The Way of the Lamb - Book Review
Catholic Herald - 23/7/99
As millennial madness tightens its grip and we fret over the Y2K bug and buy in wood-fired stoves, it is comforting to see our children still at play in a sun-drenched meadow, picking buttercups with the same insouciance as ever. You would have to be very blind indeed not to see in the presence of children the true message for this last year of the second millennium, the year of the Father.
John Saward has written what almost amounts to a manifesto for spiritual survival in our time, painting a compelling picture of the crisis of our age. With the abortion rate soaring, and child-abuse on the increase to the point where in the United States it has been referred to as a national emergency, with the media full of material which is inimical to the innocence which by definition is the right of every child, and ought to be the goal of every sane adult, to say that the modern era is not child-friendly is an understatement. To abort — literally to put out of its place — is the instinctive reaction of our culture to everything that is good and true and beautiful. Everything that is like a child.
In The Way of the Lamb Saward draws principally on the life and writings of five prophetic figures, starting at the turn of the century: St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Gilbert Chesterton, Charles Péguy, Georges Bernanos and Hans Urs von Balthasar (although he also touches on others such as Cardinal Newman). He gives a delightful and very Chestertonian description of this "valiant company" at the core of his book. "The princess among these prophets is saint and doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In her retinue are four men, her spiritual brothers, whose writings are an amplification and development of her Little Way.
Von Balthasar is the only trained theologian among them, and some of his academic colleagues might wonder to find him placed with three non-specialist laymen in the retinue of an equally untrained young woman. But one of the virtues of Saward's book is that precisely through this varied retinue is the value of the newest doctor of the Church made to stand out. For at some point we are going to have to decide whether we take our Lord seriously when he said: "I thank thee, Father. Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes..." (Mt. 11:25).
The Little Way is not, writes Saward, a form of anti-intellectualism. St Thérèse was a very intelligent young woman. She would not be fobbed off with silly sentiment as a substitute for sound dogma. On the last day other life, she said "Oui, i1 me semble que je n'ai jamais cherché que la verité" ...all I have ever sought is the truth.
The Little Way was for her a sure path to the truth. It is in childlike abandonment to the Father that the soul can truly grasp the truth about itself, and the world around it. And the resource for procuring that state of abandonment is to be found in the memory of one's own childhood, as Chesterton found out when he worked his way free of the nihilistic spirit of the l890s: "Mine is a memory of a sort of white light on everything, cutting things out very clearly and rather emphasising the solidity. The point is that the white light had a sort of wonder in it, as if the 'world were as new as myself; but not that the world was anything but a real world."
This question of reality is important. For the way of spiritual childhood, as Saward makes abundantly clear, is not a glorified Peter Pan complex. It is precisely the most wearisome adults who have failed to grow up.
The Little Way is not a regression, but a warrior-like condition which is prepared to take on reality at its most raw and wrestle with it — precisely because it does not trust in its own strength. This Thérèse discovered at Christmas 1886, and it is the reason for her devotion to St. Joan of Arc, about whom she wrote two plays whilst in Carmel. As von Balthasar writes: "Her battle is to wipe out the hard core of Pharisaism that stubbornly persists in the midst of the New Covenant man's Will-to-Power using religion as a means to an end, the will for one's own greatness in place of the greatness of God, who alone is great".
The presentation of the two French writers, Péguy and Bernanos, is also fascinating. The latter, best-known for The Diary of a Country Priest, was a prolific literary defender of the things which he himself, as the father of a family, nurtured in his own life. It is his fictional saints who, whatever their physical age, present the true quality of youthfulness.
"Childhood is the true name of youth." wrote Bernanos. "What we call the spirit of childhood is the very spirit of youth, and this genius which from age to age makes fruitful and renews history, is strictly speaking the genius of childhood."
Péguy, though born a Catholic, lapsed. and was barred from the sacraments even when he returned to the faith on account of his marriage. Thus he stood on the margins of the Church, from whence, a little like Simone Weil, he beckons others in.
For Péguy, as for the Church Fathers, the doctrine of original sin reminds us that "happiness is not only a hope, but also a memory". Hence the importance of Our Lady's Immaculate condition. Notions of "progress", so prevalent from the 19th century on, are fundamentally anti-Christian. This underpins Péguy's deep reverence for tradition and orthodoxy, in spite of his invidious position.
For, as Saward puts it in a Newmanian key: "The development of doctrine is not the invention of novelties, but the unfolding of a treasure ever ancient, ever new, the immortal diamond of Divine Revelation, the faith once delivered to the saints." And it is this newness that marks out the spiritual fecundity of childhood; mere novelties are the sterile pastime of bored adults.
Copyright © Catholic Herald 1999
This version: 7th February 2003