“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”– Francis Bacon (1605)
In May 1521, a 29-year-old Spaniard by the name of Ignatius of Loyola was gravely injured during the French bombardment of the Spanish fortress at Pamplona. A cannonball passed between both his legs, completely shattering one of them and badly injuring the other. The young man almost died from his wounds, and he was forced to spend long months in bed recuperating. Once he began to recover, he asked if he could be given some books to help him pass the time. Normally, his preference would have been “worldly books of fiction, commonly labeled chivalry.”1 But the only books available were a life of Christ and a book on the lives of the saints.
Ignatius read these books many times during his long and tedious recovery, and “he became rather fond of what he found written there.”2 He also spent hours daydreaming – “[thinking] about the things of the world that he used to think of before.”3 Hours slipped away without him even noticing as he “imagined what he would do in the service of a certain lady; the means he would take so he could go to the place where she lived; the quips – the words he would address to her; the feats of arms he would perform in her service.”4 At times, however, thoughts inspired by the books he had been reading about Our Lord and the saints would interrupt his daydreams. “What if I should do what St. Francis did, and what St. Dominic did?” he wondered.5
As Ignatius continued to ponder these thoughts, he noticed a difference in how they impacted his state of mind. “When he was thinking of those things of the world he took much delight in them, but afterwards, when he was tired and put them aside, he found himself dry and dissatisfied. But when he thought of going to Jerusalem barefoot, and of eating nothing but plain vegetables and of practicing all the other rigors that he saw in the saints, not only was he consoled when he had these thoughts, but even after putting them aside he remained satisfied and joyful.”6 St. Ignatius ultimately made a choice for God, and his understanding of the ‘discernment of spirits’ became a great gift to the Church that has helped countless numbers of people discern God’s voice in their lives.
Be careful what you read …
“Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.” – Proverbs 4:237
Hundreds of years have passed since Ignatius first recognized the significance of interior movements, but the human mind and heart haven’t changed. We know that how we spend our time impacts the way we live our lives – not just spiritually, but also emotionally and physiologically. ‘Deep reading’ is associated with positive physical and psychological outcomes, such as a decrease in stress, an increase in empathy, improved memory and writing ability, enhanced connectivity in the brain, and improved brain function.8 Reading encourages creativity and might even afford some protection against Alzheimer’s Disease.
But not all reading is equal. We can choose to read things that elevate our minds and feed our souls – or we can settle for things that leave us feeling restless and discontented. Spiritual reading provides us with a unique opportunity to engage in deep reading: to be captivated, to draw closer to Christ, and to grow in our faith.
Great Summer Reads
Our busy work and school schedules will soon give way to the more relaxed pace of summer. Many of us will have more time to read, something that can seem to be a luxury at other times of the year. There’s a wealth of great literature out there, so if you’re looking for something that will leave you feeling satisfied, joyful, and fulfilled, here’s a few great Catholic books you might want to consider.
1. Michael O’Brien – The Father’s Tale
I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Michael O’Brien’s books over the years, so when a friend recommended this novel to me, I decided to check it out. The Father’s Tale is the story of Alexander Graham, a reclusive, widowed bookseller living in a small Canadian town. His life is turned upside down when his youngest son, Andrew, disappears from school without a trace. Determined to find him, Alexander mortgages everything he owns and sets out on a nearly year-long journey that takes him halfway round the world.
Much like Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Hobbit, Alex at first hates the idea of adventures that are “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”9 But he grows into his role as a father who not only waits, but who seeks his lost sheep. This epic retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Good Shepherd has been described as “a rich tale of self-discovery that entails symbolism, mysticism, and the everlasting love of The Father for his sons and daughters as He pursues them like the Hound of Heaven.”10
2. C.S. Lewis – The Great Divorce
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” – C.S. Lewis
I love C.S. Lewis, and of all his books, The Great Divorce is one of my favourites. In it, the narrator finds himself in Hell boarding a bus bound for Heaven. When he arrives, he discovers that everyone is welcome to stay … but not everyone chooses to do so. The Great Divorce isn’t a long book, but it made a powerful impression on me when I first read it. It’s a thought-provoking meditation on good and evil, grace and judgment, and this article by Bishop Robert Barron, Why You Should Read C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” has inspired me to want to read it again.
3. Leo Maasburg – Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait. 50 Inspiring Stories Never Before Told.
No list of Catholic books would be complete without a book about the life of a saint. They are just so inspiring! Fr. Leo Maasburg, the author of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait, is an Austrian priest who was St. Teresa’s close companion for many years. He traveled with her throughout the world, heard her confessions, said daily Mass, gave retreats for the Sisters, and even helped Mother Teresa carry her luggage.
“From the very first moment,” he writes, “she reminded me of my grandmother.”11 He describes St. Teresa of Calcutta as very much a contemplative in the world: fascinatingly normal, completely natural, genuinely humble, and extremely witty. In this affectionate and intimate portrait, Fr. Leo shares 50 stories about this dynamo saint who prayed constantly and whose heart was always set on the Lord.
4. Edward Sri – Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love
I wish I’d read Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love many years ago. I’m convinced that if every person meditated deeply on the concepts discussed in these pages, there would be a dramatic increase in the joy experienced within marriage – and a correspondingly dramatic drop in the rate of divorce. I know it would have saved me a lot of heartache.
Edward Sri unpacks the teachings of St. John Paul II (drawn from JPII’s book, Love and Responsibility) in a way we can all understand. Practical and down to earth, he addresses relationship issues common to us all: what makes a true friendship, the two main ways men and women are attracted to each other, how to tell whether a relationship is one of authentic love or doomed to failure, and the differences between men and women and their unique needs in marriage. Dr. Sri draws from real-life experiences to help us understand the difference between feeling we’re in love and love itself, how to win the fight for purity, and how to grow in intimacy. Regardless of your state in life – whether you are single, in a relationship, or married – this book will help you understand the true meaning of love.
5. Daniel C. Mattson – Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexual Reality and Found Peace
Daniel Mattson’s book gives us a glimpse into his struggle to reconcile his attraction to men with his faith in God. But it is not just a book meant for those who share his experience of Same Sex Attraction; his message is relevant to us all. Who among us has not experienced loneliness or suffering? Who among us is not called to live a chaste life? I think this description of his book summarizes it perfectly: “Part autobiography, part philosophy of life, and part a practical guide in living chastely, the book draws lessons from Mattson’s search for inner freedom and integrity, sharing wisdom from his failures and successes. … Mattson’s book is for anyone who has ever wondered who he is, why he is here, and, in the face of suffering, where to find joy, happiness, and the peace that surpasses all understanding.”12
6. Mitch Pacwa, S.J. – Father, Forgive Me, for I Am Frustrated
I didn’t want to bring this book home. I was already reading at least 5 other books at the time, and I was determined to finish them before starting another. But something about the title captured my attention. I picked it up, and before I knew it, I was hooked.
For various reasons, at times many Catholics feel out of step with the Church. Perhaps they’ve encountered priests who are too liberal or too unbending, liturgies that are too ‘colourful’ or too bland, policies that seem to be changing too quickly or too slowly. People may feel discouraged when parishes aren’t able to provide them with the spiritual nourishment or direction they need. Some wonder if they’d be better off at another parish, while others consider giving up on the Church altogether. If you’ve ever felt this way, this book is for you. Although there are no quick fixes or easy answers, Fr. Pacwa’s book is full of realistic, practical advice to help you grow in your faith journey – right where you’ve been planted.
7. Robert Cardinal Sarah – The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise
Robert Cardinal Sarah’s first book, God or Nothing, gave us a fascinating glimpse into the life and spiritual journey of this faith-filled African cardinal. I couldn’t wait to get his new book, and from the moment I turned the first page, I knew that The Power of Silence was going to be one of those books meant to be ‘chewed and digested’.
The world is a noisy place. Life can get so crazy, and it is increasingly difficult (though ever more necessary!) to find moments of quiet in our everyday lives. But Sarah makes it clear that quiet and silence are not the same thing. Although quiet is a condition for silence, silence is the place where God is present. It is silence that defines us, and it is by waiting for God in silence that He will bring about our interior transformation.13 I’m only part way through this book as I’ve been reading it one question at a time, slowly and silently savouring the responses. For, as Cardinal Sarah observes, silence is the indispensable doorway to the divine. It must be “God or nothing, silence or noise.”14
8. Dante – The Divine Comedy
Last, but not least, I couldn’t resist including Dante’s Divine Comedy. This book has been on my bucket list for years. Normally, poetry is not my thing, but I’m making an exception as I know that this is one of the greatest literary works of all time.
The Divine Comedy (1308-1320) is an epic poem about a trip through the afterlife. It’s divided into three sections describing Dante’s travels through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Heaven (Paradise). There are a lot of different translations available (it was originally written in Italian), so it’s worth digging around to find the one that’s the best fit for you. Happy reading! See you in paradise!
Sharon van der Sloot
P.S. – If you’re looking for some extra recommendations, check out this post at Great Summer Reads.
1St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, trans. Parmananda R. Divarkar; from Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, ed. George E. Ganss, S.J. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1991), 70.
6 Ibid., 71.
7 Bible: Good News Translation(American Bible Society, 1992), available from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+4%3A23&version=GNT; Internet; accessed 9 May 2018.
8 These outcomes are associated with deep reading, that is, “reading that is slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity. [Deep reading] is distinctive from light reading – [which is] little more than the decoding of words.” Quoted from Susan Reynolds, “What You Read Matters More Than You Might Think (June 7, 2016),” Psychology Today; available from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prime-your-gray-cells/201606/what-you-read-matters-more-you-might-think; Internet; accessed 7 May 2018.
9 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (New York: HarperCollins eBook), Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party.”
10 Review by Gerard Webster of “The Father’s Tale,” available at https://www.amazon.ca/Fathers-Tale-Michael-OBrien/dp/089870815X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1525813561&sr=1-1&keywords=a+father%27s+tale; Internet; accessed 8 May 2018.
11 Fr. Leo Maasburg, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), Kindle Edition, 1.
12 Book Description, Daniel Mattson, Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay: How I Reclaimed My Sexuality and Found Peace; Amazon.ca;available fromhttps://www.amazon.ca/Why-Dont-Call-Myself-Gay/dp/1621640728/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1525907291&sr=8-1&keywords=why+i+don%27t+call+myself+gay; Internet; accessed 9 May 2018.
13 Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016), 25.
14 Ibid., 67.