ST. BENEDICT AND ST. THÉRÈSE: THE LITTLE RULE & THE LITTLE WAY by Dwight Longenecker
Our Sunday Visitor, 2002 224 pages, $11.95
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who died on the cusp of the 20th century, is the most popular and written about modern saint of our day. St. Benedict and Benedictine spirituality, coming to us from the sixth century, is also well-represented in current Catholic booklists. With so many books on each already available, classic and contemporary, it seems reasonable to ask: Why these two saints again — and why together?
Because, explains Longenecker, where Thérèse offers a “little way” of spiritual childhood and Benedict offers a “little rule” for beginners, both give a fresh teaching about the sacrifice of the Gospel through ordinary life. “Their teaching is driven by their lives, and while we look to their lives for inspiration it is to their teaching that we look for possibilities,” he writes. “Thérèse and Benedict's teachings are complimentary. Benedict offers mature stability and the wisdom of age. Thérèse balances that with youthful idealism and fiery enthusiasm.”
Fair enough. And the book lives up to the promise implied in that synopsis. Biographical details of this “father-daughter” pair of saints emerge through their teaching. And the teaching, tested in daily experience, makes their spirituality especially practical. The 10 chapters cover themes such as ordinary miracles, childlike spirituality, obedience, stability, conversion of life, humility and wonder.
Longenecker displays a gift for explaining complex realities with a lightness bordering on levity. His style calls to mind the musings of G.K. Chesterton. Like C h e s t e r t o n , Longenecker locates the backbone of a subject, often turning words ironically to make it all but impossible to miss his point. The effect is the mental equivalent of a chiropractic adjustment. He examines the reader's mental joints and makes a sharp push or twist to align the ideas.
“Conversion experiences are powerful emotional events,” he writes, “but if there is nothing more than emotion, then the conversion experience is more experience than conversion, and the result is not spiritual rebirth but spiritual stillbirth.”
Elsewhere he shows how wonder is differentiated from curiosity. “Monkeys and cats are curious, but they are not full of wonder,” he writes. “Curiosity demands an answer, but wonder gazes at Truth. Curiosity is concerned with facts, wonder is concerned with meaning; curiosity is restless, wonder is at peace.”
And on man and nature: “The man of faith is natural. He lives in perfect harmony with his creator. Because he is as he should be, he does not appear remarkable. It is only the unnatural that is unusual. Flying pigs surprise us; flying parrots don't.”
Throughout, Longenecker's insights do not eclipse well-chosen and frequent quotes from Benedict and Thérèse, but grow naturally out of keen analyses of the two saints' words and lives. The reader hears the wisdom of these saints directly, in the saints' own words. And their words should cause us to stop, think and pray. Toward this purpose, each chapter begins with a page TITLEd “Thoughts and Prayers.” These consist of several quotes with a prayer to help direct our mind and spirit to the chapter's theme.
The premise of this book is unique; the result, compelling. Readers looking to grow in the faith at the feet of two great masters of prayer and devotion will find helpful hints here. And they'll find themselves by turns motivated, amused and sometimes even tickled by crisp thinking and lively writing.
Robert Trexler, editor of CSL:
The Bulletin of the New York C.S.
Lewis Society, writes from