HomePage John Saward

The Way of the Lamb - Book Reviews

New Blackfriars - September 1999

THE WAY OF THE LAMB: THE SPIRIT OF CHILDHOOD AND THE' END OF THE AGE by John Saward (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1999). Pp. xii +170, £12.95 pbk.

John Saward writes books of a kind no other British theologian does, although his voice carries constant echoes of Hans Urs von Balthasar. What makes him distinctive is the unembarrassed retrieval of certain highly-charged spiritual writers and themes, combined with a firm dogmatic underpinning. This is a doctrinally secure, exuberant Catholicism that proposes to change lives and be counter-cultural.

Saward is a married lay theologian, who has just returned from teaching in the United States and now divides his time between England and Austria. His latest book is on a theme that has long fascinated him— a theology of childhood. He has come to regard the book as a gift to him from his own children. Saward's interest is not only in the possibilities that childhood has for children, but also in how childhood is an essential ingredient in the Christian life of adults and worthy of their respect. The theme becomes counter-cultural in opposing so much violence done to born and unborn children, and In opposing the over-valuing of 'adult faith' or 'Christianity come of age'. The book is not a chronicle of all the main Christian writings or dimensions of the theme of childhood. It reflects on and articulates a constellation of themes present in a particular group who were either contemporaries or born not long after. The book inevitably organises and orders the themes more than the authors did, but it stays close to their words and it is after all an exposition.

To repropose the values of childhood Saward turns chiefly to St Thérèse of Lisieux, Chesterton, Péguy, Bernanos and Balthasar. The selection is instructive in itself including as it does three married laymen and only one professional theologian. Multiple ideas and perspectives are derived by Saward from his chosen guides. Childhood can disclose the perennially valid experiences of trust, wonder, playfulness and hope. For the Christian, it indicates the way of confidence in the Father, play with the Son (Christmas matters), soldiering with the Spirit and delighting in Mary as mother. Baptism is the moment of regeneration, the genesis of spiritual childhood, and confession that of renewed innocence. One of Bernanos's characters remarks that the grace of God makes the most hardened of men a little child. In one of Saward's most perceptive reflections, he says of St Thérèse's experience of the desolation of the faithless that her very innocence is a force of connection, for sin separates even sinners from each other. Holiness alone can unite.

It is, of course, the notion of childhood that is being reproposed, not childishness in adults or what Chesterton derided as 'Peter Pantheism'. Not for nothing did St Thérèse, Chesterton and Péguy have a particularly intense devotion to the massacred Holy Innocents. Saward's guides had no illusions about the pain and horror of life or the evils of their age. Like his guides, Saward too can be robust (if occasionally too sweeping) in his criticisms of various contemporary tendencies. Yves Congar recalls somewhere Gerson's project to reform the Church through children, and Saward is definitely a reformer.

Saward gives ample space to direct quotations from his chosen authors, so that this is a book to be lingered over. In fact, its insights and resonances will only be fully discerned if approached with trust and confidence. In this, it enacts its meaning.

Robert Ombres OP

The Tablet - 16 October 1999

The Way of the Lamb: the spirit of childhood and the end of the age John Saward T & T Clark, £12.99

John Saward is an unsung hero of contemporary English Catholicism. The late Eric Mascall, doyen of Anglo-Catholic theologians, once declared that he had hoped to see three successors: Rowan Williams, John Saward, and Andrew Louth. But the first had become Liberal, the second Roman, and the third Orthodox — though Bishop Williams's position on the spectrum of Christian theology is, doubtless, too nuanced to be fairly so described. Whereas Williams and Louth went onto hold chairs at the universities of, respectively, Oxford and London, Saward elected, on becoming a Catholic layman, to teach within purely Catholic institutions. He has chiefly been engaged in the formation of future priests, both in England, at Ushaw, and in the United States; at St Charles Borromeo's, Philadelphia. He now lectures in Austria but in such a fashion as enables him to spend much of the year back in England, where he has been given the G. K. Chesterton Fellowship at Plater College, Oxford.

Like the journey he has made in his professional life, his writing floats on - or rather is immersed in - the Catholic tradition as a whole, from the New Testament, through Fathers, medievals, early moderns, to the present century. It combines a profound grasp of dogma with a spirituality that is searchingly simple. One could call it in the best sense of the word radical, though Saward's own preferred term would probably be "maximal": taking the Gospel at its own all-absorbing evaluation. He is concerned to integrate spirituality with theological scholarship and he pursues this task with a unique intensity, with a passion for God that is also a passion for accuracy in footnotes.

This book has a message which is all its own, despite earlier signallings of the theme in Saward's work. The anti-abortion arguments in favour of unborn life in the womb are so familiar that, even to zealous Catholics, their continued rehearsal pails. We must not surrender to this lassitude, however, for the human child, unborn or otherwise, holds a pivotal place in revelation, such that attitudes to its innocence—to the "mystery of childhood"— compose in effect an article of faith by which the Church stands or falls. There has been a somewhat hectoring emphasis on the importance of "Christian maturity" in self-consciously modern spirituality (an influential interpretation of the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "man come of age" comes to mind). But childlikeness — maturity's seeming opposite — is far more central to the way the tradition has read the Scriptures. Saward's chief witness here is the latest "doctor of the Church", Thérèse of Lisieux, but he summons to her support a quartet of other twentieth-century figures — three imaginative writers: Chesterton, Péguy, Bernanos, and one theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, a heavyweight dogmatician if ever there was one.

It should not be thought that a paean to the child will be saccharine. The Way of the Lamb ends with the triumph of the "Spirit of the Child" (the Holy Spirit) in the Book of the Apocalypse, but triumph implies struggle, and Saward's study opens in fact with an analysis of Thérèse's death-bed temptations to atheism and despair. Building on natural childhood's capacity for innocence and intimacy, the grace of spiritual childhood enables the man or woman of the Gospel to be a conduit of eternal life even or especially in the night of faith, there overcoming scepticism, pessimism, egoism, thanks to a generosity that, because it is uncalculating, can be as wide as the world.

The beautifully crafted essays on writers of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries which make up the substance of this book can and should be read as contributions to a scholarly literature. But by means of them John Saward is asking from his readers a deeper and more effective recognition of the everlasting youthfulness of God, Christ, Our Lady and the Church. In an often tired and jaded Western Christendom, it is a plea that will reward heeding.

Aidan Nichols OP

Copyright © Named authors 1999, 2003.

This version: 7th February 2003

 HomePage John Saward