For Lent I took up reading books on faith, religion, and spirituality, and here is the result. The very first book I picked up for Lent contained and introduction by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne that defined exactly what I set out to do. They revealed to me the term lectio divina, Latin for “divine” or “spiritual reading” which they define as:
“… a meditative approach, by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. This process of contemplative reading has the effect of enkindling in the reader compunction for past behavior that has been less than beautiful and true. At the same time, it increseases the desire to seek a realm where all that is lovely and unspoiled may be found. There are four steps in lection divina: first, to read, next to meditate, then to rest in the sense of God’s nearness, and, ultimately, to resolve to govern one’s actions in the light of new understanding. This kind of reading is itself an act of prayer. And, indeed, it is in prayer that God manifests His Presence to us (xii-xiii).”
1. The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi
I don’t want to say that I like the movie better, but I’m glad I saw Roberto Rossellini’s dramatization of some of these stories first before I read the book. Since Little Flowers was written in the 13th century it definitely is written for its time, that is full of miracles and an almost competitive piety. That being said there’s a lot to learn from Francis and his friars as they take on a life of poverty, serve the poor and worship God with ecstatic joy. The stories often read as parables with Francis teaching the friars with his words and actions in a Zen-like manner. A good little book to read and ponder during Lent.
The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi is also available for online reading in its entirety.
2. The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition)
I’m happy to say that after looking forward to reading this book for a long time it did not disappoint my expectations. This book is the unlikely story of a man of the world deciding to convert to Catholicism and then become a Trappist monk. Further defying logic the book became a best-seller and it’s author perhaps the first celebrity-monk of the modern age. I like the book because Merton’s thoughts and struggles parallel my own thoughts and struggle on my faith journey. I also enjoy reading about Merton in the places I’m familiar with such as New York City and Cambridge, England. I will have to disagree with Merton based on personal experience that Catholic schools do not prevent bullying among children.
Many times it was like that. And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply don’t want it. We will seperate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation (p. 26).
People seem to think that it is in some way a proof that no God exists, if we have so many wars. On the contrary, consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice, spawned and bred by the free wills of men, the human race can still recover, each time, and can still produce men and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity, lust and cruelty with sanctity. How could all this be possible without the merciful love of God, pouring out His grace upon us (p. 142)?
When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands (p. 187).
I did a fair amount of reading that might be called “spiritual” although I did not read spiritually. I devoured books making notes here and there and remembering whatever I thought would be useful in my argument — that is, for my own aggrandizement, in order that I myself might take these things and shine by their light, as if their truth belonged to me (p. 253-4).
Experience has taught me one big moral principle, which is this: it is totally impractical to plan your actions on the basis of a vast two-columned list of possibilities, with mortal sins on one side and things that are “not a mortal sin” on the other–the one to be avoided, the other to be accepted without discussion. Yet this hopelessly misleading division of possibilities is what serves large numbers of Catholics as a whole more theology (p. 265).
Catholics are worried about Communism…but few Catholics stop to think that Communism would make very little progress in the world, or none at all, if Catholics really lived up to their obligations, and really did the things Christ came on earth to teach them to do: that is, if they really loved one another, and saw Christ in one another, and lived as saints, and did something to win justice for the poor (paraphrase of a talk by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, p. 373).
3. Living Vatican II by Gerald O’Collins, SJ
I am a Vatican II baby. The Church as it is following that revolutionary call for reform and revival is the only way I know the Church. And I think Vatican II is a good thing. That is as far as I know what it actually is and what the council achieved. I’d hoped to find a book that would act as a summary introduction to the many documents of the Second Vatican Council. Sadly I don’t think this book is it as it seems to assume prior familiarity with the output of the council and deals in theological language just out of my grasp. Despite that I find it satisfying that O’Collins is generally positive about Vatican II and it’s continuing implementation for all people in the faith. It seems all that I read these days are criticisms and reactionary views regarding Vatican II.
I beg to differ from some cardinals and other critics, who think the sheer numbers [canonized by John Paul II] have cheapened the “honors” of canonization and beatification. The Holy Spirit operates powerfully everywhere, and one can rightly suppose that many of the faithful have responded courageously to the call to universal holiness, which Vatican II recognized and proclaimed. To say otherwise would be to demean the work of the Spirit and Christ’s call to heroic discipleship, and even to picture real sanctity as something that happens only far away and long ago. The truth was state on May 4, 2003, by a huge banner in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón when John Paul II came to canonize five twentieth-century Spaniards: “You too can be a saint.” (p. 26)
Changing situations call for fresh emphases and developments. The long history of Catholic Christianity shows repeatedly that it takes creative fidelity to effect a rejuvenating reception and promote true development. Both fidelity and creativity have been regularly involved: a fidelity that does not decline into rigidity and a creativity that does not lose its roots in the mainstream tradition (p. 47).
Will the health of the English-speaking areas of the church be promoted or even maintained by a special sacral language that sounds remote, archaic, and awkward? Such language hardly agrees with the kind of language for prayer used and reccomended by Jesus himself. He spoke to God and about God in a simple, direct, and familiar way: “Abba (Father dear),” “your kingdom come,” “deliver us from the evil one,” and so forth. It is very difficult to imagine Jesus encouraging us to start using words like beseech and deign (p. 74-5).
4. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
Another autobiography by an American Catholic convert who is remembered as one of the great leaders of social justice of the Twentieth Century. Unlike Merton, Day did not head to the cloister but to the streets and the farms meeting poverty and injustice head on. I’m impressed by her devotion and the way in which she incorporates her faith into a lifestyle. And she writes with both humility and humor. It’s hard not to want to change my life after reading this book. I also think now that I may be an anarcho-syndicalists and never knew it.
Going to confession is hard. Writing a book is hard, because you are “giving yourself away.” But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems, his relation to God and his fellows. You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his sustenance and love.
People have so great a need to reverence, to worship, to adore; it is a psychological necessity of human nature that must be taken into account. We do not like to admit how people fail us. Even those most loved show their frailty and their weaknesses and no matter how we may will to see only the best in others, their strength rather than their weakness, we are all too conscious of our own failings and recognize them in others.
The Catholic Worker, as the name implied, was directed to the worker, but we used the word in its broadest sense, meaning those who worked with hand or brain, those who did physical, mental or spiritual work. But we thought primarily of the poor, the dispossed, the exploited.
Every one of us who was attracted to the poor had a sense of guilt, of responsibility, a feeling that in some way we were living on the labor of others. The fact that we were born in a certain environment, were enabled to go to school, were endowed with the ability to compete with others and hold our own, that we had few physical disabilities — all these things marked us as privileged in a way. We felt a respect for the poor and destitute as those nearest to God, as those chosen by Christ for His compassion (p. 204).
What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate, to ignore the price of coffee and go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us, good coffee and the finest of bread.
“Nothing is too good for the pour,” our editor Tom Sullivan says, and he likes that aphorism especially when he is helping himself to something extra good (p. 235).
Once a priest said to us that no gets up in the pulpit without promulgating a heresy. He was joking, of course, but what I suppose he meant was that truth was so pure, so holy, that it was hard to emphasize one aspect of truth without underestimating another, that we did not see things as a whole, but in part, through a glass darkly, as St. Paul said.
5. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Macmillan 1959)
Bonhoeffer is the German Luther minister who defied antisemitism and fascism in Nazi Germany, building resistance on Christian principle. He paid the ultimate cost by sacrificing his life when he was executed in April 1945 just weeks before VE day.
The book sets out in simple and stark terms what cost one pays to follow Christ. The language can be complex and I believe Bonhoeffer deals with issues such as the debate of faith versus works, and the concept of grace, things I confess I don’t quite understand. Theologically I’m a kindergartener. The heart of the book is an exegesis of the Sermon of the Mount. At each point Bonhoeffer empasizes that without Christ, without discipline there is no forgiveness and there’s danger of self-justification. While the book was hard going, I think it was a good experience for me to work through it.
To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, the we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life (p. 78).
My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share.
Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves, and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action (p. 146).
Judgement is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. I am not forbidden to have my own thoughts about the other person, to realize his shortcomings, but only to the extent that it offers to me an occasion for forgiveness and unconditional love, as Jesus proves to me. If I withhold my judgment I am not indulging in tout comprende c’est tout pardonner and confirm the other person in his bad ways. Neither I am right nor the other person, but God is always right and shall proclaim his grace and his judgment.
Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace whcih others are just as entitled to as we are. But in the love of Christ we know all about every conceivable sin and guilt; for we know how Jesus suffered. Christian love sees the fellow-man under the cross and therefore see with clarity. If when we judged others, our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is certain to be found, and that is in our own hearts (p. 164-5).
6. Bound to Forgive by Lawrence Martin Jenco, O.S.M. (Ave Maria Press)
Father Marty Jenco was a newcomer to Beruit working with the local chapter of Catholic Relief Services when he was kidnapped by Shiite Muslim guerrillas and held as a hostage for nearly two years. The slim book details Fr. Jenco’s simple Christ-like faith which allows him to retain hope during times of abuse and deprivation, and more shocking to forgive his captors. While in captivity he manages to pray, to celebrate Eucharist, and to join in faith with his fellow hostages. He also is able to overcome his anger and see his guards as individuals, recognizing their humanity, and even offering forgiveness to one guard who asks for it. Through it all he keeps his heart on God and is able to see God’s love in the small details such as one night when the guards bring him to the roof to look at the moon. A very inspiring and touching book.
At this roof-edge of my prison life, in the white luminance of moon and stars, with the smell and taste of the salt sea-breeze, I knew love reigned invisibly. In the stark electric glare and grinding murmur of this tortured, fratricidal city, I knew this wasn’t the world God created. I heard God’s love singing to me and in me, modulating all the world’s fantastic dissonances (p. 49-50).
Some people advise me to forgive and forget. They do not realize that this is almost impossible. Jesus, the wounded healer, asks us to forgive, but he does not ask us to forget. That would be amnesia. He does demand we heal our memories.
I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities (p. 135).
7. Confessions by Saint Augustine
If I thought some of the other books I’ve read for Lent were difficult to follow then I was not ready for the writing of a 4th century Doctor of the Church from North Africa. It’s interesting that I read this book last after Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness. Confessions is in a sense a progenitor to the Christian confessional memoir. They all share in common the authors’ rebellious youth, turning away from God, before a conversion experience brings them Home. What I find interesting is that Augustine, Merton, and Day all look back and see where God was in their lives, where they rejected Him, and where He was there all along despite themselves. Conversion is also an ongoing process of relationship, still occurring as the authors write, as opposed to a single ka-pow moment of “finding God.”
O God, hope of youth, where were you all this time? Where were you hiding from me? Were not my Creator and was it not you who made me different from the beasts that walk on the earth and wiser than birds that fly in the air? Yet I was walking on a treacherous path, in darkness. I was looking for you outside myself and I did not find the God of my own heart. I had reached the depths of the ocean. I had lost all faith and was in despair of finding the truth (p. 111).
From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching. The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all.
Note: I’ve not yet finished Confessions, and I think I’m going to put it down for a while, but when I pick it up again I will update this thread with more reflections.