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Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an age of Unbelief.

Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an age of Unbelief. San Francisco; Ignatius Press, 1999, pp. 425, $39.95 Cdn.

In an account of the vision of Pope Leo XIII, we are told that Satan was allocated the twentieth, out of all the centuries, in which to wreak his will. A quick overview of the events of the century does little to disprove this conjecture. In tandem with its barbarism, such as had not been seen since the Dark Ages, ran a dominant agnosticism in the ranks of the intellectuals of the western world. This, of course, was hardly new. It dates back to the Enlightenment and beyond. It persists today.

But now we have British writer Joseph Pearce, in our age of disillusionment, presenting a chronicle of a Christian, chiefly Catholic, literary revival during the 20th century. This response of faith has greatly helped to balance the atmosphere of unbelief, at least during the first two-thirds of the century.

A few of the writers mentioned, such as T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers, were of the Anglican persuasion, but the majority were converted to Roman Catholicism. Although Pearce incorporates the names and deeds of various cradle Catholics' like Hilaire Belloc into his saga, he concentrates mostly on the converts, some coming from Anglicanism, others from atheism. There are names we know and love already such as G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox and Malcolm Muggeridge. With others, like R. H. Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the process of conversion and later career is so fascinating that we wish we had known of him before.

Of course there is also a "who would've thunk it!" section, headed by that prince of decadents, Oscar Wilde. Do those who now laud him as the patron saint of homosexuals know about his claim that he was prevented from converting to Catholicism as a youth, or that he was received into the Church on November 29, 1900, the day before he died? Another, to me, unlikely Catholic was the poetess Edith Sitwell, a person I have always regarded as an eccentric elitist with a penchant for strange costumes and obscure free verse. Yet convert she did in August 1955, after 30 years of consideration. One of the joys of the book is an account of an acerbic 1923 public debate between Sitwell, representing the fashionable newer poets, and Alfred Noyes, a champion of traditional poetry and himself a convert.

No overview of British Catholic writers would be complete without mention of Graham Greene, 'the Catholic sceptic,' and indeed Pearce gives full measure to this brilliant but troubled man who "never felt comfortable with Catholicism but nor was he ever comfortable with anything else." One of the sadder episodes in the book details the conversion of Douglas Hyde, a leading member of the British Communist party and editor of its newspaper, the Daily Worker. However, before he died in 1996, Hyde, while not reverting to Marxism, "lapsed into a twilight world of liberation theology between the two."

What was the attraction? Why did so many members of Britain's literary elite feel drawn to a religion at one time proscribed in their country? Emotion and aesthetics did not seem to come into it. For some, such as Chesterton's friend, Maurice Baring, it was as if "the missing piece of a complicated puzzle ... had at last been found." Most approached conversion searching for truth, examining Catholic doctrines through the lens of reason and, at the end of their search, feeling they would betray their consciences if they did not take this step.

A further factor was the universalism of the faith. A Church with branches throughout the world, with a history traceable back to Jesus Christ and His apostles, provided a certainty not found in Anglicanism, itself limited to mainly anglophone countries and rooted in an amalgam of post-Renaissance discontent and a king's lusts. Even before World War 1, Ronald Knox had noted modernistic trends leading to a "fog of scepticism" among Anglican theologians. Evelyn Waugh, at his 1930 reception, wrote that he valued, not only Catholicism's connection with civilisation, but also its consistent teaching, order and discipline.

The 'tidal wave' of literary converts peaked in the Thirties, before World War II. Since then, there have been several notable conversions, such as Alec Guinness in 1956; Siegfried Sassoon, the Jewish poet of World War I, who, like Edith Sitwell, took 30 years to come to his decision; then Muggeridge in 1982.

Edomites, etc. Extensive bibliography and index.

Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. The world before and after Jesus, 2001, $21 Cdn or $14 U.S., softcover, 352 pages. The author of the bestselling books How the Irish saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews presents a compelling narrative focusing on Jesus as the pivotal point of history. Based on scholarship and intuition, Jesus' life is viewed through the eyes of those who knew him and in the context of his time. Very readable.

Cathleen Medwick, Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul, 2001, $19.95 Cdn or $12.95 U.S., softcover, 284 pages. A multidimensional portrait of the practical, strong-willed mystic and saint.

A CD of Christian music from Stable Music Inc., 4515 Stanley Rd., S.W., Calgary, AB., T2S 2P8 (403) 243-1049.

Denis Grady, Running Too Long, 1998. Known as "Gospel artist of the year 1998," Canadian singer/songwriter, Grady offers the best mix of country and pop styles to promote a message of hope in the Lord. He is co-founder of the Catholic Association of Musicians.

Book Note

This book was not received but we would like to make a comment.

Christian Feldman, Pope John XXIII: A Spiritual Biography, Crossroad Publishing Company, $22.95 Cdn, 192 pages. This is an unreal interpretation of the life of Pope John XXIII by a German feminist who attempts to change this Pope into a post-Vatican Council-"progressive". Best to avoid; not worth the money.

Cardinal Leger

Nine years after his death, a new biography of Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger in French presents the second half of his life as cardinal, beginning with his resignation as Archbishop of Montreal on November 9, 1967. The same author, Micheline Lachance, published his biography in 1982, covering the years from his birth in 1904 and his life as Archbishop, 1950-1967. Her new book is entitled Paul-Emile Ldger: Le Dernier Voyage (Montreal, Les Editions de L'Homme, 343 pages, $26.95). It covers the cardinal's (post- 1967) African mission and his work for the rehabilitation centre for disabled children in Cameroon until his death.

By the time of the explosive social changes of the Sixties, most of the original converts were dead. Many of them died disappointed that the changes wrought in the wake of Vatican II had left them with a Church they no longer recognised. Liturgical innovations and the introduction of the vernacular mass hit particularly hard. Evelyn Waugh, bitter about the reforms, said, "I shall never, pray God, apostasize but churchgoing is now a bitter trial." His death on Easter Sunday 1966 was made more peaceful, however, by having that morning attended a private Latin mass.

Author Joseph Pearce must have found much in common with his subjects. Himself a convert, he recounted his own spiritual progression--in his case from neo-Nazism-- in a riveting article published this spring in the National Post. Some readers may have read his previous book Tolkien: Man and Myth. They will find Literary Converts, despite its monumental length, more focused and a real good-news read. Catholics of today, who feel castdown by the contempt shown their faith by the modern media and chattering classes, will get a boost from reading this book. They will no longer feel so dumb, stupid and ignorant when they read of the great minds and acknowledged masters of words and ideas who bowed the knee to Rome. The final-post-Vatican II chapters leave much food for reflection.

A final thought raised by this interesting book. North America, including Canada, must have some literary figures of consequence who "saw the light". Who is ready to tell their stories?
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Daffern, Kate
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:1352
Previous Article:Christopher Dawson: Part III.
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