Doesn’t matter how long Lent is, don’t start your spiritual reading late: 10 books
To settle an old question my way, you subtract the Sundays from the traditional length of the Season of Lent (Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday) to get your 40 days, and you don’t worry about whether or not you observe your personal Lenten sacrifices on the Sundays. You can do it or not, without criticism by those who cannot count. I grant that this is simplistic, but I am defensive when it comes to “these forty days”.
I also grant that the Sacred Triduum (the evening of Holy Thursday, all day Good Friday, and Holy Saturday before the Easter Vigil) confuses the issue, especially since the adjustments made to the liturgical calendar by Pope Pius XII. In the Catholic Church, there is now a great (and very welcome) emphasis on the Triduum as a liturgical period all its own: Not what we might call a “season”, but three days that are not technically part of either Lent or Easter. Unfortunately, this reduces the days in the Season of Lent to something like 43.5, still too many for those who claim the Sundays must be sacrificial, but too few for my solution of continuing to celebrate every Sunday as a mini-Easter.
Thus do matters over the centuries often become confused, and it can rightly be cited against all my theories that “forty days” is a symbolic number—reminiscent of both the Great Flood and Our Lord’s withdrawal into the desert—and so we are not bound by any personal stubbornness to find a way to count it out, um, correctly.
Posture as I may, of course, my speculations serve principally to distract me from preparing to keep Lent well, no matter how long or short it is. The result is that I frequently do not figure out what special spiritual reading I will do in Lent until after it starts. Even in the days of speedy delivery, this often leads me to find something on the shelf that I can read again.
That’s not a bad practice—I mean reading great books repeatedly, especially in the Bible—but if you are looking for something brand new and hot off the press, you might find one of the following to be just what you need, and there is still time to order online.
Programmatic books suitable for Lent
The first four come from Sophia Institute Press. As is typical with Sophia’s offerings, these books are all fairly straightforward, with an organization well-suited to those who want something to read in measured steps over a set period of time (though only the first is specifically designed to match a few pages to each individual day of Lent):
- A Lenten Journey: Fr. Edward Looney, a Marian theologian and a priest serving the Diocese of Green Bay in rural Wisconsin, presents us with A Lenten Journey with Mother Mary. Here we have a programmatic meditation and action item for each day of Lent, including the Triduum, and the octave of Easter, ending on Divine Mercy Sunday. Themes include examining our conscience, prayer and learning to pray, and personal healing. [Sophia Institute Press, 2019, 188pp, paper, $14.95]
- Entering into the Easter Mystery: Christopher Carstens, a father of eight, serves as the Director of the Office of Sacred Worship in another Wisconsin diocese, La Crosse. He is also the editor of the justly revered Adoremus Bulletin (Adoremus being the foremost American organization promoting a genuine renewal of the Sacred Liturgy). In a brand new book—A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery—Carstens explores several themes appropriate to Lent, Easter and Pentecost, under intriguing “How to” chapter titles, such as “How to Obey Orders”, “How to Enter the Promised Land” and “How to be Re-created”—nine chapters in all. [Sophia Institute Press, 2019, 235pp, paper, $18.95]
- Discernment of Spirits: Another approach to strengthening our spiritual life is to become more aware of how to discern the spirits that prompt us one way or the other, and to learn how to reject the wrong spirits and be transformed by the right ones. That’s not a bad project for Lent, and so Dan Burke introduces this delicate topic and offers fourteen rules in Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits. Dan is the president of EWTN News and president and founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, which offers graduate and personal enrichment studies in spiritual theology to priests, religious, and laity in seventy-two countries, and prepares men for seminary in fourteen dioceses. [Sophia Institute Press, 2019, 117pp, paper, $12.99]
- Fulton Sheen on Prayer: A fourth new book of spirituality from Sophia is an anthology of writings by the famously eloquent Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Entitled Lord, Teach Us to Pray, this 245-page collection offers Sheen’s reflections on the Seven Last Words, Calvary and the Mass, the Holy Hour, the Stations of the Cross, Thoughts for Meditation, and Prayers of Meditation and Petition. [Sophia Institute Press, 2019, 245pp, paper, $18.95]
Sinking spiritual wells
The next three books are explorations of deep spiritual topics in ways that are not expressly designed for step-by-step instruction or meditation. These come from Ignatius Press and are, in fact, typical of Ignatius’ tendency to sink deep wells for those who are not looking for more measured guidance:
- The Challenges of Contemplation: Fr. Donald Haggerty offers his reflections on Contemplative Enigmas: Insights and Aid on the Path to Deeper Prayer. Fr. Haggerty is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York serving at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He has taught moral theology in Maryland, New York, and Ethiopia, and given many retreats to the Missionaries of Charity. In a dozen chapters, he discusses self-offering, the loss of self, the language of silent love, thirsting effort in prayer, simplicity, transcendence, “night trials” in contemplation, the desert of deeper prayer, contemplative poverty, conversion to a love for prayer, and hidden traits and obscure struggles. There is an excellent bibliography. [Ignatius Press, 2020, 281pp, dust jacket paperback, $15.26]
- Death and Eternal Life: Nicolas Diat is a French Journalist, perhaps best known for his collaboration with Robert Cardinal Sarah in his trilogy of works defending the tradition of Catholicism championed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, published over the past few years. Now Diat has travelled to eight European monasteries to have deep conversations with the monks about their fear of death and how they approach and resolve that fear. The result is A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life. This book explores, through the experiences of the monks, the peace, pain, humility, sorrow, and joy of death. [Ignatius Press, 2019, 149pp, dust jacket paperback, $15.26]
- A Mystic’s Contribution: The mutual influence occasioned by Hans Urs von Balthasar’s spiritual direction of the German mystic Adrienne von Speyr prompted many dramatic—if sometimes challenging—insights. Ignatius Press, which has been in the vanguard of the renewal of Catholic publishing for more than a generation, has a deep appreciation for both figures. Its latest offering in this line is von Speyr’s deep and prayerful reflections on three women we encounter with Christ in the New Testament: Mary Magdalen, the woman caught in adultery, and Mary of Bethany: Three Women and the Lord. [Ignatius Press, 1986 updated in 2020, 124pp, $9.72]
Catholic project books
Let me close with three more new books from Ignatius Press, which are in the category of major academic studies or reference works. I am thinking that these might make excellent projects, begun in Lent, for priests, theologians, and other scholars of Catholic renewal. But they are spiritual reading only if you deliberately focus on them in that way:
- The Eucharist: Helmut Hoping is Professor of Dogmatics and Liturgy on the Theological Faculty of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Ignatius has just published his definitive “History and Theology of the Eucharist” as read especially through the insights of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI. Entitled My Body Given for You, it is a thoroughly scholarly work, complete with valuable appendices, a massive bibliography, and a superb index. It explicates the Last Supper, the celebration of the Eucharist among the early Christians, the Eucharist in the Patristic era, the Roman Mass until about 1000 AD, the reality of the Eucharist and its veneration, the Reformation and the Council of Trent, the history of the “Tridentine” Mass, the Second Vatican Council and the reform of the missal, the celebration of the Mass and the unity of the Roman Rite, the theology of the words of institution, Eucharistic ecclesiology and ecumenism, and the Eucharist as Sacrament of the Gift. For scholars, this has unparalleled value. [Ignatius Press, 2019, 538pp, paper, $30.56]
- Ressourcement after Vatican II: Theologians will already know what my bold subtitle means. The founder of Ignatius Press, Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ has many remarkable achievements to his credit, not least of which is the Press itself. Following in the footsteps of the theological giants of the twentieth century, such as de Lubac, von Balthasar, and Ratzinger, not to mention the philosophical genius of Pope St. John Paul II, Ignatius Press has been in the forefront of publishing works which defend, advance and deepen our understanding of the Catholic Faith by returning to the sources of Scripture, the Fathers, and the immense Catholic tradition which seemed to be fractured in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Now, a group of scholars has contributed a series of significant essays in honor of Fr. Fessio, published together under the title Ressourcement after Vatican II. Edited by Nicholas Healy and Matthew Levering, this “Festschrift” includes trenchant essays by the two editors, David Schindler, David Meconi SJ, Aaron Riches, Michael Dauphinais, Peter Caserella, Stephen Fields SJ, Joseph Flipper, Francesca Murphy, Matthew Ramage, D. C. Schindler, and Anne Carpenter—covering many of the key controversies, persons and themes involved in the faithful renewal of Catholic theological understanding over the past three generations. There is a fine index. [Ignatius Press, 2019, 383pp, $21.21]
- Recovering Catholic ceremony: Finally, Ignatius has published a new and comprehensive edition of Bishop Peter J. Elliott’s indispensable guidance for altar servers: Ceremonies Explained for Servers according to the Roman Rite. This is an illustrated “manual for altar servers, acolytes, sacristans, and masters of ceremonies” by a consulter to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship who served on the Vatican Commission that prepared the Anglican Use for Personal Ordinariates, and the author of impressive books on Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite and Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year. It is indispensable for priests who want to improve the training of altar servers, for those who train the servers, and for older servers who want to excel at the complete Catholic ceremonial. Not a bad goal to begin aiming for in Lent! [Ignatius Press, 2019, 314pp, paper, $21.21]
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