Authors who manage to help us think for ourselves without burdening our minds with their own thoughts are quite refreshing. They open doors without dragging us through them; when the author has shown us something interesting, we find ourselves walking through of our own accord!
Such is New Nazareths In Us, a slim book of sermons and meditations published last year by a New England parish priest. Most of his meditations are barely a page and a half long. As he says in the foreword, “we are dealing, not with a legal brief or a position paper, but with relaxed, and yet reasoned, out-loud thinking. A meditation never pretends to be the last sayable word about anything.” That is one of the refreshing things about brevity. They, of themselves, are too short to exhaust: “the onus is on the reader—he must do his own thinking, teasing out for himself whatever true things may be waiting beneath the limitations of the written word.”
Sliwa touches upon numerous current topics in a delicate and thoughtful way. On scandal in the body of Christ, he writes: “Scandal given is a tragedy; there is nothing frivolous about it. But it must not be taken as the last word either—though a certain worldly spirit often does this. In much the same way as the gardener does not fear the weeds, souls must not fear the presence of evil characters in the Church or elsewhere.” This is because “the real integrity of the Church is not harmed; the whole system is not invalidated; it does not need to be uprooted.”
Two chapters that I really appreciated were “The Problem of Patriotism” and “Concerning Strangeness.” In the first, Sliwa confirms patriotism as a noble virtue, drawing on St Thomas. But “what becomes of the virtue of piety when one realises there are rather acutely unlovable things about one’s country?” Beautifully utilizing the Benedictine principle that a monk should be an “amator fratrum et loci: a lover of the brethren and of the place” of the monastery, Sliwa writes: “The man who loves his land and neighbour is a pious patriot. And if the laws or history or current state of health of his country disturb him—as in these troubled times they ought to disturb him—then perhaps a man can think of himself as a monk does. Whatever illusions the media may give, every man, woman, and child is cloistered: cloistered in a little place with a few brethren. If only these could be loved, and loved truly, we might be astonished at the result.” He also notes the relationship of patriotism to Charity: “love and the homage of service can only be rendered to the real, concrete persons right in front of us. And this is challenging enough. While it is true that I may not share or love the opinions of this or that of my fellow citizen, I may still love him. We love our neighbours because they are our neighbours, for good or ill. Patriotism has free play in such relationships.”
In the chapter “Concerning Strangeness”, Sliwa writes of the phenomena of “conspiracy theories.” Behind the term “rests a real phenomenon to consider, and the phenomenon is this: people believe that other people believe strange things.” While not engaging with any particular conspiracy theory, Sliwa refreshingly reminds us that “without grace, any sort of deviation is possible; without grace, any sort of harm can be inflicted, and no species of self-serving is off the table. Those who have been the victims of history’s tragedies have had to learn this the hard way. Evil is strange because it is a departure from what is good. Not infrequently, human beings do harbour deviant and disturbing motivations, do execute harmful plans—and, if unopposed, achieve their wicked ends.”
Sliwa’s liturgical sermons are based on the usus antiquior, focusing on various Marian feasts and themes. For the feast of the Assumption, he writes on “Chastity & Covered Shame,” and how the Virgin’s intercession can cure us of shame resulting from sexual sin. “As the Damascene says, the Virgin Mary’s Assumption covers the nakedness of Eve. Sins of unchastity are especially healed under the grace of the Assumption. Thus, shame never needs to have the last word. Little wonder, then, that the introit of today’s Mass speaks of Our Lady being clothed with the sun. She bears no shame—but she is clothed in grace, and we are consumed with gratitude and hope because of it.”
New Nazareths In Us is a book I would recommend in general, but in particular to those who find it difficult to read spiritual books for more than two or three minutes. It is satisfying without being heavy, full of light without being trite. A self professed imitator of Ronald Knox’s writing style, Sliwa knows that preaching is an art. The priest has short attention spans and intellectual stamina with which to work and yet he “must move the human heart to act and to love.” Approaching topics through the lens of traditional liturgy, inspired human reason and Sacred Scripture, the aim of Sliwa’s meditations is to prepare “human lives for the visits of divine grace.”
As we meditate this Eastertide on the wounds of the Risen Christ, closing with an excerpt from the section entitled “There is Peace in His Wounds” is apropos. “First, that Christ’s Wounds show Him to be the God-man who can save; second, that there is no such thing as an un-wounded Catholic faith. There is no true religion without wound-giving sacrifices. And from all that, we can derive peace. Pax vobiscum. For us, too, those Wounds bring peace—with our own assurance that the wounds we suffer for Him make us, not far from Christ, but certainly very near Him.”