Edited by Catherine Wolff (HarperOne, 2013)
Before passing by yet another collection of “Catholic writers on X” in your real or virtual book browsing, take the time to scan the “heroes of conscience” variously profiled in Catherine Wolff’s collection, intended as a tonic for Catholics who feel discouraged about the state of their church. Some—such as Dorothy Day and Ignatius of Loyola—are familiar to most literate American Catholics, but few would expect to find someone named Charles Strobel, a Nashville priest of writer Ann Patchett’s acquaintance, in the heroic pantheon.
This combination of known and unknown make Not Less Than Everything worthy of attention. To the list of illustrious heroes we must add equally accomplished theologians and writers: Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister (on Hildegard of Bingen), scholar Kathleen Caveny (Mother Mary MacKillop), and writer Mary Gordon (Simone Weil). Each of these writers paints a moving picture of her subject, inviting the reader to a personal encounter with the story of a fellow traveler.
It is in raising up the unexpected saint that the collection makes its greatest contribution. Writer Bo Caldwell’s present-tense account of the life of Henry Bartel, a 20th-century Mennonite missionary in China, pulses with the single-heartedness of a man who wanted nothing more than to share the love of Christ. Paul Elie’s portrait of Renaissance painter Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio finds between the artist’s flamboyant personal life and astonishing creativity a fidelity delightfully defined as “putting some things in and leaving others out.”
As would be expected across 26 essays, there are some misses, detours into nostalgia and self-focus. But taken together Not Less Than Everything is a timely reminder of the power of personal witness, the call of a creative conscience, and the wonder to be discovered in a life well lived. Put simply, it is an invitation to the catholicity of being oneself.
This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 4, page 43).