Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2010, 388 pages, Imitation Leather, $44.95, ISBN: 1935302353.
Mike Aquilina has staked a pretty good claim to being the unofficial family historian of the Catholic Church.
His 20 or so books — from the essential trilogy, “The Fathers of the Church,” (1999), “The Way of the Fathers” (2000) and “The Mass of the Early Christians” (2001), to “Signs and Mysteries” (2008), “Angels of God” (2009) and “Roots of the Faith” (2010) — are mostly works of spiritual genealogy.
He’s always following the branches back to the roots of the Catholic family tree, tracing spiritual bloodlines.
In his books, Aquilina is like some eager younger brother who hauls the old letters and photos down from the attic, dusts them off, and hopes that his parents will tell stories of the old country once more — stories about what it used to be like, all the colorful and crusty old characters, and where the family customs and traditions came from.
Aquilina wants Catholics to know their family story, and especially the role played by their spiritual fathers in the faith, the Church Fathers, the bishops and teachers of the first eight centuries of Christianity.
In the introduction to his best-selling “The Fathers of the Church,” reissued by Our Sunday Visitor in a new and greatly expanded edition in 2006, he explains his project:
“Many books tell the story of the first Christian centuries as a succession of creeds, councils, persecutions, and heresies. But it was far more than that, and far more interesting. It was the story of a family, and of how the Fathers of that family strove to keep their household together, to preserve the family’s patrimony, to teach and discipline their children, and to protect the family from danger.”
The enthusiasm that Aquilina brings to his task is infectious, and he is diligent in sharing his discoveries. He blogs daily on Church history, archeology, and spirituality at FathersoftheChurch.com. His voice can be heard almost daily somewhere in America on some Catholic radio station. And he’s a familiar smiling face on EWTN, where he hosts regular series with his friend and colleague, the theologian Scott Hahn, with whom he founded the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology a few years back.
Most scholars of “paleo-Christianity” — the first centuries of the Church — are word guys. They study the paper trail — homilies, letters, teaching manuals, works of theological disputation, even the court records kept by the persecutors of the early Church.
Aquilina loves the words, too. But he also finds the sermon in the stuff, the theology expressed in the little things that the first Christians left behind — fading murals on catacomb walls, pottery and dishware, pieces of coinage, ancient hymns and Mass prayers, common household items.
As I write, on my desk there is an ancient oil lamp, no bigger than the palm of my hand. Aquilina gave it to me many years ago. It’s a common artifact, something that would be found in an ordinary Roman home in the first three or four centuries. But turn it over and it yields up its secret — a simple cross etched in relief, with a circle drawn around it. The tell-tale sign that this lamp belonged to a Christian.
(In the interests of full-disclosure, Mike is an old and dear friend. But you don’t have to take my word about him. His books all come bearing testimonials from the Church’s finest — cardinals and archbishops, not to mention top theologians and Church historians; in fact he has a new book coming out on the Eucharist that he co-authored with Cardinal Donald Wuerl.)
The point is that for Aquilina, the little things matter — because they tell us big things about what Catholics believe and how they look at the world.
His book, “Signs and Mysteries,” a collaboration with the extraordinary Catholic artist, Lea Marie Ravotti, is all about the symbolism with which the early Christians invested nearly every aspect of their lives.
For our forefathers and mothers in the faith, ordinary, natural realities had become signs and symbols of extraordinary, supernatural mysteries. It might be a loaf of bread or a fish, a peacock or a grapevine, an anchor or a lamb.
Their fathers in the faith had taught them to see the world with new eyes — to find the Creator in the things that he created, to see the things of this world as a doorway into the next. And they tattooed these signs of their faith on everything — tombstones and rings, dinner plates and goblets, floor mosaics and window sashes.
Aquilina’s latest book is his most beautiful and most ambitious.
“A Year with the Church Fathers” is a kind of culmination of Aquilina’s efforts to turn the water of archeology and scholarship into the new wine of piety, devotion, and spirituality.
The book is arranged as a series of 365 daily meditations, each of which Aquilina introduces and then follows with points for prayer and reflection.
As always in Aquilina’s works, the emphasis in these selections is not on the Fathers as lofty theologians and mystical masters, but as practical confessors and wise guides for daily living.
There are entries on: starting to pray; fighting temptation; learning to forgive and to give up grudges; praying for loved ones who’ve strayed from the faith; practicing what you preach; being satisfied with what you have.
These readings testify to how deeply the Fathers have drunk from the waters of sacred Scripture. The wisdom here is biblical, blunt, and sometimes uncomfortably personal. The Fathers have no time for our poses and pretenses. Their words aim to puncture our every mask of false pride and self-deception.
Here’s part of an entry on prayer and anger by the 2nd-century Father, Tertullian:
Remembering the Lord’s commandments paves the road to heaven for our prayers. And the chief commandment is that we should not go up to God’s altar before we make up whatever argument or offense we’ve got with our brothers. What do we think we’re doing if we approach the peace of God without peace, or the forgiveness of sins while we will not forgive?
Here’s a piece of advice to a husband who’s been complaining about his wife’s lax housekeeping and other domestic shortcomings. It’s from Asterius of Amasea, a 4th-century bishop in what is today Turkey:
But tell me, when you first married her, did you not know that you were being joined to a human being? And does anybody fail to see that sin is part of being human? For perfection belongs to God alone. … Are you free from all fault? Do you not cause your wife pain by your conduct? … How many shortcomings of yours are kept secret, because your wife has not published them!
Although this book can be dipped into at any point for meditation, there is nothing random about the way these readings have been arranged. Aquilina has sequenced his selections like an expert spiritual director. He guides readers through the classic stages of spiritual growth — from rooting out sin and bad habits, to growing in virtue and desire for God, to finally enjoying the promise of communion with God.
Published in a handsome imitation leather gift edition by Saint Benedict Press, “A Year with the Church Fathers” keeps the sacred traditions alive and passes on the family secrets — how to pray and think and live like Christians. It’s like finding a box of lost letters from our fathers.
David Scott is Editor-in-Chief of Catholic News Agency/EWTN News