Thursday 6 July 2006

For the love of God (22): Why I love Herbert McCabe

A guest-post by Kim Fabricius

It was love at first (sound) bite: a nineties newspaper article on “spirituality” referred to a Catholic spiritual director named Herbert McCabe, who defined prayer as “wasting time with God”. Exactly, I smiled! Prayer, like play, is useless; it is not necessary – it is much more important than that. I’ve got to find out more about this guy, I thought!

But there wasn’t a lot to discover. There was a book called God Matters (1987), but over a quarter of it was on transubstantiation. My separated brothers and sisters, forgive me, but that was one way I did not want to waste time with God! Eventually I came across an obituary – McCabe died in 2001 – and posthumous collections of his writings, lectures and sermons suddenly began to appear.

The style is engaging – elegant and exact, conversational and caustic, reflecting McCabe’s rigour of thought and nose for humbug: rightly it has been compared to that of Chesterton.

And the expanded content (I am happy to report) transcends transubstantiation. The influences of Marx and Wittgenstein are evident, as McCabe speaks passionately about the incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism, and writes insightfully about sacramental language and faith’s forms of life. But there is always a “dumb ox” in the room – the presence of Thomas Aquinas. And out of the mix on ethics and virtue, prayer and liturgy, evil and atonement – all the old loci – McCabe always brings new mint, coined in the memorable phrase.

And what a character! As befits a don of Dominic, who founded his order in a pub, McCabe liked his Scotch. He was zestful and jestful, and at home at high and low table alike. And no jobsworth was McCabe. A colleague tells me that so radical were his leaders as editor of one particular journal that he was sacked. But the unemployment of such a class act was temporary. Re-hired, McCabe began his first leader back: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted ...”

Among those inspired by McCabe are not only theologians like Eamon Duffy and Nicholas Lash, and philosophers like Anthony Kenny and Alasdair MacIntyre, but also critics and poets, including Terry Eagleton and Seamus Heaney. Testimony to a man lazy in publication but powerful in presence.


tchittom said...

I love Herbert McCabe and am just thrilled to see a post on him! Thanks, Kim!

Anonymous said...

A nice post, but I do urge you to return to the chapters on transubstantiation, if only for a further appreciation of the Dominican spirit in action. How many theologians publish a book in which a significant proportion of the material is written by their opponents?

One more thing. On his restoration as editor of New Blackfriars Herbert wrote "As I was saying before I was so curiously interrupted .." Your misquote makes him sound tendentious, and misses the characteristically sardonic Yorkshire-Irish humour.

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