By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Book Reviewer | Published July 17, 2008
Words Of Light: Inspiration From The Letters Of Padre Pio; Compiled and with an introduction by Father Raniero Cantalamessa; Paraclete Press, 2008; 206 pp., hardback, $23.95
Many Catholics will be thrilled to know that a book containing excerpts from Padre Pio’s letters has just been published.
“Words of Light” contains portions of the saint’s letters to his spiritual directors on topics such as prayer, temptations, suffering, the priesthood and the Eucharist, among others.
Unfortunately, the book does not quite live up to its promise.
Padre Pio was one of the world’s great mystics. Born on May 25, 1887, he lived most of his life as a Franciscan Capuchin friar in Italy, and was ordained a priest in 1910. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
In his lifetime, he was famous for the stigmata, the five wounds of Christ that were visible on his body. He also was an acclaimed confessor, sometimes hearing confessions for 16 hours a day.
“Words of Light” bears some similarity to “Come Be My Light,” the recent work on Mother Teresa’s letters, which reveal that she suffered through a long period of spiritual darkness.
Padre Pio’s letters suggest that he too struggled with a descent into darkness. But because “Words of Light” lacks the careful editorial comments and notes that accompany Mother Teresa’s letters, readers have no context with which to understand his journey.
True, the editor does provide a short introduction to each chapter. But the excerpts themselves flow, one from another, with no grounding in the actual facts of the saint’s life.
In the chapter called “I Live in a Perpetual Night,” the excerpts are heart-rending and disturbing, and one is definitely reminded of Mother Teresa’s spiritual journey.
This reviewer longed to know what exactly was happening in Padre Pio’s life when he wrote, “One cannot describe the state in which my soul finds itself. In certain moments, if it wasn’t for divine grace supporting me, I would be …almost in despair.”At another point, when he mentions his sorrow because he cannot celebrate Mass, one wonders what circumstances prevented him.
The letters dealing with Satan’s relentless pursuit of this saint truly are eye-opening. Padre Pio describes how he was literally attacked by demons that shouted obscenities as they threw him on the ground and struck him. After an entire night of attacks so severe that he thought he would die, Padre Pio has a moving vision of the Child Jesus: “He consoled me and he reassured me about the suffering …”
The book also contains snippets of advice that Padre Pio offered to the very priests who were his spiritual directors. In this chapter especially, one longs for elucidating editorial remarks because it is not clear what specific struggles Padre Pio is addressing. Thus the advice, although lyrical, lacks grounding in the reality of the problems.
The book’s introduction emphasizes that the intention was not to produce a “complete and thorough study of the spirituality of Padre Pio.” Instead, the book is described as an anthology that gathers together “scattered flowers,” each one with its own perfume, beauty and colors. Readers will indeed find some exquisite petals in these pages, but for those curious about where the flowers actually came from and when they were grown, the book does not shed sufficient light.
Lorraine V. Murray’s new book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press). Her e-mail address is email@example.com.