Breathed into Wholeness

Catholicity and Life in the Spirit

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Mary Frohlich
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , December
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Breathed into Wholeness, Mary Frohlich’s contribution to the “Catholicity in an Evolving Universe” series, comprises a welcome conversation between psychology, social theory, Christian theology, and spirituality. The series, edited by Ilia Delio, endeavors to deepen the concept of catholicity beyond merely denoting doctrinal orthodoxy. Books in the series often forge sometimes unexpected connections between theology and the natural and social sciences. Frohlich’s volume follows the series’ premise by asking whether catholicity is externally defined, to which she embarks on a constructive investigation of how it can be defined “from within.” She frames her reflections around the metaphor of breathing. In doing so, Frohlich lends catholicity an interior and empowering aspect that can encourage spiritual and physical wholeness, even for those who may not come from a Christian background.

The book is arranged in three parts. The first introduces the possibility of defining catholicity from within by examining the nature of experienced spirituality. Frohlich does not begin her reflections from traditional Christian sources, such as the Bible or one’s ecclesial tradition. In an interview, she explains that the book strives to connect not only Christians who are interested in plumbing the depths of spirituality, but also the religious institutionally unaffiliated who are interested in spirituality and yet find the doctrinal presentation of Christian spirituality daunting. Drawing on both Wesley Wildman’s phenomenological discussion on religious experiences and also from her own teaching exercises, Frohlich argues that spiritual experiences have certain commonalities, including qualities that encourage awareness of one’s interconnectedness and harmony with oneself and one’s community. Such rhythmic dynamism constitutes a space in which the Holy Spirit works in all people.

The second part asks what the implications of catholicity are for human self-understanding. Frohlich begins by identifying three problems plaguing humanity. First, time is separated from place. Second, communication technologies have transformed how humans relate to each other in society and to the world as various human means of interconnection become virtual. Last, just about everything can be commoditized, thanks to global capitalism. These three global problems conspire to make destruction—of each other, of creation, and of all creation’s common home—a characteristic of the anthropocene age. In the life-evacuating breathlessness of the anthropocene, as Frohlich explains, the Holy Spirit offers a breath of the life-conveying wholeness of catholicity. Such wholeness can not only recover one’s “catholic personality” in which the self is both centering and outward-focused in striving to belong and contribute to other “wholes” (98). This is an imperfect process, given human frailties, and yet humanity is not alone. The Spirit’s breathing of life into humanity enables for the latter to strive for wholeness despite obstacles mitigating against it (144).

In the final part, Frohlich shows how the metaphor of breathing-in, breathing-out is helpful for understanding how humanity can strive for such wholeness. In “breathing into wholeness,” humanity participates in the Holy Spirit’s selflessness and self-creativity. Breathing in encourages Christians to embody an apophatic way to spirituality. Apophasis, in this case, is not kenosis or self-denial but a self-emptying of preconceived words, images, or ideas of how spirituality should work. It also encourages human selflessness in a world that prizes selfishness. Thus, apophasis opens up nonlinear and nonbinary ways of approaching faith, thereby enabling for a greater participation in God’s mission. In breathing out, humanity remembers who it is and, in doing so, re-members the self as part of the wider and missional People of God.

Frohlich’s construction of catholicity is the fruit of careful research across many disciplines, and even within the orbit of theological reflection, she engages theologians from across Christian traditions and even rather obscure ones, such as Jan Ruusbroec. Despite the impressive breadth, some readers might nonetheless notice minor lacunae at some points in the book. Chapter 8, for example, could be deepened by bringing Johann Baptist Metz more extensively into the conversation on re(-)membering, especially since his concept of dangerous memory relates closely to mysticism. In discussing trauma and the way of remembering, omitting Serene Jones and Shelly Rambo—perhaps two of the leading theologians on trauma and theology—from the conversation is hard to ignore (190–195).

But one could reasonably argue that engaging those voices would make the book more unwieldy and distract readers from Frohlich’s main goal: to deepen Christian understandings and expressions of catholicity by connecting it to spirituality and justice. In this, she has succeeded. Additionally, her book may indeed turn heads for readers who may have always understood catholicity more narrowly in terms of geographic universality or doctrinal orthodoxy. This is due to its original use by St. Ignatius of Antioch who connected catholicity to the bishopric in his letter to the church in Smyrna. The gospel, however, does not merely promise spiritual salvation. In the 20th century, liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone have reminded Christian traditions that salvation is also political. The good news that truly saves must also truly liberate the poor and marginalized from their oppressions. This insight has empowered Christians of various traditions to connect the pursuit of justice with Christian faith.

But it is easy to mistake fighting for justice as something that is done for its own sake. Frohlich’s book reminds readers of how, in the Christian tradition, justice matters because it is critical to a greater purpose: to participate in God’s mission to make all peoples and all creation more whole. In deepening catholicity by connecting this third ecclesial mark to this mission, Frohlich rightly insists that participating in God’s work of making the world more whole is an indispensable and critical part of the church. In a time where churches are polarized by various life-denying ideologies and half-truths, her book is a timely exhortation to avoid participating in forces and practices that make the church—and the world—more breathless, but presents ways forward in helping it live into the wholeness that God has desired all along. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Henry Kuo is visiting assistant professor of theology and ethics at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Frohlich, RSCJ, is associate professor of spirituality and chair of the department of spirituality at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. A past president of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, she is the editor of the collection, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Essential Writings (Orbis).



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