a mark of God’s abandonment but a means of purifying and increasing our love: “The flames of the soul’s desire for God are stoked in darkness.”

Haggerty, a former professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, offers his wisdom in aphoristic form, or what he calls “provocations.” Based on his contact with the Missionaries of Charity, he emphasizes the need for living a life of deep prayer while immersed in the world. Being a contemplative is not a matter of technique; instead, it means “carrying on a secret, intensifying exchange of self-giving with God.” Indeed, he emphasizes the Eucharist, service to the poor, self-gift, and self-­abandonment more than do other contemporary guides to the interior life. The contemplative life is one of love, beginning with self-donation to God and overflowing into self-donation to those around you.

In a chapter called “Aberrations,” Haggerty notes that some methods of prayer simply focus on the extinction of thought and the cultivation of quiet awareness. They claim that the resulting tranquility at the center of the soul is the presence of God. Though he does not specifically say it, such methods are found in many contemporary books on centering prayer or contemplative prayer that draw on the Desert Fathers as well as sources outside Christianity. 

But the tranquility those methods produce is not necessarily God. The mark of whether we have experienced God is not in feelings or techniques, but love: “If a soul has loved God during a time of prayer, the same love requires becoming a servant to the needs of others outside of prayer.”

Nathaniel Peters is a ­doctoral student in theology at Boston ­College.

Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution
by james p. byrd
oxford, 256 pages, $27.95

The Bible’s mobilization in American crises has been evident in patriotic sermons and speeches from the colonial era to the War on Terror. But knowing exactly how preachers and politicians have used the Bible poses more of a challenge to historical understanding.

James P. Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War documents the “how” of political preaching during the Revolutionary War. An associate dean at Vanderbilt Divinity School, he draws from more than five hundred documents (mostly sermons, and mostly from New England) to show which parts of the Bible proved most instrumental in justifying resistance, rallying troops, and reconciling earthly violence with spiritual warfare. 

Byrd shows, verse by verse, how those ministers inclined to the American cause adapted passages to justify righteous war. Massachusetts preacher Jacob Cushing cited Moses’ promise that God will “avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries.” Another quoted Jeremiah’s curse on the man “who keepeth back his sword from blood.” For others, David exemplified the heroic warrior. He slew Goliath but also served to remind republicans that even the godliest monarch could be corrupted by power. 

Philadelphia minister David Jones finessed the apostles’ admonition to submit to authority into commands to obey “the just, the good, the wholesome and constitutional laws of the land,” not tyrants. And the image of the woman fleeing the dragon in Revelation 12, popular in the New England imagination since the ­Puritans’ own flight, gave an apocalyptic intensity to the sermons of Samuel Sherwood.

Byrd also includes such familiar patriots as Thomas Paine, John and Abigail Adams, and George Washington. Some of these figures, like Paine, may have used the Bible cynically as a rhetorical tool. But they all presupposed its cultural authority in the colonies and the power of its pages to promote a “providential” war.

Byrd refrains from preaching his own sermon about Christianity and war, but his research shows the degree to which preachers and politicians have manipulated the Bible. The story of what has been done to the Bible in wartime needs to be extended to America’s other wars. Knowing what Americans and their wars have done to remake the Bible is at least as important as knowing what the Bible has done to make America. 

Richard M. Gamble is director of the honors program at Hillsdale College and author of In Search of the City on a Hill.

The Myth of Romantic Love and Other Essays
by michael novak
edited by elizabeth shaw
transaction, 205 pages, $32.95

The meaning of marriage, the 1960s counterculture, the sculptor Frederick Hart: These are among the diverse topics Michael Novak considers in his new essay collection. Five of the essays—including the title essay as well as “Women, Ordination, and Angels” and “An Apology for Democratic Capitalism”—are drawn from the pages of this magazine. Together the collection spans more than four decades of Novak’s career, from his affiliation with the now-defunct Coalition for a ­Democratic Majority to his long tenure at the American Enterprise Institute.

That our political and cultural clashes have hardly changed during this time prevents the collection from feeling dated. To the explosively­ ­controversial subjects of religion, ­politics, economics, sex, and marriage, Novak brings a tone of uncommon charity. He provides an abundance of statistics in essays on capitalism and public policy (though some would benefit from updated numbers), and he undertakes a more abstract form of analysis in contemplating Europe’s decline and the roots of American liberty. 

Yet even in areas where pragmatic and secular terms typically rule the debate, charity remains at the forefront of Novak’s concerns. Thus “The Love That Moves the Sun,” an analysis of the economic, political, and cultural systems that best serve society, begins with a consideration of how we participate in God’s love through charity. “To imagine a civilization based upon caritas , we must be careful to think realistically. For caritas . . . is love aimed at the real, not the apparent, good of the other . . . . A civilization of caritas is a civilization acutely aware of, and provident for, human sinfulness.”

Particularly moving is “The Family Out of Favor,” in which Novak turns from the political to the personal as he ponders the role of the family: “Seeing myself through the unblinking eyes of an intimate, intelligent other, an honest spouse, is humiliating beyond anticipation. Maintaining a familial steadiness whatever the state of my own emotions is a standard by which I stand daily condemned.” Another observation about the humility of marriage comes in the title essay, where he writes, “Married love is not that of angels. It is that of sweating bodies, disheveled sheets, scraggly beards, dirty diapers, and clamoring little ones hollering for their breakfast.”  

In offering meditations on, inter alia, a beautiful sculpture, a political system, and love’s many embodiments in a messy bedroom, this volume serves as a fine introduction to Novak’s considerable oeuvre.

Anna Sutherland, a former junior fellow at First Things, is editor of the blog