Spiritual books round-up

Doctors in an intensive care unit in Belgium, a nation that embraces ‘mercy killing’ (AP)

Only Love Remains
by Attilio Stajano
Clairview Books, £14.99

Attilio Stajano, a volunteer in a palliative care department of a Brussels hospital, writes that his book has been inspired by the testimonies of dying patients whom he has encountered in his work. Its subtitle is “Lessons from the Dying on the Meaning of Life: Euthanasia or Palliative Care?”

The author does not argue with clear Christian teaching in mind, and few of the patients he supports ask for sacramental rites before they die. Yet his book is unabashedly anti-euthanasia, offering an eloquent pro-life voice in a country which, once Catholic, has slowly and inevitably widened its criteria for “mercy killing”.

You cannot read these deeply affecting stories without becoming aware that, even if the patients have long lapsed from their faith or have never known religious belief, they all have an instinctive and unappeasable longing to give and receive love before they die. Such are the normal problems of life and relationships that many of these patients are estranged from their children or wider family. Yet they cannot rest or find peace until reconciliation and forgiveness has taken place.

This is where the unobtrusive and sensitive support of people like Stajano can help patients: by contacting long-lost relatives and effecting reconciliation, even in the last hours of life. Tellingly, some patients enter the palliative ward having made it clear they have chosen euthanasia.

Without denying their legal “right to die”, the medical team reassures them that their pain will be managed effectively, alongside the volunteers who offer companionship and solace at a time of acute loneliness and fear. Essentially the patients are supported so that they “wait for death mindfully, without giving up on life ahead of time”.

All the stories are very moving, but one particularly stays in the mind. It is of an elderly mother who makes a long journey to visit her daughter who has terminal cancer: “In front of her dying daughter she realises she let year after year go by without showing any interest in her, in her studies, her personal life, her work.” Now, stricken with remorse, she helps tend her daughter’s physical needs, recalling the care she gave her as an infant. Fearing that she has come “too late”, the nurse assures her that those close to death “have an awareness and an ability to understand that is totally unexpected”.

Stajano’s book reminds the reader that family estrangements come at a great cost and that when ordinary life is ending, “only love remains”.

The Rural Gentleman
by Delia Maguire
Grosvenor House, £8

This slim novel by Irish author Delia Maguire has succeeded in a rare thing in today’s anti-clerical climate: making the story’s protagonist, an elderly priest, ministering in his last parish posting, humane, credible and sympathetic.

Fr Barnabas Salmon, the quiet, bookish and somewhat eccentric “rural gentleman” of the title, arrives at a small, clannish and spiritually moribund parish in West Cork in 2007. For the next three years until his death, he assists the parish priest, Fr Donal Ryan, who is fond of a drink, greyhound racing and a quiet life. At the same time, Fr Salmon’s sermons, full of conviction, personal stories and gentle admonishments, help to effect a subtle change in his listeners. At first suspicious and divided in their opinions of him, they gradually come to see that their prejudices, self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes are un-Christian and uncharitable.

Fr Salmon does not refer to the scandal of clerical sexual abuse as it had not yet become public news in Ireland, but he speaks forcefully about the strain of small-town Irish sanctimony and hypocrisy that has caused “loneliness, alienation and abandonment” and its victims to be driven out of respectable society by “abuse, violence and menace”.

On her modest canvas Maguire has succeeded in holding together Fr Salmon’s conviction of the enduring truth of the faith with his recognition of its sometimes stark failure in practice. Neither a sentimental portrait not a polemic, the novel is to be recommended.

Companion to the Sunday Gospels: Year of Mercy
by Dom Henry Wansborough OSB
CTS, £2.95

In keeping with the Year of Mercy, the CTS has provided lay people with an excellent accompaniment to the Sunday Gospels, written by the biblical scholar Dom Henry Wansborough of Ampleforth College.

Beginning with Advent 2015, the readings continue until the final Sunday in Ordinary time, 2016. Cardinal Nichols has written the foreword, reminding readers that our lives “are not pointless, futile, as many secretly believe, but crowned with a most glorious destiny: to be with [God] for all eternity”.

Dom Henry offers sympathetic reflections on familiar texts, bringing fresh insights to those who want to renew and reinvigorate their understanding of Scripture. He wears his learning lightly, always seeking to bring home to the reader how the Gospel readings are designed to transform their lives as they hear them proclaimed each Sunday. Indeed, the booklet would make ideal reading in preparation for Mass.