I spoke with Russell Shaw about his book Writing the Way: The Story of a Spiritual Classic. Shaw tells some of the dramatic story of St. Josemaria Escriva, the author of The Way, and Shaw discusses with Gayle the impact of this little book for meditation and prayer. Shaw has written twenty books, is a contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor and a syndicated columnist. He was formerly the Secretary for Public Affairs of the U.S. Catholic bishops conference and former Director former Director of Information of the Knights of Columbus. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Click here to listen to our twenty-one minute discussion or read the transcript below.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter. This morning I’m speaking with Russell Shaw, author of Writing the Way: The Story of a Spiritual Classic. Good morning, Mr. Shaw.
Russell Shaw: Good morning, Gayle.
GT: Thank you so much for talking about your book with me. In the movie, Ratatouille, there is a slogan that runs throughout the movie, and the slogan is, “Anyone can cook.” Is the slogan of your book, “Anyone can be a saint”?
RS: Right. It has sometimes been described as something which anyone can do and which is very difficult. But anybody can do it. It is unlike cooking, maybe. It is a vocation, a call from God which is directed to everybody without exception. I mean, being a saint, being holy, being a deeply spiritual and good person. That is something that we are all meant to do and to be.
GT: Absolutely. And your book is about the story of the writing of a book called The Way, and you define this book as a spiritual classic. What is a spiritual classic, and why does this book fit that definition?
RS: Well, I think one test of a spiritual classic and maybe the most obvious one and conceivably the most important one is that it’s there to last. It is not just this season’s good read or something like that. It has been around for a while, and it is going to continue to be around for a while because whatever it says, it speaks to the minds and the hearts of people of many different times and places and social classes. That’s the key to being a spiritual classic. The spiritual part of it means that it speaks to the heart and the mind and the soul on the level of spirituality. It speaks about your relationship with God and your relationship with other people in the context of your relationship with God.
GT: Who is the major figure in your book, and what is the name of his organization?
RS: Right. The book that my book is about, a little book, The Way, was written by a Spanish priest named Josemaría Escrivá. He was canonized a saint by the Catholic Church just a few years ago. He was born in 1902, died in 1975. He was the founder in the late 1920’s actually in Madrid, Spain of an organization called Opus Dei.
GT: What does Opus Dei mean?
RS: Those are two Latin words meaning the “work of God.” This was a name for the organization that the founder, Josemaría Escrivá, didn’t even think of himself, but somebody once said to him early in the game, “How is that work of God, that Opus Dei of yours coming along?” And it clicked with him. He said, “Yeah, that’s a great name, and that kind of sums up what I’m trying to do and what God is trying to do through this organization. We’ll call it Opus Dei.” It’s now an international Catholic organization, overwhelmingly made up of lay people with a small number of priests as members too. Men and women, most of them lay people living and working and having quite normal, quite ordinary lives out there in the secular world and doing their jobs. And that’s where “work” comes in, by the way. Escrivá’s spirituality laid and lays now a heavy, heavy emphasis on the idea of the ordinary work that you and I and everyone else does as a path to sanctity, a means of becoming a saint in the world. So Opus, “work,” fits right into the spiritual message and the spiritual system that St. Josemaría is trying to explain, trying to lay out in considerable detail in this little book called The Way.
GT: And what was the world like around him as he was writing The Way?
RS: It was a mess. The book was written in 1930’s Spain as the country and Spanish society were heading into that terrible, terrible conflict called the Spanish Civil War. As a matter of fact this year will be marking, I won’t say celebrating, but marking the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, a terrible, terrible tragedy on the eve of World War II and in many ways, previewing the awful things that would happen during that larger, but no more bloody, conflict that took place.
GT: And what things did he in particular face as a priest in Spain during this tumultuous period?
RS: The country really split in two. And part of the program, if you will, of one faction in this conflict was an intense anti-religious and anti-clerical sentiment. So, sad to say that that faction on one side of the conflict was responsible for the deaths of really thousands of priests, several hundred bishops, a hundred religious women. When I say “responsible” for their deaths, it’s not that it just happened more or less accidentally. These were executions.
RS: They set out quite deliberately to kill priests, and they killed an awful lot of them. So Escrivá as a Catholic priest was very much in danger of losing his life too. And curiously enough, a lot of this, not all of it, but a lot of this little book of his, The Way, is based on material that he put together while he and friends were hiding out in the Honduran consulate in Madrid in the early months of the Civil War because it would probably have been worth his life if he had gone out on the street and been recognized as a Catholic priest.
GT: Right, right. How did these terrible events affect his writing of The Way?
RS: I think he became even more intensely aware that, much more than politics or economics or anything else of a secular nature, sanctity — the quest for holiness — was the key to resolving this sort of conflict and tensions that created this terrible situation in Spain, and that was soon going to create it throughout Europe and throughout the world in World War II. There’s a point in The Waythat says something like, these world crises are crises of saints. That’s a central element of his message.
RS: And it was a central point that he learned himself as a result of the terrible events in Spanish society which created the Spanish Civil War.
GT: What kind of writing is The Way, and what is the structure of this little book?
RS: Technically, I suppose you would say that The Way is a collection of aphorisms or sayings or meditations. In the book, they are referred to as points. These are short observations of a sentence in some cases, two or three sentences, a couple of paragraphs, never very long. Each point or aphorism makes a particular point about the spiritual life and about the way one should live one’s life. The points or aphorisms are organized in sections, and there is a pattern to them tracing the development and the growth of an individual’s spirituality as he proceeds along this path towards sanctity. The points are not just abstract thoughts or pious meditations that Father Escrivá happened to think of. In many, many cases these points are drawn from real life. They are drawn from conversations that he had with a wide variety of people in many walks of life before and even during the Civil War. They’re drawn from correspondence. They’re a little snatch of life, if you will, very vivid and very lively.
GT: In the book you say that what he writes in The Way is original. And in some way, is not his idea of “sanctifying the laity” similar to a key tenet of Protestantism?
RS: It is an area in which I think Catholics were quite slow to catch up. Yes, Protestants, or at least some branches and some elements of Protestantism, understood this idea earlier than the Catholics did. Yes, here and there in the Catholic tradition over the centuries you could find certain figures, certain theologians, certain bishops, certain teachers speaking about the sanctity of the laity and making the point that for the lay people, sanctity was something to be achieved in ordinary, everyday life. But it was not part of the mainstream Catholic tradition for a long, long time. So I think Escrivá was an innovator in his time and place in making that thought absolutely central to the message that he was trying to convey to people.
GT: In the book you quote the saint as saying, “We cannot have a split personality if we want to be Christians. There is only one life made of flesh and spirit and it is that life which has to become in both body and soul holy and filled with God.” In the book, you make the point about the famous scene in a Godfather movie where a gang member’s child is being baptized in a Catholic church while other gang members are executing people across the city. You note that the reaction that most viewers have is that these gang members have no unity of life. When I read your book, I also thought of a former member of Opus Dei, Bob Hanssen, and his other life that he had apart from his family and his faith, and clearly there was no unity of his life in his faith walk either. Do you have any thoughts on this?
RS: Nothing too clear or definitive. Nothing that would really explain Bob Hanssen. I find it very close to inexplicable myself. I knew Bob Hanssen. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him casually as another member of Opus Dei and found him a pretty ordinary, normal sort of guy. Pleasant. There was nothing terribly odd about him anymore than there’s something terribly odd about most people. We all have these little quirks and eccentricities. In other words, Bob Hanssen did not seem crazy or particularly out of the ordinary in any way. And yet, he was living this weird, double life and doing absolutely inexcusable and dreadful things in one part of that life. I have no real explanation to offer except the obvious explanation that here is a case that involves some profound pathology, some psychic sickness on a very deep level of his personality. Something which allowed him to operate pretty normally in everyday life and in his other life to do the most dreadful sorts of things. I guess all of us live a double life in a sense or at least we are tempted in that direction.
RS: We split our lives in two, at least, between the religious part and the everyday part. I know I do that to some extent.
RS: Escrivá’s message is, no, you should make that everyday part a part of an element of the spiritual, religious part. It is all meant to hang together as a life lived in the service of God and other people. But in Bob Hanssen’s case, the split went much deeper and took this terribly destructive form of expression. I hope that helps. I have no real explanation, and I defy anyone to come up with any totally, satisfactory explanation of his state of mind or the behavior that it led him to.
GT: In your book, you speak about Pope John Paul II and talk about his remarkable unity of life between his faith and all parts of his personality and how consistent he was. Would you agree that he is a model of how we can make our life unified in both our spiritual life and everything else in our life?
RS: Well, he certainly is and while that unity of life was true of John Paul II in so many different ways, I think it became especially clear in his last years, in his last months when he was visibly and audibly a sick man in declining health.
RS: As pope, he could have more or less hidden that. He didn’t have to remain a public figure. His last illness could have been kept behind the walls of the Vatican.
RS: But instead of hiding it, he let the whole world see him sick and in his declining years. Because I think he wanted to use his last illness as a teaching tool. He wanted to use it to teach the rest of us that this is how a person of faith meets his death and goes to meet his God.
RS: In doing that, using his last illness as a teaching instrument, I think he was manifesting unity of life in the sense that he was doing what popes and good priests are supposed to do, namely, to teach their people. So, he taught the rest of us a very important lesson as he went to his death, a very important lesson in how a good, committed, deeply religious person does die.
GT: And St. Josemaría, is there anything about his life that a non-Christian can learn from?
RS: Well, yes, for one thing, he certainly was a man of remarkable openness and tolerance. He was not a narrow-minded Catholic or Christian or adherent of a particular faith.
RS: Yes, he was a deeply committed Christian and Catholic, but he remained open toward and friendly toward people of any faith or all faiths. In fact, there’s a category of people who are sort of the friends of Opus Dei. You can become a cooperator of Opus Dei which is not quite the same as being a member but you have a certain relationship, a certain affiliation with Opus Dei. That’s open to non-Catholics. It’s that kind of organization and he wanted it that way from the start. He believed that God was present in the lives of people of all faiths, even people of no faith.
GT: What surprised you most in writing your book?
RS: What surprised me most? Well, I guess in a way I’m surprised, as I think he was surprised too from things that he said in later life, that the book has had the enormous appeal that it has had. When he wrote it and published it, it was originally published in 1939, a few thousand copies which he figured we’ll be doing pretty well if we can sell those few thousand copies over a period of time.
RS: Up to now, the book has sold well over four and half million copies.
RS: In, oh gosh, how many languages: dozens and dozens of languages. It is available in English. It is available in Spanish, French, German and on and on and on. It’s been translated into many languages, and it continues to sell. And for many people all over the world it’s an important part of their lives, an important part of their spiritual lives. A little book which you can stick in your pocket, or stick in your purse, stick in your backpack and pull it out in those odd moments when you have a little time on your hands, and you want not just to sit there and twiddle your thumbs but maybe to get in touch quickly with God and would like the help of one of these points in The Way. So that’s what so surprised me as it is to many people that so many readers of so many different backgrounds have found a great deal in this little book that speaks to them and helps them in living their lives.
GT: In your book you quote St. Escrivá as saying, “I would like to write books of fire.” Do you think he succeeded at this with the writing of The Way?
RS: Well, I think he did. By that expression, “books of fire,” he meant books which would carry the message of Christ, the message of the Gospel vividly and persuasively to many, many people in many, many circumstances and would accomplish a great deal of good. And if that’s a book of fire, then I think this book The Way fits the description.
GT: Thank you for speaking with me and for telling us about your book about the book The Way.
RS: Thank you for inviting me. I appreciate the opportunity.
First published in First Things in March 2011