Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Going Back to the Woodshed

Going Back to the Woodshed

    There is an old musicians phrase that we used to use when I was in my band days many years ago, which articulated a need to get your chops up playing your instrument. The phrase is, “ Go back to the wood shed.” So we as a band would rent out a small rehearsal space on the industrial side of town and spend several hours a week practicing our set making sure we were all in perfect time with one another, practicing so that we would have the “chops” to deliver a solid live musical performance. We would play one song over and over until we could all play it with our eyes closed. Although the spiritual life is a bit different than playing music, there are some principles that can be carried over. The main one is spending time doing what you love, so you can perfect yourself. The spiritual life is very much the same in this respect. If you love God, you spend more time with Him by learning from Him, and reading others who have learned from Him. Reading Scripture, the lives of the Saints, and various solid orthodox theologians can increase our faith, and prepare us to preach the Gospel more effectively.

    Being careful not to disregard the grace that is absolutely necessary to be perfected, we must realize that at times we must “go back to the woodshed” theologically and spiritually. It is necessary to make personal retreats or spend periods of time in which we focus on certain elements of our relationship with God. As the old saying goes, you cannot give what you do not have, so we go to the woodshed to obtain what we can then later give. I find a particular need at this point in my life to make another trip back to the “woodshed.” Before becoming Catholic I spent about a period of two years reading everything I could get my hands on that covered the basics of the Catholic faith. After I converted I continued to read plenty of material, but I had no focal point of study. So I would read one author who may be rooted in the Augustinian school, another from the Jesuit camp, and another from the Franciscan school of thought and so on. This was good for getting a good overview of the Catholic faith. Over the past year and a half however, I have narrowed my focus of study. This “narrowing,” in reality is actually broadening my understanding of the Catholic faith. I have discovered the wonder of Dominican spirituality and the depths of Thomistic theology and philosophy. It is here that everything has begun to come together as a cohesive unit for me.  There is so much good stuff to get your hands on that I think this will be a long visit to the “woodshed.” Reading several biographies of St. Thomas as well as introductions to his voluminous work has kept me busy for quite awhile now. I also have enjoyed works by the great Fr. Lagrange as well. But recently I have discovered a whole new world of solid Thomistic scholars who are actually alive! This in itself is a breath of fresh air.

    With the state of the Church being what it is, it is easy to get discouraged. Most of the theologians in the Church today have inherited a modernist mentality which severely impairs their ability to understand and communicate the Catholic faith effectively. At times it appears that the only theologians that are safe to read are the ones who lived before the mid 19th century. As a result you almost get the impression that you are living a faith that only exists in the minds of dead authors. This of course is not the case, I am exaggerating a bit. It is however a pleasant surprise to discover an entire wellspring of solid Thomistic theologians that are alive and well in the Church. There are several Dominican and lay Thomistic scholars like Fr. Cessario, Fr. Dewan, Fr. White, Dr. Hutter, Dr. Long, Dr. Hittinger, etc, that are well worth devoting your time to reading. I have chosen several books to take with me to the “woodshed” to get my “chops” up, and I want to share a few of them with you.

1. The History of St. Dominic-Augusta Theodosia Drane.
This book is available from TAN, but you can also download it for free as an Ebook, so that is what I did. I downloaded it to my Nook and I read a bit each day to meditate on the life of Saint Dominic. It is always good to read the lives of the Saints.

2. A Short History of Thomism- Romanus Cessario.
Although I have read several introductions to Saint Thomas, this little book is always a good one to keep around to keep things fresh in your mind regarding the different ways people have interpreted and applied the works of St. Thomas.

3. The Writings of Charles De Konink- Charles De Konink.
This two volume set is full of great essays by this phenomenal Thomistic philosopher/theologian from Laval. Subjects covered include his excellent explanation of the common good and his essay on the wisdom of Mary.

4. Dante and the Blessed Virgin- Ralph McInerny.
I received this book a couple of days ago and I am finished with it. It is a great read guiding you through Dante’s Commedia, but focusing on Dante’s theological focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is more than just a mere explanation of the Comedia however, and Dr. McInerny also explains the Thomstic principles of morality as you wind through Dante’s work. It walks a nice line between a theological theme and a spiritual theme. In other words you not only learn about your faith, you learn how to apply it. It was McInerny’s final book and it I must say it is a great read. 

5. Ressourcement Thomism- Hutter and Levering.
This book contains 14 essays by  todays best Thomistic theologians, compiled in honor of Fr. Romanus Cessario. Scholars include, Matthew Levering, Romanus Cassario OP, Thomas Joseph White OP, Lawrence Dewane OP, Stephen Brock, Matthew Lamb and Dr. Steven Long among others.

6. Introduction to Scholastic Theology- Ulrich G. Leinsle.
If you want to get a good overview of the scholastic theology of the middle ages then this book is for you. It starts at the foundations of scholastic theology and follows up to the period of Baroque scholasticism.

7. Introduction to Moral Theology- Romanus Cessario.
Cessario here uses the encyclical Veritatis splendor to navigate moral ethics from a Thomistic Catholic perspective. He never wavers on presenting moral theology from a classical Thomistic perspective.

8. Wisdom, Law and Virtue- Lawrence Dewan, OP.
This book is a treasure trove of Thomistic philosophy. It is about 600 pages of essays compiled by Fr. Lawrence Dewan which he has either written or taken from conferences over the last 30 years.

9. You Shall Worship One God-Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe,OP.
This book is more of a spiritual read focusing on true worship, starting in the Old Testament and working up to the New, with the summit of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

10. The Natural Desire to See God- Lawrence Feingold.
Supposedly this is one of the best works concerning man’s desire and ability to see God as his final end. I have yet to crack this one open.

11. The Godly Image- Romanus Cessario.
This work is hailed as being one of the best Thomistic works on the image of God in man. It begins with a brief introduction to St. Thomas’s works and then proceeds to cover the incarnation, satisfaction, justice, salvation, worship, divine nature and the sacraments.

12. The Human Soul- Abbot Vonier.
I just started this book and it looks to be a great spiritual read. It covers the basics of the spiritual life from the perspective of the human soul. It is about 200 pages and consists of small concise chapters on various truths of the faith such as what the soul is, how it obtains perfection, how the soul separates from the body after death, how the soul and body are meant for one another, etc.

13. Meeting Christ in the Sacraments- Colman E. O’Neill.
According to Fr. Cessario, this is one of the best books on sacramental theology you can get your hands on. So it is on my list.

14. Wisdom in the Face of Modernity- Thomas Joesph White, OP.
This is a study in natural theology that addresses controversial figures dealing with this topic such as Maritain, Rahner and Gilson. I have yet to start on this one.

There are a few more books in the arsenal, but for now these works will be my primary focus. This looks like quite an ambitious task, no? For a time I will not be doing too much personal essay writing. I will however be sharing with you some of the things that I take away from this massive undertaking. Hopefully this trip to the “woodshed” will be a fruitful one. If you have read any of these works I would be interested in your take on them.

It seems that Eric Clapton has spent plenty of time at the woodshed.

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