Getting Ready to Burn (in a good way): a book review

Albert Haase, OFM’s Catching Fire,  Becoming Flame begins with this inscription of this story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him,”Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”–The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Catching Fire Becoming Flame: A Guide For Spiritual Transformation by Albert Haase, OFM

Like this Desert Saying, Haase’s new book is not primarily a book about rules or spiritual disciplines. This is a book about  spiritual transformation. At a retreat that Haase led at a retirement home, an elderly nun told him a secret, “God l-o-n-g-s  to turn you into a saint! If you respond to God’s yearning you will be amazed at what happens(3).”  This is a book which helps us respond to God’s yearning and allow him to set our hearts ablaze.

The book consists of thirty-three short chapters divided into five sections. The first two sections layout a conceptual framework while the final three sections deal with practical concerns.  In part one, “the Spark from God,” Haase introduces readers to the spiritual life and the process of transformation.  He talks here about the nature of spiritual awakening, the stages of the spiritual life (purgation, illumination, and union) and how to deal with imperfections, sins and bad habits. He also talks about the necessity of CPR–Community, Prayer, and Repentance– if we are to grow and change in our relationship with God.  In”Kindling,”  Haase’s second section, he explores  in depth various spiritual concepts. Haase exhorts his readers to be secure in the love of God, to be attentive to prayer, have an attitude of Gratitude, cultivate Spiritual senses to see where God is at work, be aware of our ‘false self’ and the way suffering functions in the Spiritual life.

In the third section, “Catching Fire” Haase presents various prayer methods: the examen, meditation and contemplation, lectio divina, Imaginative prayer (Ignatian meditation), wonder-ing with creation, praying the stations of the Cross, and praying the Lord’s prayer.  Haase is able to draw together the insights of various writers on prayer and the Spiritual life and summarize their insights.

The fourth section, “Fanning the Flame,”  describes Spiritual Discernment.  As in the other sections, Haase articulates insights from a number of writers on the Spiritual life, but he uses his own story of listening to God’s call to missions in China as an example of how discernment works (Haase was a missionary to China for twelve years before being forced to leave).  He talks here about the nature of discernment, decision making and the experience of dryness, darkness and depression even when you feel like you are answering God’s call on your life. Haase recommends ongoing Spiritual direction, appropriate self-care and creating a personal rule of life to help us counteract the confusion that comes as we try to walk in the ways of God.

In his final section, “Becoming All Flame,”  Haase speaks about dynamic commitments necessary for living out the Spiritual life. Some of these are ongoing practices (i.e. the Examination of the Conscience, Sabbath Rest, Silence and Solitude, Pilgrimage, etc.). Other commitments are ongoing orientations (i.e. surrender and abandonment, forgiveness, Revealing everything to God).

Haase writes as a Franciscan preacher, retreat-leader and spiritual director. His writing inhabits Franciscan spirituality but he also draws on the insights of Benedictines and Jesuits and occasionally, Evangelical protestants.  The insights and practices Haase commends are instructive for any who seek to deepen their faith and be transformed into the image of Christ.  What I especially liked about this book was how down-to-earth it was.

While I certainly found things I disagree with in these pages (i.e.  I’m suspicious of some aspects of centering prayer), I admire the depth and insights of Haase’s writing and happily recommend this book. I give it ★★★★★ and think that Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate this book. Why not become all flame?

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

[Note: Paraclete Press also has a DVD Curriculum available based on this book]

Brother Duck’s Tell All Tale: a book review

Francis of Assisi is the world’s most popular saint.  His life, his joy and his connection to creation has inspired millions of people. His commitment to the poor and the least of these offers a radical challenge to our materialist age. There are many biographies, collections of stories and children’s books which pay homage to the great saint, but none quite like this.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck: a Graphic Novel by Jay Stoeckl

Cartoonist Jay Stoeckl was an aspiring cartoonist. After traveling to Assisi he became a secular Franciscan.  Saint Francis and Brother Duck is his graphic retelling of the life of Francis. In these pages we meet the young Francis who dreams of being a  glorious knight. His father sends him off to battle arrayed in fine clothes and armor.  But before he sees much battle he rescues a duck from some cruel boys.  He hears a voice telling him that he misinterpreted his ‘dream.’ In Stoeckl’s retelling, the duck he saved returns home with Francis and remains his companion for the nearly twenty years. The duck narrates this story and in the end this is as much his story as it is Francis’s.

Stoeckl revisits most of the famous Francis stories: the rebuilding the church of San Damiano, his trial before the bishop where he gave  the clothes off his back, back to his father, the first followers in Gubbio, Francis preaching to the birds (including a duck),  Clare joining the order, Francis’s overcoming brother wolf, Francis preaching to the sultan,  and his receiving the stigmata and more.

Brother Duck is a simple and earnest character. He is a faithful friend to Francis and goes with him everywhere but doesn’t always understand Francis. Sometimes he asks probing questions which allow Francis to share his grand theological vision. Other times Brother Duck provides comic relief by being  just as slow to understand Francis as the rest of us. In the end the Brother Duck is a faithful interpreter of Francis’s message and legacy.

The back cover says that this graphic novel was ‘designed to inspire ages 8 & up.’ My children are a bit younger than that, and a lot of this book is beyond them; however I found it a fun and imaginative read, full of good humor.  My favorite piece of dialogue between Saint Francis and Brother Duck is the following:

Francis (F): Brother Duck?  What if all living things were brother or sister to me?

Brother Duck (BD): That would make one really big family!

F: Yeah! and Earth would be our mother.

BD (after a pause)What about alligators?  If alligators eat ducks and a duck is your friend would you say, “Brother Alligator, you just ate my best friend brother duck”?

F: I suppose I would simply say, “Brother Alligator, I am so sad you ate my best friend Brother Duck.”

BD (another pause): What about mosquitoes? What if big, hairy creepy Brother Spider catches obnoxious blood-sucking Sister Mosquito–who had just bitten Brother Rattlesnake as he is slowly digesting slimy, disease-bearing- Sister Rat?

F: And the Lord God made them all!

BD: Hmmm.

I would recommend this book to any lover of St. Francis. The childlike-faith of Francis is showcased in this format. Young readers and old readers will appreciate what they find in these pages. I give the book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. Click here to read an excerpt from this book.