God is For Us: a Lent Review

The season of Lent starts in a week. If you are hoping to find a good Lent devotional, one of the best on the market is God For Us (Paraclete: 2013).  I used it as my primary devotional a couple of years ago and referred to it throughout the Lenten season last year. The book has a poet or spiritual writer give a week’s worth of daily devotions. Contributers include: Scott Cairns, Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, Luci Shaw, James Schaap and Lauren Winner. Beth Bevis’s historical articles on the celebration of Lent and various feast days punctuate the text Ronald Rolheiser, OMI writes the introduction and all of this was assembled under Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe’s editorial eyes (both of Image Journal).

God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter (Paraclete 2016)

For this Lenten season, Paraclete has just released the readers God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter – Reader’s Edition. The book’s text is the same as the previous edition; however the earlier edition was sort of a coffee table book, with glossy pages full of art. The Reader’s Edition is a simple paperback with french flaps. While I absolutely loved the beauty of the previous edition, this is somewhat more practical and user friendly. I felt guilty about underlining and making notes in the original edition (I still did it) because it was such a pretty book. The Reader’s Edition doesn’t contain the art or the glossy pages and is more portable.

However, I did notice one small error unique to this edition. Page 35 of my copy, mistakenly attributes the entry to the late Richard John Neuhaus (I have a review copy, so I may be looking at a proof copy). My guess is that this a typographical error. Neuhaus contributed to the companion volume God With Us: Readings For Advent and Christmas which Paraclete also published a reader’s edition of, late last year. I checked that page of the devotional because I remembered that the lectionary readings for that day (First Sunday of Lent) didn’t correlate to the passages that Richard Rohr discussed in his devotion. They still don’t.

This doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the overall text. This devotional stands apart for its ecumenical spirit–bringing together an impressive list of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox (Cairns) spiritual writers. the devotions vary, but they are all quality.  If you are looking for a devotional that will deepen your experience and appreciation of the practice of Lent, this is perhaps the best one out there. Bevis’s contributions give this a historical rootedness often missing from devotional literature.  I give this edition 4.5 stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

P.S.–This devotional is also available from Paraclete with a companion CD of Easter themed Gregorian chant. I have not listened to the CD, but I have been impressed with Paraclete’s collection of sacred music and see how popping this CD in as you read the book will help mark sacred time.

The Prayer of Art: a book review

Art and Prayer. Both are human attempts at transcendence. So art has adorned houses of worship throughout human history. In Western history, the visual arts reflected the faith and practices of Christianity (and Judaism). My own theology teachers spoke of the Medieval Synthesis–the confluence of the Arts and sciences, philosophy and theology throughout much of Western History. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a great deal of fragmentation. Art today is not always representational. Sometimes it aims at deconstructing the world, worldviews, and belief itself. But historically art and prayer were joined. Art sometimes depicting prayer, calling us to prayer, or making visible the interior dimensions of our prayer. 

Monsignor Timothy Verdon is the director of the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy. He directs the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, the Cathedral Foundation Museum, and the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence. As a senior cleric in the Roman Catholic Church and a respected art historian, Verdon is well acquainted with both prayer and art. In Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God, Verdon describes how the arts make visible the nature of prayer. With reference to church fathers, theologians and artists he explores the theme of prayer in Western art. The pieces that Verdon discusses are displayed in full color on beautiful glossy pages.

Most of the art  that Verdon profiles is from the Medieval era (from the 6th to the 15th Century). There are a couple of pieces that are older (third century) and  one piece is from the modern era (Filippo Rossi’s Magnificat). But this is not a chronological exploration, it is a thematic one. Verdon explores how art helps us enter prayer in everyday life (chapter one),  our spaces of prayer (chapter two, which also explores sacred architecture), liturgical prayer (chapter three), prayer of pleading (chapter four), lectio divina (chapter five), contemplative prayer (chapter six) and prayer at the hour of our death (chapter seven)

Verdon weaves theology and art, using various paintings, frescoes, reliefs and altar pieces to illustrate the Catholic tradition’s wisdom on the nature of prayer. Neither art nor prayer are understood through ferocious consumption, but through thoughtful contemplation. This book requires a slow, meditative reading. I found myself flipping back and reading several sections again, I recommend this book for Artists and pray-ers alike. There is lots to digest here–I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The Holy Spirit in the Catholic Tradition: a book review.

As the publishing arm of the ecumenical Community of Jesus, Paraclete has published a number of books from a range of theological traditions. Their Holy Spirit series boasts books from the Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Pentecostal traditions. I have reviewed a number of these books here before and have found them immensely helpful. A few of these books are downright fabulous! Jack Levison’s Fresh Air and Amos Yong’s Who is the Holy Spirit? are standout volumes but every single volume is good.  Each book manages to illuminate the Spirit in a way that honors their peculiar denominational tradition. These are lay-friendly books, but they are theologically astute.

The Gift: Discovering the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Tradition lives up to the quality of other books in this series. Alan Schreck, professor  of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville is a specialist in Catholic doctrine, church history and the teachings of Vatican II; however this is not just a book about Catholic dogma. Schreck has an eye for how we can deepen our spiritual experience by praying for the Spirit to do his work in our lives.

In seven chapters, Schreck synthesizes the wisdom of the Catholic understanding of the the Spirit. In chapter one he describes  the person of the Holy Spirit as presented in Holy Scripture and in the Tradition.  He describes what the Old and New Testament say about the Spirit, what the Councils and Creeds came to declare about the personhood of the Spirit and the Augustinian understanding which was most influential in the Western Church. Chapter two examines the history of Catholic devotion to the Spirit. Schreck describes various orthodox movements which sought to emphasize the Spirit.

Chapters three though five describe the ministry of the Spirit. Chapter three focuses on truth, chapter four focuses on holiness and sanctification and chapter five expounds on gifts of the Holy Spirit.  While every Christian would agree that the Spirit leads us into all truth, convicts us of sin and leads us to be transformed in the image of Christ and gifts us for ministry and mission. Schreck illuminates a Catholic understanding of the Spirit’s role in each of these. The Spirit leads us into truth and empowers us to speak it boldly, but ecumenism that denies or downplays truth revealed to the church should be questioned.  Holiness is the goal of the Christian life, but in the Catholic understanding, this is described by our cooperation with God in the grace he has given us through the Spirit. The Spirit gives gifts to individuals and orders of the church, but Schreck demonstrates how we are to understand this in relationship to the institutional church.

In chapter six, Schreck describes the relationship between the Spirit, the church and Mary. Church was birthed at Pentecost and is constituted by the Spirit and his work. Mary is the first disciple and member of the church. In the Catholic tradition, Mary intercedes for us to the Father, but whatever grace is in her is derivative. She is the recipient of God’s grace and exemplary for her fiat to the incarnation (her ‘yes’ to God).  Like the Spirit, Mary points us to Jesus, the Divine Son of God. Mary is not to be understood as the Third person of the Trinity or someone who usurps the Spirit’s role, but as the prime example of someone who cooperates with God and reveals the maternal aspects of God’s character.

In the final chapter Schreck discusses the Spirit in the Catholic church today. He focuses on the Catholic charismatic movement and the emphasis of Vatican II on the Spirit’s work. Schreck gives a generous and a positive assessment of these while acknowledging that many Catholics will not feel called to join up with movements devoted to the Spirit’s work. Nevertheless all Catholics should appreciate how the Spirit enables, enlivens and empowers the Christian life.

An appendix collects several prayers and reflections on the Holy Spirit which can be incorporated into your daily prayer time.

I appreciate Schreck’s articulation of Catholic teaching. Throughout this book Schreck comments on the Catechism, Vatican II and Catholic theologians live Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) , Yves Conger, John Paul II, and Vatican II.  He gives a careful and reasoned defense of Catholic teaching on the Spirit and draws out the implications for our lives.

As a non-Catholic reading this book, there are areas where I disagree with Schreck rather sharply. However I appreciated Schreck’s description of Catholic teaching and practice.  In addition to having a good grasp on Catholic dogma, he seems to also be an apt apologist, anticipating many of the difficulties protestants like me face. I found Schreck generous and evenhanded in his presentation and do not hesitate to commend this book to you. Catholics will obviously benefit most directly from this book. As a non-Catholic I gained a greater appreciation for Catholic teaching and  the insights of the theologians that Schreck culls together. This is a great short book on the Spirit in Catholicism. I give it four-and-a-half stars.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.