Divine Beauty

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: Pursuing Holiness in Today's World

Book Review by the Bear (a.k.a. Tim Capps)
Pursuing Holiness in Today's World
by Angelo Stagnaro, OSF
Published by Hope and Life Press, 2017
Nihil Obstat Monsignor Francis J. McAree, Diocesan Censor
Imprimatur Most Reverend Gerald T. Walsh, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York,
October 2, 2013
113 pp.
Price: $16.99 paperback, $9.99 ebook

First Part of Review


Since there are some preliminary matters to get out of the way, this first piece is introductory. The Bear will take hand in paw and lead you through the substance in the next installment. If you're at all interested in the book - and you should be - this introduction should not be skipped, however.

"Why should I put any stock in a review written by an author whose novel is published by the very same publisher as the book he is purporting to review?"

This might be a legitimate question if the reviewer were not a Bear, and thus incapable of saying anything other than what he really thinks. As it is, the Bear jokingly inquired if he should feel any trepidation at submitting criticisms having to do with editorial decisions when his own second novel would be under the same editorial chainsaw - excuse Bear, scalpel - soon enough.

It was a joke occasioned by  the Bear's sincere suggestion that the "Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium" seemed like two books and should be published as such.. After the Bear had the temerity to challenge decisions made by his own publisher, his advice was deemed sound.

And so, "Pursuing Holiness in Today's World" was spun off as a separate book at the Bear's suggestion.

There was never any doubt that the Bear would review it as he would review any other book. The Bear and his publisher, polar opposites in most ways, who might possibly both retire staunching blood if we ever met in person, have learned neither one has any difficulty saying what they think. 

So, Hope and Life Press and Mr. Stagnaro will read this review for the first time along with everyone else: when it appears in this ephemeris.

So, to be clear, the Bear (under his human literary alias of Tim Capps) shares the publisher of Pursuing Holiness in Today's World by Mr. Stagnaro. A small picture of the Bear's novel Judging Angels appears with other Hope and Life Press offerings on the final page, and the book under review was provided free of charge for the purpose, no strings attached. Finally, Hope and Life Press will be publishing the next volume in the Bear's Rubricatae Chronicles, i.e. the sequel to Judging Angels, whenever it is (God willing) finished.

Got all that? So much for disclosures.

The only reservation the Bear had is that, as a writer, he is loathe to criticize any author's book. An author who says criticisms don't bother him or her is either a true saint or fibbing. The Bear knows Mr. Stagnaro only through the lavish cruises Hope and Life Press provides for its authors.

In other words, he has never met the man.

Nonetheless, the Bear has sharpened his claws as well as his attention.

Fortunately, anyone who writes a book about sin can hardly complain if his ego is pricked, can he? Mr. Stagnaro, The Bear liked your book, but you're going to feel a pinch, as the nurse says.

The Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium
versus Pursuing Holiness in Today's World

The book under review was originally provided as "A Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium." However, material directly relating to advice on sin and holiness was subsequently spun off from the original book  and published as the shorter Pursuing Holiness in Today's World.

So, if you are also interested in having at your fingerprints well-researched articles on current social issues from a Catholic perspective, you will find those in "A Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium." (A list entitled "Fourteen Myths About Homosexuality and Same Sex Marriage" suggests the flavor of the longer book.) 

It is the Bear's understanding that "A Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium" is still going to be available in the original form under that title. It includes all the material in "Pursuing Holiness in Today's World," plus the lengthy and well-documented discussion of many social issues not to be found in the new spin-off under review. The price of  the longer, original, "A Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium" is $44.95 paperback and $34.99 ebook, the latter available exclusively from Hope and Life Press.

A Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium is 450 pages and its dimensions are 7" x 10". Think of the Modern Sinner's Guide for the Third Millennium as a hefty reference book with extensive footnotes useful for instructing the ignorant. Pursuing Holiness in Today's World is a shorter handbook on sin that includes apologetics.

The Bear thinks it is fortunate that Pursuing Holiness in Today's World will perhaps find the larger audience it deserves at the price of $16.99 paperback, and $9.99 ebook. In fact, if you take nothing else away, here, up front, the Bear highly recommends Pursuing Holiness in Today's World.

So to be absolutely clear, this review is of the newer, shorter, less-expensive and more personally-oriented publication, "Pursuing Holiness in Today's World."

So, with all that behind us, what does the Bear think about Pursuing Holiness in Today's World?

The Authentic Voice of the Church of Ages

There is an introduction which begins with the author's reasons for why he is Catholic, a section entitled, "The Foundations of Christianity," which contains apologetics and a discussion of sin and temptation in general, and then, "The Pursuit of Holiness."

"Think of an experienced sergeant 
who is a careful student of war
helping a new recruit with his kit
and giving practical advice about
surviving contact with the enemy."

First of all, this is a scholarly work. chock full of good traditional Catholic quotes, including many from the Council of Trent. (You may now turn off the light bulb which should have just appeared over your head.)

The Bear observes that more traditionally-minded Catholics will find nothing to raise an eyebrow at, something that unfortunately requires comment these days. However, the Bear would leave the wrong impression if he labeled it "traditionalist" and in any way limited its audience. It is nothing more or less than the authentic voice of the Church of Ages, and written for every Catholic.

Scholarly, but Not Dry

This is not some casual, slap-dash opinion or exhortatory work such the Bear might produce.

"The Bear kept wondering,
'Why hasn't anyone else ever
told him this before?'"

The author does frequently appeal to his personal experience, but does not rely on his personal opinion. Think of an experienced sergeant who is a careful student of war helping a new recruit with his kit and giving practical advice about surviving contact with the enemy.

"Scholarly" must not be understood as "dry." The Bear found it unexpectedly warm and personal. It is scholarly, but does not "smell of the lamp." It is written in a modern, accessible and enjoyable style.

Having said that, the Church has made a science of the study of sin, and, like any other specialized field, some matters are unavoidably complex and will require the reader's close attention. Fortunately, the author helps the reader with frequent examples and bullet lists. 

No topic is skimped because of complexity, controversy, or current obscurity. The subject of indulgences, for example, gets a full-throated defense and the clearest explanation the Bear has ever read. The Bear found himself understanding many things for the first time. That is one of the best things about the book.

The Bear kept wondering, "Why hasn't anyone else ever told him this before?"

The Author

Mr. Stagnaro has impressive journalistic credentials, which are apparent when reading Pursuing Holiness in Today's World. His credits include National Catholic Register, Washington Post, Catholic Herald, National Catholic Reporter, America Magazine and The Tablet. He is also the author of many books. If your gorge rose at some of the credits, rest assured the Angelo Stagnaro revealed in this book is orthodox. "Conservative" - to the extent such an imprecise label remains useful shorthand - applies.

Yet, the Bear believes one cannot have a Catholic mind and be liberal on issues like same sex marriage, prostitution, pornography, etc. "Conservative" is not a comment on his politics, which the Bear does not know, but his Catholic perspective on social issues where the Church of Ages has clearly spoken.

Perhaps one other thing might be addressed. Mr. Stagnaro is a "stage mentalist."

That is to say, he is an entertaining fraud who performs feats of apparent mind-reading. Of course, "fraud" is the wrong word, because he does not claim to be an actual mind reader. He frankly acknowledges it is all done with smoke and mirrors, as with the stage magician who pulls a rabbit from a hat. He has written a number of books on the stage art.

If this should make any Catholic queasy, among the targets upon which Mr. Stagnaro trains his heavy artillery are New Agers and occultists. Any thought that he is somehow trafficking with devils could not be more ludicrous. If you think so, you must also believe David Copperfield really did make the Statue of Liberty disappear through the help of minions from Hell.

An Initial Quibble: The Dangers of Inserting Oneself Into the Piece

The Bear brings this up early not because it is all that important, but because it is as good a place as any to mention a stylistic choice that may or may not work as well for all readers, and could catch some off guard.

Whenever an author chooses to include himself in a work, he runs risks. The overblown presence of the conceited and shamelessly self-promoting Bear in this ephemeris both acknowledges and defuses the risk by his unabashed ursine clownishness. 

"Whenever an author chooses to
include himself in a work, he runs risks."

The first quibble, then, is that the Bear found some of the personal illustrations coming across as a bit self-congratulatory, which is obviously not the intent. But a good rule is that if you recount an argument you had with someone in order to show how you won, some readers are going to roll their eyes.

Most of the personal illustrations were apt and non-distracting. Some did not go down as smooth. The protestations that the author is a sinner, while probably inevitable when you decide to instruct other sinners, also rubbed the Bear's fur the wrong way a bit. The Bear sort of figured the author was a sinner just like everybody else.

We have all (including the Bear) assured everyone that we're as wicked as they come. It is hard to take it as more than a disarming convention, so the briefer and more non-specific, the better, in the Bear's opinion.

The Bear perhaps reveals an over-delicacy, but there were a few places perhaps best described as "oversharing." The Bear assumes an author is subject to human weakness, but finds confession of specific sins - although without details - a little uncomfortable. Do we really need to be told the author has visited strip clubs and engaged in sex outside of marriage (especially since that covers a lot of territory)? What about an observation of the hollow faces of strippers and onlookers, however telling? Is a personal confession more likely to stir unwelcome memories in some reader than a less personal discussion of, say, lust?

The Bear leaves that up to you. It is by no means a comment on the author's morals, since these are evidently in the past and we have all done our share. But, the Bear's own well-known penchant for killing ponies and his inflated opinion of himself stand for whatever actual sins his reader may assume. 

On the other hand, the insertion of the author's personality ultimately works to humanize and clarify some technical discussions, and had he never acknowledged his own sinfulness, he might have come across as smug. Ultimately, it is a stylistic choice that, for all Bear knows, everyone else will find brave and refreshingly disarming. And it is a fine old Catholic tradition, as St. Augustine witnesses.

"A Catholic Against My Will."

The author begins by a substantial explanation of why he is Catholic. It is not because he wants to be. His story of how an encounter with a homeless man led to his conversion is a simple, poignant and powerful orientation to the golden thread that runs throughout: love one another. It does a wonderful job of setting the tone.

There follows an excellent section of "The Foundation of Christianity," in which he discusses "the three Ls - Love, Life and Logic." Perhaps here is a good place to rest in anticipation of getting into the meat of the book next time.

Let's close this first part with a poem he quotes: The Pulley, by George Herbert. It is hopeful and oh, so true, and wise of the author to include. It bears slow, thoughtful reading, all the way to the end.

  VVHen God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
               Contract into a span.

               So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
               Rest in the bottome lay.

               For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
               So both should losers be.

               Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
               May tosse him to my breast.

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