A History of the Church in 100 Objects
by Mike and Grace Aquilina, Ave Maria Press, 256pp, £20
Mike Aquilina is a force to be reckoned with. He is indefatigable and indomitable. Since the publication of his first book almost 20 years ago he has published more than 50 titles, most of which fall within the broad category of popular apologetics. He is, in one sense, what might be called a populist. He has an eye for the sort of book that will capture the imagination of a broad readership. He is a master of putting a popular spin on a given topic, packaging it in a new and imaginative way so that it captures the imagination of potential readers. His particular skill lies in making people want to read what he wants to write.
In truth, however, there is much more to Aquilina than meets the eye. He should not be dismissed as a writer comfortable in what might be called the intellectual shallows but not wishing to get out of his depth in deeper theological or philosophical waters. On the contrary, anyone who has read his eloquent review of Fr Colum Power’s masterful tome James Joyce’s Catholic Categories in the St Austin Review will know that Aquilina can grapple with the most difficult of subjects, emerging unfazed from the fray. He is able to bring this prodigious intellect into what might be called lighter fare, anchoring the levitas in gravitas, putting the weight of his formidable learning at the service of holy simplicity.
This is the case with A History of the Church in 100 Objects, inspired no doubt by the success of Neil MacGregor’s international bestseller, A History of the World in 100 Objects.
One of Aquilina’s greatest gifts is his ability to say profound things in simple language. Take, for instance, these words from the book’s introduction: “Catholicism is indeed the religion of ‘stuff’. Ours is the church of ashes and incense, icons and statues, bread and wine, water and oil, incorrupt bodies, and bones encased in glass.
“None of this is incidental to the faith. We’re not just about spiritual life. We’re about the whole person. So matter matters, too. To an amazing degree, matter makes the faith as we live it day to day.”
This is brilliant writing. It says so much in so few words. It is deceptively simple and yet palpitates with positive profundity. One could write a whole scholarly paper on these few short sentences, unpacking the sacramentalism that Aquilina elucidates with his luminous succinctness. It is making things accessible but, more importantly, it allows access to the deeper things that lie beyond or within the simple things themselves. It allows the reader to go further up and further in, as CS Lewis might say, enabling him or her to see the divine presence in everyday reality.
Here’s another example of Aquilina’s brilliance, also from the introduction: “Others may call us a ‘religion of the book’, but we’re not. We’re a religion of the Word, the divine Word, who is utterly unlike our spoken or written words … Words are made of warmed-up breeze and most of them pass away as soon as they’re let loose. But God the Word is ‘living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12); and God the Word has assumed the material of our world by taking flesh. He has dwelt among us. We call that fact the Incarnation.” To put the matter another way, Catholicism is the religion of “stuff” because God himself became “stuff”.
I have dwelt on the wisdom enshrined in the introduction largely because the “stuff” that is the focus of the book and which forms the body of its content largely speaks for itself. Each of the 100 objects is illustrated on one page, with a couple of pages of commentary accompanying it. As for the objects themselves, they are arranged chronologically, making the reading of the book a journey through time, from the distant past to the present day.
And yet the purpose of the book is to show us that these ancient objects are present to us today as tangible witnesses of unchanging and undying truths. In this sense, all that has been always is – all things being a reflection of the Omnipresence to which all things are always present.
It is for this reason that the 100 objects that comprise the content of this book are not merely “history”, in spite of the book’s title. They are also alive and present in our lives. As ever, Aquilina says it better: “The history of the Church is, moreover, your story. The artifacts you find in this book are your family heirlooms, locked in an attic till now, each a revelation of something in your character, something in your heritage, something in the faith you share with millions alive today, millions who have gone before, and millions, presumably, still to come … This is the stuff of our story. This is the stuff of our salvation as it plays out through the centuries.”
Joseph Pearce is senior editor at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado
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