The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts by Father Jonathan Morris. HarperCollins (New York, 2008). 240 pp., $24.95.
Fit for Eternal Life: A Christian Approach to Working Out, Eating Right and Building the Virtues of Fitness in Your Soul by Kevin Vost. Sophia Institute Press (Manchester, N.H., 2007). 227 pp., $17.95.
Father Jonathan Morris was a theological adviser to Mel Gibson during the filming of “The Passion of the Christ” and is now a Fox News analyst. The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts, written with a pastor’s knowledge and compassion, is a response to a common challenge posed to religious people: how to defend the “idea of an infinitely good God in the midst of all this suffering.”
The book is an amalgam of psychological and spiritual common sense and a traditional Christian anthropology conveyed in serviceable but not inspiring prose.
There is much in this book that is helpful: a typology of false images of God, methods to refute the “father of lies,” avoiding the danger of becoming “accustomed and even attached to our suffering,” and how to plan a spiritual life that explicitly counteracts pride, vanity and sensuality. The book concludes with three “principles for freedom-living” — living out one’s personal vocation, uniting one’s personal suffering to that of Jesus for the sake of others, and being the “hands and feet of Christ.”
Father Morris is obviously motivated by good will, but he addresses too many questions to give any topic the full treatment it deserves. Moreover, “The Promise” is frequently marred by a facile reliance on platitudes, sanctimonious bromides and superficial analysis.
This is his comment on the clerical sexual abuse scandal: “Wickedness sometimes comes in nice packages. Whether it was fear of the media, a misplaced desire to help recondition the problem priests, or naivete, nothing can justify the facts. The net result, however, is that the Catholic Church is stronger today because of the cleanup, and children are safer.”
This is pious nonsense, an antiseptic conclusion that dismisses the ongoing anguish that courses through the life of individuals and the corporate life of the church.
It is odd to read a book by a priest that does not mention the sacramental life of the church or the glory of the saints. Perhaps his reporting for Fox News has conditioned Father Morris to speak to a broad audience, some of whom would, conceivably, be hostile to Catholicism. Unfortunately, the decision to use generic Christian language leads to a lukewarm book, its vitality drained away by an author trying too hard to hide his light under a bushel basket.
Fit for Eternal Life: A Christian Approach to Working Out, Eating Right and Building the Virtues of Fitness in Your Soul is a modest and helpful book about exercise and diet that is really a hymn of praise to virtue.
Kevin Vost, a psychologist, bodybuilder and student of St. Thomas Aquinas, writes intelligently and without jargon. He offers practical, easily adoptable advice on beginning and maintaining safe strength training, the benefits of aerobic exercise (including “calorie-burning activities of daily life”), and developing prudent dietary habits (“gutting gluttony”). His suggestions, based on a sound understanding of physiology, address and refute the myths that lead to dangerous shortcuts in weight training and diet.
Vost offers more than a guide to good physical habits, though; what distinguishes this from other fitness books is his analogous writing about the virtues of fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. These natural virtues “help us perfect our human natures” and “can be developed by our knowledge, hard work and perseverance,” he writes.
“Nature has provided us all with the necessary initial dispositions to virtue. We all have appetites or passions, reason and will. Now, what are we going to do with them? To turn them into habitual inclinations toward the good (i.e., into virtues), we must perform virtuous acts again and again and again. As St. Thomas put it, ‘A disposition becomes a habit, just as a boy becomes a man.'”
There are similarities between physical and spiritual progression but, more importantly, the two areas build on each other. “Progress in physical strength may help give us the confidence to be more courageous in our moral actions, and progress in the virtue of fortitude can help us endure the discomfort of physical training that makes our muscles strong.”
Readers who desire a holistic approach to health and well-being will find this a helpful and inspiring book. It is imbued with humility and gratitude for the body, the temple of God’s Spirit, and especially for the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) that are a “pure gift from God, infused directly into our souls” and which “transform our human nature, and enable us to participate in divine life.”
Linner, who lives in Boston, has a master’s degree in theological studies from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.