Lent is a time for prayer, penance and almsgiving. It’s also a time for reflection and contemplation, to assess where we are on the journey toward salvation — and where we should be.
As Lent begins, we offer four books that might help our readers on that journey.
Your Will — and God’s
The Life-Changing Power of Doing God’s Will
By Father Larry Richards
Our Sunday Visitor, 2011
155 pages, $14.95
To order: osv.com
By Father C. John McCloskey
Father Larry Richards is a popular teacher, preacher, author, retreat master and radio talk-show host. He recently published his second short book, Surrender! The Life-Changing Power of Doing God’s Will. Father Richards has clearly taken his retreat notes and turned them into a challenging and stimulating book that employs biblical passages and quotes from both past and more contemporary saints to make the powerful and undeniable argument that only a complete surrender to God can bring us relative happiness here and eternal joy in the next life. In seven chapters, he pounds away on this theme, including a short list of “to do’s” at the end of each to help his readers take immediate action.
Of course, his message is not original, but Father Richards masterfully and effectively marshals anecdotes from his pastoral work to make his points clear and attractive. (He has taught high school for many years and is the pastor of an inner-city parish.) And he makes mention of the many missions he has preached — missions that were followed by hundreds of confessions of longtime lapsed Catholics.
“To surrender is to love. This is not surrender of fear or of self-interest, but a response to a loving invitation in the journey to eternal life. It is the surrender that is life-giving. It is the ultimate surrender, and the only one that matters. We are going to explore this loving surrender in our seeking to know and love God’s will.”
Father Richards also uses his own struggles to allow others to see that he, like his readers, is a man who struggles to do God’s will. Speaking of his own vocation, he writes: “From all eternity God created me to be a priest. You can tell because it clicks in my life.”
No, Father Richards is no Archbishop Sheen or Father George Rutler in the preaching line, nor does he come up to St. Augustine as a saint, but he does not pretend to be. However, I do believe that the Holy Spirit uses him very effectively to communicate. In particular, he appeals to the millions of poorly formed and fallen-away Catholics who need to hear the Good News in their own language and to be challenged to repent and find Christ and his Church.
One quibble: Father Richards could have urged his readers to investigate the many new ecclesial realities approved by the Church that could offer them spiritual direction, formation and fellowship.
Give the book a try and, if you like it, pass it on to someone who can use it.
Father C. John McCloskey III is a research fellow of the
Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.
Heart at the Center
The Enthronement of the Sacred Heart
Edited by Cardinal Raymond Burke
Marian Catechist Apostolate, 2011
106 pages, $21.95
To order: mariancatechist.com
By Franklin Freeman
For the Hebrews, the heart, according to the study guide of the St. Joseph Edition New Testament, was “the seat not only of emotions, but also of thoughts and voluntary acts. Thus, the heart represents the whole man.” Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, then, is a devotion of one’s own heart, or whole self, to the heart of Jesus, the whole Jesus.
This book, a liturgical-style prayer book, similar to a confirmation prayer book or family Bible, is for Catholics who want to devote their homes, schools or parishes to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The devotion was privately revealed to Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), though signs of this devotion, it has been said, were already apparent in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, archbishop emeritus of St. Louis and prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church), writes in his introduction that the practice of the enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the home was begun by Father Mateo Crawley-Boevey (1875-1961), a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (the same congregation as St. Damien de Veuster), known as the “Apostle of the Enthronement.”
“Father Crawley-Boevey’s work was first confirmed and blessed by Pope St. Pius X in 1907, and then by every pope since,” the cardinal writes. “When the Holy Father heard of the enthronement, he told Father Crawley-Boevey directly: ‘To save the family is to save society. The work you are undertaking is a work of social salvation. Consecrate your life to it.’”
This book guides the individual (Cardinal Burke points out that enthronement is also open to single folks), family, school or parish that wishes to enthrone the Sacred Heart. It explains what the enthronement is and how to prepare for it, and then lays out a triduum of prayers that lead up to the final ceremony of the enthronement itself.
The triduum consists of passages from Scripture that center around the Third and Fifth Joyful Mysteries and the First Glorious Mystery of the Rosary, a reflection, then a Litany of the Sacred Heart, and an indulgenced prayer to conclude.
The ceremony itself is a little longer and includes the “Blessing of the Image” and the Act of Enthronement itself. There is also a chapter on consecrating one’s heart to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, hymns that can be sung, and certificates of enthronement, similar to the pages in family Bibles on which family members’ names are written, that attendees can sign.
The book is well done and attractive, has a sewn binding, a red-leather-bound cover with gold-embossed lettering and a gold ribbon for marking one’s place. I sometimes wondered, as I read the introductions, prayers and reflections, from what sources they were drawn. There is a list of sources at the back of the book, but it would have been helpful if this had been done in a more specific way. One does not know which prayers and reflections come from which source.
Nevertheless, this book helps the faithful, if we choose to express our devotion in this way, to, in Cardinal Burke’s words, “place our hearts totally into the Sacred Heart of Jesus and … beg him to be the source of our healing and strength, the medicine and nourishment by which our poor and wounded hearts are made strong and whole.”
Franklin Freeman writes from Saco, Maine.
A Year With the Angels
Daily Meditations With the Messengers of God
By Mike Aquilina
Saint Benedict Press, 2011
366 pages, $39.95
To order: saintbenedictpress.com
By John Grondelski
Walking into any bookstore’s religion section just a few years ago, you would have found tons of books about angels. Even today, angels occupy considerable shelf space, especially in the New Age section. Michael Landon, Roma Downey and Della Reese all made careers out of playing angels. Alas, much of this is feel-good fluff.
On the other hand, a good number of American Catholic theologians gave up writing about angels, almost as if they didn’t exist. That view would be contrary to Catholic teaching (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 328).
Blessed John Paul II once observed that “today, as in times past, these spiritual beings are discussed with greater or lesser wisdom.” Happily, one place where they are discussed with greater wisdom is in Mike Aquilina’s latest book. Compared to some of the cotton candy on the angelic book market, this is meat and potatoes.
Aquilina has made a vocation and career out of, in many ways, single-handedly popularizing patristics. This book is a 365-day anthology of meditations about the angels (and devils), gleaned from the Fathers of the Church. It clearly follows on his 2010 book, A Year With the Church Fathers. Aquilina’s strategy seems to be to popularize the Fathers of the Church as a staple spiritual diet for Catholics by day-by-day reading.
In his new book, each day’s meditation is built around an excerpt about the angels from the fathers (usually about half a page), accompanied by a one-line question for meditation and a brief closing prayer. In the course of the year, readers meet well-known saints like Sts. Augustine, John of Damascus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Cyril of Alexandria and Leo the Great. They also meet lesser-known saints like Sts. Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory Thaumaturgus and Tatian. Each day’s meditation can easily be done in about five minutes.
Ever wanted to devote more time to spiritual reading? Mike Aquilina gives you a way — easily, regularly and systematically, with some of the greatest Christian theologians you can ask for. Consider this reflection from St. Hilary of Poitiers on why an awareness of the angels should deter us from sin:
“Everything is filled with the angels of God, even if it seems empty. There’s nowhere they don’t live, as they go around doing their service. People are often deterred from committing some sin they’ve been thinking of because they’re afraid someone might come back suddenly. … When some evil desire overcomes us, shouldn’t we tremble at the presence of all the choirs of angels surrounding us?”
Or this reflection from St. John Chrysostom on how we should aspire to be like the angels:
“So let us not misuse our nature and do ourselves harm that way. He has made us a little lower than the angels — lower, I mean, because of death, but even that little we have now recovered. So there is nothing to keep us from becoming near to the angels if we want. Let’s want it!”
The book itself is attractively bound, with sewn-in ribbon, designed to last a long time. Because the meditations are arranged from Days 1-365, you can start it at any time of the year. Lent seems especially appropriate.
John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.
The Father's Tale
By Michael D. O’Brien
Ignatius Press, 2011
1076 pages, $29.95
To order: ignatius.com
By Brian Caulfield
No one can accuse Michael O’Brien of taking on simple themes. His nine novels all have intricate plots woven through many pages. His latest work, The Father’s Tale, stands out as a masterful work that continues his preference for ultimate themes, addressing good and evil, heaven and hell, and the place of literature and imagination, as well as faith and hope, in the future of civilization.
O’Brien describes the book as a retelling of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd, which should tell us about the ambition of his novel — it seeks to bring the teaching stories of Jesus to bear on the modern cultural and religious situation.
These themes are played out in the life of one person — the faithful father of the title — who struggles with a series of personal crises as he steps unwittingly onto a world historical stage involving the relations between East and West, both in terms of Church history and global politics.
The father, Alexander Graham, a rural Canadian like the author, is wrested from his comfortable life as a simple bookseller in a quiet village to search for his 20-something son, who has fallen in with a cultish yet wealthy international religious sect that operates by secrecy and mind control. The search leads Graham across a bleak landscape of western capitals, where the people come off as wealthy, comfortable, distracted and wholly unaware or uninterested in the dissolution of their culture. Always a day or so behind the trail of his son, Graham then takes an interminable train ride into Russia to set foot on the far reaches of the frozen Siberian plain, where a series of mishaps befalls him and he encounters base evil in the hearts of men as well as the kindness of strangers. Convalescing after a near fatal attack, he loses all hope of finding his son, yet he perseveres in his search, only to meet further hardship.
Taking on the figure of another biblical image, the Suffering Servant, he is subjected to a series of excruciating tortures that leave him with nothing but his faith. Yet, through a mystical experience, he is changed for the better.
O’Brien, who writes icons when he is not writing novels, is a self-professed lover of Eastern Christian spirituality and Russian literature. These interests come out fully in this book and add some cultural flavor, yet also some curious twists. It seems strange that Graham, the introverted Canadian, just happens to be fluent in Russian. One also wonders why a cult led by rich internationalists would schedule a meeting in frozen Russia during winter. But perhaps there are subtleties of plot to explain these oddities that I missed in the course of the thousand pages.
Still, those many pages — so opposed to the instant bits and bytes of modern communication — are well worth the time.
In the end, we see that the Prodigal Son is not only Graham’s wayward son; there is a touch of the Prodigal in everyone. And each of us also is fit to follow the Good Shepherd, pursuing the true love that we find ultimately in God.
Brian Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.