Abbot Vonier & the Reality of Who We Are

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How depressing it is for the Christian writer to come across the works of Abott Vonier.

For those of who grew up in the wake of Vatican II, when so many great Catholic authors were forgotten, the lacuna of our religious education led us to believe that we could write great books, perhaps even timeless books, about God and the life of the Christian soul. After all, many of us were raised, even in Catholic schools, without knowledge of G.K. Chesterton, Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Jacques Maritain or other lights of the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the early 20th century. We were led to think that we could make our mark.

Sure, there was C.S, Lewis -- we read The Screwtape Letters in my Catholic high school -- but who else?

Then, about 20 years ago, I began to discover a lost world. While going through my father's things after his death in 1996, I came across a copy of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. In 2001 a new edition of Dietrich Von Hildebrand's Transformation in Christ was issued. More books followed. For the first time I heard names like Frank Sheed, Blessed Columba Marmion, Hillaire Belloc and Christopher Dawson.

As a Catholic journalist who hoped to write books about the Church myself, the effect of this avalanche of genius was both delight and despair. It was like hoping to play professional football and discovering that the NFL exists.

Now, with the publication of The Christian Life (out on October), the task gets harder still. The book has been published by Zaccheus Press, a small start up outside of Washington, D.C. Zaccheus has taken upon itself to publish many of the great works of the Catholic intellectual renaissance of the early 20th century. It has already put out Vonier's The Human Soul and A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist.

This is muscular, penetrating, timeless writing by a genius. And like most geniuses, Vonier has the ability to tell you something you already know yet make it seem as if you are hearing it for the first time.

Christians know that we are called to be disciples of Christ. But what does that mean? To Abott Vonier, it means that everything else is secondary: "The behavior of a Christian is essentially that of a disciple, not of a philosopher, and many calls come to him which have their origin, not in human morality, but in discipleship: 'if any man come to Me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever doth not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.' It is a ludicrous pretension on the part of anyone to start building a tower without first having reckoned the cost." This is a passage, like so many in The Christian Life, that presents the reader with the bracing intoxication of a truth that we are already supposed to know.

Dom Anscar Vonier was fortunate to live and write at a time when most Catholics knew the faith and lived it with joy and intensity. He was born November 11, 1875, at Ringschnait in South Germany. He entered the College of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Beuvais at thirteen years old, but after less than a year he decided the alumnate at Buckfast, a monastery in England. In 1898, at age 23, Vonier was ordained a priest. He then went to Rome, where he attained his doctorate in one year. In 1905 Dom Boniface Natter, the Abbot at Buckland, asked Vonier to join him on a trip to South America.

The Italian steamship Sirio that they were on struck a rock and capsized; 300 perished, including Abbot Natter. Vonier was made the new Abbot at Buckland. He was thirty years old. He would pass away in 1938.

The Human Soul, Abbot Vonier's first book, was published in 1931. Over a dozen more would follow. It was the beginning a golden age in Catholic letters: Ronald Knox had just published Caliban in Grub Street, a satire on the religious views of certain writers, in 1930, Chesterton would publish Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1933, and Christopher Dawson would publish Christianity and the New Age in 1931.

Vonier's books deserve to be considered in the same rank as those giants. His work is an example of a Catholicism that, contrary to the "modernists" of our age (and theirs), does not reject reason or human dignity. To the contrary, it fosters the intellect and the unique and wonderful creature, part flesh and part spirit, that is man.

In his book On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, the great Georgetown Jesuit James V. Schall notes that to some philosophers and historians, human beings only began to make progress after the Middle Ages, when a weltanschauung that put religion at the center of life was slowly replaced by a scientific outlook that freed man from the chains of Christianity. Yet as Christian thinkers have argued, it was precisely the Christian understanding of the dignity of the person as an individual created by God, and our connection to God's creation, that made such progress possible.

Abbot Vonier's The Christian Life is a powerful argument for the later position. Here is a guide to Christian discipleship as lived on the ground, as it were. The themes including the meaning of work, poverty, and death, as well as prayer, grace, and the Holy Eucharist. Our fallen human nature allows us the grace of forgiveness, and our eternal souls aspire to perfection. The daily road to that perfection is found in discipleship of Jesus Christ.

That seems like an obvious point, but in our 21st Century post-Christian age even Catholics seem to have fumbled the basics.

I recently read an article that, in an attempt to gain favor with a critic of the Catholic Church, advised the reader not to worry about the teachings too much -- that "the Church has many faces." Such dilution, even -- especially? -- among Catholics is common today. An apparent road to enlightenment and tolerance, it is actually shuts the door on genuine joy and the irreducible power and passion of a life lived in the truth.

For in focusing on the many faces of the Church, we lose sight of the one face that matters: the face of Christ.

Abbot Vonier points out what the great Catholic writer would reiterate decades later in his book Letters to a Young Catholic: looking at Christ, following Christ, is not an escape into fantasy, but a way of coming face to face with glorious reality: "The light of Christ is not only the guide to our steps," Vonier writes, "it is also a revealer of secrets. Through its power we see things as they are. The light of Christ is therefore a thing of stern reality as well as of comfort. For this is the characteristic of true Christian illumination, that the mind of man has the courage to look at great truths and facts of divine justice and sanctity."

Reading The Christian Life, one is reintroduced to the reality of who we are. And as Abbot Vonier tells us, ultimately for the believer there is really nothing to fear:

The Church has a strange way at every discernible moment, not only of being complete, but of knowing herself to be complete; one might almost say she is perfectly satisfied with herself and thinks herself the mistress of souls, nay, even the queen of the world. This happens to be the particular feature of the Church in the so-called Dark Ages; at no time did she speak with a more authoritative, a less apologetic tone. Never does the Church look forward to some future liberation, as if in the actual present she were a slave to an alien and oppressive power. Human empires have known such periods, but not the empire of the Spirit. Nor does the Church ever pray for a band of heroes to come along and lead her to freedom and victory. She seems to be conscious that heroes are with her all the time, doing splendid service in her cause.

Step into these marvelous pages and spend some time with one of those heroes.

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