Book briefs

The genius of Michael Ford’s new book, Spiritual Masters for All Seasons (paperback, Hidden Spring) is not that it tells the stories and limns the theologies of four great contemporary Catholic spiritual masters—Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Anthony de Mello and John O’Donohue. The genius is how the book ties these together, finding echoes and resonances in the common project of the four—helping men and women of the modern age come to know God. Ford, a religious broadcaster for the BBC and author of a superb biography of Nouwen called Wounded Prophet, also offers insightful comments from a host of scholars, experts and—most helpfully—men and women who knew each of these four well. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, dilates eloquently (can the archbishop ever do otherwise?) on what Merton meant to him as a young man and now as an older prelate. Jim Forest, the peace activist, relates how generous Nouwen was as a friend during a rough patch in Forest’s life. Two of Nouwen’s disciples engage in a lively debate over how “Catholic” their teacher was. And Ford himself tells of his multiple visits to the Irish home of John O’Donohue, the author of Anam Cara, who did so much to promote Celtic spirituality. The book is not without its flaws (I could have done with less emphasis on the spiritual meaning of Barack Obama’s election), but it is an inviting, knowledgeable, accessible and inspiring introduction to four of the great Catholics of our time.

J.M.

“It is imperative that all societies learn to save, not just spend. I started out poor, but through the principles of thrift and hard work, I was able to get ahead.” So writes Sir John Templeton in the foreword to Thrift: Rebirth of a Forgotten Virtue, by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch (paperback, Encounter Books). The author traces the history of this lost virtue from its Calvinist roots to the present time of financial crisis, arguing that greater discipline and accountability are “natural products of thrift.”

As might be expected, the book’s overlapping themes include prudence and temperance, the wise use of assets, avoiding waste, giving to strangers and, above all, good stewardship. The author debunks up front the notion that thrift means “cheap” or “miserly” as he calls for a new vision of economic development. “How are economic growth and social progress linked to spiritual capital?” he asks. “Is saving—a key component in thrift—lost forever? If not, how can we make saving and conservation a part of sustainability, so as to end the consumption ethic?”

Malloch, who has worked in capital markets, held positions at the United Nations and served in senior policy positions in the U.S. Senate and the State Department, draws compellingly from Scripture’s parables, characters from literature, presidents, economists and other sources to provide readers with a thoughtful, often jolting analysis of the essential place of thrift in private as well as corporate life. The underlying motive of spending wisely, he writes, “is not greed but gratitude: gratitude to God for the gifts he has bestowed….” The book deserves a wide and attentive readership.

Continuing the theme, I would be remiss if I did not call your attention to Franklin’s Thrift: The Lost History of an American Virtue, by David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Sorcha Brophy-Warren (hardcover, Templeton Press). Unlike the previous book, though, this is an edited collection of essays, by the aforementioned authors/experts as well as others—including Clifford N. Rosenthal, president and chief executive officer of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, and Sara Butler Nardo, former research associate at the Institute for American Values. It is structured in three parts: “Franklin’s Thrift: The Creation of an American Value,” which explores Benjamin Franklin’s way to wealth; “Thrift After Franklin: Institutions and Movements,” which looks at mutual savings banks, thrift shops, credit unions; and “For a New Thrift: Meeting the Twenty-First Century Challenge,” which confronts, among other things, Ame-rica’s debt culture and private enterprise’s role in increasing savings.

In some respects, this is a sturdier book than Malloch’s, with scholarly vigor—yet quite accessible to the general reader. Engaging the changing legacy of thrift from the 18th century to the present, the contributors to this volume write energetically and with a grounded conviction on a subject of deep cultural significance as they challenge and confound “reductive and unappealing” views of thrift. We owe thanks to “Poor Richard” as well.

P.A.K.

Book Briefs is written by James Martin, S.J., culture editor, and Patricia A. Kossmann, literary editor, of America.

Comments

janet treacy | 11/22/2009 - 6:25pm
I am totally captivated by the reviews of all three of these books. I will read them all. Greetings my fellow mass-goers will have my full attention next Sunday and then some. Meeting the eyes of or neighboring parishioners, adding a warm smile will enrich the whole Mass experience for us all. />Then the ideas of Franklin's thrift will add new meaning to the word as a concept! Wise use of God-given worldly gifts is gradually taking hold. Thank you for piquing MY interest-and surely for others as well. />JT