Reading as Prayer through Lent & Easter: a book (p)review

We are nearing the beginning of Lent. I love this season! I find the preparatory seasons of the church calendar (Lent and Advent) great times to press into devotional practices which are difficult for me the rest of the time. Wednesday, I will find a church service to attend so I can get the Face-palm of Death (AKA the Imposition of Ashes). I will fast. I will engage spiritual disciplines. This season is sacred time and I enter in eager to see what God will do in me. 

between-midnight-and-dawnOne of my conversation partners this Lent will be Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide for  Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide (Paraclete Press, 2016),  compiled by Sarah Arthur). This is one of three devotionals Arthur has edited following the church calendar (also: At the Still Point: a Literary Guide for Prayer in Ordinary Time, and Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer For Advent, Christmas and Epiphany). At the Still Point was the only one of these devotionals I have read any of before, though my Ordinary Time resolve is nowhere near as resolute as my Lenten devotion.

Between Midnight and Dawn pairs suggested weekly Scripture readings with prayers, poetry and fiction readings. There are seven readings for each week of Lent—six poems and one piece of fiction. During Holy Week and Triduum, there are scriptures and 5-7 literary selections for each day, before returning to the weekly format of Scriptures, poetry, and fiction for each week of Eastertide.

The poems and fiction are selected to lead us deeper into the land of Prayer. Arthur suggests reading this literature, applying aspects of lectio divina—lectio (reading), meditatio (reading it again, several more times, slowly), oratio (paying attention to words and phrases) and contemplatio (shifting our focus to God’s presence, p.13). Certainly, this takes a little bit of time. The story sections are longer (because ‘fiction doesn’t work its magic right away’), so Arthur suggests saving the story for a day of the week when we have time to just focus on the story.

Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing. 2002) is a similar sort of devotional, using literature as a way into this liturgical season. Arthur’s selection is different in that she is more focused on reading literature as an act of prayer, and the scriptural readings (absent from Bread and Wine) give focus to daily practice.

As of yet, I haven’t really read the book, only scanned the selections, the poems and stories selected.  Arthur has chosen both contemporary and eminent voices from the past.  Poets like Hopkins, Donne, Rosetti, Herbert, Tennyson but also those like Luci Shaw, Katherine James, Scott Cairns, John Fry, Tania Runyan). There are stories from Buechner, Chesterton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, George Macdonald. There are some favorite poets and poems I am surprised to not see here, but I am interested to read the ones which Arthur has chosen. I am excited to journey with poets and storytellers on my Lenten journey

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press for the purposes of review.

If you would like to get a copy for yourself for Lent you can purchase it from

Paraclete Press

Amazon (also available on Kindle)

Barnes & Noble

or wherever fine books are sold.

 

Nurturing the Faith to Sustain: a ★★★★★ book review

Sophfronia Scott came to Christian faith as a child, having read a religious tract and praying the prayer at the end. Her family wasn’t regular churchgoers, though her father listened to eight-track tapes of Reverend C. L. Franklin and movies like The Ten Commandments, King of Kings and the Greatest Story Ever Told.  When she was in college, at Harvard University, she reacted to a Christian friend’s harsh judgmentalism towards athiests and this increased her wariness of church. She  had thought about getting baptized, even spoke to Rev. Peter Gomes about it, but Gomes’s requirement for baptism was being committed to a Christian community, and she wasn’t about to join a church.

 

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she came to church and a more significant faith as an adult. Her young son, Tain Gregory,  heard Where is Your Hairbrush? on satellite radio in the car. This led to the discovery of other Veggie Tale Silly Songs and the Veggie Tale cartoon. As Tain learned about the Bible from vegetables, he began to show an interest in faith, God and spiritual things. One day he

 

said he wanted to go to church. So Sophfronia, her husband Darryl and Tain decided to start attending church together. They settled on Trinity Episcopal Church, the church that Tain’s preschool had been in.

I knew before reading This Child of Faith, that Sophfronia had a son who was a third grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School when a gunman entered the school. The events of that day entered the national consciousness. It was the fourth largest, single shooter massacre in U.S. history.  I figured, given the significance and severity of that event, this would be a difficult read, knowing that any Sandy Hook story would be intense.

And it was. Tain lost a close friend (a godbrother) and other people he cared about. Sophfronia struggled with the best way to help Tain process the trauma. But despite the way that day impacted their family and community, this memoir is not really the story of the Sandy Hook shooting. Rather, this is a story of a mother and son, each growing in their Christian faith and the resource their faith was to them.

Sophfronia tells us of Tain’s faith and childlike wonder, the way he saw God everywhere, his gregarious and generous spirit, and the things this called up in her. She also describes what she did to help nurture Tain in the faith, her lesson planning for children’s worship (which she was conscripted to occasionally lead), and the day she and Tain were baptized together. She talks about how their pastor walked with them through difficult stuff, such as the death of a friend’s husband and Sophfronia’s sister.  The school shooting happens near the end of the book. It is Sophfronia and Tain’s faith journey that would give each the resources to process that painful event. Their family worshipped together at Trinity church, they were fed by sacraments, oriented by liturgy and the liturgical calendar, and bolstered by devotional practice and prayer, surrounded by the community of faith.

Sophfronia lists Tain as her co-author. She wrote the book but includes occasional memories and reflections from Tain. With an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College, this is a well-written memoir. And despite its graphic and heart-rending conclusion, this signals hope. Their faith carries them through trauma and loss.  I highly recommend this. Five stars! – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

He Descended into Hell: a book review

Suicide is a hard thing for us to talk about. Someone has died, the circumstance seems unnatural and we don’t know what to say. We feel the stigma and the sting. Personally, I haven’t been really close with anyone who died by suicide but I’ve seen from a distance, the way a suicide can wreck those left behind. I’ve seen people shoulder the grief, shame and anger of suicide after they lost a child, a friend, a pastor. It is hard to sit with them in their pain. Harder still to know what to say. Our pronounced platitudes, which really bring no comfort to grieving people anyway, come off as cruel and tone-deaf after someone has taken their own life.

bruised-and-woundedRonald Rolheiser has written a helpful little booklet, Bruised & Wounded: Struggling to Understand a SuicideRolheiser is a priest, renowned speaker and author of books on Christian spirituality. Here, he approaches the topic of suicide with grace and pastoral sensitivity. I generally would not advocate throwing a book at hurting people, but this is one that I think would be appropriate, welcome and helpful for those in the wake of losing someone they love to suicide.

There several features of this book which commend it. First, it is brief. It is a small book that fits in the palm of your hand and it is just 77 pages long (including table of contents and front matter). People grieving a suicide do not need a complicated theological treatise and this is not that. Second, Rolheiser is careful throughout this book to avoid victim blaming.  Often people react with anger and judgment on the suicidal for their selfishness in taking their own life. But Rolheiser observes:

Just as with physical cancer, the person dying of suicide is taken out of this life against his or her will. Death by suicide is the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack. Thus, its patterns are the same as those of cancer, strokes, and  heart attacks. Death can happen suddenly, or it can be the end product of a long struggle that slowly wears a person down. Either way it is involuntary. As human beings, we are neither pure angels nor pure animals, but we are always both body and soul, one psychosomatic whole. And either part can break down (10-11).

Later, he writes:

Many of us have known victims of suicide, and we know too, that in almost every case that person was not full of pride, haughtiness and the desire to hurt anyone. Generally, it’s the opposite. The victim has cancerous problems precisely because he or she is wounded, raw, and too bruised to have the resiliency needed to deal with life. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide know that  the problem is not one of strength but of weakness—the person is too bruised to be touched (20).

and again:

Suicide in most cases, is a disease, not something freely willed. The person dies in this way dies against his or her will, akin to those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers after terrorist planes had set those buildings on fire on September 11, 2001. They were jumping to certain death,  but only because they were already burned to death where they were standing (28-29).

By framing suicide as emotional cancer destroying the person instead of as a self-centered volitional act to ends one’s life, Rolheiser doesn’t minimize the tragedy of suicide, but he does give the victim back to us. Their struggle can be honored and life celebrated.

Third, he doesn’t describe suicide, per se,  as ‘sin.’ So where the Catechism of the Catholic Church  says “‘suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life’ and is thus ‘gravely contrary to the just love of self'” (38), Rolheiser draws a distinction between the ordinary suicide —where a sensitive soul is “overpowered by the chaos of life”and the killing of oneself. by the “pathological narcissist acting in strength” to freely end their life (39). It is  the latter, that Rolheiser sees as condemned by the Church, though he notes that the victims of suicide he has known have been ‘the very antithesis of the egoist, the narcissist, or the strong, overproud person who congenitally refuses to take his or her place in the humble, broken structure of things” (39-40).

Fourth, Rolheiser emphasizes throughout the grace of God and the way Jesus comes to meet us in our alienation and brokenness. Reflecting on the line of the creed, He descended into hell, Rolheiser writes:

To say that Christ descended into hell is to, first and foremost say something about God’s love for us and how that love will go to any length, descend to any depth, and go through any barrier in order to embrace a wounded, huddled, frightened and bruised soul. By dying as he did, Jesus showed that he loves us in such a way that his love can penetrate even our private hells, going right through the barriers of hurt, anger, fear and hopelessness (14).

Rolheiser also gives the example of Jesus in John’s gospel, penetrating walls and locked doors to meet the grieving disciples (15). Speaking of one victim of suicide, Rolheiser writes:

I am sure that when the young woman . . .awoke on the other side, Jesus stood inside of her huddled fear and spoke to her, softly and gently, those same words he spoke to his disciples on that first Easter day when he went through the locked doors which they were huddled and said: “Peace be with you! Again, I say it, Peace be with you!” (16).

The book concludes with reflections on God’s prodigal, forgiving nature, his power to raise the dead, his understanding and trustworthiness (76-77).

Finally, this book is endorsed by Kay Warren and Marjorie Antus, both of whom lost a child to suicide and find comfort in Rolheiser’s prose. Rolheiser never diminishes the difficulty, anger, and grief of those left behind, but he does offer words of consolation and hope.

I’ve read other books on suicide and pastoral care for the suicidal (notably Albert Hsu’s Grieving a Suicide and Karen Mason’s Preventing a Suicide, both from IVP). This is the book I would recommend for those picking up the pieces at ground zero in the aftermath of a suicide. This is hopeful and gracious. I give this five stars –

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete in exchange for my honest review.

 

Mary and the Cathedral: a ★★★★★ book review

As a Protestant, I don’t spend too much time thinking about Mary. When I do, it is often in the Advent, Christmas season, reading of Mary’s Annunciation, her Magnificat, the Holy Family at the manger, and the things she treasured in her heart. Certainly, I  knew she was special (there is something about Mary), but Marian devotion, despite its prevalence in the historic and global church, has always been conceptually opaque to me.

Visions of MaryThis was Rev. Jill Geoffrion’s experience too when as a lifelong Protestant, she endeavored to locate and photograph each of the Chartres Cathedral’s 175 images of Mary (Preface, xix). As a professional photographer, a Chartres guide, workshop and retreat leader, and author of seven books on the Labyrinth (inspired by her work with the Chartres Labyrinth), she is well acquainted with the sacred space that is Chartres. Catholic colleagues at the Cathedral answered her questions about the theology of Mary in Catholic church history.

Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral  showcases the fruit of Geoffrion’s discovery. Her photographs of Mary at Chartres include images of Mary in stainglass, on guilded silk, sculpted relief and sculpture.

Geoffrion’s photos are cataloged and organized in five chapters. In Chapter 1, Geoffrion shares images that reflect a biblical theology of Mary, images which depict her role as Mother of Jesus (e.g. at his nativity and her influence on him at the wedding of Cana). Chapter 2 depicts images of Mary that reflect her role as Theotokos—the Mother of God. Chapter 3 explores Mary as the Mother of the Church, depicting scenes of Mary at Christ’s passion, the empty tomb, and her intercession for the church. Chapter 4 explores how Mary is the Mother of us all, showcasing images of Marian devotion. Finally, Chapter 5 explores the ongoing significance of Mary in the Twenty-Fist Century (depicting some of the newest Marian pieces).

Each of Geoffrion’s beautiful photographs is accompanied by a page-long-explanation of the work depicted, and what it reveals about Mary’s historic and theological significance in the Catholic tradition.  Visions of Mary is published by Mount Tabor Books, an imprint of Paraclete Press focusing on ecumenical scholarship on the arts and literature, liturgical worship and spirituality.

Geoffrion’s photographs, as well as the art of Chartres itself, are quite stunning. I came away from this photo tour with a greater appreciation for the depth of devotion and reflection on Mary captured in its art. Geoffrion’s Protestant background allows her to approach Marian art and devotion with a gentle hand, describing it without being heavy-handed on application. This is perfect for an ecumenical book on Mary. And it is beautiful. I give this five stars and recommend it if you have been to or plan to travel to Chartres Cathedral. It will certainly enhance your appreciation for all you will discover there! – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

The 8lb 6oz Baby Jesus: a kids’ book review

I am a father of four and I appreciate a good Christmas picture book, something that explains the meaning of Christ’s coming, in ways which are accessible and vivid for my children. And of course, cultural sensitivity is important too. There are too many Jesus books where Jesus, Mary and Joseph appear in Northern European guise, instead of as olive-skinned Mediterarian Jews. That Baby in the Manger by Anne Neuberger discusses how one Catholic parish wrestled with how Jesus appeared in their annual Christmas crèche and how they expressed the message that Christ came for one and all.
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Anne Neuberger, the author, is a religious educator and children’s author who has produced teaching resources on Catholic customs and kids’ books on saints, notably Saint Francis & His Feathered Friends (Tau Publishing, 2013), and Saint  Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks  (Novalis, 2013). That Baby in the Manger is illustrated by Chloe Pitkoff, a Brooklyn artist and student at Davidson College.

The story begins with first graders from the parish school visiting the church during Advent to look at the Christmas crèche. Mr. Gonzalez sits in the pew, watching and listening as the students discuss how Jesus is missing, not yet placed in the crèche, and the ways the Jesus used in the church crèche has blond curls and blue eyes. Father Prak explains to the children that the real Jesus probably had dark hair and eyes and that their statues are just there to help them reimagine Jesus in the stable.

Mr. Gonzalez remembers a similar discussion with his daughter when she was a little girl. He goes home after the children leave, and digs out his daughter’s old doll, swaddles it and returns to the church and lays it in the manger, offering it as a more accurate proxy for baby Jesus. On Christmas Day the church is full. The first-grader each came to Mass lovingly carrying their own dolls, with a wild diversity of shapes and sizes. They sang Away in a Manger and each placed their doll near the manger.

The story shows how Jesus came to us all. Neuberger’s words are illustrated by Pitkoff’s drawings—watercolor and colored-pencil sketches—in vibrant color.  I enjoyed this book a lot, as did my kids (though, it didn’t hold the attention of my two-year-old). This is a perfect addition to our Advent & Christmas library. Four stars -★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

Preparing for Advent with Paraclete Press: Part 2

Advent starts this coming Sunday, December 3, though less liturgically minded congregations (such as the one I worship at) may have started their countdown already (this year, the Fourth Sunday of Advent coincides with Christmas Eve). And as always, the supermarket Advent Calendars with waxy, cheap chocolate countdown the days to Christmas, beginning on December 1.

So maybe, just maybe you are still on the hunt for an Advent devotional to ground you in the midst of the hurly burly of holiday cheer. I mentioned in my “Part 1” post that Paraclete Press has some great Advent devotionals for the season. These include titles like  God with Us (edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe), Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Compiled by Sarah Arthur) and Sybil Macbeth’s The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist

Here are three other titles worth considering:

Time to Get Ready

time-to-get-ready-an-advent-christmas-reader-to-wake-your-soul-6Along with God with Usthis devotional by Mark Villano I’ve used in the last couple of Advent seasons (here is my post from two years ago). Villano is a Catholic, campus minister, with an MFA in Cinematic Arts from USC and an M.Div from Catholic University of America. As such, Villano blends scriptural insight with personal reflections, peppered with pop-cultural references. Villano illustrates the biblical story, connecting Advent and Christmas to life.

His entry for the first day of Advent closes with this exhortation and invitation:

Do we ever feel like we’re sleepwalking through life? That we’re just going though the motions? Is this just another day at work, at school, at church? Just another Christmas? Are we so caught up in the routines and the preparations of these dates on the calendar that we miss what’s most important about this time in our lives? How does our soul try to warn us? Do we see the possibilities that exist now, the new beginnings that can only happen now?

Advent comes and says “wake up” to these new possibilities. Listen to those cries of the soul. Be open to God’s saving mercy breaking through . Be open to what it is calling you to do (6-7)

In the rest of the devotional, Villano shows us how to be open to God’s movement, to receive the season as kairos (God’s time), to attend to the story of Jesus’ advent and reimagine its implications for our life today.

This devotional is meaty without being too heady. Young and old will appreciate it.

My Soul Waits

my-soul-waitsThis is a new devotional, but the author isn’t new to me. This will be the third book I’ve read from Fr. Martin Shannon, including a similar devotional he produced on the Psalms for the Lenten/Easter season (reviewed here).  Fr. Shannon is an episcopal priest, liturgist and a member of the Community of Jesus (the ecumenical, Benedictine community that operates Paraclete Press).

Steeped in Benedictine spirituality, Fr. Shannon lives and prays the psalms in community. The 41 psalms (which take us from Advent to Epiphany) include psalms of praise, psalms of lament, penitential psalms, psalms of thanksgiving, orientation, disorientation, reorientation.  Shannon writes:

Except for a few places (such as the first day of Advent and Christmas Day), the forty-one psalms in this collection are not presented in any particular order. This is because neither your life nor my life goes in any particular order either. The ascending and descending notes of life are sounded mostly without warning and part of my learning to get ready and to make room is to go with the ups and downs as they come, to find in each one a new chord for the “new song.” The Psalms are tried and true instruments upon which the songs of my life can be played out while in Advent and every other time, my soul waits (viii).

Shannon’s daily reflections on the Psalms, describe the world of the psalmists, the theology of the psalms and their significance for us, with an eye especially for this season. Each entry also ends with a word “from the Fathers” (notable saints from the early centuries of the church).  Shannon also includes short profiles of the Church Fathers quoted in this book (125-131).

The Psalms are the prayerbook of the church, and Fr. Shannon is a good guide to take us through this season!

Your Light Gives Us Hope: 24 Daily Practices for Advent

your-light-gives-us-hopeGerman Benedictine Monk Anselm Grün, of Cellarer of Münsterschwarzach Abbey is a teacher and spiritual director. His 2015 devotional, Dein Licht schekt uns Hoffnung, is presented here in translation. The daily entries take us from December 1 to 24 (like the chalky chocolate calendars) and emphasize practice. Grün includes introductions for each week of Advent, and reflections on Saints days, and brief reflections on the lectionary text; however half (or more) of each entry describes a ‘practice’ designed to help us press into the rebirth, renewal and the arrival of God in our midst.

These practices are mostly moments of personal reflection, lighting a candle, mindfulness meditation, long walks and prayer. Grün gives us an outline of practices and topics to reflect on for each day of the season.

Grün is a new author to me, but evidently a well known spiritual writer in his native Germany. I am excited to dig into this one and allow these practice to form me while I wait.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of these books from Paraclete Press in exchange for my review (or preview in this case).

Glory Everyday: a book review

I am not sure how I came to follow Kaitlin Curtice on Twitter, but I did and my Twitter feed has been better for it. She is a speaker & worship leader and writer who has been featured in Sojourners. If you have followed her blog through the month of November, she has been blogging daily, her reflections on Native American Awareness Month her experience as a Potawatomi woman. Her blog, articles, and social media presence challenge white, eurocentric Christianity and remind us of the diversity of the Kingdom of God and Christ’s heartbeat for justice.

glory-happeningHer new book, Glory HappeningFinding the Divine in Everyday Places (Paraclete Press: 2017) explores  God’s glory in everyday life in ordinary life. Like Kathleen Norris’s Quotidian Mysteries, Curtice interrogates her daily life for glimpses of the divine. She explores the dimensions of  her life as a Native American Christian, a woman, a wife and mother of two, to see what it reveals of God’s glory. Each chapter of this book is a snapshot of her life, combined with a short, poetic prayer addressed to God or Jesus.

Curtice observes that in the Bible and Christian tradition, God’s glory is made manifest in various ways (introduction, xiii). The ways God’s glory are manifest provide the structure for the book, the 50 entries are arranged in seven sections: creation, light, weight, voice, fire, honor, worship, and kingdom.  There are 6 or 7 entries for each section (with the exception of fire, which only has 4). The brief entries and accompanying prayer make this a perfect daily devotional to awake our sense of God.

The chapters run the gambit of Curtice’s life experience. She describes her marriage and family life, pregnancy, the wonder in eyes of her two sons,  reflections on her native identity, remembrances of conversations and encounters with other people and cultures, and the wisdom of authors and teachers.

Pervading all this is a sense of celebration and gratitude for life, which I find really refreshing. Especially since Curtice is something of an activist with eyes-wide-open to the injustices of the dominant culture in the United States (e.g. against Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, etc). It is easy for activist types to come across as cynical and jaded but I got none of that from this book. This isn’t to say she is overly rosy about our current cultural moment. Just that she trusts that God’s glory is made manifest and holds out a strong hope for the Kingdom coming.

The prayer that closes the book captures this sense of  trust, hope and gratitude:

Mystery of everything that we understand

and most certainly everything that we don’t,

teach us to rest in this unknowing.

Teach us to rest in each other,

to rest in the presence of a stranger,

in the kindness that is always unexpected,

that surprises us, that gives us a taste of you,

as much as we can bare[sic] to understand.

You are Creation,

you are Light,

you are Weight,

you are Voice.

You hold Fire,

you give Honor,

you gift Worship,

and you are Kingdom,

yesterday,

today,

tomorrow.

Hallelujah

for all the glory.

Amen.

If you are like me, it is too easy to get bogged down by the pressures of daily life and a soul-numbing news cycle filled with the misdeeds of powerful men, convenient deceptions, and partisan politicking. Curtice pulls back the curtain a little to reveal the ways God’s glory and kingdom are breaking into our present.  It also doesn’t hurt that Curtice is a great writer too!  I give this book 4 stars  – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.