Second Readings: Literary, Philosophical & Liturgical Essays
by James V. Schall, S.J.
American Chesterton Society Books, 2020.
Paperback, 293 pages, $14.95.
Reviewed by John C. Chalberg
Father James Schall is a permanent treasure, a treasure who has now gone on to his own reward. He has left us much to read and ponder. Possibly, but not necessarily, the last of his leftovers is this most recent collection of his essays. And in so far as the writing game is concerned, Father Schall was first and foremost an essayist. More than that, he was a superb essayist.
By Father Schall’s own estimate Hilaire Belloc was the greatest essayist in the English language. For range of topics that might well be true. For depth of insight and persistence of message, however, Schall stands right with Belloc.
“Second readings” might well apply to Schall’s many readers, since virtually every one of these pieces first appeared in one or another of more than a few publications. But the title has actually been borrowed from the “second readings” section of the four volumes of the Breviary. This is entirely fitting, because what Schall and his editors have given us here is a breviary of sorts for the layman. As such, each one is meant to be read and re-read.
Father Schall disarmingly tells us in his introduction that the essays in this collection have a “lightsome mood about them,” a mood that “seeks to touch all things, including the highest things.” While he was surely right about that, Schall never manages to forget that he was first and last a teacher, a serious teacher dealing with serious things even in a sometimes “lightsome” way.
It must also be remembered that this Iowa farm boy was once—and remained—a student. He certainly never forgot that either. For starters, his teachers were Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Of more recent vintage, they also included C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien and, of course, Belloc. Each appears and reappears more than a second and third time in these pages.
It’s tempting to single out a few essays for particular comment in this review. In truth, it’s a temptation that will soon be surrendered to. But first this piece of advice must be offered: Each essay is well worth reading a second time.
Before succumbing to the temptation at hand, permit me to dwell a bit on what this marvelous teacher has been trying to teach over the course of his long career, whether in the classroom or at his writing desk. My purpose is actually a hope, as in, here’s hoping that his future students will be persuaded to keep Father Schall close at hand, if only for brief, breviary-like moments—nay, especially for such moments.
In his foreword to this collection, Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, takes exception to Schall’s “bold statement” that Belloc was the premier essayist in the English language. “A mistake,” Ahlquist contends; “Chesterton was the best.” That quibble aside, Ahlquist reminds us that Belloc had a “firm grasp on the faith,” while Chesterton possessed a “mystical grasp of God.” And Father Schall? What’s evident in these pages is his undeniable grasp of both.
One of Chesterton’s great lines is that “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” Well, Father Schall is certainly nowhere to be found among those who, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, suffered from the latter lack. There always seemed to be more than enough in his world to wonder at and wonder about.
That can—and did—include wonder at the success of his Georgetown University Hoya basketball team during the John Thompson heyday of the 1980s. Or, for that matter, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl overtime classic between the University of Oklahoma and the upstart winner, Boise State. Great games, he concludes, “make us aware that we have souls to be stirred.”
Win or lose, this great teacher wants to remind us that athletic contests invariably offer lessons to be learned—“besides winning.” That “besides” aside, Father Schall cannot resist revealing that he was “a fan of winning” before almost capping it all off with this: “Hating to lose is also a virtue.” Thus almost ends my first failure to resist temptation. Almost? That’s because Schall could not resist adding that “games, both playing them and watching them, are not philosophically indifferent or culturally useless.”
Well, nothing in this collection is either philosophically indifferent or culturally useless, either to Father Schall or to his readers. That’s because not much in this philosopher’s always wonder-filled life was either philosophically indifferent or culturally useless.
To be sure, commentaries on athletic contests are not likely ever to be regarded as breviary fare, but much that can be found in these pages would readily qualify. Still, his touch and tendency is always “lightsome.” As such, it is usually more Chesterotnian than Bellocian.
If there is a theme running through this collection it is the compatibility, rather than incompatibility, of faith and reason. In fact, Father Schall and his editors barely leave sports behind before turning to the far weightier matter of the “intelligibility of Easter.” Maybe that’s because Easter often falls right after Final Four weekend.
In any case, I’m about to resist the same temptation a second time, if only to exemplify a theme that Father Schall cannot resist turning to again and again. Just what is Easter, anyhow, he asks. The usual response, he answers, is to call it a “mystery”—yes, a mystery that is beyond our capacity to understand. But then Father Schall cuts to the “core of Catholicism” to remind us that “something said to be a ‘mystery’ is not opposed to reason in the sense that it goes against reason.” Rather, it means that Easter, or, for that matter, the Trinity or the Incarnation, is true “according to divine reason.”
Schall goes on to note that divine reason neither invalidates human reason nor denies that human reason can be brought to bear on the mystery of Easter. To be sure, “our human reason does not immediately grasp [the mystery of Easter] because we are not God.” On the other hand, just because “our human power is not itself divine does not mean that what is beyond our reason is against reason …”
In sum, the “rationality of God, as it were, is not opposed to the rationality of our minds.” That might be that, but Father Schall is not finished. Instead, he seeks to answer those who declare that death is final—and that really is that.
For Father Schall, we don’t just leave it at that because the Resurrection of Christ can be explained, grounded as it is in the “testimony of others.” And there is “no reason”—there’s that word again—why such testimony cannot be true.
G. K. Chesterton tells us that his Fleet Street friends were stunned to learn the “full horror of it all, the disgraceful truth of the matter,” namely that he believed that Christ was who He said he was, fully God and fully man.
Father Schall doesn’t tell us if any of his friends or colleagues were ever similarly stunned. He simply brings reason—and his “lightsome” touch—to the core that has been his life and his life’s work, which has been to dwell in the core of Catholicism, which is precisely what he does in these essays.
And why not? After all, Father Schall has never shied away from dwelling to the core of things. He certainly doesn’t shy away from making a statement as blunt as this: “If Christ was not who He said he was, all bets are off.”
Of course, Father Schall freely made his own bet long ago. That Schallian bet had always been grounded in faith and reason—just as he long used both, as well as his own gifts, to help his students and his readers “choose God as their end in the plan that God reveals.”
In an essay on The City of God Father Schall gives us his favorite sentence from Augustine: “Man has no cause to philosophize other than to be happy.” There, I have succumbed for the third and final time. Three strikes and I’m out. But not quite.
In that same essay Schall notes that Augustine “relativizes all political institutions in so far as each claims to make man eternally happy.” So much for the City of Man. The City of God, however, is a different place, composed as it is of those who “chose God as their end in the plan that God reveals.” And the residents of the City of Man? They “reject this gift.”
Schall wants his readers to realize that each of us has a decision to make, and a freely made decision it must be. After all, the “purpose of the Cosmos and our place within it” is to make possible that very decision.
Schall returns to these reminders again and again, but always with a “lightsome” tone and never in a repetitious way. Modern politics and modern culture, he finally reminds us, generally fail to get around to mentioning the “truth of personal salvation,” which is why we have to return to Augustine and the “thousand-plus pages of the City of God.”
In this all-too-modern world of shortcuts and even shorter attention spans, we at least have been given the gift of Father James Schall. He surely was that to his students, and he remains an ongoing gift to his potential readers. A serious man with a serious message, he never forgot—and never lets us forget—why we are here. And he also never forgot to appreciate what is here—and to do so in his own lightsome way.
John C. Chalberg writes from Bloomington, Minnesota and performs as G. K. Chesterton.