THESE two very different books, one by a Dominican friar and the other by a Cistercian nun about a Benedictine monk, shed contrasting kinds of light on the Christian journey towards God.
Aidan Nichols is an academic theologian who has written more than 40 books. The Word Invites: A spiritual theology is a brisk and formidably learned account of the central tradition of the Church’s teaching on prayer and the ascent (or assent) of the soul to communion with God. Some of the book’s sources are from the early period of the Church’s history before the split between East and West; others are much more recent.
A short book, Prayer by Hans Urs von Balthasar, to whose huge masterpieces Nichols has written indispensable guides, inspires the opening of The Word Invites, which begins where any faithful Christian might be, in the pew, at the eucharist, and hoping to pray more, to pray better.
After establishing the contexts, “biblical, liturgical, [and] ascetical” that are essential for even venturing on the life of the spirit, Nichols takes us, with the help, predominantly, of the French Oratorian theologian Louis Bouyer (who died, very old, in 2004), along the path, familiar in terminology to anyone who has ever studied Christian mysticism: the purgative, illuminative, and, at last, unitive way to God.
This description of development in prayer towards something that Nichols does not flinch from calling “the culminating union in love with the Blessed Trinity” will always inspire, though it can seem dauntingly prescriptive and impossibly demanding to anyone not living a contemplative religious life. (Balthasar was wary of this approach, preferring to emphasize that it is “the poor in spirit, the simple to whom it has pleased ‘the Father to reveal the mysteries of his kingdom’”.) And Nichols himself never lets us forget that “Spirituality is not about me and my experience. It is about what God offers, and it asks, with what generosity have I responded?”
Cardinal Hume, not a scholarly theologian, saw Benedictines as “ordinary people, on the whole. We are not spiritually star perfomers.” All his life, however, he was a generous responder to what was asked of him as a monk and priest, and in the care, or cure, of souls. In his last days, as reported by his secretary, he thought deeply and spoke a little, very simply, on the first three phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. Depth and simplicity in rare combination were key to his character as a much loved Christian pastor.
Gertrude Fieck, an American nun, has put together neither a biography nor a critical commentary on his writings, but a survey, with elements of both, of his teaching as abbot and bishop. On the basis of her doctoral research, she has woven a tapestry of quotation from his work, both published and not — she was given access at Ampleforth to an archive of his unpublished talks to the community — and from books and papers about him. She quotes also from interviews that she was able to conduct with monks and others who knew him well.
The result is a consistent picture of a man of profound Christian faith, with a wonderful capacity to get alongside other people, of whatever kind, in whatever circumstances. After his death, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “When I think of Cardinal Hume, I recall the words of Judaism’s early sages. They asked: ‘Who is a hero?’ They answered: ‘One who turns strangers into friends.’” This book is an admirable introduction to, or reminder of, a man who was to so many what St Aelred called “a friend in God”.
Lucy Beckett is a novelist and a historian.
The Word Invites: A spiritual theology
Aidan Nichols OP
Church Times Bookshop £9
Cardinal Basil Hume: A pilgrim’s search for God
Church Times Bookshop £11.70