A Commonplace Book {Talk to St. Jude Moms Group}

As promised, following are the notes of books & resources I mentioned during my talk today to the St. Jude Moms Group.

Father Solanus Casey, “Gratitude is the first sign of a thinking, rational creature.” and “Thank God ahead of time.”

Father Solanus Casey Guild 

St. John Bosco

Philippians 2:15-16 (read entire passage)

Mini-Weapons of Mass Destruction 

Night Prayer (and the entire Liturgy of the Hours, daily plus Mass Readings)

from Universalis.com

Ephesians 4:26

1 Peter 5

Humana Vitae

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk 

The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair 

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr 

Good Pictures, Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Kids (highly recommended)

John Milton’s Commonplace book

John Locke’s “A New Method of Making Commonplace Books”

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen 

The How of Happiness

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin 

Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery 

(but if you haven’t read the rest of the series, consider starting with a $0.99 Kindle version of the whole series, starting with Anne of Green Gables . 

The Mistmantle Series by M.I. Mcallister 

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (highly recommended):

Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace 

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

Rumer Godden:

The Kitchen Madonna 

The Story of Holly & Ivy 

In This House of Brede

Forming Intentional Disciples by Sherry Weddell

an incomplete list of “Catholic memoirs” from a talk I gave last summer 

The New York Times Crossword app

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain) by Lloyd Alexander 

Meet a Reader: Sister M. Benedicta Bourke, FSGM {@TheCatholicPost}

Following is the “Meet a Reader” feature that appears on the book page of the current print issue of The Catholic Post.

How you know me:

I am a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, I teach science at Alleman High School in Rock Island, and I help with Youth Ministry at St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island.  I am Canadian—raised in the prairies near the Rocky Mountains of Alberta— and I love the outdoors.

Why I love reading:

To be honest, I am a “convert” to reading.  I did not find a good book until I was 25, did not like reading until I was 37, and did not start really reading until recently.  I have struggled with reading, going over the same paragraph several times before I get it. Now, the books I read the past few years have had a great influence on me and my spiritual life.  A book can speak a prayer, or capture what I want to say but cannot find the words, or they can teach me exactly what I need to do to overcome a challenge.

What I’m reading now:

I am finishing The Way of Humility by Pope Francis, which is very convicting. 
I have two books that I continue to read. The first is one of my passions: Praying for Priests by Kathleen Beckman – this has wonderful meditations to pray the rosary for priests and explains spiritual motherhood. 

The second is O Jesus, Prayers from the Diaries of Catherine De Hueck Doherty – she writes with openness and power that is like my heart song, a book that you can read one paragraph and be inspired.  “Bible Roulette” (to pray to the Holy Spirit, open a book randomly and read a quote) is how I share Scripture and spiritual books with my students and co-sisters.  Often the result is quite timely and speaks to the soul.

My favorite book:

I would choose the two above, but I am also particularly drawn to the writings of Father Jacques Philippe and Father Michael Gaitley.  These were introduced to me through a “book share”.  One Lent, a friend and I chose to read a book in 40 days.  We would meet each week, discussing the treasures we found; this inspired me to grow in holiness and kept me accountable.  We read several books by this method, resulting in my desire to read more.  Reading has definitely impacted my relationship with Christ.

Why We Need to Listen if “The Walls are Talking” {my January column @TheCatholicPost }

Some concepts, good or bad, are timeless. More than two millennia ago, Sophocles wrote in the Greek tragedy, Antigone, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Today, we know that as the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger,” but in reality, it’s much easier and far more common to “shoot” the messenger than to work against this natural inclination.

Part of the human condition has been to recoil against not just bad or ugly news, but the person who brings the news. This can be small, as in half-jokingly cursing the people behind those calorie counts on menus at your favorite restaurants. Not that I have any experience with that.

But it can also loom large, and impair our ability to see a situation clearly.

Here’s one example:

I was with a group of young people at the 40 Days for Life last year in October to witness outside the local abortion clinic. Several of the teens felt deeply uncomfortable because another person was holding a sign with a photo of an aborted child. (the person was not with the 40 Days for Life, which forbids such images in its prayerful witness to life). I understand that discomfort, and share in it. A graphic photo held up in such a circumstance hurts the cause of life rather than helps it.

At the same time, I felt the need to point out gently, “But she is against what she is showing, and she didn’t create this reality. An abortion clinic did.”

Reading, or even a cursory glance at The Walls are Talking: Former Abortion Clinic Workers Tell Their Stories by Abby Johnson with Kristin Detrow, can stimulate strong “shoot the messenger” emotions. We recoil at details of abortion, or even knowing how horrible it is.

We might be thinking, “Ugh. Why do we have to focus on this?”

Here’s why: to understand our need to work to end abortion, not just for the unborn children whose lives are ended, not just for the women hurt, but for those workers at all levels involved in this industry.

The Walls Are Talking by Abby Johnson with Kristin Detrow is actually a pretty short read. It’s the story of 17 former abortion workers and what they experienced, and how they found a path towards healing, in leaving that work. It has graphic content, as you might imagine, but it’s not overly so, and overall it’s more about the workers, and how their lives and perspectives changed.

Abby Johnson wrote the best-selling, Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey across the Life Line, about her conversion from Planned Parenthood abortion clinic director to pro-life activist.  In this book, she’s interviewed other workers who have left the industry, and shares their stories in first-person format. Today, Johnson now runs the non-profit, And Then There Were None, (ATTN), which provides financial and other assistance for workers who want to leave the abortion business.

Three common elements that ran through many of the stories stand out:

*the devastation of the products of conception (POC) lab. All abortion clinics have a POC lab, where it is the job of the technicians to piece back together the parts of the baby. This is to ensure that a woman will not have after-abortion complications such as infection if there are any human limbs or other body parts left behind. Just hearing about how routine it was, and how abortion workers found ways to live with it, is heart-wrenching.

*coping strategies: abortion clinic workers have adopted strategies to avoid the reality of what they are doing. There is an obvious cognitive dissonance between sincerely wanting to help women, which is how many workers get into the abortion industry, and also actively participating in the death of human life. Abortion workers can shield patients, but they are forced to confront the reality of abortion themselves on a regular basis.

*advice for those involved in pro-life work. Some of the clinic workers give genuinely helpful advice for those who work in the pro-life movement about what to say and do, and more importantly, what not to say or do, to help change hearts.

Abortion is a great and terrible evil.

The people who are involved in this industry are not evil.

They may be broken, blinded, and far from truth and love, despite their sincerely held beliefs. All the more reason they need our prayers rather than our condemnation, and our sacrifices rather than our shouting.

Reading The Walls Are Talking helps people understand the depth of the evil that is abortion, and some ideas about how specifically to pray for and reach those in this industry.

As St. Paul said in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not be weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

It’s so, so easy to give up, and to forget the important work that is involved in ending abortion. Let us not grow weary.

You might also be interested in:

*Here is a link to my review several years back of Unplanned.  

*I also did a Q&A with Abby Johnson at the time.

*And Then There Were None has a well-designed and beautiful website outlining the services the group provides to workers who want to leave the abortion industry.

Gift Fiction Ideas for Christmas & Beyond

If you’re looking for ideas for a book gift for kids or adults, there are a lot of newer releases, as well as some old standbys, that could fit the bill. Here’s a round-up:

Treachery and Truth: A Story of Sinners, Servants, and Saints by Katy Huth Jones is a fictionalized account of “Good King Wenceslas,” the martyr Vaclav I, as told by his servant Poidevin. It would be great for middle-grade students on up, and is exciting as well as informative about the 10th century in Eastern Europe and Christianity’s spread there.

For even younger readers, The Wolf & the Shield: An Adventure with Saint Patrick by Sherry Weaver Smith and illustrated by Nicholas McNally, follows 11-year-old Kieran as he struggles between wanting the power of a clan leader, and learning about the goodness of St. Patrick and his faith. “What does your heart hunt for?” Patrick asks him, and his adventures in this book helps him discern the right path.

For fans of historical fiction, Ignatius Press has two newer releases that are satisfying for fans of historical fiction:

The Time Before You Die: A Novel of the Reformation by Lucy Becket, tells fictionalized stories about real-life people in 16th century England, a period when choices about living one’s faith were not just difficult, but life-altering.

General Escobar’s War: A Novel of the Spanish Civil War by Jose Luis Olaizola, and newly translated into English by Richard Goodyear, is a fascinating account of the real-life Antonio Escobar, a devout Catholic and faithful general who upheld his oath to support the legal government. His imagined “diary” as he awaits trial and execution from the new government is well-drawn depiction of life in that time and why people choose from among impossible options in wartime.

For Kindle readers, a formerly “local” writer, Angie Sue Dobbs, has published her first novel.
Perfect Timing: A Catholic Romance is the story of two young professionals wanting to find an honorable soul mate, and how they connect is by turns funny, sweet, and fairly realistic. The Catholic perspective of the characters, their friends and family members, is refreshing and natural.

Finally, here’s are a bonus of two family friendly read-aloud during the days leading up to Christmas:

Paraclete Press has a lovely new edition of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Yes, we’ll be watching “The Muppet Christmas Carol” like many families, but nothing compares to reading the original. This handsomely formatted edition includes illustrations from the original 1843 edition. Try not to choke up as you read the last chapter.

Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly & Ivy, her classic tale that I often recommend to people as a Christmastime read-aloud.

All of Rumer Godden’s books are tinged with a kind of melancholy joy, as well as a sense of wonder and magic of the everyday. That is what makes them so worthwhile to read. “The Story of Holly & Ivy” follows orphan girl Ivy as she tries to find “her grandmother” and develops a special relationship with Holly, a Christmas doll. In the hands of a different writer, it could be syrupy sweet, but Godden is a master of combining sadness with humor and eccentric characters in delightful and gripping stories.

Do you have any ideas of fiction gift books? What are the favorite perennial Christmas books at your house?

Meet a Reader: Eileen Wikoff

meetHow you know me:

I have lived in Peoria since 1981. I belonged to St. Vincent de Paul Parish before my marriage to John in 1994. We belong to St. Jude Parish where we are active in the life of the parish. I am a lector and have led adult faith classes with John. I am a retired special education teacher.

Why I love reading:

I love to read because it is a vehicle of learning and a way to go to different times and places. I like autobiographies, biographies, historical fiction, young adult literature, non-fiction history, books of faith and some mysteries. If I don’t like a book, I can walk away from it. As I am visually impaired, font size is important to me. Therefore, I read many books on Kindle. Technology is wonderful!

What I am reading now:

I am currently reading This Was a Man, Jeffrey Archer’s final volume in the Clifton Chronicle series.

For my book club, I am reading Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris.

And for spiritual growth, John and I are reading and praying 33 Days to Merciful Love by Fr. Michael Gaitley.

My favorite book:

This has changed over my lifetime, as it would for most people. I would say that Jeffrey Archer is my favorite author, so most anything by him is tops for me. My Mom was a voracious reader and introduced me to him many years ago. I have read his short stories, novels and diaries. I introduced John to this great storyteller and neither of us can put his books down until the last punctuation mark! My favorite spiritual growth author at this point is Fr. Michael Gaitley. I have read The Second Greatest Story Ever Told twice during the past year. He writes in a way that the average Catholic can understand, even on challenging concepts like the Trinity in his book The One Thing is Three.

Make Plans for Quiet During Hectic Season {My December column @TheCatholicPost }

Following is my December column that appears in this issue of the print edition of  The Catholic Post.

A common theme in articles I’ve seen online and elsewhere recently is about people practicing “self-care” —healthy habits of mind, body, and spirit, to improve or maintain wholeness in every area of life. It’s not specifically a Catholic “thing,” yet, because it makes good sense, it also lines up with the details of our faith.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, (CC 2288), “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.”

The Catholic year is full of regular rhythms of the liturgical year promote those very concepts—our emphasis on fasting and feasting, honoring traditions and holidays, and promotion of virtue development, can all be considered through the lens of “self-care.” There are many opportunities for this, and especially true during the busy days of Advent and Christmastime.

But let’s be real. Advent and Christmas—really, all the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day and beyond—can be a parade of shopping, cooking, school events, parties. One of the best ways to ensure it’s not all “go, go, go” is having a plan for renewal and quiet during these weeks. It’s not selfish to focus on tranquility, healthy habits, and simplicity during this time; it’s essential for good health and a happy outlook on the holidays.

How can you carve out time for renewal during this frenzied time? Many parishes offer Advent penance and prayer services. There are a number of parishes throughout the diocese that also offer perpetuation adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Spending some time each week of Advent in peaceful prayer and reading can re-charge one in unexpected ways.

Also as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (CC 2705), “Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the “today” of God is written.”

Consider scheduling in several non-negotiable times for this among your busy schedule. When you have that quiet time, pick up one of these books that offer a healthy perspective on renewal and faith.

Who Does He Say You Are? Women Transformed by the Christ in the Gospels by Colleen Mitchell.

Colleen Mitchell is one of those writers who most readers would love to have coffee and a long discussion about … everything. In her first book, Who Does He Say You Are? Women Transformed by Christ in the Gospels, she shares the story of her family’s journey from infant and prenatal loss to, improbably, mission service to some of the poorest populations in Costa Rica. A book could be written about her life’s pilgrimage so far, and how she has been open to growing in her Catholic faith through challenges. But Who Does He Say You Are? is not that book.

While Mitchell does cover some of her story in Who Does He Say You Are? the book is an excellent stand-along Scripture study of women, and what women today can learn from these women.

Each chapter “profiles” a New Testament woman, and how her encounter with Jesus shows the myriad ways our brokenness can be restored through encounters with Jesus and his healing love.

The first chapter addresses Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and is titled, “You are a Dwelling Place of the Most High God.” Other chapters do the same with women both prominent in Scripture, and those nameless women barely mentioned, yet whose influence on the Church’s theology is outsized. So, for instance, “You are Restored” is the chapter on The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8); “You are Made for Contentment” for Mary and Martha and Bethany (Luke 10), and “You Can Pray Boldly” about the Syrophoenician Woman (Mark 7).

I loved reading about some of my favorite women in Scripture from a new perspective and with profound meditations from this gifted writer.


You Can Share the Faith: Reaching Out One Person at a Time by Karen Edmisten

When I started reading You Can Share the Faith, I thought, “This is the book I’ve been waiting for Karen Edmisten to write, and I didn’t even know it.”

Like many who enjoy “lovely” Catholic blogs, I’ve followed Edmisten’s blog for years, and always found her literary slice-of-life reflections to be thoughtful. And I loved and reviewed Edmisten’s 2012 book, “After Miscarriage,” which has become something of a classic in providing gentle healing and companionship to women who have experienced miscarriage or infant loss.

You Can Share the Faith is much more personal book. It’s both a work of evangelization, and a memoir about Edmisten’s life and how she went, gradually, from confirmed atheist to devout Catholic. And that story is told through advice and guidance for those who want to share the faith.

The chapters are titled on either a “do” or “don’t” about evangelism, such as “Do Remember You’re Being Watched,” “Do Engage the Culture,” “Don’t Forget How Hard it Is,” or “Don’t Assume You are Speaking the Same Language.” Each chapter includes personal stories from her own life and others who are reverts, converts, and others on the journey to Catholic faith and understanding.

You Can Share the Faith is a great read for both faithful Catholics who want to be good evangelizers, as well as those on the journey of faith. One’s faith life is not a straight line, but a winding process, and understanding and embracing that journey in ourselves and others is an important mark of spiritual maturity.


The Catholic Table: Finding Joy Where Food and Faith Meet by Emily Stimpson Chapman

The Catholic Table is not a typical book about food & faith. But that’s because Emily Stimpson Chapman is an unusually talented writer on the intersection of faith and culture.

Stimpson Chapman, a native of the diocese of Peoria (and cousin to Peoria Notre Dame Fr. Adam Stimpson) is a prolific author. Her books include compelling and engrossing reads on a variety of topics, from The American Catholic Almanac to These Beautiful Bones.

In The Catholic Table, Stimpson Chapman turns her attention to the meeting of food & faith, and how an integrated, healthy faith assists in having a healthy relationship with food. Her focus is the concept of “sacramental life,” the idea that we are meant to live in the world in our body.

She candidly shares her own struggles with eating disorders, as well as her reversion to her Catholic faith. Peppered throughout the book are ingenious sidebars with information about “Patron Saints of Cooking,” quotes from saints on food, simple yet delicious-sounding recipes, and advice on a sensible approach towards food.

Perhaps my favorite chapter (to no one’s surprise who knows my love of Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules”) is “Kitchen Rules: A Practical Theology of Food” Stimpson Chapman’s own guidance for what she calls “Eucharistic eating,” or focusing on being not just in a body, but a person, body & soul. Her rules include such good goals as, “Eat Communally,” “Eat Liturgically,” and other ideas.

Meet a Reader: Fr. Alexander Millar {@TheCatholicPost}

Following is the “Meet a Reader” feature that appears on the book page of the current print issue of The Catholic Post.

Fr. Alexander Millar

How you know me:

I am one of the Parochial Vicars at the Heart of Peoria Catholic Community, which consists of Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, St Bernard Churches and the Cathedral. We have a lot of variation in this community so it keeps us running, but it is a great gift to not only serve as a priest to these parishes but also help with the big Diocesan and Episcopal events at the Cathedral.

Why I love reading:

As Aristotle says, men desire by nature to know and books are a great way to get “to know.” They allow us to enter into and consider many ideas, view points and truths as well as be entertained. Reading shows the power of both human reason and imagination, and these really are things that show our humanity.

What I’m reading now:

I have a somewhat fractured attention span, so I am currently reading several books in parallel:

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Nicomachean Ethics and Politics by Aristotle, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith by Robert Cardinal Sarah.  I’m also rereading The Divine Comedy by Dante. I tend to read a small section of each one every day, but rarely binge on any one at any given time.

My favorite book:

Because of the many genres, it’s hard to narrow down to just one, so really I think I have two.

The first is Dune by Frank Herbert, which is a true masterpiece of science fiction and shows the depths of the genre. The second is the Mystagogia by St Maximus the Confessor, which is a mystical commentary on the liturgy of the Mass from the 5th Century. I reread the Mystagogia every Lent in preparation for Easter.

“Finish Strong” the #YearofMercy and Carry it Forward {My November column @TheCatholicPost}

Following is my November column that appears in this issue of the print edition of  The Catholic Post.

Last month, I volunteered to staff an intersection during the recent Peoria Marathon series of races, and it was a great experience. My assigned downtown intersection included both the beginning and the end of the race, so my fellow volunteers and I, in addition to directing traffic, shouted words of encouragement to the runners.  A common one for those near the end of the race was, “Finish strong!”

The Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is coming to a close this month. How can we “finish strong” as Catholics in our observance of this great jubilee and to carry it forward into our lives not just now, but also future years?   How about one more book?

33 Days to Merciful Love: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine Mercy by Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC. is that book.  It is a unique fusion of St. Therese’s “Little Way” with St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy devotion with the goal of nurturing a deep outlook of mercy towards oneself and others. While this book is tied in with the Year of Mercy, its theme is timeless and could be read beyond the November 20 end of the Year of Mercy.

Fr. Gaitley has a series of books on “do-it-yourself retreats”—his best-known likely being 33 Days to Morning Glory: A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Marian Consecration.  He’s well-known in the Peoria diocese as Bishop Jenky highly recommended “33 Days to Morning Glory,” and in September Fr. Gaitley spoke on mercy to a capacity crowd at St. Mary’s Cathedral.  The reader-friendly structure is ideal for busy modern lives: a short daily reflection, divided into four weekly “themes,” to help readers understand in small doses the things that promote growth in the spiritual life.

33 Days to Merciful Love is the best written of these.  It focuses on the writings and life of St. Therese, and how her “Little Way” is uniquely poised to help us live and accept Divine Mercy in our lives: in a small way rather than through grand gestures. Fr. Gaitley also weaves in the life and writings of St. Faustina, the “Apostle of Mercy,” whose writings and inspirations from Jesus gave us the Divine Mercy devotion.

Week One’s theme is “trust” and what it means to both radically and simply put our faith in the God who made us.

Week Two explores “The Little Way,” especially as it relates to mercy. In particular, Fr. Gaitley writes about how Therese was influenced in her early years by Jansenist spirituality, which emphasized fear and judgment.  That led to scrupulosity (excessive anxiety about one’s sins or that everyone one does is a sin) for St. Therese until she was able to overcome this through her embrace of mercy through her “Little Way.”

In the third week, Fr. Gaitley shares “The Offering to Merciful Love” and how St. Therese was inspired to make an offering to Merciful Love repeatedly.  That’s in contrast to an offering during Therese’s time that certain religious would make— to offer themselves for divine justice. Instead, St. Therese offers herself to Merciful Love in order to be a conduit of God’s grace and mercy into the world. Instead of a “victim soul” offering oneself for suffering, St. Therese proposes becoming a “victim soul” to his Merciful Love.

As Father Gaitley writes, “‘The Offering to Merciful Love’  is all about helping us grown in compassion, and it begins with having compassion for Jesus.…in short, it’s to allow Jesus to make our hearts more like his.”

Week Four’s theme, “Into the Darkness,” is the most difficult to explain in a short summary, as it’s applied in different ways each entry of the week. One concept is that the world is dark, but our faithfulness to mercy can transform that.  Another is that our hiddenness in not being “great saints” is an asset, not a liability.  This theme proposes embracing mercy more fully, including recognizing our sins but not dwelling on them, accepting our own hidden life, and embodying mercy in ways big and small.

After the four weekly themes, there is a five-day synthesis and review of the concepts and a day of “consecration.” The book closes with additional reflections.

The daily format makes it easy to read in several minute portions. While it is easy to read through the book in several short sittings, it is much more productive to read it as intended, over the course of a month or so.

In many sections, Father Gaitley explains concepts in a fresh and yet familiar way.  For instance, he describes the “thieves of hope” — ideas and discouragement he would experience from well-meaning people who would discount St. Therese’s Little Way and its impact for normal people.   Haven’t we all experienced this “thieves of hope” in our daily lives or efforts to move forward in the spiritual life?

“We can choose the path of justice or that of mercy,” Fr. Gaitley writes. “It’s about discovering extraordinary joy, happiness, and peace in the midst of regular, ordinary, day-to-day existence.” How better to close out the Year of Mercy than finishing strong by choosing and living mercy.

You might also be interested in:


(Feeling a little nostalgic as this is likely the last time I will use that meme).

Meet a Reader: Amanda Ang {@The Catholic Post}

Following is the “Meet a Reader” feature that appears on the book page of the current print issue of The Catholic Post.


How you know me:

I am pursuing my Masters in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Illinois. I go to St John’s Catholic Newman Center for Mass and I also help to cantor or set up for Mass. I grew up in Singapore and came to the University of Illinois in 2011. I am a convert and my family and I are the first Catholics in our family. We were received into the church in 2008.

Why I love reading:

Earlier in my faith life, I saw Catholicism as being part of a ‘cool club’ of ‘good people.’ As long as I checked off the check boxes and did all the things I was supposed to do (Go to confession at least twice a year, go to Mass every Sunday, etc.), I was in God’s good graces and could live the rest of my life however I wanted. In college, I realized that my faith was not, could not be, just a ‘Sunday obligation.’ It had  to be the core of every part of my life.

Previously, I had put my faith and my intellect into separate categories, but I came to realize that they both informed each other. I came to find that life in Christ was so much richer than I ever thought! I wanted to be “transformed by the renewing of my mind” (Romans 12:2). Now, spiritual reading is a regular part of my daily life. When I was young, I loved reading Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and all manner of books. Now that I am older, I know that Christ was calling me, even then, through the books I was reading, and now, continues to call me to Him.

What I’m reading now:

The Way of Trust and Love – A Retreat Guided by St Therese of Lisieux by Jacques Philippe. 

St Therese is a dear friend of mine, and each year, I try to find some time to read about her life and meditate on her spirituality. I really enjoyed another ‘personal retreat’ with her, I Believe In Love, by Fr Jean d’Elbee, and I wanted to try this one because I read another book by Jacques Philippe, Searching For and Maintaining Peace, and found it to be very beautiful and beneficial to me. This book is the transcript of some talks Fr Philippe gave as part of a retreat, and provides excerpts from St Therese’s autobiography and his advice on how to live St Therese’s Little Way in our daily lives.

In this book, Fr Philippe says, “Every crisis is a chance to grow, an invitation to undertake a certain kind of work on ourselves. […] In every trial it is essential to ask oneself a question along these lines: What act of faith am I being invited to make in this situation? What attitude of hope am I being called to live by? And what conversion in relation to love, leading to a love that is truer and purer, am I being summoned to undertake?” This is a great challenge for me – to accept all that life brings as a gift from God, and to be a “cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7) It reminds me of He Leadeth Me (Walter Ciszek), where Fr Ciszek meditates on being sent to a Russian prison for preaching the Gospel, “I had to continuously learn to accept God’s will – not as I wished it to be, not as it might have been, but as it actually was in the moment. And it was through the struggle to do this that spiritual growth and a greater appreciation of his will took place.”

I’m also reading Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a book-length interview with Pope John Paul II conducted in 1994. In it, journalist Vittorio Messori gives voice to the questions of the hearts of the faithful, from “Is there really a God?” to “Have the youth of today abandoned the Church?” I used to think of popes as faraway figures, to be respected, for sure, but I did not think they cared about me as a person, nor did I think that they would ever be a part of my life. I was so wrong! The popes are very accessible.

In it, Pope John Paul II says: “This world, which appears to be a great workshop in which knowledge is developed by man, which appears as progress and civilization, as a modern system of communications, as a structure of democratic freedoms without any limitations, this world is not capable of making man happy. […] Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world’s soul.” Every Christian is given the divine calling to ‘Go and make disciples of all the nations’, and the popes are not exempt from that. As the Vicar of Christ on earth, John Paul II sets an example for us, as the “Pope of surprises”, to witness to the Gospel at all times, “to shout from the rooftops […] that there is hope, that it has been confirmed, that it is offered to whoever wants to accept it.”

My favorite book:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read it before my conversion, but the book taught me that even in the darkest of times, there is good that is worth fighting for. The book drew me to hunger for an adventurous life, a life that would have meaning beyond what I can see, and I have found that “life with Christ is a wonderful adventure,” as St. John Paul II has said.

We Are Not Gnostics: Living Abundantly in Every Way {My October column @TheCatholic Post }

Following is my October column for  The Catholic Post.

One of the great advantages of our Catholic faith is how multifaceted it is.

For Catholics, life is not an “either/or” but a “both/and.” Catholicism is not either faith or reason—it’s both, as countless Catholic scientists throughout the centuries, many of them priests or religious, attest. (And, as St. John Paul II has written, “faith and reason are like two wings.”) It’s not about either feasting or fasting—it’s about both through the liturgical seasons, when we, for example, fast during Lent and feast during Easter time. It’s not about either emotional & physical health or spiritual health, but all of those which combine to help a person flourish.

The tradition of the Church has been to promote growth in the human virtues. Virtues are not some stodgy, judg-ey 19th century construct, but rather vivid competencies that free us to be our best selves, and help make us not just holier, but happier and healthier in all areas of life.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John (10:10).

Two new books offer practical ways to grow in virtue and have that “abundant life,” with the ultimate goal of making us happier, holier, and more whole. While the target audience for one may initially be younger readers, and the other is for adults, both books are worthwhile for readers of all ages.

Emotional Virtue: A Guide to Drama-Free Relationships by Sarah Swafford is intended for older teens and young adults, but it contains helpful guidance for everyone in navigating relationships and emotional health.

In Emotional Virtue, Swafford brings St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” into modern life, especially regarding having authentic, healthy relationships free of “use” or drama, in three progressive sections.

In “The Attack: Where Is This All Coming From?” Swafford deftly explains how the current culture, and social media in particular, makes achieving emotional maturity a very different challenge for today’s young people than when their parents were growing up. At the same time, she gives doable ways to be both aware of and to overcome those obstacles.

The chapters in “The Answer: Where Do We Go from Here?” explore what emotional virtue is, and how that is important for healthy relationships of all kinds, especially romantic relationships. Swafford makes the excellent point that there is no “altar switch” turning a person into a perfect spouse once married. Instead, a person should practice virtue and strive for emotional maturity throughout life. Acquiring those virtues brings a freedom to do the good, and helps a person be a better friend, spouse, and person in the world. As she writes, ““The stronger the good habits are reinforced, the freer I am to love.”

In “The Avenue: A Roadmap with the End in Mind,” Swafford clarifies some of the ways to become that person, by surrounding oneself by good friends also seeking the good, focusing on intentions, and the natural progression of a relationship.

One of my favorite parts of Emotional Virtue is the chapter titled: ”Finding Your Posse.” Swafford encourages young people to grow in virtue, develop authentic friendships, and spend time together in groups. Her advice about how to find a posse, (including prayer!) is helpful. Even older adults can benefit from having a “tribe” of like-minded friends.

Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us by Elizabeth Scalia is a very different book, but it focuses on the same concepts: growing in virtue makes us happier, holier, and healthier in every way.

Scalia, a longtime blogger known as “The Anchoress,” and currently English language editor-in-chief of the online publication aleteia.org, is a gifted writer with a knack for developing complex topics into compelling reading.

Little Sins Mean a Lot covers a baker’s dozen of minor bad habits that could become ingrained vices if not addressed: for instance, procrastination, passive aggression, gossip, self-neglect, suspicion, among others.

Little Sins is intensely personal; at times amusing, at times distressing, and always perceptive. As Scalia shares: “Writing this book has been a toothache of a process, mostly because it turned into–as I had predicted it would–a kind of mini-memoir, where I have been forced to confront myself.”

But that vulnerability and the personal nature makes Little Sins Mean a Lot so much more convincing, as Scalia’s stories help be personally challenging to readers self-reflect on his or her own bad habits, and consider prayerfully the remedy.

Scalia also recommends different strategies for overcoming faults, and those strategies become great nuggets of advice. In one chapter, she shares about how reading the lives of the saints can inspire action and change:

“ (It’s) not simply reading about saints, but using the examples of their lives, their own discoveries as they drew nearer to spiritual perfection, and their insights, as a kind of “lectio divina,” which means- simply put – to notice when you feel jolted or intrigued by something you have read, accept the feeling as a prompting of the Holy Spirit, and give yourself over to really thinking about the idea or biographical episode before you.”

Scalia writes with wisdom and grace about topics common and obscure. I’m not aware that Scalia is an official spiritual director or adviser, but her words in Little Sins Mean a Lot are a kind of spiritual advice compendium for our current times.

The quote from St. Francis de Sales on the back of my son’s cross country t-shirt sums up beautifully the perspective shared by these two excellent books: “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.”

Book reviews, author interviews, and more.

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