Faith and The Garden of Delights

I got to talking with my cousin Joe’s friend Ron during dinner one evening while I was in NY for my aunt’s wake and funeral a few weeks ago. Turns out Ron and I like a number of the same spiritual writers and, in the course of our conversation, he asked I had read a book titled Leap, by Terry Tempest Williams, which he said had had a great impact on him. I had neither read nor heard of the book, which sounded interesting from his description.

Within a week after my return to Minnesota, the copy of the book Ron purchased and sent to me arrived at my doorstep and I just finished reading it. The book uses Williams’ multi-year examination of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Delights, as a vehicle for her journey of faith. She explores, examines, and almost moves into, Bosch’s images of Heaven, Hell and Earth and, in the process, probes and deepens her faith as a Mormon.

Her descriptions of Bosch’s work (which I’ve only seen pictures of, never having been to the Prado) are fascinating and there is a ton I really liked about this book. I found particularly powerful her descriptions of Hell. Hell as the “tortured chamber of our own hearts.” Hell as solitary suffering. (“A suffering that cannot be shared is a suffering that cannot be endured.”) Hell as “the Great Forgetting,” an inability to remember what moves us. Hell as an inability to perceive beauty. Her images are much more terrifying that images of burning in flames.

Williams asks a lot of questions during the course of the book. Many are questions that we all ask of ourselves in one way or another. Here are some of them:

Can a painting be a prayer?

What do we choose to preserve?

What am I afraid of? What are we afraid of?

What happens when our institutions no longer serve us, no longer reflect the truth of our own experience?

How do you paint your own conversion?

Where do we hide our passions, our positions of truth, when everything around us lifts a finger to our mouth and says, “Hush, do not disturb the peace”?

What is the principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that means the most to you?

What do I believe?

We all need to figure out what we believe (and what it is about Jesus that means most to us) and Williams’ questions offer a lot to think about.

There is a lot else I noted as I was reading. Her definition of heretic as one who deviates from the consensus, who holds an opinion contrary to generally accepted beliefs. Her pairing of obedience and trust. Her effort to distinguish religion and spirituality (albeit in a way different than I would). I suspect on a second reading I’ll find a lot more.


Archbishop Hannon’s Extraordinary Life

Before reading The Archbishop Wore Combat Boots, the memoir of Archbishop Philip Hannon, I knew nothing about this man. Chaplain to a paratrooper unit during World War II, close friends with the Kennedy’s (he delivered the eulogy at President Kennedy’s funeral mass), participant in the Second Vatican Council (coordinating the Vatican press panels), Archbishop of New Orleans during times of racial strife – Archbishop Hannon has led, in the words of the subtitle of the book, “an extraordinary life.”

As a lens through which to view historical events, the book is wonderfully engaging. For example, reading it conveyed a sense of what it was like to be in Italy before the beginning of World War II, a sense of the texture of Europe there. It equally effectively painted a picture of France and Germany during World War II. The same is true for descriptions of other events (albeit ones of my lifetime) – DC in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination or New Orleans after Katrina.

The Archbishop also effectively conveys what it means to be a priest and something of his own growth over the years. Perhaps he could have been more self-reflective about some issues – I felt myself pausing at some of the advice and answers he gave to soldiers who came to him for counsel – but always I had the sense of a spiritual person who was living out his calling to serve God.

I was less enthralled with the last forty or fifty pages of the book, which treat a number of subjects in fairly short order. For example, Hannon’s brief treatment of the sexual abuse crisis sounds more aimed at conveying his sense of what a good job he did in New Orleans (and defending his handling of a particular priest over which he received some criticism) than anything else. That is just not a subject that can be usefully addressed in two and a half pages. On another matter, I suspect part of my negative reaction to his discussion of the liturgical changes following Vatican II is that I see a number of things very differently from the way he does. Nonetheless, it seems to me difficult to claim so breezily as he does that it was the change from Latin to English that is responsible for emptying the pews in Catholic churches. I also found some lack of balance in his unadulterated praise of Pope John Paul II.

Despite my reaction to the last pages of the book, it is a really good read and I was happy to learn what I did about the life of Archbishop Hannon.

I reviewed this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program,