By Mitch Finley
During Lent, we welcome extra disciplines into our lives for the sake of growing deeper in our faith and in our love for God and neighbor. One of these disciplines includes spiritual reading.
In an era dominated by electronic media, it can be difficult to make a commitment to spiritual reading each day and then to follow through on that commitment. Think of it as "fasting," not from food, but from television and the Internet.
While there are many classics that people like to read during Lent (see below), here are some new and unusual titles to consider this year:
First published in English in 1974, it's Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo's novel about a bumbling but likable "fool" named Gaston Bonaparte, a young Frenchman who feels drawn to care for the downtrodden of Japanese society after the model of St. Francis of Assisi. It's a delightful tale and an insightful social and cultural critique.
Published in 2000 and edited by Thomas Grady and Paula Huston, it's a collection of literary essays by non-theologian literary Catholics who speak from their own experience on the sacraments. Authors include Patricia Hampl, Ron Hansen and André Dubus.
Here is one observation about the Eucharist by Ron Hansen: "Our gifts of bread and wine are changed by Christ from being symbols of ourselves and our self-giving, to being Christ himself and his self-giving."
Published in 1982, before the author Annie Dillard joined the Catholic Church, it nevertheless echoes her developing faith. In 14 short essays, Dillard whistles up the sacred in the ordinary.
"On the whole," she declares, "I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."
Selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, this is one book that could be "required reading." O'Connor died in 1964, and her fiction has had an enormous impact on the American literary scene. In her letters, however, she spoke often about her Catholic faith, and she did so in ways that can knock you for a loop.
"The virtue of novenas," O'Connor observed, "is that they keep you at it for nine consecutive days and the human attention being what it is, this is a long time. I hate to say most of these prayers written by saint-in-an-emotional-state. You feel you are wearing somebody else's finery, and I can never describe my heart as 'burning' to the Lord (who knows better) without snickering."
Father Andrew Greeley's 2001 Bishop Blackie Ryan mystery novel is a delightful page-turner that includes passages that will both inspire and unsettle -- in positive ways. Bishop Blackie visits Paris, at the invitation of the archbishop there, to help solve the disappearance of a priest television star idolized by the French people. It's OK to have some fun for Lent, and this novel fits the bill.
Award-winning Catholic author Kathy Coffey knocks some of the patina of piety off the mother of Jesus and discovers a Mary who is our spiritual mother and a model for women today. By no means is this a book only for women, however. She writes: "as a woman's identity is enriched by those she has birthed and/or nurtured, so Mary is completed by her many daughters and sons. As their numbers swell beneath her infinitely expansive mantle, so she grows in beauty and strength."
Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti gathered 10 essays by 10 priests, each one discussing the place of devotion to Mary in his faith and spirituality. You get essays by, among others, Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel and Holy Cross Father Willy Raymond, director of Family Theater Productions in Los Angeles.
"Since the age of 12," Msgr. Rossetti writes, "I have happily worn the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady. I understand that there are a number of promises made to those who wear it with faith. I am not concerned with such promises; I trust that the Lord will bestow his blessings and graces where he sees fit. Rather, I wear it as a reminder and a sign of my connection to the Mother of Jesus."
You would think that it would be next to impossible for anyone to write a book about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta that would say anything new. Not so, as Father Joseph Langford shows. This book's subtitle is "The Encounter That Changed Her Life, and How It Can Transform Your Own." That ought to pique your interest. Father Langford is co-founder of Mother Teresa's priests' community, the Missionaries of Charity Fathers.
"God had sent [Blessed Mother Teresa] to soften the rude landscape of human suffering," he observes. "She would accomplish this by 'being his light' and radiating his love, illuminating the darkness that descends on the bearers of unrelenting hardship."
Veteran Catholic high school theology teacher Allan F. Wright pokes around at the idea that the risen Lord really is present in the fabric of our ordinary lives and comes up with some delightful, sometimes startling, insights.
"How much different would our homes be today," Wright asks, "if we taught, forgave, healed and shared meals as Jesus did? Is the home still a place where the most important lessons of life are both taught and caught? I tend to think yes, they are."
It's always a shock to meet a Catholic who knows little or nothing about Thomas Merton. Once you get a taste of Merton's life and writings he can do nothing but great good for anyone's faith, and this book is the place to begin to know, or to rediscover, this great 20th-century Trappist monk and author.
Author Jim Forest comments: "Perhaps part of what draws so many of us to Merton is how this astonishingly gifted writer opens a door to a deeper spiritual life without pretending he is far ahead of us on the ladder to heaven."
"Spiritual Exercises," by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Society of Jesus founder devised these prayers and contemplative practices to help the faith become more integrated into Catholics' daily lives.
"Interior Castle," by St. Teresa of Avila.The spiritual classic imagines a soul journeying through seven rooms in its quest for perfection.
"Heart of the World," by Hans Urs von Balthasar. The great Catholic theologian meditates on Jesus Christ's love for his bride -- the Church.
"The Strangest Way," by Father Robert Barron. The author explores the unexpected ways in which Christ reaches out to us.
"The Seven Last Words," by Fulton Sheen. Reflections on the last sayings of Jesus Christ from the cross.
Mitch Finley, an author of numerous books for Catholic readers, writes from Washington state.