Notes from the Underground: The Spiritual Journal of a Secular Priest (book review)

Colin Chalmers

Donald Cozzens, Notes from the Underground: The Spiritual Journal of a Secular Priest, 978-1626980068.

Cozzens, book coverDonald Cozzens is an American diocesan priest who has become increasingly well-known in this country in recent years. He first came to prominence in Great Britain with the publication of The Changing Face of the Priesthood in the year 2000. Having had many years’ experience in parish work and as his diocese’s Vicar for Clergy, he now teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. All of his work is marked by a profound honesty and integrity. This book is no exception.

Rather than a daily diary, the book takes the form of what might be termed statements of belief and practice in five key areas of Catholic life: Faith, Communion, Prayer, Power and Imagination. The last two of these are a real surprise; they don’t normally appear in lists of the essentials of Church membership. Perhaps Obedience and Financial Support would be more likely essentials. However, it is precisely from his place in the “underground church” – the church of non-conformist Catholics – that the author has so many wise and profound things to say about each of these key areas in the life of the Church today. 

Countering the modern tendency to see faith as an intellectual adherence to doctrine, Cozzens prefers to see faith as “a courageous leap of trust in the saving mystery we call God.” (p 23). This “courageous leap of trust” suffuses his whole approach to his spiritual life as a Catholic and as a priest. Towards the end of the book Cozzens remarks that “One of the marks of a mature person is the capacity for self-criticism.” (p 203) and there is certainly plenty of self-criticism in the book. He is searingly honest about his pastoral and human deficiencies as a priest in his post-ordination years when he tried to live up to what the Church establishment expected of its clergy. In a powerful story against himself on pages 85 – 86 he is not afraid to look at the reasons for, and consequences of, his rigid, legalistic practices as a young priest. This was a time in his life when he misused his power and lacked imagination and, of course, he was not alone in this. These faults are still evident in clergy and Religious in the Church of today. In a sentence providing enough material for a lifetime’s meditation Cozzens says, “The only appropriate ambition for a priest or religious is the ambition to be the priest, sister, brother, nun or monk God wants them to be.” (p 166)

With a book such as this providing so much material for thought and prayer for any thinking Catholic, it is a pity that the author seems to have been let down by his editors. There are a number of basic mistakes which should have been avoided. On p 65, for example, the author states: “Leon Bloy put it this way: ‘God’s glory is man [and woman] fully alive.’” Leon Bloy, a French writer, may very well have put it that way, but so did, many centuries previously, St Irenaeus, a Father of the early Church. Given that there is no previous or further mention of Bloy, this is a rather strange attribution. Did the editors think that Bloy would be better known to readers than Irenaeus? On p 87 Cozzens quotes from a poem by William Blake. There are no quotation marks surrounding the extract, so it is difficult for someone unfamiliar with Blake’s poetry to know where the quotation ends. An error which might be forgiven in an American author is calling the well-known art critic and hermit, Sister Wendy Beckett, a Carmelite nun (p 124). However, the most serious errors, which I hope can be put down to simple misprints, occur in the author’s telling of a truly horrifying story concerning the murders of the six Jesuits (not nine as the text has it on p 185), their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989. As Cozzens tells the story, at the end of a meeting of senior Army officers in which the murders were planned: “…the officers all stood…joined hands and prayed the Padre Nostra [sic], the Our Father.” It may be a minor quibble, but for this reviewer, the error in the Spanish naming of the prayer [it should be Padre Nuestro] really detracted from the absolute horror of the story’s conclusion. Whether the author or his editors are to blame is irrelevant, but the errors should be corrected in any subsequent editions of the book.

These errors or misprints should not put potential readers off this book. It is a work to be treasured, pondered and prayed over. For any diocesan priest of the reader’s acquaintance, it would make an excellent gift. For any Catholic who is concerned about the Church and its future, this book will show that that future depends on each one of us, priest, Religious, lay person, playing our part.

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 68 (Winter 2013-14)