Francis Phillips reviews Spiritual Books for June 2010

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Marthe Robin and the Foyers of Charity, by Martin Blake, Theotokos Books, £7. 95

Although not yet well-known in this country, Marthe Robin, founder of one of the new movements in the Church, has had a huge and beneficial influence. Born at Chateauneuf-de-Galaure, near Lyon in 1902 and dying in 1981, she is one of those chosen souls who emerge throughout the Church’s history at times of barrenness or turbulence.

Bedridden in 1928, she received the stigmata in 1930; from then on her life was spent “living the beatitudes in a darkened room without food, drink or sleep.” For half a century this modern mystic received thousands of visitors. Seemingly shut away from the world, she radiated holiness and practical advice to her callers, often changing their lives. Chesterton once observed, “ simply the most gigantic form of common-sense” and Marthe exemplified this.

Her first conversation in 1936 with Fr Georges Finet, who was to become her spiritual director and co-founder of the “Foyers [Hearths] of Charity”, provides a beautiful example of her direct approach: “You must come here to Chateauneuf and found the first Foyer of Charity.” “Me? But I am not in this diocese.” “What matter, since God wishes it!” “What shall I have to do?” “Many things, notably to preach retreats.” “But I never have.” “You will learn!” “But we shall need beds and a kitchen. Who will do all the work?” “You will!”

To date there are more than 70 Foyers world-wide, specialising in five-day silent retreats for lay people in order to help form new generations of lay apostles. The spiritual daughter of St Therese of Lisieux and with the prophetic instincts of Cardinal Newman, Marthe recognised the urgent requirement in the 20th century of an active laity faithful to the Church.

As Stratford Caldicott says in the preface, there is great need for a permanent Foyer in the UK. The author of this valuable biography has been actively working to bring this about since 1984.

Abortion and Mental Health, by Pravin Thevathasan. LIFE Booklets, £1.95

The author, a consultant psychiatrist, here describes his medical experience of post-abortion trauma (PAT), its common symptoms and how to bring about healing. Deliberate abortion, he believes, leads to repressed grief, manifested by nightmares, flashbacks, shame, anger, sadness and abusive/addictive behaviour. Depression is common, often triggered by sorrowful anniversaries, although some women are too numbed to express their emotions.

Others are in denial or rationalise what has happened. Society at large, which sees abortion as a matter of ‘choice’, is not sympathetic to PAT symptoms, which makes it harder for women to accept the damage that has been caused. The author believes healing is possible, but only after the truth of what abortion means has been acknowledged and guilt expressed; a very informative book.

Try a Little Lowliness, by Paddy Lyons, Gracewing, £9.99

Paddy Lyons tried his vocation as a monk at the Cistercian Abbey on Caldey Island in the 1960s. That after a period in the noviciate he realised this radical way of life was not for him does not cause him regret or reproach. In this vivid, often funny, occasionally reflective memoir, he recalls with affection monastic life on a tiny island off the Pembrokeshire coast.

Initially there are a few shocks. “Let’s get out of this horrid little room” he tells himself on seeing his bare cell in the guest-house. There is a matter of interrupted sleep, a vegetarian diet, shaven heads; will the privations never end? Gradually he comes to see the austere beauty of the Cistercian life; Fuga mundi – flight from the world – means embracing a new reality: living alongside 30-odd men, “dressed and hooded...reclusive, vegetarian, tonsured, purposeful”.

Known as “Brother Daniel”, the author learns that putting up with other community members is the hardest thing, more so than the weekly bath and change of underwear, the diet of soup, vegetables and fruit, smelly work in the hen-house and the silence. Only sign-language is allowed; Brother Lawrence, the novice-master, tells him that “because we don’t talk, it’s very necessary to be in touch with each other... [there are] no hideaways.” Lyons witnesses the death of Fr Basil, an elderly monk; the hood of his habit is drawn over his face by the abbot and he is put straight into the ground in the monastic cemetery.

There are colourful characters such as Fr Maurice, the cook, who produces his own idiosyncratic variations on the diet and who is seen attending to the cooking pot while holding an umbrella (the kitchen roof leaks), or Fr Finbar, who is senile and who is recognisable by his “shambling gait, rattling jaws, trailing beads.”

Enlivened by many black and white photographs of the cloister, refectory, husbandry and harvesting, this is an entertaining glimpse of a hidden way of life.

2010 Francis Phillips

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