Saturday, February 23, 2013

Excellent Books For Lent

The Church founded by Jesus Christ was meant for unity --- a growing unity here on earth, and an eternal unity in the Body of Christ in heaven.  It is why Jesus Christ, God, came to earth.  And so it is a major, major problem when the people of the Church act in disunity.  And in the Church today, there is much disunity.
One of the major reasons for disunity, as identified by the Church leaders, is a lack of knowledge about what the Church teaches.  If one person says the Church teaches this and another says it teaches that, there cannot be unity.  And a further critical point is the role of reason in Church teachings.  The Catholic Church teaches, as Jesus did, the relationship between faith and reason.  “So that the submission of our faith might be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit…. They are motives of creditability which show that the assent of faith is by no means a blind impulse of the mind.” (CCC 156)  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the relationship of faith and reason in some depth, and tells us what we believe.  The proofs shown in the catechism I find to be very compelling, and are cross-referenced to the bases of our beliefs, whether Scripture or Revelation or Tradition.  The foundations of what we believe are clearly put forth, and we should read them to better agree what the Church teaches.  However, it seems to me that one of the weaknesses of the catechism facilitates our disunity:  it doesn’t address well why we believe those things.  Even if the basis is: “Because Jesus said so,” for some people there needs to be this underpinning of reason.  They ask: “But WHY did he say so?”
Most people believe 1 + 1 = 2, but there are some who will question this.  Why isn’t it 1.5?  Why isn’t it 3?  Why isn’t it 2 today, and 1.5 tomorrow?  An example in the teachings of the church is that of the male priesthood.  “Yes, I can agree that Jesus instituted a male priesthood, but that was then.  Today our culture is different and there is a priest shortage.  So why today shouldn’t it be okay for female priests?”  Regardless what is taught in the bible or revealed by God, there are many who would ask why something was taught and, not knowing the answer, many assume what to them seems a logical answer.  “Things have changed; so the Church must change.” 
The Catholic Church teaches that faith and understanding can be united.  Jesus showed us how complex things can be understood by parables.  “How can God love us so much when we are huge sinners?” --- well, let me tell you the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  “I was taught the catechism in elementary school, so what else is there to know?” --- well let me tell you the Parable of the Vine and the Branches.  Jesus showed us how we can understand why.
 That is why this first book I’ll review is so important.  The One Thing is Three --- How the Most Holy Trinity Explains Everything, by Fr. Michael Gaitley is, I’ve found, an excellent book at creating example, parables if you will, to make us understand why the teachings of the Catholic Church make sense, and even further, how they all fit together.  Fr. Gaitley creates a smooth flowing book covering key doctrines of the Church, starting with: Who is God and why this Revelation of the Trinity makes perfect sense, to why God created man, to why God planned for man to be re-united with Himself in the end.  And while for me his explanations were a neat way of answering the questions of “why,” I was surprised when he explained that what he was presenting was, in fact, “old news.”  We’ve learned the basic what’s of these things in the past; Fr. Gaitley presents the why’s.  And he presents them very effectively.
In this year of faith in which we are called to self-evangelize, I put this book at the top of my list for most Christians (I’ve already given away a dozen copies).  This book isn’t complex dogma or doctrines; it gets down to reason, and simple explanations.  And yes, the subtitle of the book is correct:  it explains everything.  From who is this God, to why did a perfect God bother to create this troublesome creature called man, to why we are meant for heaven:  Fr. Gaitley presents things in a way that it all makes sense, and as such is easy to remember.  At the end, he even draws a picture to summarize it!
Put this book at the top of your reading list for this year, and Lent is as good a time as any to start it.  But of course, none of my reviews are complete without a few excerpts:
The Farewell Discourse (in John’s Gospel), Chapter 17:  In my opinion, this chapter is the greatest chapter in all of Sacred Scripture.  (If you recall my meditation on May 6 of last year titled: Take These Words to Heart, you will understand why these words in the Introduction of this book caught my attention.  He starts out assuming something it took most of my life – and a push from God – for me to realize.  And so I assumed much more good stuff would be forthcoming ---- and I was right!)
What do we long for above all else?  We hunger to be in communion with others, in friendship, family, Facebook, fantasy, or fornication.  … Given our situation of being communion addicts, God is the perfect fit!  He himself fits the hole in our hearts, for we pine for the communion of love.  God is the Communion of Love that we long for.
Starting with the basic truth, that we long for the communion of love, we note that love takes at least two.  But God must be one (Aristotle figured that much out).  So, our ideal God must be one, but if he is Love itself, it would seem that he would also need to be at least two, for love is about relationship.  On the other hand, this God is kind of disappointing, because relationships of two tend to be of the romantic kind.  But what if God were not one-in-two, but one-in-three?  It’s like the excitement when the baby finally arrives, and people are goo-ing and gaa-ing over it.  Thus, if we could come up with a God who would make us truly happy, our best bet would be to make one who is at least one-in-three, for then we’d have a God who is a Family of Love, and whose love could reach out to us: Come, join the Family!  God is Trinity, an eternal Family of Love.  What’s more, he invites us to share in his own divine love.
This simple explanation of God as Trinity and family is the basis for the explanation of the rest of creation and eternity contained in this book.  It explains, simply, many things that you, your family, and you and your God can talk about.  And it all makes sense.
The second book I’ve invite you to consider for Lenten reading is The Fire of Christ’s Love --- Meditations on the Cross, by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa.  Fr. Cantalamessa is the Preacher to the Papal Household --- he gives sermons to the popes.  And he was chosen for this position for good reason:  his sermons give you much to think about.  I’ve recommended many of his books/sermons in the past, and this one is no different.
These Lenten meditations are short (one or two pages) reflections taken from his Good Friday homilies over the years.  Each focuses on a particular, simple point about Jesus’ crucifixion and suffering --- and ours.  As Cardinal Timothy Dolan notes in his foreword to the book, “They are filled with important reminders of God’s love for each one of us.”  In reading these meditations, I find myself re-reading them, and pondering what they mean for me.  Lent isn’t just a time to change things we do, like fasting and alms, it is a time to change our hearts.  This book will be a great help with that.
It is necessary that every man experience an earthquake once in his lifetime and that he experience in his heart something similar to what happened in nature at the moment of Christ’s death. 
Heaven and earth are filled with the glory of God; only man’s heart is an exception, because it is filled with its own glory and not with God’s.  It is so taken with itself that it uses for its own glory even what was made for God --- even God himself!  And yet, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1Cor 4:7)
St. Paul wrote to the Romans: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (14:7-8).  The greatest contradiction --- that between life and death, ever present in man --- has been overcome.  Now the radical contradiction is no longer between living and dying but between living “for the Lord” and living “for oneself.”  Living for oneself is the new name for death.
He who pronounced the words “This is my body” over the bread said the very same words about the poor.
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The third and fourth books I mention here for good Lenten readings are, well, repeats --- but I can’t help myself.  Every year I use them again and again, and each time, each year, I find something new which strikes my heart. 
Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s book The King, Crucified and Risen --- Meditations of the Passion and Glory of Christ is a series of short readings for each day of Lent.  I have been reading this book each Lent now for 10 years, and every year I find something remarkable, which touches me where I am presently at in my spiritual journey of faith.  You know I underline things in books which strike me as saying something new, or in a new way, for me.  It seems that every year I find yet something new --- again, in this book.  Give it another 10 years and I’ll probably have underlined the entire book!  But that’d be okay, because then maybe I’d fully see why this holy man who wrote these words thought them important enough for me to meditate upon.  Fr. Groeschel may now be a very old man, but his words never will be.

The final book I’d mention for good Lenten reading is not a book, but a booklet.  The Challenge Of The Cross --- Praying The Stations, by Fr. Alfred McBride is to be used for praying the stations of the cross, whether alone or in a group.  While I greatly love The Way of the Cross by St. Alphonsus Liguori --- the stations most often said at church on Good Fridays --- Fr. McBride’s stations are different in that they focus us on meeting the challenge of the cross, as it appears in our personal lives.  In particular, I found that this book talks to me, as a caregiver, most intimately.  I can see the sufferings and the walk to death of my loved one, my mother, and I walk beside her on her journey.  Fr. McBride initiates talks between me and her and Jesus, conversations of the heart as to what and why we love, even to suffering and death.  If you are a caregiver of an ill or dying loved one, or a parent, or anyone who in any way cares about his neighbor, I think you will find that these particular meditations will touch your heart and soul.  And you will better understand how much Jesus loved you then, and now.  I pray these stations every Friday during Lent.
We often speak of our Lenten journey, because we are meant to use this time to get somewhere, to get our mind and hearts in a better place in preparation for Good Friday and Easter, and Divine Mercy Sunday.  May you use these books wisely, enjoy the journey and, hopefully, never forget what you have learned along the way. 

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