In the last few years, my to-read shelf has started to meet some familiar names, names that you will recognize too, because they’re Register writers.
I’ll be honest: I don’t usually get to all the books I want to read, much less all the books that cross my desk. These recent releases from our Register writers, though, are pretty remarkable, and any of them would make a nice wrapped gift or stocking stuffer for your favorite reader.
Faith Under Fire, by Matthew Archbold (Servant, 2016)
Archbold tapped into his journalistic roots and his passion for storytelling and interviewed a dozen and a half people you’ve never heard of … which is part of what makes this book so interesting. He has found the heroes of today, people who are living their Catholic faith under oppression and real persecution. What he has shared and written is wrenching and powerful, as much for the art of Archbold’s craft as for the stories he reveals.
Let’s see if I can whet your interest with this introduction to Mother Antonia Brenner:
God calls us all to holiness. No matter where we are in life, no matter what we’ve done, God is showing us the way, even if it twists and turns in seeming darkness. Christ will never abandon us. He calls out to us, and we must respond.
The La Mesa Penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico, was in the grip of a terrible and violent riot on Halloween night in 1994. Smoke filled the air, gunshots exploded, and bodies fell. Several fires grew unchecked in different parts of the prison.
Several inmates, protesting their treatment following the death of a prisoner, jumped some guards, ripped their guns from them, and took them as hostages. The prison, which is sometimes referred to as El Pueblito (the little town), was overcrowded with over eight thousand prisoners in a facility made for half that number, many of whom were murderers, rapists and drug smugglers.
Amid the smoke and the screams that night, a tiny figure in white entered the prison, despite the warden’s warnings for her to stay outside. A tiny, frail figure walked slowly into one of the most dangerous prisons in the world, set in the one of the world’s most dangerous cities. She felt along the walls in the darkness, repeating all the while, “Mis hijos” (My sons.)
“La Mama,” came the eventual reply from a group of prisoners in the dark. They immediately assembled around her, pleading with her to leave before she got hurt. But Mother Antonia steadfastly continued into the heart of the prison, even as gunshots sounded nearby.
A group of prisoners followed her, surrounding her in an effort to protect her. The group around her grew as she continued calling out, “Mis hijos.”
As she entered into the heart of the riot, many of the prisoners were shocked to see her there. She begged them to put down their guns. They gathered around her and told her that as soon as they heard her voice they tossed their guns from the windows. In a shocking display of trust, the prisoners lay down their weapons for Mother Antonia. The riot was ended. Later, she spoke to the warden on behalf of the prisoners. They knew that she would always stand with them.
Mother Antonia had lived in a ten-by-ten-foot cell in the prison for years. She ate the same food and stood for roll call with the prisoners each morning. And she was not silent on their behalf. But her ministry in the prison wasn’t only to the prisoners, but to the guards, as well. A typical violent practice at La Mesa was for the guards to force a new prisoner to walk through a gauntlet of prison guards. The prisoner[s] [were] ordered to loudly announce their name, their crime and any aliases. If the guards didn’t think they were speaking loud enough or simply didn’t like what they said, the guards beat the prisoner as [he] walked through. To stop this, Mother Antonia began walking in each of the new prisoners, and the guards immediately ceased that practice.
And that’s only the beginning — and only one of 18 of Archbold’s accounts. This is a book you can share with anyone (Catholic or not) and that you don’t have to read sequentially. It’s inspiring in the very best way: It won’t just make you feel good about being Catholic, it will plant the seed of courage in your heart by showing you what courage looks like.
Into the Deep, by Daniel Burke (Beacon, 2016)
The Register’s executive director, Burke might be the only person I know who can take a concept like lectio divina, rename it “Discovery Prayer,” and then explain it fully in under 100 pages. However doubtful you may be reading that, I assure you: It’s not only a book you’ll want to re-read — it’s a book you’ll want to share … and you’ll feel comfortable sharing it with anyone.
Burke admits that he prays daily not because he’s holy, but because he’s not. “I am not capable of living a life without God,” he writes. “This is why I pray every, every, every day.”
Sounds intimidating, but this book breaks it down and even includes a quick reference guide. This is a book that’s designed to be used — truly a guidebook to help you grow in prayer. While Burke doesn’t quite go to the extreme of assigning homework, you get the feeling that there’s that expectation: He wants you to actually do this prayer thing, not just read about it.
Have you considered the reality that God thirsts for you? At the Last Supper, the final gathering of Jesus and his disciples, Jesus revealed this same important truth in another way. He said to the apostles, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15; emphasis added). Mystical writers of the Church reveal that the “you” in this passage includes the apostles, but is also directed at you. Jesus longs to commune with you in the Eucharist at Mass, and he longs to commune with you in prayer.
The God of the universe created you for the sole purpose of fulfilling this longing — to be with you, to commune with you, to die for your sins so that you could be eternally reconciled to him and drawn into a relationship of love that is more important to him than any relationship you will ever have in this life.
… Beginning to pray even before we completely understand prayer is the best way to learn, because actually praying is more important than acquiring abstract knowledge about prayer by merely reading about it. No one learns to swim by sitting by the side of a pool and talking about swimming or watching others swim. It is true that once you master the basics, you could spend days on important stroke technique, water balance and breathing. However, all good swimming courses begin in the water because so much cannot be learned without the actual experience of immersion. We must learn as we do, in order to make real progress. So let’s jump in!
Burke is an excellent navigator and teacher, which is no surprise, if you’re familiar at all with his work as an instructor and founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. This book is a summary and introduction to the evangelization and teaching Burke does so well, and it’s written for “normal” Catholics who need a guide to get started and continue in deeper prayer.
How to Remain Sane in a World That Is Going Mad, by Donald DeMarco (CreateSpace, 2015)
Many of the essays DeMarco included in this collection ran first in the Register. DeMarco is passionate about truth, and he writes, “It is all too common for people in our generation to live under the influence of a culture that disdains clear thinking and sound judgment, a culture that puts appetite before understanding, desire ahead of thinking, and impulse over reason.”
You’ll find these essays serious chewing for your philosophical side, with a side note of humor and no shortage of wisdom.
Pope Francis has been a tireless reminder to all of us of the importance of Mary’s role and title as the “Undoer of Knots,” and Fenelon gets credit for a beautiful book. The book makes the devotion into a pilgrimage in a way that’s powerful and even a little exciting.
Fenelon introduces the idea of a “living novena” by explaining what it is, and then she spends the next nine chapters taking readers on an adventure. If you read the book the way it’s designed, it will take nine days.
Each day, a different knot is untied, as Fenelon shares her journey through the Holy Land. There’s a prayer each day and questions that are more than just a list the publisher demanded: I got the sense that Jesus and/or Mary was sitting beside me, speaking with me and guiding the conversation.
On Day 1, Fenelon encourages us to let Mary help us untie the knot of separation, asking in the first sentence of the day’s devotion, “Can you think of a time when you felt the pain of being separated from a friend or loved one?”
Later in that day’s reflection, she writes:
Separation inflicts wounds that are difficult to heal.
When I first saw the separation wall [between Palestine and Israel] for myself, I was struck by how similar the two sides of the city appeared to be on each side of the wall’s expanse. I’d naively expected that there would be a visible difference between the Israeli and Palestinian sides because of the differences in their political and territorial viewpoints. The wall was foreboding and, frankly, depressing. Spanning 430 miles, it consists of concrete walls three times the height of a man, barbed wire, other barriers and guard towers. Military checkpoints ensure that no one comes or goes without permission. It is formidable, to say the least.
At the wall, my companions and I left our van and Israeli tour guide behind, passed through the checkpoint, boarded a bus, and were led by a Palestinian tour guide through Bethlehem. I looked back at our Israeli tour guide, then at the wall, and then at our Palestinian tour guide. Both men were kind and knowledgeable; both loved their people and heritage. How could it be that they both lived in the midst of such conflict? There were persons — just like me — with homes, families, friends, goals and dreams. Yet they lived amidst separation. So do I. So do you.
And so we turn to Mary, the great unifier and undoer of knots. She understands the walls of separation that exist between people and nations. Such walls existed long before her own time. Her main task is to lead us closer to her son, Jesus, and to transform the knotted ribbon of our lives into one that is smooth and grace-filled, a cord that binds us to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
It has been a while since I read this book, and it’s the kind of book that beckons me at this season of chaos and tumult in my own life. Perhaps you know someone who could use a book to accompany them on an untying journey.
You’ll read it, you’ll travel with Fenelon, and, best of all, you’ll pray and be changed by the effort, even as you find yourself invited deeper.
Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood, by Carrie Gress (Beacon, 2016)
“Hey, Mom! I want to read that book when you’re done!”
When my almost-12-year-old said that to me, I almost fell over laughing. After I invited her to read the subtitle, she quickly retracted.
But someday, I expect that she will have a copy of this book. This is a book that made my short list for every Catholic mom.
What Carrie Gress has done in Ultimate Makeover is wonderful: compiled 12 chapters of encouragement, down-to-earth advice and Godly wisdom for moms of all ages and stages.
Gress takes a look at feminine vices and points out that they “can only be transformed into virtues through challenges. … Similarly, the virtues can’t be attained without resistance. Motherhood offers opportunities to replace our vices with virtues, remaking us into the person God intends us to be.” To that end, she has structured the book as a way to view motherhood and its challenges “in light of God’s unique call for your life.”
The Christian life is about embracing our crosses and surrendering our lives to God’s providence. The life of any woman is full of twists and turns, different seasons that change dramatically. Through Mary’s example of pondering, we know we don’t have to go out to meet our troubles. As I have started telling my children, we only have the grace for the present moment. When the future arrives, the grace we need for whatever happens will be ready for us. In the meantime, we will be much more peaceful and joyful if we give up worrying and try to contemplate God in his goodness as a true foretaste of what is to come in eternal life. There is nothing so freeing as abandoning our every word, deed and thought to the One who created us.
This book reads like an older, wiser mom friend sitting beside you, sharing that pot of tea and putting an arm around your shoulders. Gress has a way of tackling the big, scary realities of motherhood, reminding you of the blessing, and pointing out the spiritual tools you’ll need to conquer the challenges. Oh, and she never ever lets you forget that it’s all God!
Startling Figures, by Clare T. Walker (CreateSpace, 2014)
Confession: I hadn’t heard of Clare T. Walker — she goes by Clare Walker in the Register — but after I read Startling Figures, I was hooked, and I dove right into The Keys of Death (CreateSpace, 2016) (which, at the time of publication, I’m still trying to finish … if only December didn’t demand so much of me!).
Walker has pulled together three short stories (or maybe they’re properly called novellas?) and even my most critical editorial eye couldn’t blink long. They’re engaging, and, while they’re Catholic, they’re not shoved-down-your-throat-Catholic. The plots are tight, and the writing’s good.
There’s the veterinarian who has to solve the mystery of the people and pets getting killed in the area.
And when a physicist figures out how to actually be in two (and, sometimes, three or four) places at once, he finds himself facing unexpected consequences.
Here’s a sample from that story, titled What God Has Joined:
“Wow, this is great! I can stay here all day if I want to,” he announced to himself. “I think I will.” Energy bubbled up within him and he gave his chair a dizzying spin, then broke the spin abruptly and leapt to his feet. He grabbed the first item on the top of the closest stack.
Then he thought of something. He dug a handheld tablet computer out of his pocket, turned on a video app, and propped the device on top of a stack of journals.
“Today is December 20th, Day One,” he informed the camera. This was the ideal time of year to conduct a covert experiment like this. Undergraduates were all gone for the summer, and even though university didn’t officially close for the Christmas-New Year break until next week, most of the graduate students and professors had already disappeared. Hanukkah was over, so for John and Yvette this upcoming week off was supposed to be pure free time. He didn’t blame Yvette for being angry with him before, but he was confident that, by now, she had forgiven him.
Addressing the camera again, John said, “This first trial will be one week in length, during which time I will record my observations. At this time, I am experiencing an overwhelming sense of well-being, a huge surfeit of physical and mental energy. I intend to take full advantage of it.” He picked up the device and walked over to the corner to take footage of his messy office. The piles on the desk. The piles on the floor. Books askew on the bookcase.
I won’t even spoil the third story by explaining the concept, but it hooked me and kept me guessing and reading.
Mostly, I had fun reading these books. They’re curl-up-on-the-couch good, though they’re definitely for adults (or older teens, though I’d recommend you preview them first). My older daughter has aspirations toward veterinary medicine, and I think Walker’s characters will likely appeal to her … but at almost-12, I’m not sure if the nature of these stories (and what I’ve read so far of Keys) is quite appropriate.
Walker has taken on suspense/thriller fiction from a Catholic perspective, without watering down the “real” aspect of things.
Edited by Lisa M. Hendey and Sarah A. Reinhard
Ave Maria Press, 2016
I couldn’t help it: I said Yes when Lisa Hendey asked me if I wanted to be part of what sounded like the biggest, most impossible, best idea I’d heard in a long time.
“Let’s get 60 people together and write a daily prayer companion for moms!”
It turned into more than 80 writers and 366 reflections, each of which includes a quote or Scripture passage, a personal reflection, a prayer and a question to ponder.
The project was massive, and we thought we might break our brains in the process.
Looking at the final product, though, both Lisa and I are overwhelmed with gratitude and feeling very blessed to see the impact of this pie-in-the-sky idea.
The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion celebrates all of the Church’s major feasts and saints, but it also “celebrates” other days on the calendar, like “National No Rhyme (Nor Reason) Day” and “World Refugee Day.”
As someone speaking from the season of life where I sometimes only have the time I’m in the bathroom in which to turn to God, each of these prayers fit into that space. However, they also fit into a half hour at adoration. There’s a beauty to the simplicity and how these reflections meet you, the reader, where you are.
And isn’t that just what Jesus does, too? He meets us where we are, how we are, as we are.
In just a few minutes of quiet, moms like me will find the boost they need from a friendly voice. Each month also has a special theme such as love, family fun and slowing down. Start these reflections any time throughout the year and feel your days become more grace-filled and inspired.
There’s a variety of voices represented in the writers who contributed. There are young moms, yes, but there are also grandmas, aunts and religious sisters. A few fathers also chimed in, offering their insight and support to the women they love and appreciate.
This book is truly a gift, one that I treasure. I’m blessed to have been part of it.