Nothing Short of a Miracle: Three New Books
Most of us get into a kind of rhythm in living our faith. We get into a groove, but sometimes the groove can become a rut. When this happens, we need something to jolt us—to make us recognize once again that we are called to much that is not yet incorporated into our daily habits. Sometimes adverse circumstances will provide this jolt, forcing us to reflect more deeply on our fundamental vocation as Christians. At other times, exposure to some fresh inspiration can do the trick. Today I want to consider three very readable books which, in significantly different ways, can supply that inspiration.
7 Secrets of Confession
We begin sacramentally with a new book about Confession from the MercySong imprint of Ignatius Press, 7 Secrets of Confession, by Vinny Flynn. Flynn is the Executive Director of MercySong Ministries of Healing, deeply influenced by St. Faustina Kowalska’s emphasis on the Divine Mercy, and the author of several successful books of basic Catholic spirituality, including 7 Secrets of the Eucharist, 21 Ways to Worship, and Mercy’s Gaze. He is also a frequent speaker in parish programs, conferences and retreats.
It is a little difficult for me to fully appreciate Flynn because he does not write for either old hands or intellectuals. The entire message of his book on Confession can be expressed in seven statements, beginning with the realization that our sins cannot change God or turn Him away from His irrevocable love, and ending with our need to let go of all those things in ourselves which impede that torrent of love. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of Flynn’s seven secrets, but there is a right and a wrong audience for his breezily emphatic treatment. The book is simply not directed at those who have already spent many years striving to acquire the mind of the Church, and in whose minds the implications of spiritual principles can be grasped more quickly and more deeply than a deliberately popular treatment can express them.
But relative beginners, among whom I include most young adults and many long-time Catholics who have not yet deeply reflected on the sacramental life of the Church, often have a fairly superficial understanding of the Sacrament of Penance as an unpleasant obligation which is somehow required to balance our books, crediting discrete acts of forgiveness against the debits of particular sins. Thus Confession can be perceived as a mechanistic obligation largely disconnected from the utterly transformational power of God’s superabundant love. For anyone who, after years of struggle, still finds the sacrament of Confession a sterile burden, the same problem generally applies.
But such a truncated appreciation of the sacrament is unlikely to withstand the almost boisterously fresh perspective of Vinny Flynn, whose understanding is deeply rooted in the parable of the Prodigal Son, for whose return the Father continuously yearns:
Wow! This is real! This is confession! No matter where you are in your life, no matter what you have done or not done, no matter what your failings, weaknesses, sins, the Father has not forgotten you. You are always in His heart. He never stops thinking about you. He is always waiting for you and, when you return to Him, He will embrace you with divine tenderness without reproach.
We turn next to the Catholic imagination, not (as the subtitle might suggest) to its many potential treasons against grace, but to a new work of literature from Sophia Institute Press, Treason: A Catholic Novel of Elizabethan England. This is the first novel of Dena Hunt who, after teaching English for many years in both high school and college, took up writing in 2006. It is a great gift to the world that she did. At 184 pages, her debut is not a long one, but it is captivating.
There are few historical parallels to the diminishing position of authentic Christianity in the contemporary West which are more to the point than the plight of Catholics in Elizabethan England. The English Crown turned the Church into an enemy of all “right thinking Englishmen” with greater rapidity and more severe persecutions than we have yet to experience today, but the pattern of public exclusion in the service of a purely political dominance is chillingly familiar. While we might not draw inspiration from our own incremental disadvantages, however, it is to be had aplenty in the sacrifice, holiness and courage of those who remained true to Catholicism in sixteenth century England.
Successful novels are built around believable characters, characters who reflect the building tensions of the story line. Dena Hunt’s characters are superbly successful, effectively reflecting the various responses to the outlawing of Catholicism in England, from the desire to share the status of the winning side, through sheer indifference, to remarkable steadfastness in faith and love. The dramatic tension was heightened in England by the Catholic need for secrecy, even from friends and servants. To take but one example of Hunt’s ability to touch the heart of these matters, one of the principal characters in Treason is a young Catholic woman who wished to be a nun but whose father thought to secure her safety through a marriage to a wealthy Anglican.
The novel captures the spirit and the strife of Elizabethan England, and the lengths to which some would go to be true to Christ and some would go to be true to the Crown—and most would go simply to get along. The reader is effectively drawn in. We care about the characters; their gains and losses belong to us; their hopes and fears are ours as well. The dramatic action comes to a head in the person of a new young priest sent to western Somerset to replace a man who has been discovered and sent to the Tower, to face torture and certain death. As the crisis looms, we may well recognize our own impending crisis, and gather strength against that day.
Nothing Short of a Miracle
We come finally to the inspiration for the title of this essay, a major offering from Sophia Institute Press in which veteran Catholic author Patricia Treece focuses, as the subtitle explains, on “God’s healing power in modern saints.” Nothing Short of a Miracle is a cornucopia of inspiration drawn from well-attested miracles, not from the distant past, but from declared saints, or others in process, whose work has at least clear and direct connections to our own time, and whose miracles have extended into our own day.
The book was first published in 1987 and has now been updated and expanded for this new 2013 edition. Treece (www.patriciatreece.com) is one of the foremost experts on the saints of the past century and a half, and has written books for several different publishers, including volumes devoted to St. Maximilian Kolbe, Thérèese of Lisieux, Padre Pio, and John XXIII. In this book on modern miracles, she focuses on the wonders performed both in life and after their deaths by André Bessette, John Bosco, Francis Xavier Cabrini, Solanus Casey, John Neumann, John Paul II, Stanislaus Papczynski, Padre Pio, Luigi Scrosoppi, Francis Xavier Seelos, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Fulton Sheen, Teresa of Calcutta, and Maria Troncatti.
Whether the miracles occurred at the hands of one of these figures or later through their intercession, the various cases are explored in considerable detail, capturing all the anguish and joy—and often the concomitant spiritual growth—in each unique situation. This makes quotation difficult, but here is one brief account in a longer survey of Fr. Solanus Casey’s innumerable miraculous cures in Detroit, Michigan:
In 1929, hot casting lead (used in newspaper production) blew up in [John J. Regan’s] face. When Mrs. Regan got to Harper Hospital, she saw her husband’s chart and the diagnosis “permanently blinded.” She passed out. Coming to, she rushed to Fr. Solanus, who promised her John would see. Back she ran to the physician who had just operated on her husband. He assured her gravely that was impossible: the best her husband could hope for would be to tell light from dark. Two weeks later, when John Regan’s eyes were unbandaged and he said, “I see you,” to the physician, the man declared it a miracle.
It is possible, of course, to write a book about miracles which focuses so much on the material wonders that we lose sight of what the wonders signify, on our need to recognize and respond to God’s unfailing love. Patricia Treece does not make this mistake; she knows that miracles ought to be not only factually marvelous but also spiritually uplifting. In Nothing Short of a Miracle, she renews our confidence in God’s constant action in our lives.
People draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes it comes through the love and the lives of other persons we know personally. Sometimes it comes through great art, or dramatic entertainment (I always think of the musical adaptation of Les Miserables). It can come through public worship or private prayer. Good preaching, Catholic fellowship, and charitable works are also potent sources of inspiration.
For me, the sort of inspiration which both uplifts and challenges most often comes through prayerful reading, especially from Scripture, or from any book devoted to the things of God. More often than not, it is spiritual reading that lifts me out of my habitual ruts and raises the level of my response to the love of God. Whatever the catalyst, the real point is to avoid self-satisfaction, to constantly renew our awareness of and openness to the action of grace. It is a lifelong task! But here are three very different books, from which different readers might take fresh inspiration to travel further up—and ever up—the road to life.
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