Putting Out Into the Deep

Saturday Book Pick: Father Tomáš Halík, a Czech scholar who was ordained in the underground Church, pens Night of the Confessor.

I was not surprised to learn that Father Tomáš Halík, a Czech scholar who was ordained in the underground Church during the communist regime, won the Romano Guardini Prize, for, as I read Night of the Confessor, that is whose works I kept thinking of.

I especially thought of The End of the Modern World (1956), in which Guardini, one of Pope Benedict XVI’s teachers, wrote that in describing the modern world’s end, he was not proclaiming a “facile apocalyptic.” In other words, that Jesus was coming back and all shall be well.

Father Halík writes that he “would like to take a stand against ‘religious optimism’ — facile belief, making use of people’s anxiety and suggestibility for a manipulatory ‘bargain with God,’ and providing simplistic, ‘pious’ answers to complex questions.”

His book is a series of meditations on the “mysteries of faith … with the help of two clues”: Jesus’ saying, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible”; and St. Paul’s saying, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And he does this during a retreat, often in front of the Blessed Sacrament, by reflecting on his own experience as a confessor.

His chapters cover the nature of faith, the Eucharistic presence, mass worship (such as in football stadiums, which he questions severely), science and religion, the struggle we have with self-centeredness, and the journeys of Christians who feel drawn to Eastern religions. He also focuses on the battle between modernists and traditionalists, both of whom he upbraids for losing their balance, and “the problem of pain,” as C.S. Lewis phrased it. Also included are ecumenism, the life and death of John Paul II, whom he got to know personally, doubt, and, finally, what he calls “second-wind Christianity,” that is, a faith that has died, or come close to dying, and then been resurrected.

“Many of today’s Christians — if I may refer to my experience as a confessor — are experiencing ‘a crisis of prayer,’” Father Halík writes. “They are no longer able to remain present in all sincerity when simulated dialogue with an Invisible Uncle is interspersed with pious poems. It is necessary for us Christians to learn contemplation once more: the art of inner silence, in which God will be able to speak to us through our own lives and his unique events. Then life itself will act as a corrective should we try to indulge in pious trickery. Putting one’s own projections and plans into God’s mouth is possible only in the case of a make-believe god ‘in the wings.’ Happily, the living God — the deep-down mystery of reality — cannot be treated this way.”

I’m not sure I agree with Father Halík’s conviction that Karl Rahner was the greatest theologian of the 20th century. And toward the book’s end, there appears a talk Father Halík gave to an ecumenical gathering, distracting from the tone of the book previous to and after that, and adding nothing.

But, overall, Night of the Confessor is a bracing, challenging work. Don’t read it unless you are (or would like to have the courage to be) interested in “putting out into the deep.”

Register correspondent Franklin Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.


Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty

By Father Tomáš Halík

Image Books, 2012

240 pages, $13

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