A Religion Teacher’s Take on What to Read for Lent

4 Seasonal Books

What will you read over these 40 days?
What will you read over these 40 days? (photo: Melissa Hartog illustration from Shutterstock)

This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The entire country was buying flowers and chocolates for their significant others — but as St. Valentine attested with his life, love of Christ is the heart of the day. The foundation of the season of Lent begins with the recognition that all of the “things we do” during this time of prayer and fasting are meant to be at the service of our love for Jesus Christ. Lent is meant to breed intimacy with the Lord.

The more you get to know someone, the more you learn to love them. This is common knowledge in our human relationships, but it also applies to our faith. Learning more about God will grow our relationship with him because it allows us a deeper contact with who God is. 

This Lent, there are several books that can aid us in this endeavor. 

I often speak of the following works to my high-school students and I often extract quotes from them to spark conversations in class. In many ways, I believe they serve as a foundation and compass for our faith development. There is no better time than Lent to reignite the fire of our love for Christ, and these great books can serve as the springboard. 

In light of St. Valentine and a deeper intimacy with the Lord, pick up Jesus the Bridegroom: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told by Brant Pitre. Our Catholic faith is a love story. It is the true story of the in-breaking of God into our lives. Christianity is meant to win our lives because it ought to captivate our hearts. 

Pitre’s work pinpoints the biblical examples that showcase the spousal nature of God’s relationship with humanity. From the covenant on Sinai to the prophets and from the Song of Songs to the Woman at the Well and the Wedding at Cana, the Bible is a story about God’s desire for complete union with each and every one of his children. 

Pitre notes that God “is a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage” (p. 8). 

The pinnacle of these signs comes with the passion of Jesus. All first-century Jews would have known that a bridegroom is crowned like a king (crown of thorns) and that he wears a tunic (like the seamless garment of Jesus). The piercing of Jesus’ side also evokes the creation of the first bride from the side of Adam (Genesis 2:21).

The large quantity of biblical motifs that are deeply tied with the understanding of the bridegroom and his bride are amazing. The profound nature of Jesus the Bridegroom is most about the reckless love of our God, who stops at nothing to convince us of his love. Through all of the sins of his people, God remains steadfast, and he continues to guide and be present to his people. The focus on faith as a love story is paramount to Pitre’s thesis, and it is the reason for our Lenten journey and our entire faith. 

Conversion: Spiritual Insights Into an Essential Encounter With God by Father Donald Haggerty is another book that continues to inspire my students. Father Haggerty writes that “conversion is the spark that allows a soul to catch fire with God. It strikes the flint and begins the early burning of a passion for God. It is the first leap of flame that can quickly become a fire lasting a lifetime.”

Lent is not about doing more things or simply refraining from sweets. Lent is about deeper conversion. The total adaptation of our minds and hearts to the mind and heart of Christ is not the climax of our journey of faith, it is the prerequisite. Discipleship means that we have handed our entire lives over to the Lord. Conversion is beautiful and captivating because of Father Haggerty’s ability to highlight the simple and radical nature of the faith.

Jesus changed people’s lives. The way that he looked at people was unlike anything that these individuals had ever experienced before in their lives. This was how he operated 2,000 years ago, but Jesus continues to look at us in the same way today. 

Habits for Holiness: Small Steps for Making Big Spiritual Progress by Father Mark-Mary Ames, of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, enables the reader to grapple with practical advice that can engage the heart to become more intentional about a relationship with God. A driving goal of the book is to take the model of St. Francis and the rule of life of the friars and present them in a manner that allows all Catholics, no matter their vocation or stage in life, to use them as tools of faith in our lives as disciples. 

Life is often a constant race to get to the next thing, buy the next thing and get through the current day. The brilliance of this work is its ability to highlight ways we can come to see the profound embrace of God in every moment. A simple way to do so is to put into daily practice something called the “3 x 5 Examen.” 

This is a five-minute prayer that “reorients and reroutes us to reality.” The idea is to silently recall five things you are grateful for, five ways that you are in need of God’s mercy, and five areas in your life that you desire to ask God for help with. This is an easy and fast way to add a new type of prayer to a Lenten routine. The inward reflection brings about a true recognition of our dependence on God and shows us just how close God is to us. It is an intrinsically Franciscan and Christian practice. 

Finally, Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire by Father Joseph Langford was a huge part of my growing in intimacy with Christ, and it is something that I talk to my students about each year. The witness of her life, the challenges she faced and her deep-rooted commitment to knowing Jesus as a real person will forever remain etched into my heart. 

The book recalls Mother Teresa’s “call” story and Jesus’ words “I thirst” that she received in a vision on a train ride. While this is an extraordinary encounter with Christ, it reveals the fact that God works through our ordinary tasks (one’s commute to work, for example).

 These words — “I thirst” — that are uttered by Jesus in his last moments in John’s Gospel illuminated Mother Teresa’s life. It is the perfect description of what it means to accept the invitation by God to be in union with him. Mother Teresa takes up this key understanding in a letter she wrote to her entire community in 1993, which Father Langford explains. It has become known as the “Varanasi Letter.” Once I was introduced to this book and letter on retreat one year, I began to recite portions of the letter every morning. 

Primarily, I reflect on the following lines from Mother Teresa to her community:

“I worry that some of you still have not really met Jesus. One to one. You and him alone. Jesus wants me to tell you again how much is the love He has for each one of you — beyond all that you can imagine. … We may spend time in chapel — but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how He looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus — not from books, but from being with Him in your heart?”

This letter personifies the reason for Lent and the reason why we read any book on the spiritual life: to connect with Jesus and experience his love deeply. 

Thomas Griffin is the chair of the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Conversion and Habits for Holiness are available at EWTNRC.com and (800) 854-6316.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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