[Note: This book is now available for pre-order from Rafka Press. Their Website with ad for the book is http://rafkapress.com/open-letters-to-catholic-graduates.html If you wish to give this book to a high schooler now graduating, remember that the book can be given any time during the summer, that is, before the graduate enters college. For that matter, these “Open Letters” will be very helpful at any time for any student.]
I first became acquainted with our author, Paul Lavin, when I was an editor for Loreto Publications in Richmond, NH. Being a traditional-minded Catholic he had contacted Douglas Bersaw, publisher of Loreto, whose apostolate is to make available the best books our holy Faith has to offer. With my encouragement, Dr. Lavin sent us his manuscript covering the life and missionary work of his uncle, Father Joseph Lavin, a Maryknoll missioner in China. That book, co-authored with his cousin Robert, was published in 2005. While editing the work I grew abundantly in my knowledge of what took place with the onslaught of the Communist take-over of China in 1949 and the subsequent persecution of the faithful and of missionaries, like Father Lavin, who lived through it. I have since been privileged to know Dr. Lavin on a personal level as a dear friend.
When Dr. Lavin asked me to write a book review for his Open Letters to Catholic Graduates Preparing to Enter Secular Society I was hesitant. A writer and editor for most of my life, oddly enough I had never written a book review. I am glad that I am doing so now because this is a very constructive and, if I may say so, fatherly work, timely indeed.
Having written seventeen books on psychology and numerous articles in professional journals, Dr. Lavin has copious experience is putting good, ordered thinking on paper. In addition to writing, he has put in thirty years of labor teaching psychology full time at Towson University in Maryland. He earned his doctorate in psychology at the University of Maryland in 1971. With such a commanding background in the classroom, it was only natural for this educator to translate his knowledge to a counseling practice into which he employed himself for thirty plus years, while he was teaching and afterwards.
This paternal and, one could say, evocative production is organized, and systemically so, into sixteen, progressive “Open Letters” to high school graduates. Those who are being addressed are Catholic. Not that the instructions provided cannot be utilized by other young Christians who have a right moral compass, they certainly can be, but the advice our author lays down is inseparable from the sacramental life as Jesus has given it to mankind through His Catholic Church. Dr. Lavin assumes that his readers (and their parents) are saying their daily prayers and frequenting the sacraments. That, ironically, is also why this reviewer believes that the Letters will appeal to other open-minded Christians who are not afraid of being challenged by sound Catholic doctrine. Buttressing every lesson proffered in these Letters are relevant passages from the New Testament; that, too, adds to the attraction of the book for a wider than Catholic audience.
In the Introduction, Dr. Lavin salutes his young readers on their way to an exciting new journey. He tells them to brace themselves for challenges, especially in view of the fact that they have been raised Catholic. The devil, he warns, has them as a principal target for his dark machinations, hoping to overcome them with his allurements and draw them away from the less traveled road to dally along an easier one filled with countless numbers of fools who prefer their own will to God’s. To achieve that, the enemy will place (even more treacherously than he has done already), “potholes” along their path. The purpose of these Letters is to shed a light on these potholes, post the warning signs, and remind his audience of the means of grace that as soldiers of Christ through Confirmation they cannot afford to dispense with. With each Letter, our author addresses them as Jesus would: “You are the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
This is the challenge Dr. Lavin gives. His readers must desire to be different from the mainstream. They will fall if they lose their savor and hide their light. Our author is realistic and anything but roseate. Enjoy the beauty of God’s creation wherever your new adventures take you, he says, but be aware that many young men and women who have left their homes with good resolutions have faltered in their new freedom or, worse, lost their Faith completely. “Lighten up,” you will be told; “chill out;” “loosen up and have fun.” Yes, Dr. Lavin warns them, bad behavior will be all around them. They must not listen to the devil, who will use lax souls to convince them that God’s mercy trumps His justice and sins of the flesh are “no big deal.” He counsels his readers to reflect often upon the good environment in which they were brought up, and to be grateful to God for giving them good Catholic parents. Simple things: persevere in your devotions; pray the Rosary daily; go to Confession and Holy Communion regularly for strength, and pray to the Holy Ghost to inspire you daily with His seven Gifts.
The book of sixteen Letters is divided into three parts:
The first has to do with what I have already highlighted. Special emphasis is placed on the ultimate purpose of life, one’s eternal salvation. Particular advice is offered in this regard for those who will be attending secular colleges (or, I might add, “Catholic” colleges in name only). Take the devil and hell seriously, he warns. Be persistent in prayer. Seek out good Catholic companions and be on guard against those who are Catholics in Name Only. These last can do the most harm to the more impressionable.
The second part is the meat of the book. The author presents a lucid exploration of the seven capital sins as they are incarnated in today’s media-saturated and commercial-saturated milieu. There is an Open Letter dealing with each of the capital sins, beginning with Pride and ending with the devils’ favorite weapon, Lust.
Dr. Lavin sees an exorbitant amount of pride in our self-gratifying society. It is the sin of Lucifer and the cause of the fall of Adam and Eve. “You shall be as gods,” the devil said to Eve in tempting her to disobey God’s command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. No one is ignorant of the adages, “Pride is the root of all evil” and “pride goeth before the fall.” It is the beginning of every sin. It is ubiquitous and, as our author demonstrates by examples, it is at the root of every vanity and is rife in politics, business, academics, sports, facebook, and now there’s the narcissistic “selfie” craze. Self-pride is the cause behind all this modern newspeak, such as the insipid misnomer “significant other” to cover up the sin of sexual relationships outside of marriage. Did I say “sin”? With modern conceitedness there is no “sin” but rather “mistakes,” notes our author. No lying, just “misspeaking.”
Then, there is greed or avarice. Again, Dr. Lavin leaves his readers with a wealth (pardon the pun) of scriptural admonitions. One point he makes that is particularly insightful for young aspirants is that greed develops slowly. No one sets out to be a hoarder of money. It comes when money accumulates and becomes an obsession itself. And this applies to any “idol” that money can buy, and not just possessions, or “keeping up with the Joneses” but power and prestige.
Anger can be righteous or sinful. In this Letter, our author addresses not only the sinful anger that grows out of envy, but also the commonly accepted evil that justifies revenge. He counsels graduates to beware of this justification of vengeance. Movies, such as Charles Bronson’s Death Wish, are replete with this un-Christian substitute for true virtue. “Revenge is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
Next there is gluttony. The vice of overeating should not be minimized, our author says, just because it is so common. A person who cannot control his eating habits will be unlikely to control his drinking or keep himself from sexual impurity. Again, he warns, away from home there will be no visible overseer to exact discipline. The media will push the easy consumer to buy unhealthy products. In fact, it will bombard the viewer with sense images that one can almost taste and smell. Be civil, Dr. Lavin says, keep good manners at the table. Do not overindulge, for there will be endless occasions for gorging oneself, if one makes excuses. For example, hitting the “all you can eat buffet” whenever one has the money. Don’t be an early “couch potato,” either. Think of the glutton Dives (cited by Our Lord in the gospel) tormented in hell and the glory of the poor man Lazarus who had longed for the crumbs from his table. More dangerous than being a “pig” is being a drunkard, or getting habitually high. Having a “designated driver” is good, but it should not give license to “get wasted.” And, Dr. Lavin counsels with emphasis, drinking will lower one’s inhibitions. Not to mention for most collegiates, it’s illegal. How many evils begin with thinking that excessive drinking is “no big deal!” Purity goes out the window and you can never erase what someone records you doing on video. Would you want to meet your Maker in this state? Many have, who thought they were invincible.
Sloth, an easily forgotten capital sin, may also be a temptation in college, Dr. Lavin warns. If one has been brought up with good work habits, it will be easier to continue these in the new environment. It is very important, says our counselor, to keep busy. Participation in charitable organizations will be a huge help and doing so will also keep one from the discouragement that always accompanies laziness and spiritual acedia. Sound advice: keep busy, employ your talents, and study hard. Write down a daily schedule for yourself and stick to it. Most important of all, pray daily and receive the sacraments as often as you can. This is the way to prove one loves God above all things.
The last of the capital sins, and the most commonly committed, is lust. Our Lady told Saint Jacinta of Fatima that more souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other sin. No one who fears hell needs to be convinced of this. To aid his young audience in nourishing the virtue of purity, Dr. Lavin offers nine things for consideration, eight of which involve things to beware of or shun completely, the ninth involves the “consequences” of not doing so.
The media will be the foremost obstacle (“pothole”) in the path of a young Catholic leaving a good home to find his place in life. Here are the eight things to “trash” because they are just that:
Television, especially sitcoms.
Modern Secular Society
Bad Adult Role Models
The ninth thing to consider is the consequences of moral laxity and bad company. Here is where our author shines the most. In this part of the Letter he lucidly communicates his wisdom, which he has garnered from counseling so many young adult in regard to the disastrous effects that await one who compromises his or her purity.
Loss of Virginity
Loss of Reputation
Contraction of a Disease
Loss of Self-Respect (often resulting in substance abuse)
As Dr. Lavin demonstrates, the “temporal punishment” for the sins of lust begin here on earth. To avoid these punishments on earth and in purgatory and, most of all, to avoid eternal damnation, guard purity as a most precious treasure.
In the final part of the book Dr. Lavin asks his readers to take advantage of Catholic psychology in the warfare against the capital sins. The advice he offers here is, again, fueled from his experience in clinical counseling. It is practical, more than theoretical.
To put it in concise terms, the student must face reality and be aware that there is a spiritual battle being waged for his soul. First, the student must learn to identify the thoughts that enter his mind that can fire up his imagination and make a temptation look “attractive”. Second, he must formulate counter-thoughts to replace those our fallen nature instills, that is, from the flesh. This is where Catholic psychology comes in. To think good thoughts the mind must have good ideas. Words are very important. The student must nourish a Catholic language and put healthy judgments into practice.
Dr. Lavin is an expert at painting pictures of typical problems young students face. Given such and such a problem (temptation to jealousy or envy for example) it is necessary to form counter-thoughts that will turn the bad thought into a charitable one. The devil will attempt to magnify envy, even expanding it into vengeful thoughts. Our guardian angel, on the other hand, can help us see the beauty of good thoughts, thoughts that give peace.
What exactly can a student who desires to be virtuous do on the practical level? A good counselor does more than theorize, he lays down practical guidelines. Dr. Lavin gives three. The first step is confronting the temptation. “What am I saying to myself that is leading me into temptation”? The second step is to write down the bad thought (ST, for sinful thinking). Third, formulate “Catholic Language” (CL) to replace ST. For the more serious minded, keeping a journal is helpful. Nothing gives one more encouragement than to see one’s spiritual progress. Of course, as our author repeats often, regular sacramental confession is needed to fortify these good practices.
Going back to the seven capital sins, our author sagely demonstrates by point and counterpoint how each capital sin can be replaced by the corresponding virtue. As Dr. Lavin puts it, using CL to combat ST.
Although the entire book is formational, this last section is the coup de grâce to ST. Our author adds the note that Catholic Language can be utilized to offset any Sinful Thought. For example, a filial fear (and, even a servile fear at least) of hell is a good use of CL against the ST of presumption. Supernatural hope, too, as opposed to the sin of despair. Then, there are the sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance. The student must fight against not only the sin itself, but against those who would defend the sin. Campuses are rife today with promoters of sins against nature, such as sodomy. A Catholic student must stand up for Catholic teaching on all moral issues; too, he ought to be able to use Holy Scripture to support right morals as well as Catholic doctrine.
It is fitting that the last “Open Letter” addresses “The Final Judgment”. Our author uses the word “final” as it applies to our particular judgment at death. This judgment will be final. Keep in mind always the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). Dr. Lavin ends the Letter by reminding the student not to compromise, not to be “lukewarm.” A “soldier of Christ,” he stresses, “does not sit on the fence.” The army has had an ad for many years now that says “Be all that you can be; join the Army”; reading Dr. Lavin, I can hear him telling his young and idealistic readers, “Be a soldier in Christ’s Army, be all Jesus wants you to be.” With Mary’s help, there indeed is the nobility worthy of a Catholic’s royal vocation.
To all, he repeats his refrain in the final salutation, “You are the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”