Book recommendations

4 01 2010

So people suspect me of bashing converts and American Catholics in general. Fair enough. Instead of being overly critical and not offering any solutions, I decided to make a list of books that I think every convert and convert at heart should read. So here are some books that I have found helpful:

I. Religious formation: Nothing extraordinary here. I recommend the Baltimore Catechism, the Catechism of St. Pius X, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent, in that order. People need to know their Faith without the fads, the chic theological theories, and rhetorical means by which we “sexy it up”. Just the facts, please.

II. Piety: Not much here, since I am not that pious at this point. All I have to say is that you need to read a lot of St. Louis de Monfort and St. Alphonsus de Ligouri. I can’t read any of this stuff with a straight face, but that is because my adolescence was spent reading these people. But trust me, it’s good for you. In terms of modern stuff, two books that struck me were God, the Woman and the Way by Father Raymond of the Trappists, and Wisdom’s Fool by Eddie Doherty. Both were books written prior to or around Vatican II that are thought-provoking and really well written.

III. Literature: I have never been a fan of novels, but two religious novels that could do a good job forming someone in the Catholic ethos are Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and Evelyn Waugh’s Bridehead Revisited. Both of these are written by converts, but they both converted before Vatican II, and they picked up the whole “Catholic thing” right away. Which is probably why Waugh died in despair in the aftermath of Vatican II, but I digress…

I am much more well versed in Spanish literature, so I will give my recommendations from that knowledge, and I will leave to the reader to either learn the language or find these in translations. There are of course, the standards: the poems of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Fray Luis de Leon, etc. I would also recommend the autosacramentales of Calderon de la Barca and others. Lope de Vega has some beautiful religious poetry. And of course, there is Gabriela Mistral.

IV. “Folk Catholicism”: This is the most important in getting to learn what Catholicism really looks like. Many of these books I have reviewed on this blog. I leave to the reader to find all of them if he so choses:

1. Mary, Michael, Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico by John M. Ingham

All around a good and informative book, very scholarly in its approach.

2. La Santisima Muerte: A Mexican Folk Saint by E. Bryant Holman

This is a self-published book, and it touches on more that just this “questionable” saint, but the nature of Catholic white magic and other marginal cults.

3. Folk Saints of the Borderlands by James Griffith.

Just what the title says it’s about. And it has pictures.

4. The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg

This is primarily good for showing the profound shift in world view in early modern peasant societies, and how “official” Catholicism can come to distort the Catholicism of the masses. It has been reviewed on this blog.

5. Veiled Threats or Madonnas that Maim , both by Michael Carroll. These show you how the saints really behave in Italian Catholic societies.

6. Shaman of Oberstdorf: Chonrad Stoeckhlin and the Phantoms of the Night by Wolfgang Behringer

I haven’t reviewed this book on the blog yet, but I may sometime soon.

7. The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, the Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century by Jean-Claude Schmidtt

This was also reviewed on this blog, and speaks of various aspects of French folk religion from the thirteenth to the early twentieth century.

Two books that I have not read yet, but seem promising are:

8. Cultures of Devotion: Folk Saints of Spanish America by Frank Graziano : I have read large portions of this book, but not the whole thing.

9. Hurricanes, Healings, and Dancing Ceilings by Mariana Titus

This seems to be about Cajun treaters and folk medicine. I will review it on this blog when I get my hands on it.

And finally:

10. Folk Medicine of Southern Appalachia by Anthony P. Cavender : This shows that folk magic was also very common amongst Protestants in this country as well.

There you have it, then, and don’t let me hear talk about how I never offer solutions. Take and read.



17 responses

1 02 2010

“All in all, the conditions read (and this is only my own opinion) as a precaution against using names, words, phrases, or symbols with with the individual is not wholly familiar, and that the attitude of “Fiat voluntas mea” is totally avoided. And wow, I just discovered that I know way too much about magical literature!”

I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but I find it appealing and it’s probably a fairly common modern interpretation of the norms separating superstition from inculturation/popular devotion/etc. I have to deal a lot with this professionally when I’m in Asia – I’m training to be a comparative theologian who focuses on South Asian traditions, and off and on that involves occasional participant-observer fieldwork in India and Nepal. You just can’t go to a puja, even as a passive observer, without having to engage in some amount of active participation. I haven’t been able to find a lot of good contemporary material on the line between appropriate and inappropriate communicatio in sacris, superstition, etc. but at least a little has been written by the Asian hierarchies in Hong Kong and India. And what you get in those documents is pretty much what you describe: being willing to construe participation in almost any ritual charitably, so long as it doesn’t create scandal to non-Christian participants, jar directly with Christian morality, and/or “primarily” intend the manipulation of deity. In the case of Christian rituals (even one’s appropriating non-Christians ideas and symbols) they will be taken up under the umbrella of “inculturation”. In the case of non-Christian rituals Christians participate in, it will be assumed that one can intend it all as worship of the Christian God (and thus avoid idolatry) so long as there isn’t something blatantly immoral or deeply coercive about the whole thing.

Yet you find old pre-conciliar examinations of conscience online where singing hymns at a Protestant service or consulting Tarot cards while appealing to the saints are considered grave matter for the confessional, so it can be very confusing.

1 02 2010

As for the term “vanity,” I’m currently trying to find a copy of the original Latin; the rest of the sentence leads me to believe it refers to a symbol with which the individual is unfamiliar, but the wording makes me want to be certain there isn’t a question of sense here to which Fr. Summers may not have done full justice. I want to be certain, so please let me get back to you on this one.

About “tacit invocation of devils,” though, I’ve always understood that as a reference to the “barbarous names” found in the grimoire literature; when names are said and the individual/operator/karcist/etc. has no idea what those names are (the nonsensical names from the Black Pullet would be an excellent example here), it’s just as easy for a demon or other non-benevolent spirit to fill in for whatever’s supposed to be addresed by that name. This is similar to the fear a lot of people have about ouija boards and tarot cards, and not too far from some of the things Waite says in his Book of Ceremonial Magic, or the “St. Blaise’s staff” anecdote from the Compendium Maleficarum.

All in all, the conditions read (and this is only my own opinion) as a precaution against using names, words, phrases, or symbols with with the individual is not wholly familiar, and that the attitude of “Fiat voluntas mea” is totally avoided. And wow, I just discovered that I know way too much about magical literature!

1 02 2010

Maybe we should both apologize to Arturo for taking over his combox (sorry Arturo!) – but that was the level of detail and reasoning I was hoping for, so many thanks! It’s similar to what I came out to myself but I always second-guess my own reasoning.

Now to go puzzle away about “tacit invocation,” which seems like a very bad idea of whatever theologian invented the concept. (I haven’t figured out just yet who first came up with the concept, but it seems like the original Augustinian idea was that you had to explicitly invoke demons to conduct an unlawful enchantment and so the Church didn’t interfere with Christian healers too much, but some theologian later on didn’t like that and invented the idea of tacit invocation to be able to ferret out more non-clerical religious activity as unlawful “superstition”. Aquinas? Or later than that?)

1 02 2010

That’s a good question, and prior to the CCC (1669, where it says blessings come from the baptismal priesthood), you’d actually find varying answers. For example, the Malleus says that a blessing or exorcism done by a laic is “unofficial,” done in his/her own name and not in the name of the Church. In the 1940’s, the catechetical book My Catholic Faith said pretty much the same thing. Yet, in his introduction to the subject of blessings for the 1964 translation of the Roman Ritual (an inferior product compared to his 1948-1952 translation, but I digress), Fr. Weller says that the laity are not allowed to confect blessings. So at best, everything preconciliar would appear contradictory.

So here would be my answer, working from Scripture and sacramentology: in Mark 16, Jesus mentions signs that would follow those who believe (i.e. things that can be done by the laity, since he didn’t distinguish in this passage); while Catholic sacramentology specifically states that the character of the priesthood is a two-fold power, to confect sacrifice and to absolve sins. Since the power to bless is not categorized here, nor is it mentioned as being acquired upon ordination to the diaconate (and since the minors/subdiaconate don’t impart a character), I’m left with the statement made in the Malleus and in My Catholic Faith, that the power to bless (and by implication the power to exorcise; as the order of exorcists, lacking a presbyteral sacramental character on their souls, was esentially no different from the laity except in regard to liceity; yes I know this is at variance with CCC 1673, but it’s Rome that’s guilty of self-contradiction here, not me) comes from Baptism, not Ordination.

In the end, what this leaves me with, and what I have always taught, is that solely as a matter of validity, a laic has the ability to impart a blessing on anything and everything that is not exclusively associated with public worship, up to and including rosaries and holy water. As a matter of liceity, a layperson’s blessing is “unofficial” (see above), save in those cases where the Church may specifically say otherwise, like in the BOB where permission is specifically given to laics. In those cases where the blessing is reserved to a bishop (such as Chrism, Altar Stones, and usually anything that is exclusively the province of the Church’s public worship, again CCC 1669), then its usurpation by a layperson would be illicit and an offense against the good order of the Church, and even though I’m be inclined to treat it as invalid, I’d be really hard-pressed to prove that it’s invalid.

Okay, sorry for the long combox, but I hope the answer makes sense.

1 02 2010

I’m also not really clear what the seven conditions of lawful enchantment are supposed to rule out – what counts as a “vanity” or a tacit invocation of the Devil even if one doesn’t mean in any way shape or form to invoke him? Scrupulous enchanters are eager to know!

1 02 2010

We seem to be riffing off one another, because you reminded me of a question I’ve been meaning to ask someone who knows something about contemporary RC blessings. I think in the older way of looking things, if you wanted to bless an object a priest had to do it? (I’m not so sure of this: I know of people whose parents blessed them as a child. Was there anything it was NOT OK for non-priests to bless, so long as it wasn’t something directly connected to a sacrament such as the eucharistic bread/wine or the oils for unction/chrism?) Now there’s this book of household blessings which lets lay people bless all kinds of things, which I suppose makes sense because the catechism says lay people can provide over sacramentals (but not sacraments) and that sacramentals will only be reserved if they are very closely related to actual sacraments. But that leaves in question what SPECIFIC things a lay person may bless, and which require a priest. (One of the priests in town thinks it’s OK for lay people to bless rosaries; I don’t know how he would feel aout something like holy water).

31 01 2010

It’s interesting that you mention the Collectio Rituum, and by extension, the preconciliar Roman Ritual in general. Especially since it’s not just the herbs, but the general pattern for any object that’s blessed is health, protection, aid to sanctification, or getting rid of evil spirits, depending on the object being blessed.

This makes me want to suggest that Arturo put the Rituale and its N.O. counterpart (the Book of Blessings) on the list, because a side-by-side comparison yields some interesting findings: in the Rituale, the focus of the blessing is the object, that the object will be sanctified for the sake of the people using it; from what I’ve read in the BOB, usually the object isn’t really blessed in the technical sense, but the blesing is focused toward the people who will use that object. It betrays a radically different understanding of how blessings work (“euchology?” lol). I think a lot stands to be gleaned from such an examination.

31 01 2010

I used to get a little bit uncomfortable about otherwise lawful enchantments utilizing herbs (not sure why, maybe some kind of Protestant hiccup since I’m a convert) but Duffy’s chapter also mentions the traditional blessing of herbs for the year on Assumptiontide. I looked it up in the Collectio Rituum and the blessing specifically mentions that its purpose is to make them good for food and for healing purposes, and I really doubt they were thinking of modern pharmaceuticals when that was written!

31 01 2010

Yeah, it never ceases to amaze me how many people forget about the “seven contidions of lawful enchantment” found in the Malleus. There was also a Catholic dictionary from the 1950’s (I believe it was Atwater; it’s at UD’s library, do I’ll re-confirm that the next time I go there) which said the same thing. Good call, +Wulfila.

Along these lines, I’ll never forget something that happened a few years ago. I was talking to my deacon and my acolyte about an issue going on in my life, and the deacon said “Get me a bowl and fill it with water.” I did, and he placed his hand in it then started telling me everything I needed/wanted to know about the situation. Later that night (after everybody went home), my acolyte called and asked me what that was all about. I answered, “That’s just what Catholicism looks like in the rest of the world.” Part of me wonders whether he’s been scratching his head over that one ever since.

31 01 2010

Don’t miss the chapter on popular religion in Eamon Duffy’s “Stripping of the Altars,” which concludes that the “magical”/”superstitious” material in folk Catholicism is 1. ubiquitous, 2. thoroughly Christian, 3. allowed by Thomas Aquinas and the Malleus Maleficarum, 4. utilized more-or-less equally by all social classes (rich/poor, cleric/lay), 5. just part of the spectrum of orthodoxy at the time (Catholicism of the period being “a broad church”).

I think variations on some of the charms discussed in that chapter are still in use – I have a real sense of de ja vu in that chapter because I think I’m reading (sometimes verbatim!) contemporary Latin American devotions to the saints!

31 01 2010

Arturo, I believe I had sent this title to you a long time ago. I’d be interested if you can get a hold of it and comment. The Dream-Hunters of Corsica by Dorothy Carrington. Phoenix. London. Reissued 2000

31 01 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I would love to know what the “real thing” is. So far, I don’t think it exists outside the Internet and a few American white suburbs. Most people’s religion has never looked like that.

One addendum: steer clear of anything by Ignatius Press. Not that they don’t publish some good stuff. But for someone just coming into the Church, their view of Catholicism is profoundly distorted, though in a more “conservative” sort of way.

31 01 2010

How could you have missed Jose Maria Gironella’s trilogy, “The Cypresses Believe in God,” “One Million Dead,” and “Peace Has Broken Out?”

O, I forgot. You’d rather recommend magic and withcraft “folk catholicism” than the real thing. What a shame.

4 01 2010

Thanks for the recommendations. I’d be curious to compare the catechism documents you mention with the more recent version composed under the supervision of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. In particular, whether they’re as heavy on natural law theory and language.

4 01 2010

How could you fail to list the Catholic Girl’s Guide, especially the chapter the on the “Lilly and Its Enemies”?

4 01 2010

“curmudgeonly Arturo Vasquez”?

I envy you. All my life I have wanted to be called a curmudgeon. Sigh.

4 01 2010
For fellow readers and book lovers … "best books of 2009" « the other side of silence

[…] curmudgeonly Arturo Vasquez has compiled “a list of books that I think every convert and convert at heart should read” (Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic […]

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