Book review: ‘Ancient Wisdom, Living Fire: Lessons I Learned from the Fathers of the Church’
“Ancient Wisdom, Living Fire: Lessons I Learned from the Fathers of the Church.” By John Michael Talbot. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2020. 179 pages. Paperback: $16.95; Kindle: $9.99; Nook: $10.99.
When John Michael Talbot, the prolific songwriter whose music has become a staple in contemporary Catholic hymnals, began his spiritual seeking, little did he know that it would lead him from Protestantism, through the Jesus Movement, to an “accidental” stay at a Franciscan retreat house in Indiana. It was at the Alverna Retreat Center that Talbot, with the guidance of Father Martin Wolter, that he began the deep reading and study of the writings of the Fathers of the Church which would ultimately change the course of life.
His new book, “Ancient Wisdom, Living Fire: Lessons I Learned from the Fathers of the Church,” chronicles his journey to the Catholic faith, but, even more, it introduces (or reintroduces) readers to the foundational documents that still guide Catholic doctrine to this day. Some of these writings pre-date scripture itself and derive their authority from the Fathers who wrote them, men who were themselves disciples of the apostles. Others come later, during the first centuries of Christianity when the Church was responding to challenges to the faith with grounded theology and spiritual authenticity.
Lest the reader imagine that delving into such ancient texts would be dense and confusing, Talbot explains them in a way that is both understandable and appealing. The issues they discuss and the conclusions they draw will be quite familiar to 21st-century Catholics; for instance, sacraments, prayer, the Mass, the need of bishops, stewardship and Mary are some of the topics explored in a book that is 13 manageable chapters long.
In the chapter on the Mass, for instance, he not only talks about what the early documents and theologians have to say regarding liturgy, he also speaks frankly about some of the problems and complaints that have actually been present, at least occasionally, since the beginning. “Catholics don’t go to Mass for the singing, preaching or entertainment,” he says.“The ministry of music may be bad, the ministry of preaching may be wanting, but Jesus always shows up.” We participate in Mass, he continues, because the Mass is the both the public work of the Church and an encounter with the Divine. “Let every Mass be an individual and communal encounter with Jesus Christ,” Talbot emphasizes, “an encounter that is personal, intimate and profoundly life changing.”
One of the things that Talbot’s conversion led him to was the founding of a house of prayer called “The Little Portion;” this eventually grew into a family monastic community called the Brothers and Sisters of Charity of which Talbot is the spiritual father and minister general. Throughout the book, he explains how his experience with and understanding of the writings of the Church Fathers both inspire and continue to guide their prayer and work. One of the ways the community seeks to make this spirituality manifest is through charity extended to all. “Charity was not something incidental to the life of the early Church,” he explains. “It was not a special program. Care for the poor was at the heart of the Church’s faith.” In this, his community looks not only to the early Fathers for guidance, but to a very contemporary one as well. “Pope Francis, from the day of his inauguration, has preached Good News to the poor,” he continues. “[He] has called the powerful to render mercy and justice; and he has brought together the wrathful to pray for peace.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the writings of the Fathers of the Church, this book is an incentive to delve more deeply into them. Although ancient with regard to history, what they have to say to us is a contemporary as this morning’s headlines. “Post-Christian paganism looks a lot like pre-Christian paganism,” Talbot concluded. “As we read the Fathers, we come to recognize the story line. The devil’s tricks don’t change much. And God’s arm has not been shortened.”
John Michael Talbot is a prolific Catholic singer-songwriter and bestselling author. After entering the Catholic Church in 1978, he joined the secular Franciscan order and subsequently began a house of prayer called The Little Portion, which developed into the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. Talbot currently lives as a family monastic with his wife, Viola, at The Little Portion Hermitage in Berryville, Arkansas.
—Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.