SPIRITUAL PROGRESS: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be
Thomas D. Williams
Thomas D. Williams may be a familiar face to readers, as a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News and MSNBC. The book jacket shows an attractive face as well, a fact highlighted in his book's press release, where he's called a "handsome young priest" --- bringing to mind "Father What-a-Waste" from the 1980s humorous bestseller GROWING UP CATHOLIC. Actually in the course of his new book, Williams reveals that he's solidly middle aged, but you might not know this from viewing the book cover or seeing his media spots. Professionally, Williams is dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome --- a school one hopes is as impressive as its long name.
Williams says that SPIRITUAL PROGRESS is "for beginners…in the broadest sense": those newly interested in spiritual growth; those "for whom starting over and over again has become something of a profession"; those who want to return after wandering for years. "In short, it is for anyone willing to take seriously Jesus' words: 'Unless you change and become like little children, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.'" By "spiritual progress" or growth, Williams clearly means "Christian growth"; his theological reflection and world view is grounded in biblical exposition.
In the introduction, Williams delineates differences among categories of Christian books: self-help books, books of "devotional reading" and spiritual manuals, explaining that his current book is a spiritual "guidebook" that "helps chart a course" that the reader personally walks. This isn't about sitting in church; it's about loving God and neighbor and becoming Christlike.
As a guidebook, SPIRITUAL PROGRESS is very well organized and easy to follow. Internal chapter outlines lay out, for example, five "characteristics of Christ love"; five "fruits of prayer"; four categories of prayer (in terms of content, not posture); three false notions of humility; three "enemies of holiness"; and two dimensions of God's will. And there seems to be intentionality in the straightforward writing style. This is an author schooled in sound-bite communication. "Remember that the goal of the spiritual life is not personal perfection but love of God and neighbor."
Williams's guidebook of the Christian life is sprinkled with biblical stories and quotes but rarely with anecdotes that give any insight into his personal life in Rome. (He includes a few childhood anecdotes.) He's teaching the reader and leading you through Christianity 101 --- more than entertaining you.
The book's publisher clearly hopes that this Christian primer will be read and used by Protestant readers. And on most counts, the content --- orthodox in tone --- will suit, though many may disagree on his interpretation of the role and meaning of the Sacraments (he discusses three: Baptism, Reconciliation and the Eucharist). He also has included a chapter ("Honor Thy Mother: What Mary Has to Do with the Christian Life") on the role of Mary as role model, as intercessor and as mother of the church. "Isn't Jesus enough?" Williams asks. "Of course he is enough. But this isn't the question." Again, though Protestants may not agree with his biblical interpretation, Williams has done a great job of explaining Marian issues in a way that would address and answer Protestant perplexities (What's this Mary stuff?) and open dialogue across traditions.
The final chapters of the book give a cogent presentation of spiritual direction, including "three main qualities of a good spiritual director" and "ten qualities of a good spiritual program."
If you want 260 pages of basic principles of Christian living, try this book, which you'll recognize by its cover --- the photo of that "handsome young priest."
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
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