Some years ago, Paul Collins went bushwalking in the remote NW corner of Tasmania known as the Tarkine. Somehow the silent, numinous wilderness of the Tarkine spoke to him and effected an unmistakable expansion of soul – a conversion experience if ever there was one. Later he wrote a short record of this encounter, calling it sacramental: "I had come in contact with something disturbing, living and profound, and I knew that somehow the natural world had now become the primary sacramental symbol for me of a a transforming divine presence.’
His account of the Tarkine experience pulses and glows at the heart of the central chapters of his new book, Between the Rock and a Hard Place: Being Catholic Today (Sydney: ABC Books: $29.95). The felt experience of his account is real and authentic, as real and authentic as Blaise Pascal’s record of his conversion in the 17th century or John Wesley’s in the 18th century. I do not hesitate to make these comparisons, because Paul Collins’s vivid paragraphs are worthy of inclusion in a world anthology of religious writing.
Its personal note signals one of the best traits of this book: without being egocentric, it tells how he himself learned to address the strains and challenges of being a committed Catholic in today’s world. This personal dimension, at times subterranean at other times overt, powers the book along, making it easy reading. As with all the best modern religious writing, it does not obscure the author behind church documents or official teaching but makes him reveal himself. So when Collins writes about prayer, or the pertinaceous culture of Catholic schooling, or the absurdities of oldstyle religiosity (now being revived in new religious movements such as the Neo-Cats and Opus Dei), you feel he knows what he’s talking about.
Take for example his pages on prayer, something that has been a problem for Christians since the first disciples asked Jesus how to pray. For Collins prayer is a ruminative swallow flight over a sacred text, self-forgetful and thus inviting the transcendent to speak to our listening selves. He quotes a Benedictine sage who says it is a duet with God, rather than a dialogue; and adds, "Its delicacy is Mozartian as we dance around each other forming a pattern of interaction, relationship and love."
These words appear towards the end of a chapter on Catholic spirituality, a chapter sandwiched between one of the case for-and-against staying a Catholic and one on the Catholic imagination. Read together, they show Collins arguing with himself on why he stays where he is. Put in one sentence, he stays there because he cannot imagine himself as anything but Catholic. And that despite all the troubles he’s had; although there’s little enough about those troubles: only in passing, for instance, he mentions that he has been blacklisted, whatever that may mean, in three dioceses; and George Pell’s name comes up now and then.
That’s the first half of the book. The remaining chapters are on ecology, on conscience, and on fundamentalism. Here the standout chapter is the one on ecology, which is fresh and intelligent rather than mushy. People interested in Pell’s odd campaign against the doctrine of conscience will want to read the chapter on conscience. The fundamentalism chapter gives a useful survey of the new religious movements. Readers of this chapter should search out David A Vise’s The Bureau and the Mole (New York: Grove Press: US$14.00) for a fuller portrait of Robert Hanssen, the Opus Dei man and FBI agent and sexual fantasist who spied for the Russians, doing more damage than any other spy in FBI history. You won’t find Vise’s book in an Opus Dei library.
There is a strange disparity between both halves of Between the Rock and a Hard Place, as if they were written under different conditions. The prose of the front of the book is hurried, repetitive, at times careless. Thus, within the first 75 pages by my count the accolade of ‘great’ is given 15 times: Newman is great, Anselm is great, Maritain is great, Rahner is great … and so it goes. On one page – page 118: check it out – there are no less than four ‘greats’. Allied to this, in his early chapters Paul Collins relies heavily on hectoring adverbs and adverbial locutions to push his argument along. He was a broadcaster before he became a writer; and some pages read like the transcript of some shock jock.
In spite of which, what a nourishing book this is: Australian Catholic Book of the Year, in my estimation.