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  • A Catholic Mind Awake: The Writings of Bernard Kelly by Bernanrd Kelly
  • Robert G. Kennedy
KELLY, Bernard. A Catholic Mind Awake: The Writings of Bernard Kelly. Edited with an introduction by Scott Randall Paine. Foreword by Philip Zaleski. New York: Angelico Press, 2017. viii + 285 pp. Paper, $28.00

Bernard Kelly (1907–1958) was a British layman, an amateur philosopher (in the best sense of that word), a careful student of Thomas Aquinas, and, not surprisingly, a Dominican tertiary. Like many other Catholic intellectuals in the early part of the twentieth century, he held no academic position (and indeed, we learn nothing in this volume of his formal education) but earned a modest living in banking. His writing career spanned roughly a quarter of a century, ending with his death from cancer, and comprised for the most part a set of essays and short book reviews, commonly published in Blackfriars. The essays, the majority of which are included here, have been grouped by the editor into four general categories suggestive of the breadth of interests of the author: metaphysics, spirituality, poetry, and social theory.

The decision by Kelly's editor to group the essays as he has is reasonable but he might also have chosen a different scheme that would have been faithful to chronology. About 75 percent of Kelly's essays, book reviews, and poems belong to a twelve-year period before 1946, when he was still a fairly young man. This is the period of almost all of his work on spirituality, poetry, and social theory. In 1946 he began writing, for a short period, on topics related to Indian philosophy (to which his friend Eric Gill had introduced him a few years earlier). This is followed by a period of some years in which he did not publish at all, during which he struggled with tuberculosis. Finally, there is the period of his most mature work, a handful of longer essays that appeared in the years immediately before his death in 1958. [End Page 792]

In reading these essays, most of which are quite short, it quickly becomes obvious that Kelly was a gifted stylist. His writing is fluid, clear, gratifying, and often poetic: "The refinement of poets and philosophers are searchlights shining into the abyss of significance which underlies such commonplaces as to be, to do, to live." His ability to draw upon abstract philosophical concepts without (for the most part) lapsing into obscurantism is refreshing and perhaps his greatest strength as a writer.

This is important because, at root, Kelly was a metaphysician. As presented by the editor, the essays on metaphysical topics come first in the collection, though they date from the final years of Kelly's scholarship. Even so, his habit of mind often leads him to frame the issues he addresses in terms of first principles, an interesting and distinctive characteristic of his writing when he focuses on aesthetics or social theory.

This affection for metaphysics is most evident in the first set of essays, among which are three that explore Kelly's particular devotion to the study of Hindu philosophy. (He learned to read Sanskrit in order to pursue this interest more seriously.) It is part of his gift as a thinker, and a Christian, that he is able to read Indian philosophy not to identify the differences from Western traditions of thought but rather to explore the similarities and complementarities. His object in studying other great philosophical and religious traditions was not, pace the modern fashion of comparative religion, to acquire an "encyclopedic knowledge" but to probe the truth more deeply. In this he followed, in some sense, the example of St. Thomas, who was so willing to learn from Jewish and Arabic scholars. He also had an affinity to perennialists like Guénon and Schuon, though unlike them he remained a Thomist and faithful Catholic. "The truth of a given tradition," he wrote in one of his last essays, "is the measure of its not straying from Christ."

Much of Kelly's early work, though colored by his philosophic lenses, was in fact devoted to poetry and spirituality. (He himself published a number of poems in Blackfriars...


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