The Priest Administrator’s Book of the Year

The Joy of God

by Sister Mary David Totah
Bloomsbury 2019

We are reminded in the Joy of God that there is a ‘raw bitterness and cruelty’ in the depths of an authentic Catholic spirituality.The final section of the book records the death narrative of Sr Mary David, it is a journey familiar in the tradition; S. Bernadette and S. Therese walked this path way. This narrative of pain and weakness, the ‘victory’ of the cancer that resists all medication, is at one with the totality of the self-offering that constitutes the regulative norm of the writings of Sr Mary David. Death entertained – and all with Mary’s laughter.

An American-Palestinian Catholic, an academic with a Cambridge doctorate, a calligrapher and a Novice-Mistress with a sense of fun, whose direct prose style takes no prisoners – Sr Mary David speaks from her own self-emptying to enable others to

attempt the spiritual journey with no half-measures. Hers was a life of acceptance and surrender. The spiritual notes that constitute the majority of the book are directions in the way of being God-centred. They are culled, post-mortem, from instruction to her novices, spiritual conferences, short notes of encouragement and lectures. She speaks of the roughness of the spiritual life and the physicality of the text – rough, not shaped, constructed from what after her death lay to hand – reflects this truth. There is a tendency to overvalue the work of the newly dead, to hear a voice that truly only spoke to friends as one that will have real value to an unknown future. This is not the case here. Sr Mary David (‘Micky’ to friends) has a clear and authentic voice from the tradition, speaking in a grammar of contemporary accessibility.

Running through the passages of the book is a theme of acceptance, a finding of God and the will of God, in the hard, the unexpected and the unwanted. On her memorial card she requested a line from the writings of the Carmelite, St Elizabeth of the Trinity, ‘Gratitude is the law of my heart’. Her message of acceptance and the affirmation of even difficult encounters are based on the curative qualities of nobility, rationality and the realisation that sometimes ‘things just are’. We are called, she instructs, (and her teaching to her Novices are instructions), to patience, acceptance of hardship and fidelity to the traditional spiritual disciplines.

Sr Mary David is seeking to teach professionals, but her professionals are the Novices of her community, God’s beloved little ones, and they are simply you and me. Her taught spirituality is essentially demotic, examples come from tablecloths and cashmere jumpers, she is seeking to teach the eternal in and for the everyday and the end of it all is joy in God. The acceptance, the obedience and the adherence to the traditional spiritual tradition have only one purpose in her teaching and counsel, the true freedom of receiving the love of God. One of her frequent references is to S. Therese of the Child Jesus, her empty hands and their simplicity, her open heart and its devotion provide a shape for all Sr. Mary David wishes to teach.

The book is ideally set for daily readings, short, self-contained sections providing matter for thought and leading to prayer. It belongs at the prayer desk, in the handbag, on the bedside table, wherever there are few minutes for being fed with the Gospel.

The Joy of God is the commended book for Walsingham pilgrims this year. Fr Kevin Smith chose well; it is both an eloquent and accessible introduction to a daily demotic mysticism, an every-day mysticism of Amazon deliveries and Dyson vacuums, Catholic life-in-ordinary. The Little flower, S. Therese, who seems to inspire much of it, will laugh with joy.

Fr Trevor Jones SSC review was first published in the May 2020 edition of New Directions, the magazine for Forward in Faith.