Book Review: Social Justice Isn't What You Think It Is

In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, philosopher and theologian Michael Novak and social work professor Paul Adams, writing with Elizabeth Shaw, seek to recapture an awareness of justice, and so of social justice, as a virtue in the ordinary sense—as a habit or disposition of the moral agent.

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Lose the Story, Lose the Culture

We normally encounter morals through the language of moral codes and commandments. Do this, Don’t do that. But it is much more illuminating to approach ethics and morals through stories and narratives. The reason narrative is more helpful than a code or set of commandments is that it brings into play imagination, manner, style, and even tonal quality. For example, the Commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother.” But the Commandment does not tell us in what manner, with what tone of voice, with what degree of gentleness and/or firmness, or whether with renewed devotion or simply by routine.

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Book Review: Can Social Justice Be Rescued?

The book Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is isn’t what you think it is. The dust jacket of the latest from Michael Novak (with coauthors Paul Adams and Elizabeth Shaw) promises to rescue the term from “its ideological captors” by clarifying “the true meaning of social justice.”

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Diplomat, author Novak's next work to feature Johnstown, 1889 flood (with Video)

The Johnstown native is working on a fictional book that is, in part, set against the backdrop of the May 31, 1889 flood. It tells the story of a young Slovak immigrant – a character based on his grandfather – who lived in the area at the time of the disaster. The plot then moves forward to the character's granddaughter working as a reporter in Europe, covering the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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‘Mutually respectful’ commerce connects, serves all people

The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics sponsored a special report on Faith and Work, which was prepared by The Washington Times Advocacy Department and published May 12, 2016. The report is entitled, "Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities" and it includes thirty authors from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, including business, political, cultural, and theological sectors. The entire report can be found hereI was honored to be one of the 30; my essay, adapted from my book “Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life” (Free Press, 1996), was originally published is here

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TBT: Lady Margaret Thatcher Credits Michael Novak

TBT: Lady Margaret Thatcher Credits Michael Novak

The Victorian Lady

Margaret Thatcher's virtues.

Book Review: What Exactly Is Social Justice?

What Exactly Is Social Justice?

Pope Pius XI Defined the New Virtue, Focusing on the Common Good, in 1931

By Carrie Gress on National Catholic Register on March 3, 2016

Few would argue that the notion of social justice hasn’t stretched the limits of sanity in the public square: So-called “Social-Justice Warriors” at Brown University are complaining that they can’t get their homework done because of the demands of their activism; bakers are being forced to bake cakes for events they don’t condone; and a group of nuns currently awaits the judgment of the Supreme Court about paying for birth control.

And yet all of these are done in the name of social justice. Social justice is perhaps the most over-used phrase in our political lexicon, but what exactly is it?

Gratefully, in Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is (Encounter Books, 2015), Michael Novak, Paul Adams and Elizabeth Shaw clarify once and for all what it is and why it has been so abused. Like taking shears to an overgrown hedge, the authors make short order of the sloppy use of social justice in our own public square.

The first part of the book, “The Theory,” is written by Templeton Prize winner Novak, while Adams, professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, tackles the second part, “The Practice.” Employing wit, clear insights and stirring examples from Novak’s Slovak roots, the authors make the touchy topic a delight to read, while heavily rewarding the attentive reader.

Novak dives into the primary problem with social justice: its ambiguity. “The term is allowed to float in the air as if anyone will recognize an instance of it when he sees it.” This vagueness, however, Novak argues, is a feature — not a flaw. “Social justice is a term that can be used as an all-purpose justification for any progressive-sounding government program or newly discovered or invented right.” In fact, the word, like rights, feminism and a host of other political terms that are largely unmoored from their original meaning, work best when they are not well defined — allowing fluid and varied meanings, depending on who is talking (or listening).

But perhaps more important than the vagueness of “social justice” is its ingenious default position of rewarding those who use the title. Novak explains: “The term survives because it benefits its champions. It brands opponents as supporters of social injustices, and so as enemies of humankind, without the trouble of making an argument or considering their views.” Much like “pro-choice” is for abortion or “pro-love” is for same-sex “marriage,” who wants to be seen as an enemy of choice, love or of justice? The debate is over before it begins.

Defining social justice is no small challenge, given its broad use. Novak makes clear that it is quite different than simple charity, as many have defined it.

Going back to the origins of the term, Novak identifies Pope Pius XI as the true source (clearly, “Social-Justice Warriors” don’t know this). The Pope introduced it as a new virtue in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. He was responding to the shift in society away from the old agrarian order into the new industrial world, where entire populations were left to the wolves capitalizing off dramatic social change. The pontiff, going beyond the simple justice of what individuals owed to each other, saw the necessity of a type of justice directed at a community: hence, social justice. Of course, justice is inherently social because it engages at least two people, but Pope Pius was trying to emphasize the broader ramifications and ripple effect when people act unjustly.

So social justice is, as Novak explains it, a new virtue that emphasizes the responsibility of citizens to use their gifts and talents to improve the common good of their communities. Starting with the family as the foundational unit, churches, schools, unions and guilds, hospitals and other organizations related to human need are all beneficiaries of this active virtue.

The second part of the book, “The Practice” by Adams, offers a unique approach to thinking about social-justice-type issues. Adams, who has been in the trenches of social work, where the social-justice moniker is used most heavily, reconciles terms that most people consider to be mutually exclusive, such as individual or collective, justice or charity. Social justice is something of a lost art, and Adams uses hot-button topics, such as the marriage debate and the Heath and Human Services’ mandate, to explain the skills associated with social justice. Adam’s practical insights are infused with Catholic social thought, while providing a number of real-life examples to help professionals think through issues of justice and the common good in a new way.

Ultimately, Novak and Adams make clear that social justice has much less to do with public policy and much more to do with virtue. As Catholics, we have a long way to go in rehabilitating not only the term “social justice,” but also reintroducing the practice to generations who aren’t well seasoned in the art of community-building (which is quite different from community organizing). As Novak and Adams make clear, the first place to start is by strengthening our families, because they are the fundamental building block of society. Beyond that, we can stop lamenting the imperfections of our own communities and employ our own talents and gifts to improve them a little at a time. Small things, like joining the Knights of Columbus, getting involved in your local government or joining a 40 Days for Life campaign, can go a long way. The ideas are endless and as unique as each community.

It is an interesting thought experiment to consider those who currently promote social justice under the vague definition, in contrast to those great men and women who came before us and employed the virtue of social justice to make their communities more benevolent. The fourth-century Desert Father Evagrius said: “True charity leads to meekness; activism only leads to bitterness.” One doesn’t have to think too hard to figure out who are the meek and who are the bitter.

Book Review: What is Social Justice?

What is Social Justice

By George J. Marlin on The Catholic Thing on February 20, 2016

Social-Justice-book-coverThe term “social justice,” a potentially useful term, has – as we well know – been taken hostage by progressives in both the secular world and the Church. They have made it a catchall term to aid them in imposing ideological formulas and newly conceived rights on our common institutions, or to promote their favored causes de jure.

These “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs in digital parlance), who support state-enforced redistribution, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street agendas, also portray their opponents as evil people opposed to all that is good, and often employ tactics designed to silence or repress those who dare to disagree.

Writing about these “dangerous pseudo-progressive authoritarians” in a New York Observer article titled “The Totalitarian Doctrine of ‘Social Justice Warriors’” journalist Cathy Young concluded, “Because SocJus is so focused on changing bad attitudes and ferreting out subtle biases and insensitivities, its hostility to free speech and thought is not an unfortunate by-product of the movement but its very essence.”

In an effort to rescue “social justice” from this fate and to clarify its true meaning, Templeton Prize winner Michael Novak, and Paul Adams, Professor Emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii, have co-authored an impressive book, Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is.

The authors contend that “social justice,” rightly understood, is not a state of public affairs but personal virtue. To explain that premise and “to seek out a fresh statement of the definition of social justice – one that is true to the original understanding, ideologically neutral among political and economic partisans, and applicable to the circumstances of today,” the book is divided into two parts.

The first, “The Theory” of social justice is written by Novak and the second part, by Adams, is devoted to “The Practice.”

Social Justice was introduced as a new virtue by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. He called this form of justice “social” because its aim was to improve the common good of a “free and responsible people” by employing social activities closely related to the basic unit of society: the family. Activities could include the creation of local religious and educational facilities and the administering of essential services.

This virtue is also expected to reach ends that cannot be actualized by the individual alone. People are expected to learn three skills: “the art of forming associations, willingness to take leadership of small groups, and the habit and instinct of cooperation with others.”

Social justice wasn’t meant to be dependent on large, impersonal, domineering, and cumbersome federal and state bureaucracies that tend to smother individual and local initiatives. Rather it is a habit of the heart that brings people together to form associations that provide “social protection against atomistic individualism, while at the other pole it protects considerable civic space from the direct custodianship of the state.”

Novak concludes his portion of the work by stressing:

Both Catholic social teaching and the social-work empowerment tradition reject the individualist hypertrophy of the autonomous unencumbered self no less than the hypertrophy of the state. The space – of civil society or mediating structures – between individual and state is the one in which conscience is shaped and the virtues on which it depends are developed through practice and habituation. The virtue of social justice also requires and develops that space in which citizens join together in pursuit of the common good.

As for Catholic social justice in action, Professor Adams describes it as the pre-eminent virtue of free societies. Social workers are virtue-driven and are called to act with people “to improve the common good of families, a local neighborhood, a city, a whole nation, the whole world.”

Social work, Adams argues, is neither individualist nor collectivist, but is devoted to strengthening the caring and self-regulatory capacity of the family and to reduce dependency on the “bureaucratic-professional state.”

Adams greatest fear is that social workers who adhere to Judeo-Christian teaching on life, death, family, and marriage will be driven from their professions. Conscience exemptions are being eliminated in most medical and counseling fields. Conscience has been redefined as merely “personal values that must be left at the office door when duty calls.”

Today clients or patients are sovereign. Any legal practice they demand, the social profession must provide or participate in providing. The professional’s right and duty, Adams observes, “to use her judgment about what is required or indicated or morally permissible is nullified.” The balance of rights between professional and client no longer exists, however, and client empowerment “radically disempowers, even dehumanizes, the professional.”

All too often social service professionals and healthcare workers must either execute policies or perform procedures they find morally degrading – or find a different line of work.

The war on conscience aims at destroying subsidiary associational life, particularly in Church and family. And if Social Justice Warriors succeed, religious freedom will be reduced to freedom of worship and the Church will have to abandon a prime corporate responsibility of caring for the poor, sick, homeless, and orphans.

Because battles over conscience in the public square are so daunting, Novak and Adams conclude that the most important words of Catholic social justice must become: “Do not be afraid.” They call on us to aspire upward and to “draw strength from the example of so many heroines and heroes who have gone before us, winning small victory after small victory, even in the darkest of times.”

True social justice demands nothing less.


By George J. Marlin

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter, and  Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative. His most recent book is Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy.

The Catholic Book Blogger: The Laity Speaks – Michael Novak




The Laity Speaks

Published by Pete Socks on The Catholic Book Blogger at on January 19, 2015

Welcome back to “The Laity Speaks”, a recurring feature here at The Catholic Book Blogger. This feature is the companion to “The Clergy Speaks” and takes us to the other side of the pulpit to hear prominent lay people’s answer to the same question. That question is: What five books would you recommend as must-reads for Catholics today? I left the responses open to current or classic books with the only restriction being that the Bible and the Catechism could not be used as they are a given.

This week I welcome Michael Novak.

Michael Novak, retired George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy  from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. Michael Novak resides in Ave Maria, Florida as a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is the Author of 45+ books on culture, philosophy, and theology. Michael is founding director of First Things and writer for many publications. Ever since his book The Open Church hit shelves in 1964, Michael Novak has been a voice of insight on American and Catholic culture.

This weeks column is a little different. In 2011 Michael penned Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation with William E. Simon. Chapter six of that book dealt specifically with Michael’s recommendations on spiritual reading. With the cooperation of Michael Novak and publisher Encounter books, what follows is that chapter in it’s entirety.



Chapter 6 – Imbibing the Wisdom of the Ages—Spiritual Readings For the Lay Catholic

There is no doubt that full concentration on the love of God, and the habit of prayer (“Pray always,” in every instant of every day), are the most crucial elements of a fruitful Christian life. But the single best nourishment of prayer and love for God is sound, deep, quiet, considered reading of the works of great guides of the soul.

In the first thousand years of the history of the Christian Church, as in the thousands of years of Jewish history, the heart of this reading was the Word of God in Scripture. Our forebears called this the lectio divina, divine reading, soaking one’s mind in the Word of God, letting the soul absorb the Word of God. How else would we come to know what pleases God, unless we study what He himself has told us?

It must be remembered that for thousands of years those who reflected deeply on prayer – and were free by their conditions of life to spend nearly all day, every day, in prayer and study and writing – were monks and other particularly dedicated religious persons. But often even they were among the very few literate and educated persons of their time (especially in the long centuries before the printing press). For this reason, it was often they who also had to lead armies, write laws, and imagine and create and run civic institutions. They may have been consecrated religious persons, but they by necessity also took on very active secular, lay roles. They, too, needed to learn how to pray in the midst of very busy, detailed, lay work.

When I [Michael] think back over my own sixty years of spiritual reading and fifty years of active lay life, I recall with special fondness a half dozen or so authors who were of abiding help to me. I have been driven back to their work again and again. Always there is nourishment there.

Some of these books use the language of the monastery, as in a line like “go back to your cell in solitude,” when what they mean may be as simple as “withdraw your mind inwardly a bit, be alone with yourself a moment, take stock, rest with God, take a deep breath of God.” In other words, attend to your inner life, not alone your outward life. Both are one, outer and inner. But the outer one has the habit of making more noise and stirring more emotion and arousing strong passions. To keep in touch with the inner life takes much more practice. The outward life all too quickly fascinates and absorbs us, demands less of us. It is too often an escape and a distraction.

There are many writers who are more contemporary than the ones we like best. But these are rarely as deep and lasting. In fact, the contemporary writers have usually acquired what depth they have by learning from the classical writers. Contemporary writers (like me) burn out like meteorites. The classics endure across the generations. “When you have a choice, choose the classics,” someone once told me [Michael]. I don’t remember who, but I often breathe a word of thanks to him).

Thomas Merton was an activist layman until he felt seized by a call to full-time prayer and study among the Trappists. His autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was almost mandatory reading for my generation. His The Seeds of Contemplation and other books were aimed at teaching those of us in lay life how to pray with the ancient wisdom acquired by the monks and nuns down the ages, who made prayer their full-time occupation.

Recently, I [Michael] was being driven to a lecture by a young laywoman who said quietly to me that she loves to pray. She prays three or four hours every day, she told me, and would love to do more, if she could. So Thomas Merton was quite right in imagining that there are legions of lay people who hunger to know more than they do about prayer. Now monks are not the only literate and learned ones. Millions of lay people have higher schooling, too. They need to sharpen their minds, and go out exploring into the night where no one sees God, and they need guides and teachers.

Here are some passages from a shorter book Merton wrote called Life and Holiness, just a taste. The idea is to read each of them. . . Pause. Read again. Let them soak in. That is how spiritual reading is best done. It is a bit different from other reading. It is not just for information. It is for feeding and shaping the soul. It is for making its insights a part of your own inner life. It is for changing our own inner life. Not just to read—and forget. But to let it get under the skin, go inside, become a forming influence. Here, then, is one set of pearls from Merton:

If we are called by God to holiness in life, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is), then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.


Our time needs more than devout, Church-going people who avoid serious wrongs (or at least the wrongs that are easily recognized for what they are) but who seldom do anything constructive or positively good. It is not enough to be outwardly respectable. On the contrary, mere external respectability, without deeper or more positive moral values, brings discredit upon the Christian faith.


If we are to be ‘perfect’ as Christ is perfect, we must strive to be as perfectly human as he. . . . Hence sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human than other men. This implies a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.


To love is to be fully committed to the Church’s work of salvation, the renewal and dedication of man and his society to God. No Christian can remain unconcerned in this work. Today, the dimensions of the task are as wide as the world itself.


Each one becomes perfect, not by realizing one uniform standard of universal perfection in his own life, but by responding to the call and the love of God, addressed to him within the limitations and circumstances of his own peculiar vocation.


In Christian sanctity, a certain human weakness and imperfection are altogether compatible with the perfect love of God, as long as one acquires humility from the experience of one’s own wretchedness and thus learns to place an ever more total and perfect trust in the grace of God.


For . . . true lovers of God, all things, whether they appear good or evil, are in actuality good. All things manifest the loving mercy of God. All things enable them to grow in love. All events serve to unite them closer to God. For such men obstacles no longer exist. God has turned even obstacles into means to their ends, which are also his own.

The second book of spiritual reading we have found exceedingly helpful, even for opening at random and accepting what Providence shows us is The Imitation of Christ, a classic first published in 1418. In the last 600 years, no one has published a better way to learn concrete things to do during each day, in order to shape one’s own inner life to be more like that of Jesus Christ. “To put on the mind of Christ” was the deepest wish of the Apostle Paul. This is the most marvelous how-to book ever written on the subject. One reason it is has remained fresh for so many centuries is that it concentrates on the inner life more than on outward circumstance.

The Imitation’s author was Thomas à Kempis, born near Cologne, Germany, in about 1380, an affable young priest, scholar and writer, much influenced by the revival among lay people in the Lowlands who tried to live as much like the first Christians of Jerusalem and Antioch as possible.

Our guide Thomas divides his book into four parts: Thoughts helpful to the life of the soul; the Interior Life; Internal Consolation; and an invitation to the Eucharist. His is not a book to be read once. Each time one reads it, one discovers in it new wisdom, and new answers to questions one at first didn’t even know how to ask. To put on the mind of Christ is a lifetime’s work.

Perhaps it might nourish our souls to taste, thoughtfully and with open hearts, the advice young Thomas offered us, based on his own experience.

It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides.


When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, he realizes clearly that his greatest need is God, without Whom he can do no good. Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays.


No man deserves the consolation of heaven unless he persistently arouses himself to holy contrition. If you desire true sorrow of heart, seek the privacy of your cell and shut out the uproar of the world, as it is written: “In your chamber bewail your sins.” There you will find what too often you lose abroad.


If you do not know how to meditate on heavenly things, direct your thoughts to Christ’s passion and willingly behold His sacred wounds. If you turn devoutly to the wounds and precious stigmata of Christ, you will find great comfort in suffering, you will mind but little the scorn of men, and you will easily bear their slanderous talk.


When consolation is taken away, do not at once despair but wait humbly and patiently for the heavenly visit, since God can restore to you more abundant solace.



MY CHILD, I will teach you now the way of peace and true liberty.

Seek, child, to do the will of others rather than your own.

Always choose to have less rather than more.

Look always for the last place and seek to be beneath all others.

Always wish and pray that the will of God be fully carried out in you.

Behold, such will enter into the realm of peace and rest.


In one short moment God often gives what He has long denied. At times He grants at the end what He has denied from the beginning of prayer. If grace were always given at once, or were present at our beck and call, it would not be well taken by weak humankind. Therefore, with good hope and humble patience await the grace of devotion.


God, eternal, incomprehensible, and infinitely powerful, does great and inscrutable things in heaven and on earth, and there is no searching into His marvelous works. If all the works of God were such that human reason could easily grasp them, they would not be called wonderful or beyond the power of words to tell.

To write about spiritual reading, of course, is actually to address the subjects that those readings dwell on. So it is a good way to talk about several substantive topics, too, not just to recommend readings.

For example, there is the difficult subject or prayer – a practical guide about how to do it, and the different types of prayer, and the different exercises one can do to learn to pray in each of these ways.

There is also the subject of how contemplation and meditation – growing out of the slow, absorptive reading that leads quietly into prayer – are related to action. Especially practical action for the People of God, that is, for the Church in all its mundane tasks. Of what use are these worldly actions, if they do not give off eternal resonance?

Allow us then to introduce a few more writers whose work is of extraordinary assistance in learning how to live a lively inner life. There are two great women writers, Doctors of the Church both of them, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

In travels all around the world, Michael has found only one or two churches that did not have among the statues of saints around their walls a statue of St. Thérèse. She must be among the most beloved of all saints. Her teaching is stated with great simplicity, and also depth. Her book The Story of a Soul is filled with sound advice, especially about how to exercise an ever fuller love for God and your immediate neighbors, your co-workers, members of your own family. Here are a few passages from that autobiographical work:

[I]f all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would lose its springtide beauty, and the fields would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our Lord’s living garden. He has been pleased to create great Saints who may be compared to the lily and the rose, but He has also created lesser ones, who must be content to be daisies or simple violets flowering at His Feet, and whose mission it is to gladden His Divine Eyes when He deigns to look down on them. And the more gladly they do His Will the greater is their perfection.


I can truly say that Suffering opened her arms to me from the first, and I took her to my heart. . . . [A]s Our Lord made me understand that it was by the Cross He would give me souls, the more crosses I met with, the stronger grew my attraction to suffering. . . . [T]his was precisely the flower I wished to offer to Jesus, a hidden flower which keeps its perfume only for Heaven.


Though my suffering seemed to have reached its height, yet my attraction thereto did not grow less, and soon my soul shared in the trials my heart had to bear. My spiritual aridity increased, and I found no comfort either in Heaven or on earth; yet, amid these waters of tribulation that I had so thirsted for, I was the happiest of mortals.

As for St. Teresa, the woman who excelled in unstoppable determination, few have ever written so well about the inner life, within which in silence and often in darkness and aridity, the soul learns to discern the will of God, and to love God in the darkness of unseeing. Read especially her Soliloquies. One single quote may whet your eagerness to take her as a guide. She was the great inspirer and teacher of St. Thérèse and, a century later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Oh, my soul! Let the will of God be done; this suits you. Serve and hope in His mercy, for He will cure your grief when penance for your faults will have gained some pardon for them. Don’t desire joy but suffering. O true Lord and my King! I’m still not ready for suffering if Your sovereign hand and greatness do not favor me, but with these I shall be able to do all things.

In our day, when relativism is so rampant, and love of material pleasures has so dulled the soul, the tendency to find emptiness in the place where God used to be is very pronounced. That is why we need teachers of prayer who understand this darkness and this emptiness, who embrace human suffering. God exceeds the “frequencies” on which our senses broadcast; our senses cannot find Him. In fact, any person who would look on God directly would be overpowered by blinding light and the deafening ring of emptiness. If you want to go the God who exceeds the capacities of our senses, you must go by a dark way empty of our senses. St. Teresa, like her friend and teacher St. John of the Cross, are our People’s best guides in a century like ours, an age of being and nothingness, formlessness, blindness, deafness.

Let us now turn to a number of writers far less well known, whose ability to penetrate to the heart of the mystery is extraordinary. These are writers you have perhaps never heard of. They are North Stars, as if intended for dark times like ours. We are thinking of a marvelous, very tiny book called Abandonment to Divine Providence. This book immediately issues a sharp challenge. Are you willing to throw yourself completely – now – into the Lord’s will, inscrutable as it often is? Are you willing to trust completely? Are you willing to let go?

Short as it is, the book is full of practical lessons about how to learn to trust. How to taste the dark and often bitter pleasures of throwing ourselves upon the daily, minute-by-minute will of God.

All I want is for you to carry on as you are doing and endure what you have to do—but change your attitude to all these things. And this change is simply to say ‘I will’ to all that God asks. What is easier? For who could refuse obedience to a will so kind and so good? By this obedience we shall become one with God.


If we have abandoned ourselves, there is only one rule for us: the duty of the present moment. The soul is as light as a feather, as fluid as water, simple as a child and as lively as a ball in responding to all the impulses of grace. We are like molten metal which takes the shape of the mold into which it is poured, and can just as easily assume any form God wishes to give us.

This is the essence of the matter, isn’t it? Isn’t it the secret to the life of Mary the Mother of God? “Be it done to me according to Thy Word.” Isn’t it the secret to the life of Our Lord? “Not my will, but Thine be done.” It may be impossible to understand what is happening in our lives. But it is not impossible to trust the Lord who throws you into what you cannot understand.

Then there is that wise and wonderful Irish monk of the 20th century, Eugene Boylan, who bequeathed to us two exceedingly lovely books: This Tremendous Lover and Difficulties in Mental Prayer. Because prayer in the mind (in imagination and, finally, in intellect) is so crucial to the fruitfulness of our actions and the integrity of our lives – so crucial, and yet so difficult – here are two very helpful hints of his.

Be it noted that God often gives during the day, even in our most active moments, the graces that He withheld during the time of prayer. In fact, for a soul who takes care to accept and to adapt himself to all the workings of God’s Providence, especially when He seems to set obstacles in its path, His ways, however unreasonable they may seem at first, are in fact full of a most wonderful tenderness and merciful bounty.


Above all, the absolute and essential necessity of humility for progress in prayer should be emphasized. God made the world for His own glory, and He will not give His glory to another. . . All the works of our supernatural life come from Him.

Dom J.-B. Chautard was a very busy abbot, forced by circumstances to be active in worldly and practical things, and so he was especially serious about finding ways to infuse his activities with the strength of the gospels. What is the sense of pretending to build up the Church in practical ways, if there is no soul in it? The fire of the gospels is the crucial element in Christian action. Dom Chautard set down his highly useful reflections in The Soul of the Apostolate, another very short book. One tiny morsel:

No matter what my condition may be, if I am only willing to pray and become faithful to grace, Jesus offers me every means of returning to an interior life that will restore to me my intimacy with Him, and will enable me to develop His life in myself. And then, as this life gains ground within me, my soul will not cease to possess joy, even in the thick of trials.

There is one last prayer we cannot conclude this chapter without. It is a prayer that Michael’s wife liked so much that she had it framed for their front hallway, and sent other framed copies to their children. It is a tough prayer. It had to be, because Karen suffered all her life from what Winston Churchill called “black dog” – a congenital tendency to depression, triggered in recurrent cycles by the tiniest of setbacks or failures. She very often was plunged into emptiness, darkness, and even the physical pain of intense despair. Perhaps these few words (which for those who have studied her paintings and prints would not need to be spoken) will help to explain the comfort and guidance that St. John of the Cross often brought to her, as they have to many down the ages.

In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, Desire to have pleasure in nothing. In order to arrive at possessing everything, Desire to possess nothing. In order to arrive at being everything, Desire to be nothing. In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure, Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.

In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not, Thou must go by a way wherein thou knowest not. In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not, Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not. In order to arrive at that which thou art not, Thou must go through that which thou art not.

Karen was not afraid of the dark. She accepted it as a friend and teacher. She hated the suffering it brought her. But she welcomed it as a necessary condition for coming closer to the Vision.