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5/23/2013 9:29:00 AM
One book dishonors Chesterton; another offers complex view of Nouwen
One book dishonors Chesterton; another offers complex view of Nouwen
One book dishonors Chesterton; another offers complex view of Nouwen "The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton" by Dale Ahlquist. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2012). 264 pp., $17.95. "Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen" by Michael W. Higgins and Kevin Burns. Paulist Press (Mahwah, N.J., 2012). 176 pp., $17.95.
Catholic News Service

Dale Ahlquist is an excellent guide to the writing of the G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). He is the president of the American Chesterton Society, the host of an Eternal Word Television Network show ("The Apostle of Common Sense") and has written several other books about Chesterton.

Every page of his book, "The Complete Thinker," illustrates Ahlquist's deep knowledge of Chesterton's prodigious writing. The excerpts are organized thematically, from broad (early chapters include "Truth and its Discontents" and "The Problem of Evil") to specific topics ("Law and Lawyers," "Buying and Selling," "War and Peace").

"The Complete Thinker" is not so much an introduction to Chesterton's work as it is a hagiographic presentation of him as the consummate Catholic apologist. But the book is flawed by its lack of historical context.

There is no denying that Chesterton was an accomplished apologist, but he was an apologist before the Second Vatican Council, a member of a triumphalistic pre-war English Catholic Church. Vatican II opened the church to a rich scriptural, patristic and liturgical spirituality, sources that Chesterton would not have known of. Ahlquist mistakenly acts as if the church is still the church that was so attractive to Chesterton, and which he in turn made so attractive to others.

Ahlquist claims that Chesterton "is always the opposite of arrogant in his defense of the truth." Maybe. But Ahlquist is not. He uses Chesterton's words to bludgeon people and ideas with which he disagrees. This angry and aggrieved litany includes toleration (which masks "the modern hatred of religion") and relativism, feminists who are "riled up with resentment, and utterly joyless," the "obscene defiance of militant homosexuals," colleges and universities "mocking tradition and praising innovation, tripping over themselves to be progressive" and "a National Health Care program passed in utter defiance of the public will."

This is a wearying, mean-spirited and contemptuous book. Chesterton deserves better.

Father Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was also a prodigious and still-popular writer, one who appeals to a much different audience than Chesterton. A companion volume to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio series, the book is co-written by Michael Higgins, Father Nouwen's official biographer, and radio producer Kevin Burns. The Dutch-born priest's "life and legacy" is explored through interviews with family members, friends and colleagues.

"Genius Born of Anguish" is not a whitewashed portrait, but a sympathetic and empathic reading of Father Nouwen's paradoxical life. He taught at Yale and Harvard and was a pastor at Daybreak, a L'Arche community outside of Toronto. He spent time in Cistercian monasteries, lived in barrios in Peru and Bolivia, and befriended the Flying Rodleighs, a circus trapeze team. He was depressive, deeply lonely, conflicted by his homosexuality, and afflicted with an incessant need for affection and affirmation.

We see ample evidence of Father Nouwen's "emotional volatility, his thin-skinned nature, his sensitivity to any gesture or comment that he perceived as undervaluing his work." But we also see his fidelity to his friends, his vocation and his lifelong effort to discover the freeing mercy of God.

He was both self-absorbed and remarkably compassionate, emotionally needy but exceptionally generous in accompanying people in their suffering and joys. He was faithful to his religious vows, maintained an integrated prayer life, and refused to engage in "the cultural and ecclesiastical politics of the post-Second Vatican Council era."

Carolyn Whitney-Brown, a Daybreak colleague, noted that Father Nouwen "says that some people try so hard to have no sins that they end up with no virtues either. You have to take the whole package we call life; you have to live with the whole thing." That is an apt summary of the man who is so lovingly and clearly portrayed in this book. "Through painful transparency, he wrestled with his sexual identity, acknowledged his furiously buried failures of heart, experienced the leveling honesty of intensive therapy, and tried with near heroic fortitude to pave a road to holiness through the loneliness and abandonment that were his steady companions."

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