Race with the Devil by Joseph Pearce

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Raised in the Shire, he left its tranquility for an adventure that brought him through battles, dungeons and peril until he found an immense treasure. To possess it, he fought a monstrously evil dragon. We speak not of Bilbo Baggins, but noted Catholic biographer Joseph Pearce.

To know the identity of author Joseph Pearce, you must first meet Joe Pearce, just as you must first encounter Saul of Tarsus to fully understand the greatness of Saint Paul. Like Paul, Joseph Pearce endured more than one beating, stoning (actually they used bricks) and imprisonment. Teresa of Avila equated humility and truth. Through Race with the Devil, Pearce opens his early life to the world, revealing pain, promise and God’s hand in his miraculous transformation.

If you judge a book by its cover, particularly the dust jackets of Pearce’s 2012 Saint Benedict Press publications, Candles in the Dark and Bilbo’s Journey, beware the photos, rich in Hobbit-like dimples and engaging smile. This impression clashes with the cold, determined, mask-like face that stares from the cover of Race with the Devil. When first I viewed this image, I wondered as to the subject’s identity. Imagine my shock at the subtitle: “My Journey (What, this is an autobiography?) from Racial Hatred (This can’t be the noted Catholic author that I’ve read.) to Rational Love.” In this amazement, I share, but in reverse order, the impression of Abbot Richard Yeo, OSB, who in the year 2000, “seemed genuinely astonished that (Pearce) had not only become a Catholic but had written books such as Literary Converts and (his) biography of Chesterton of which (the Abbot) was clearly familiar.” Although mine appears the mirror image of the Abbot’s shock, we both rejoice that “God can indeed mould the most unpromising of clay.”

Pearce dedicated his conversion story to the memory of his father, Albert Arthur Pearce, who taught Joseph to love his heritage, to fistfight-observing the Marquis of Queensberry rules, to appreciate English literature and to educate himself throughout his life. Albert also reinforced powerful nationalistic sentiments and bigotry, all of which played a part in Joseph’s life and set the tone for Race with the Devil.

At the age of sixteen, Joseph founded, published, edited, distributed and wrote for the Bulldog, the newspaper of the Young National Front, an auxiliary of the National Front, a “white supremacist organization that demanded the forced removal of all non-whites from the United Kingdom.” Joseph’s precocious achievement brought notoriety and, if not awards, two all-expenses-paid prison terms. Pearce opposed the immigration of Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis and others. (Observe that in Candles in the Dark, Joseph embraced the Jamaican people and the ethnically diverse members of the Missionaries of the Poor.)

His anti-Catholic sentiments brought him “across the sea to Ireland,” not to Galway Bay, but Belfast, “On the twelfth of July when it yearly did come…”* to march with Orangemen, “to the sound of the drum.”* Unprepared for the deadly “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Joseph nearly became a “statistic.” Many of his friends in the Orange Order later died in that conflict.

Pearce made both friends and enemies. As political positions changed some friends became enemies. In Race with the Devil, Joseph reaches out to his former friends, apologizing for infractions even as small as failing to return a borrowed book or record. Thanks to Albert’s influence, Joseph learned to say something nice even about his enemies, such as the Irishman who broke his nose. The kindness of strangers deeply impressed the young Pearce: the policeman who loaned him the price of a ticket to a Chelsea football match, an adversary who after a heated radio debate, invited Joseph to lift a pint at his favorite pub, as well as the American Jewish attorney who resigned from the British equivalent of the ACLU, when that organization refused to let him defend the anti-Semite Pearce

While still sixteen, Joseph, now a full-time employee of the National Front, commuted four-hours, round-trip each work day. If Hobbits lived in burrows, Pearce spent nearly the equivalent of a day each week in the “Tube.” He read his way back and forth beneath London, completing the mandatory list of White Supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-Communist tomes. Although still a teen, Joseph’s critical thinking skills kept him from swallowing the entire bait and hook. His reading extended to Orwell to whom Joseph gives credit for part of his conversion. In contrast to Orwell’s bleak, inescapable despair, Joseph considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn a hero who continued to hope despite his confinement in the Gulag Archipelago. In time it was Solzhenitsyn who read the works of Joseph Pearce, opening the door to Joseph’s writing Solzhenitsyn’s authorized biography.

Conversion to Catholicism snuck-up on Joseph Pearce about the time of his second imprisonment. Solitary confinement, like the hours spent riding in the “Tube,” afforded Joseph time for spiritual reading, including two of Newman’s conversion stories, the works of Tolkien, Chesterton and others. Joseph emerged from the chrysalis of prison with his wings not quite ready for full flight. Nourished by the liturgy and a devotion to Our Lady, he still waged many a battle before his acceptance into the Roman Catholic Church and subsequent participation in the Catholic Literary Revival.

Like Bilbo, the dragon slain, Joseph had returned home with treasured faith, but the journey’s not quite done. It may be Joseph’s task to train a Frodo or a host of Frodos to meet and best even greater evils and rescue and share far more glorious treasures. I eagerly anticipate the sequel to Race with the Devil which may well flow from the pen of one of those fortunate few who now studies with this Catholic Literary Giant, Joseph Pearce.

*Modified from “The Old Orange Flute.”

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)

Callista: A Tale of the Third Century, by John Henry Cardinal Newman

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First published in 1855, Newman’s novel remains fresh. Its foundation is a comparison of hereditary Christians to converts and those who seek happiness in the comforts of the material world to those who can be satisfied only by union with God.

Newman warmly and vividly details a story of death and new life in and about the Roman colony of Sicca Veneria in North Africa, circa 250 AD. As tour guide, he portrays the delicate shades of fields ripe with grain, rose gardens, vineyards, olive groves and orchards set against “the fantastic forms of the Numidian Mountains.” He escorts his readers through the hidden door to the wonderfully cool catacombs to share in the liturgy. He and his readers shop the market stalls of the forum. As barrister, he details the legalistic implications of the multiple forms of Roman marriage and then explains the process of the provincial courts along with their dreadful incarceration pits and their means of torture and execution. Mercifully, Newman also offers a peep at the beatific vision. The Cardinal adds a touch of the authenticity with the frequent use of contemporary Latin phrases, such as the infamous: “Christianos ad leones!” (Christians to the lions.)

As the story begins, the Christians had not seen a major persecution in fifty years. Worshipers of the Roman and local gods had come to tolerate, and even marry Christians. Bishops, priests and deacons grew more concerned with their business interests than their flocks. Their sheep strayed as they cooled in spiritual ardor. Christianity drifted toward extinction, as many idol worshippers hoped. Some thought a persecution would finish them off. Others remembered that previous persecutions had actually won converts to Christianity.

Then Rome celebrated its millennium with spectacles and sacrifices to honor the very gods that made Rome the ruler of the world. Decius, the emperor, decreed that the entire world should congratulate Rome through the worship of Jove and swear by the genius of the emperor. Decius promised that atheists (i. e. Christians) who refused to so swear would suffer a painful death. The onset of a persecution drew near.

In Sicca, the avuncular Jucundus, an innovative, prosperous but aging purveyor of idols, lived only for the moment with no thought to the hereafter. Unfortunately, his aspirations for a glorious legacy depended upon his nephews, Agellius and Juba. Agellius, widely known as a baptized Christian, avoided contact with the residents of Sicca, especially during their religious celebrations. Juba, his brother, would bend his knee neither to god nor man. His unpredictable behavior annoyed his uncle as much as did the stubbornness of Agellius.

Jucundus desperately hoped that Agellius might forsake Christianity if he married Callista, an artisan in his employ. Jucundus suggested to Callista’s brother, Aristo, that he urge her to accept Agellius. Aristo advised his sister: “I say he’s a fellow too well off to be despised as a lover.” Agellius needed no urging to approach Callista. Knowing that she admired Christianity he hoped this predisposition would lead her to accept him and that she would convert to the worship of the true God. Instead, Callista responded, “You have stood in the way of Him, ready to speak for yourself, using Him as a means to an end.”

Callista remembered Chione, a slave and a Christian who “spoke as if a Christian’s first thoughts were good will toward others; as if his state were of such blessedness, that his dearest heart’s wish was to bring others into it.” Callista has seen no such blessedness in Agellius. Chione had cared for nothing, Agellius wanted Callista for himself. Shortly before her death, Chione dreamed of a beautiful Lady who pledged to lead Chione to her Son, Jesus. Chione died joyfully, freed of her slavery and the bonds of earth as the Lady welcomed her into the beatific vision. Callista thought Agellius a cold Christian more interested in laws and restrictions. If anything he damaged what faith Callista still had.

On this low note the real troubles begin. Newman spares no detail in his descriptions of a locust plague, famine, riots; the brutal murder of Christians by the mob; the Roman legion’s methods of crowd control, as well as Callista’s arrest as a suspected Christian. She denied that she was a Christian, but refused to offer incense to Jove or swear by the genius of the emperor. Jucundus and Aristo used their influence to postpone Callista’s execution. They claimed that she must be out of her mind. The respite allowed a visit from a mysterious stranger.

Caecilius, a Christian priest had met Callista shortly before her capture. Their conversation stoked the embers of her faith. He trusted her with a scroll: The Gospel According to Saint Luke. Callista paid it no heed until her imprisonment. By the time Caecilius visited Callista in her cell, she was a Christian in all but baptism. Caecilius baptized her, conferred confirmation and fed her with the Eucharist. Before her ordeal, she dreamed of the radiant face of Chione. It gradually morphed into the visage of the Lady that had welcomed Chione and then changed again into that of her Son. Callista had found the love and meaning she sought all her life. She too, would soon enjoy freedom.

As Newman relates through his story, materialism twists the ethics of those who see nothing beyond this life. They might otherwise seek Christ but instead, freely reject the foolishness of Christianity because they know too many cold Christians rather than the likes of Chione and the new Callista. I highly recommend this book to all who seek to deepen their faith so that they may more freely articulate the true joy of Christianity to others.

You may find “Callista” at:

 

 http://www.newmanreader.org/works/callista/index.html.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)