Sunday, May 18, 2008

Book Review: Scott Hahn and Mike Aquilina, Living the Mysteries. A Guide of Unfinished Christians.

This review, I fear, is rather late (I received this book along with several others before Christmas), but I think the delay turned out to be a fortuitous one, given that I didn't get to this book until Easter Day. Given that this set of patristic readings are intended as the second stage of instruction for new Catholics between Easter and Pentacost, the timing struck me as excellent.

There is, unknown to many, a tradition of this kind of instruction in the patristic era, intended as a supplement for the catechetical lectures during undertaken for those preparing for baptism. This kind of catechetical instruction has been rather consciously adopted in the Roman Catholic church as the RCIA process which is, arguably, one of the best Christian introduction courses out there. As well, other churches, including some Anglican churches, have created versions of the same thing and often run them during Lent. Many people have come to faith through these programs.

Yet, there has been, historically, a problem with these programs-a lack of follow-up. Various ad hoc ways have been worked out to deal with this, of course. In my own experience, when I took the British evangelical program, Alpha, my friends and I met for a few months after for a Bible Study which we, tongue in cheek, called Beta. Hahn and Aquilina's book looks to the patristic example for this follow-up- tapping into the tradition of mystagogy as the follow-up to catchechetical lectures.

The tradition of mystagogy was a logical follow-up to the catchechetical lectures because it was the instruction into the mysteries of the sacraments. When the newly baptised emerged out to the water, their formal instruction was not over. Between Easter and Pentacost, they were instructed in the understanding of the sacraments which was needed by all believers. We have several mystagogical lectures including those from Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine. These lectures give us an invaluable insight into how we should understand the sacraments. Hahn and Aqulina's book directs us to this tradition and asks us to meditate upon the mysteries of our faith.

The readings of this book are divided into seven section, each consisting of seven section, with reading from a different Church Father on a different aspect of the mysteries including Sts Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus on an introduction to the mysteries, St. Cyril of Jerusalam on baptism and confirmation, St. Clement of Alexandria on illumination, St. Ambrose of Milan on the Eucharist, St. Augustine of Hippo on the Church, ST. John Chrysosthom on the Christian way of life and St. Leo the Great on the glory of God. Each section is meant to be read over a week. Each passage is followed up with passages to prayer out, learn by heart and some brief words on how to apply the message on the passage to one's life.

My experience in going through these readings day by day and week by week was an inspiring one to start with. The passages were short and well-chosen. I found them a helpful way to start the day in combination with my Bible readings. As a young father, it is difficult to find time to meditate, so this book was an excellent way to direct my precious meditation time. I admit that I didn't' get as great a benefit out of the last couple of sections, but I suspect that was because this is the busiest time of the year for me, so I was distracted. I certainly wouldn't blame the choice of the passages, but merely my own frailty.

What I liked about these readings was they weren't abstract or over-intellectual, but they were grounded in the life of the every day Christian. That is an important aspect of the patristic testimony, but there are times which patristic enthusiasts get more interested in the Fathers as an intellectual, not a spiritual, exercise. Hahn and Aquilina do not fall into this trap and this makes these reading genuinely good material for meditation. Particularly, calling attention to key passages and consciously applying the lessons of passages to real life makes this an eminently practical guide to the spirituality of the mysteries; something that I think we- Roman Catholics to a degree, but, more so, Protestant- very much need.

The audience is, of course, intended to be a Roman Catholic one. The theology of the sacraments and the commentary is clearly Roman Catholic. This means that someone who takes a strictly memorialist view of the sacraments would not find this a helpful or beneficial book. As someone who accepts the 'Real Presence' model of the Eucharist and who has a sacramental understanding, I found it very useful, despite my differences with some Roman Catholic doctrine. To both a Roman Catholic audience and a more generally catholic audience, I would strongly recommend this book and the practice of mystagogy.


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