Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, June 25, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TN Q. I know that the acquisition of knowledge demands a lot of reading, and is really a lifetime project. I keep coming across names that are new to me, like Newman, Dante, Pascal, Maritain, Claudel, Thomas à Kempis, Péguy, Chesterton, Undset – where does it end? Who were these people and why are they so famous in the history of Christianity?

A. This is a question that only opens up an almost infinite treasury of writings – prose, poetry, drama. An endless list exists of authors steeped in Catholic Tradition. Not even to begin learning from this is one of life’s major tragedies. Just consider the names cited.

Newman (Cardinal John Henry) was an Oxford don, and an Anglican priest-scholar, who entered the Church of Rome at age 44, in 1845. Ordained a Catholic priest, he was made a Cardinal in 1879. A brilliant and compelling writer, orator and preacher, Newman wrote a veritable library of famous books (e.g., Apologia pro Vita Sua), as well as incomparable poetry (e.g., The Dream of Gerontius). His literary style is at the summit of English literature. Newman was Beatified last year (2010) by Pope Benedict XVI.

Dante Alighieri is Christianity’s supreme poet whose Divine Comedy cannot be surpassed for artistry and theological expression. A native of Florence, he died in 1321. The Comedy has been described as St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae put to music.

Pascal (Blaise) was a world-class mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher. (His "calculus of probabilities" is still used in TV ratings, and he was also at the beginnings of both the calculator and the computer.) His masterpiece, the Pensées, basically a book of notes, is still a widely used classic. He died in 1662.

Maritain (Jacques) was a contemporary philosopher who revived Thomism. (His wife, Raissa, was also a philosopher and a convert to Catholicism.) Jacques left us with powerful books on Existence and the Existent (1948) as well as Integral Humanism (1936) and The Degrees of Knowing (1932). He also served as France’s Ambassador to the Holy See.

Claudel (Paul) was a lawyer, diplomat, poet and playwright whose listed works alone fill volumes. His diplomatic experience includes that of French Foreign Minister to the United States, from 1927 to 1933. One of his most celebrated plays, set in 16th-century Spain, is The Satin Slipper. Claudel experienced a mystical conversion in Notre Dame of Paris in 1886.

Thomas à Kempis was a 15th-century priest whose The Imitation of Christ is still must-reading in the history of spirituality and devotion. His small book is really one of the key signposts in the development of kataphatic theology, that kind of theological investigation characterized by the question as to who God is (as distinguished from that God is).

Péguy (Charles) was a poet who died during the Battle of the Marne in 1914. A convert from atheism and revolutionary socialism, his conversion was as mysterious as he personally continued to be, despite his enormous influence on great intellectuals of faith.

Chesterton (Gilbert Keith) entered the Catholic Church in 1922. A brilliant writer, he produced books, essays and poetry. His books include superb volumes on Saints Francis and Aquinas. His essays are unforgettable; his poetry, quite magnificent (e.g., Lepanto). Chesterton died in 1936, yet he continues to be widely read.

Undset (Sigrid) was Danish by birth; her father was Norwegian and a renowned professor of archaeology. Her greatest novel, the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) is perhaps the greatest Catholic novel ever. In 1945 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. During World War II, she fled the Nazis and temporarily resided in America.