Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Lenten Reading: The Big List of Fiction

This is a huge list to be sure. But it has some of the most thought provoking books I know which can both entertain and inspire. It ranges from science fiction to mystery to Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've run the list before but have updated it.

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell

Rembrandt, his father, and uncle are trying to undo a deal with the devil made by their loved ones. As they seek a champion, they must cope with a tricky requirement that they not stay in any place longer than 12 days.

Considerations of faith are handled both honestly and delicately in this book. The insights and observations throughout the book underlie the main story in a way that lends itself to considerations of gratitude, mercy, selfishness, sacrifice, and much more — all without being heavy handed.

My full review is here. It is is marketed to teens but I'm not the first reviewer to mention that label is too limiting because it is also a great read for adults.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.
I've been jaded by the plethora of recent apocalyptic novels but this one is different. Perhaps the highest tribute I can give this novel is that when I finished I didn't want to read another book. To do so would sully what I'd just read before I'd finished thinking about it, as well as be unfair to anything that followed because it wouldn't be able to compare.

My full review is here. We also discussed this book in Episode 110 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. And also on SFFaudio where a lot of interesting fruitful topics came up.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Or, since Lent is only 40 days, at least the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. I was was blown away by how much the audio experience added to my understanding of the richness and depth of the story. Admittedly, it was also greatly helped by The Tolkien Professor's class sessions on this book. You will be hard put to find a better primer on sacrifice, redemption, and many other key lessons for Christian life. I think this may be the best book ever written. And you could do worse than to read The Hobbit for starters.

Joseph R's review is the best I've read if you'd like a more complete look at the novel.

Scott and I were joined by Seth Wilson in a two-part discussion of this novel at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast: part 1, part 2.

Christy by Catherine Marshall
I read this several times when I was in high school and college but hadn't encountered it for decades. It came to mind again when talking with my mother about books set in hardscrabble backgrounds.

I remembered it being really interesting about people in the Smoky Mountains in 1912 cut off from any outside civilization except for a few people who came in to try to help their poverty stricken situation. Including the 19-year-old young woman, Christy, who comes to teach the children. She is naive and from a well-to-do background so she's completely unprepared for what she finds.

I didn't recall it being so inspirational throughout. I wound up loving it so much that I could hardly bear to put it down.

Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
The "Others" live among us, an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. Night Watch is three stories, each is told by former file clerk Anton, a Light Other who is now getting field experience in keeping the treaty between the Light and the Dark.

The way the three stories all look at Light and Dark, treaties and compromises, and even what it means to be unyielding on one side or the other ... is all not only a good story but food for thought about our own lives. My full review is here. A Good Story discussion is at episode 57.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
A bedraggled, galley ship survivor, despite his best efforts to the contrary, finds himself in the middle of royal intrigue. If that weren't enough, he is also pulled into the the affairs of the divine as a result and this complicates his life as one might imagine. This is a land of various gods and strong, dark magic. It is, however, also a land where free will matters in the outcome of events.

Will Duquette calls this "theological science fiction" and I agree. The way that free will is intertwined with what the gods desire, as well as what is "right," is fascinating and a good way to examine our own motives the next time we turn away from what God may be asking of us. My full review is here. A Good Story discussion is at Episode 198.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry is an incredible Christ-figure as I discovered when I reread the series recently. Of course, this only works for those who have read the series before.

For more depth and as accompanying materials, readers may want to listen to Episode 26 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast where Scott Danielson and I discuss the book and the entire series from a Catholic point of view.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. That's the official description but it doesn't begin to cover the richly woven tapestry Godden weaves with nuanced personalities, mysteries to solve so that the order may continue, Philippa's internal struggles, and much more.

Again, Joseph R. has a wonderful review of the book. We also discussed  episode 97 at A Good Story is Hard to Find.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden
Another Godden book about a completely different order of nuns. This is an inspiring tale of conversion and redemption told in flashback sequence. We meet Lise when she is being released from prison where she has served her term for murder. She is going to join an order that ministers to those on the fringes of society.

Through Lise's thoughts, we watch her go from being a young WWII staffer in Paris, become seduced by a man who has a brothel and eventually turns her into a prostitute where later on she becomes the manager. The reasons behind the murder become clear as the threads come together again in the people around Lise in current time. My full review is here.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
This beautifully written historical fiction tells of Andrea Orsini, who is one of Cesare Borgia's most trusted political manipulators during the Italian Renaissance. This is a swashbuckler that simultaneously shows Andrea's transition of a human heart from greed to love, selfishness to sacrifice, and power grubbing to nobility.

Discussed in episode 13 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
A real page-turner which many think they know because the cultural references are so embedded in our society. However, if you haven't read this book then you don't know it at all. First and foremost, Uncle Tom actually is a Christ-figure, a living saint. No wonder he is misunderstood by so many.

Stowe does a good job showing many different attitudes toward slavery and how people excused themselves under the flimsiest of excuses. What is unexpected is how well she examines the varying levels of Christianity proclaimed and threaded solidly throughout the story.

I read this aloud on my Forgotten Classics podcast with commentary. Yes, that's how much I love it.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
We all think of this as a classic horror story but there is much more to it. Look below the surface and you find a classic tale of unselfishness and doing God's will in order to rid the world of a monster who is a perversion of Christ.

Discussed in episode 168 of A Good Story is Hard to Find. Mythgard Institute (founded by Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor) has a superb series of classes on Dracula.

The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis
These books seem an interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction to me. Lewis's imagination is vivid and fascinating. His tendency to have characters speechify leans to the nonfiction side. Taken as a meditative read, they would be very good for Lent, I'd think.

Out of the Silent Planet: Dr. Ransom is kidnapped by two men who take him to Mars as a sacrifice to the natives. Lewis was fantastically inventive about what the planet and living beings were like. I didn't know he had it in him.

Perelandra: Very different from Out of the Silent Planet while still showing C.S. Lewis's vivid and inspiring imagination. I am simply blown away by his vision of creation on Venus. Amazing insights as to battling evil, the dance of God's creation and plan, and our part in it.

That Hideous Strength: It is a testament to Lewis's imagination and writing skill as to how different all three of the books are in this trilogy, while simultaneously all carrying out the same basic theme. No wonder J.R.R. Tolkien loved them. This book left me striving to be a better person, to be truer to myself, as did the other two. Not many other books really leave one feeling that way.

Discussed in episodes 202204, and 206 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Lenten Reading: The Big List of Nonfiction

Five years ago I read The Lord by Romano Guardini during Lent and it was transformative.  Three years ago I read Meditations on Vatican Art and loved it. Two years ago I read The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah which I didn't find nearly as inspirational as God or Nothing. Last year I read Roman Pilgrimage by George Weigel and liked it so much I'm repeating it this year.

Fruits of the Spirit by Stratford Caldecott
Small but packs a powerful punch.

Book description, which I can't improve upon: This booklet explores the imagery of trees and fruitfulness in the Bible, and offers a sketch of Christian morality based on the relationship of spiritual fruits to the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. The result is a kind of rough map, a guidebook of sorts to a life in the Spirit, inspired by teachings that we find in Holy Scripture and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis by Bishop Robert Barron
This little book doesn't take long to read but it's packed with food for thought and gives historical and scriptural perspective. That may make it sound a bit detached or trite. Letter to a Suffering Church is anything but.

Barron condemns the wicked — it's been too long since I heard that word applied to the priests who violated the souls and bodies of their victims. He offers understanding and solace to those victims. He reminds us that the Church has been dragged through the dregs of corruption by the clergy before and of the fight it took to cleanse it.

Above all Barron offers inspiration and a fighting spirit as he encourages Catholics to stay and fight for the Church to be what Christ calls her to be — a pure source of Truth for a world crying out for God and love. Even though the world may laugh at that idea right now. As we go through Lent, striving for reconciliation with God, this brings the Church along with us.

The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism by Thomas Joseph White
Do you want a good dose of philosophy with your Catholic faith? Here's the book for you. Looking for something lighter than Edward Feser, but that still had intellectual depth, I noticed this title continually popping up in my searches. So glad I did because it is exactly what I wanted ... though the discussion of the Trinity caused a bit of brain paralysis, but that's no different than my reaction to any other deep look at the Trinity. It's been a long time since I've had to think in such a different way. All this is without ignoring the questions that Catholicism raise in modern life. This isn't necessarily easy reading but it is really rewarding. Truly this is a great book.

From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith by Sohras Ahmari
Sohrab Ahmari was the spoiled darling of his intellectual, liberal Iranian family. Immigrating to Utah, he was rapidly disillusioned about his ideas of a secular, rational, modern America. Searching for meaning, he discovered Nietzsche, as so many have done. Ironically, that began a very long process that ended in the Catholic Church.

As well as being a personal journey, this book almost serves as an overview of modern man's search for meaning. A really great conversion story that will speak especially to those who followed philosophers down a rabbit hole that wound up on the Church's doorstep.My review is here.

7 Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness
7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness
by Eric Metaxas
The stories of seven men who lived their lives in ways we can admire. Or women, depending on which book you read. Each contains short biographies of a diverse group of people that pack in a lot of information . Each story turns on the fact that they surrendered themselves to God and sacrificed themselves in some way for the greater good.

The men range from George Washington to Jackie Robinson to Chuck Colson. Women range from Joan of Arc to Rosa Parks to Mother Teresa. Plus some in each group that you probably haven't heard of.

Metaxas isn't heavy handed but he doesn't shy away from occasionally raising points that encourage the reader to look deeper within his (or her) own heart. I found each very inspirational. My review of 7 Men is here.

Jesus: A Pilgrimage by Fr. James Martin
Martin's goal is to help us consider our answer to Christ's question to his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

This means we must consider what it means to be "fully human and fully divine." Martin does a very good job of presenting a lot of contextual information for understanding Jesus' life and ministry through this lens. As we travel through the gospels, so to speak, he intertwines the various stops (recruiting the disciples, healing demoniacs, etc.) with his own pilgrimage to Israel. I especially appreciate Martin's openness in sharing the spiritual experiences he had, most notably that in the Church of the Resurrection.

My review here. Scott Danielson and I discussed this on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast, episode 83.

A Song For Nagasaki by Fr. Paul Glynn
The biography of Takashi Nagai, a young Catholic Japanese doctor who lived through the bombing of Nagasaki and became an inspiration for spiritual healing for his people. Paul Glynn combines vivid descriptions, character insights, and just enough Japanese history so that we have context.

As a result I wound up admiring the Japanese people even more than I did already. I never realized how many of the Japanese ideals combine with saintly living, especially as seen through Takashi Nagai's eventful life.

My review here.

The Bells of Nagasaki by Takashi Nagai
Among the wounded on the day they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki was a young doctor who, though sick himself cared for the sick and dying. Written when he too lay dying of leukemia, The Bells of Nagasaki is his account of the experience.

It is deeply moving story of faith under extraordinary conditions.

My review is here.

The Smile of a Ragpicker by Fr. Paul Glynn
Satoko Kitahara came from a wealthy home and encountered the Catholic faith when she wandered into a church one day and saw a statue of Mary. As a convert, she lived her faith so completely that she remains a well known heroine for Japanese of all religious persuasions. Striving to follow Christ fully she wound up becoming the "Mary of Ants Town," living with with the destitute in a shanty town in a public park where subsistence living came from ragpicking.

On a personal level I cannot stress enough the effect this gentle saintly girl's story continues to have on me. I won't go into details here but her honesty in her spiritual journey, her complete faith and dedication, and her love of Mary affected me deeply. In fact, an example of her selflessness came to mind just the other day and strengthened me greatly in a particular circumstance. My review is here.

To Whom Shall We Go? by Archbishop Timothy Dolan
In To Whom Shall We Go, we are reminded of all St. Peter's strengths, weaknesses, joys, and sorrows. In short, we are shown his humanity as he follows Jesus in the Gospels and Dolan points out how our own natures are reflected in therein as well.

This is a simply fantastic book and I say that as a person who has never been particularly interested in St. Peter.

I reread it recently and it was the perfect preparation for a Lenten mindset. My review here.

Gospel of Mark, The (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) by Mary Healy
This is a really great commentary. Healy is excellent at putting the scripture in context, whether in reference to the context of people of the time, to other scripture, or for our own lives. Sometimes I was enlightened by the factual information which gave me new insights into the text. Sometimes it was from the material for reflection. However, it was a rare day that I failed coming away with an insight that I pondered the rest of the day. My review is here.

I've found a lot of the Catholic Commentary series book very rewarding, regardless of who the author is, and am working my way through the Letter to the Hebrews with their commentary. So just dive in.

The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
The classic autobiography by the youngest Doctor of the Church. I struggled with reading this book until finding Robert Edmonson's translation, which was be less sacchrine and more real-life than others I read.

If this book doesn't appeal, consider one of the many others written by different saints and then ask their intercession while you read. Make Lent a walk through the desert with a saintly guide holding your hand.

Any of Robert Alter's translations of scripture, with commentary.
Anyone who has read one of Robert Alter's translations of scripture knows that he is scrupulous in adhering to the original text while communicating to modern readers so that they feel and hear the language as the Hebrews did. His commentary puts the text in context so that we understand the full meaning just as ancient listeners would have. The overall effect is a translation that can have you noticing characters and events in a completely new way that can move you closer to God.

Happy Catholic for Lent

Three other books that would make good Lenten reading:

Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life - my second book! In paperback.

Happy Catholic - my first book! In either softcover or Kindle / Nook format.

Lord, Open My Heart (this is only available as an ebook now, but is I was commissioned to write it specifically for Lenten meditation)

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Big List of Lenten Movies

Lent begins next week! So let's get ready with some good food for thought. First up — movies.

Tweaked from last year. I'm never as interested in "Jesus" movies as I am in mainstream films with food for thought about sin, reparation, and redemption.

These movies run the gamut so if you haven't heard of them be sure to check reviews for ratings. There are some excellent ones that use bad language and violence to make their point. For that matter, The Passion of the Christ was not for wimps. Just as Jesus' real story wasn't.

Links go to my reviews. A number of these have been discussed by Scott Danielson and me on our A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. Those links follow the descriptions.

  • Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made By God) - A solid comedy and a funny, sweet look at true love. It delivers the strong theme of “seeing God in your beloved.” and has an overwhelming example of covenantal love when Suri humbly doesn't expect anything in return for his love. [Good Story episode 209]

  • Ushpizin ... a tale of love and living your faith to the fullest. As well as a template for how marriage should work. Simply charming. [Good Story episode 66]

  • Departures ... by turns funny, moving, and inspirational. Each character, no matter how small, is important in the big story which is something like an orchestra playing a symphony in this story.

  • The Intouchables ... Wealthy quadriplegic Philippe needs an assistant to help him with all the functions of daily life. He hires immigrant, ex-con Driss because the regular applicants are missing one important quality and the lives of both men are changed. Sounds predictable. Isn't. [Good Story episode 146]

  • In Bruges ... for me, this is the perfect Lenten movie. Redemption, sacrifice, humanity in it's worst and best are all mingled and shown here. [Good Story episode 29]

  • Gone Baby Gone ... A private investigator and his partner agree to search for a kidnapped girl because he has connections to the locals that the police do not. This can be tough to watch but you won't find a stronger examination of free will, the difference choices make in our lives, and personal responsibility in the face of evil. [Good Story episode 126]

  • Stranger Than Fiction ... I'm continually amazed at how well this story is told and what a wallop it packs. Redemptive and life affirming. [Good Story episode 8]

  • Of Gods and Men ...  a group of Trappist monks in Algeria must choose between the practical choice to abandon their monastery when extremist Muslims terrorize the area ... or following spiritual calling even when there doesn't seem to be any reason to do so.  [Good Story episode 58]

  • Les Miserables (2012) ... as Scott Danielson said, "This film makes me want to be a better person. Could there be higher praise for a movie? [Good Story episode 117]
  • The Women's Balcony ... Friendships are broken, marriages are stressed, and budding romances are tested as the moderate-extreme, male-female lines are drawn in this battle over something very dear to the hearts of all: how to practice their faith. However, it is all handled lightly and with good-natured humor. [Good Story episode 175]

  • Lars and the Real Girl ... this sweet film shows unconditional love and complete acceptance, in the family, in the town, and in the most unusual love triangle you can imagine. [Good Story episode 27]

  • Babette's Feast ... huge underlying message about God's unexpected and overflowing generosity and Jesus' complete self-sacrifice ... all wrapped up in a woman who gives all her lottery winnings to cook a perfect meal for a village.

  • Mary & Max ... a rich story for those who are not afraid to explore the heights and depths that imperfection humanity bring to our lives and the lives of those we touch. [Good Story episode 43]

  • Calvary - Not for the faint-of-heart. But simply astounding. A real masterpiece that provides food for thought for everyone from Catholics to atheists. [Good Story episode 101]

  • Pan's Labyrinth ...  as Joi reminded me in years past, "the imagery is amazing, the language beautiful, and the story mythic, AND it honors self-sacrifice as the truest expression of love. [It shows] the road to virtue is not easy, and it's about doing what's right, even if you don't always know why, and even when it hurts.  [Good Story episode 70]
  • Inception - perhaps the perfect heist movie doubling as a thriller, as well as being a wonderful look at truth and love. [Good Story episode 16]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

3rd Sunday of St. Joseph

Lorenzo Lotto. Madonna and Child with St. Jerome, St. Joseph and St. Anne.

Joseph, Husband of Mary

Painters have traditionally depicted Joseph as an elderly man in order to emphasize the perpetual virginity of Mary. Yet it is more likely that Joseph was not much older than Mary. You don't have to wait to be old or lifeless to practice the virtue of chastity. Purity comes from love; and the strength and joy of youth are no obstacle to a noble love. Joseph had a young heart and a young body when he married Mary, when he learned of the mystery of her divine motherhood, when he lived in her company, respecting the integrity God wished to give the world as one more sign that he had come to share the life of his creatures. (St. Escriva, Christ is passing by)

Let us ask the Holy Patriarch to teach us how to live this kind of love in the circumstances to which God has called us. We want this love that lights up the heart (St. Thomas, On Charity) so that we may perform our ordinary work with joy.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Holy Martyrs of Libya, pray for us

21 Martyrs of Libya
by Tony Rezk (with permission)
(See more about this icon below)
The martyrs of Libya are the 21 young men who withstood imprisonment by ISIS for 40 days and then were murdered when they refused to renounce Jesus Christ.

They died with Jesus' name on their lips, saying "Jesus help us" and "My Lord Jesus."

They were martyred on this day in 2015.
The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ. As we recall these brothers who died only because they confessed Christ, I ask that we encourage each another to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians.
In these uncertain times, I am strengthened by their witness, faithful unto death. I pray that I may likewise bear faithful witness in whatever circumstances I find myself.

Let us pray for those persecuted for their faith, for the persecutors to recognize the truth they strive to silence, and that we will be as faithful our love and witness.

Holy martyrs, pray for us and for the whole world. Amen.
+Milad Makeen Zaky
+Abanub Ayad Atiya
+Maged Solaimain Shehata
+Yusuf Shukry Yunan
+Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
+Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
+Somaily Astafanus Kamel
+Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
+Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
+Girgis Milad Sinweet
+Mina Fayez Aziz
+Hany Abdelmesih Salib
+Bishoy Adel Khalaf
+Samuel Alham Wilson
+Ezat Bishri Naseef
+Loqa Nagaty
+Gaber Munir Adly
+Esam Badir Samir
+Malak Farag Abram
+Sameh Salah Faruq
+Matthew Ayairga, originally non-Christian, who was captured with the others and witnessed their faith. When terrorists asked if he rejected Jesus, despite knowing he would be killed, he said, "Their God is my God."

21 Martyrs of Libya icon

I discovered this icon at New Liturgical Movement which shared insights about the symbolism, always important for any icon.
[Matthew Ayairga is] represented here in the middle of the group. Note also that the rest of them are shown with the same face as Jesus, whose Holy Name they spoke as they were killed; the sea behind them is shown reddened by their blood. The red stoles and crowns above them symbolize their martyrdom; the stoles are arranged like those of Coptic deacons during the liturgy. ... The red stoles worn by Christ and the martyrs symbolize the cross identifying them as Christlike Cross bearers, (staurophoroi).
Here is an interview with Tony Rezk where he talks about his faith and the Coptic Church.

Holy Martyrs of Libya icon

Holy Martyrs of Libya
by Nikola Sarić (with permission)
Notice how the waves of the sea stained with the martyrs’ blood are shown around the edge of the image; Matthew Arayiga is distinct among the group on the top right. The men were killed wearing orange prisoners’ jumpsuits; all them are looking at Christ except for the one at the bottom, who is looking out at us.