Ash Wednesday is just around the corner (March 9), so I wanted to share my suggestions for great Lenten reads, and get your suggestions as well.
Also, based on some emails I’ve been getting with questions about Lent, I wanted to say: If you’re considering observing Lent but aren’t familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to go ahead and do so! If you’re not sure where to start, just give up some small thing that you like (e.g. listening to the radio on the way to work, sugar in your coffee, a certain TV show, etc.) and try to do a little more praying. You can find out more here at Marcel LeJueune’s excellent “All About Lent” post.
I first observed Lent a few years ago, before I was Catholic or Christian — in fact, I wasn’t even sure I believed in God! — and it was a very transforming experience. I hadn’t read up on any of the theology behind it. I just heard people on Catholic radio talking about how they were giving something up, so I decided to give up something too (a food item I enjoyed). The impact of that tiny “fast,” along with trying to read more spiritual books, ended up leading to more spiritual growth than I could have imagined.
Anyway, without further ado, here is my recommended reading list:
To Know Christ Jesus by F.J. Sheed
No other book has brought the Gospels alive for me like this one. Sheed offers all sorts of interesting thoughts on the life of Christ, without veering into unfounded speculation. He mines the Scriptures and comes up with gems that I’d never seen before. It is a bit dense (I almost gave up on it about 40 pages into it), but it really picks up around page 50. If you can stick with it, you’ll be richly rewarded.
10 Prayers God Always Says Yes To by Anthony DeStefano
This slim little book is packed with all sorts of interesting thoughts about what God’s will is for you, and how to grow closer to God in times in silence. I found it to be particularly helpful in the discussion of the age-old “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” question. This is the perfect read if you’ve been feeling angry with God, wondering why he’s silent, feeling like he hasn’t been answering your prayers, etc. (I first discovered it through this recommendation from a mother whose only child was murdered in the Virginia Tech shootings.)
He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek
This stunning autobiographical account of Fr. Ciszek’s wrongful imprisonment in Russia is one of the most life-changing books I’ve ever read. I read it more than a year ago and yet I still find myself thinking about it almost daily.
What was most surprising to me was how applicable the lessons he learned are to modern American life. His insights about everything from suffering to discerning God’s will to trusting God in all things — which he learned the hard way during five years of brutal solitary confinement and fifteen years in a Siberian death camp — are amazingly inspiring, whether you’re experiencing great suffering or just feeling numbed by the daily grind. I particularly loved his thoughts on how to maintain a lively spiritual life even when life feels mundane or boring. I highly, highly recommend this book.
Journey to Easter by Pope Benedict XVI
Based on a Lenten retreat he gave for John Paul II in the 1980′s (hosting a retreat to help John Paul II grow in faith — how’s that for pressure?!), Pope Benedict XVI walks us through a series of meditations based on Scripture readings for Lent. I admit that there were two or three chapters that were just way over my head, but the rest of the book offered powerful insights on everything from prayer to the Paschal mystery to conversion to the Church. I find myself going back to this book over and over again for inspiration. An excellent read for Lent.
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
When I first read the 17th century classic Introduction to the Devout Life, I didn’t feel like I got that much out of it. When I reached the last chapter I felt like I’d enjoyed reading it but couldn’t point to anything specific I’d taken away from it. Then I picked it up off my desk one day and, as I flipped through and re-read the various passages I’d starred and highlighted, I realized just how much I really had taken away from this book.
Now that I’ve gone through it again, I count it among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s the ultimate how-to manual for conforming yourself to Christ. Also, perhaps because the books is based on de Sales’ letters of spiritual direction to his sister and other women who wanted to grow in faith, I find that his advice perfectly fits the things I struggle with on a day to day basis as a wife and mother. Just know that you may have to read it more than once to have the lessons really sink in.
Finding God’s Will for You by Francis de Sales
How do we know what God wants us to do? Should we try to discern God’s will even for little decisions like what to eat for dinner? What if we pray and it seems like God is telling us nothing at all? These were the questions I had when I decided to get a copy of this book. I found good answers to those questions and a whole lot more: the book has lots of practical advice for daily living that you can start applying to your life right now. It’s also a little bit less dense and more readable than Introduction to the Devout Life.
What are your recommendations for Lenten reading?
I hate to admit this, but I’ve come to associate Advent with EPIC FAIL. (And preparing the way for the glorious birth of Christ, of course. That and EPIC FAIL.)
Every year for the past three years I’ve tried lead my family in some of the rich traditions that this beautiful part of the liturgical year offers. And every year I end up getting overwhelmed and giving up around the second Sunday, the Advent decorations peeking out from the clutter on our mantle now serving primarily as a reminder that I don’t have my act together.
As I’ve contemplated this upcoming Advent, my fourth as a Christian, I’ve realized a few of things:
- I am more easily overwhelmed than most people.
- I have four kids under age seven (well, I guess I already knew that one).
- I have very little experience with this season; neither my husband nor I celebrated it growing up.
Considering those factors, I realized that the problem is that I’m trying to do too much. Even most of the books and websites that offer “simple” suggestions for Advent are above my level right now. Keeping up with an Advent wreath, Jesse tree, countdown calendar, special daily Advent prayers, arts and crafts projects and seasonal baking projects sounds like it wouldn’t be all that much, especially when it’s spread out over a season. But it is for me. By a long shot.
A lot of you are familiar with Fly Lady, the home organization guru who advocates that people who follow her system start with “baby steps,” i.e. doing a few extremely simple things to get your feet wet. (For example, her system will eventually lead you to an entire home makeover, but she suggests that you begin by just putting on your shoes and cleaning your sink. That’s it.)
So here’s my question for you:
What are some “baby steps” I could take to begin bringing the many traditions of Advent into my home?
The more specific, the better. And feel free to include yours, even if others have already commented. I’m sure there are other people who struggle with this, and what works for one person may not work for another.
Also, let me hasten to add that I know that all these great traditions aren’t ends in and of themselves: the goal is to bring us closer to Christ, to prepare our hearts and minds to behold the miracle of Christmas — and you can certainly do that without lighting a single Advent candle. Don’t worry, I don’t think that participating in Advent rituals will act as a magic bullet that instantly makes me holier and better prepared for Christmas.
I do think, however, that the activities of the liturgical year can point our hearts in the right direction (I often think of it as breathing with the Body of Christ); and I think that the rhythmic celebrations of the different seasons are deeply comforting and enriching for children. So it is important to me to make Advent a part of our family’s lives. Hopefully your baby step ideas will get me off to a good start!
UPDATE: Some weird technical glitch made comments closed. Anyway, it’s up now. Comment away!
As I mentioned the other day, until recently I didn’t understand what Advent was all about. Actually, I didn’t completely understand what Lent, Easter or Christmas were all about either. The significance of the different seasons of the liturgical year was one of the last things that I researched in my long road from atheism to Catholicism; I had so many other tough concepts to explore that figuring out why Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays was the least of my worries.
But I went through the motions anyway.
In 2006, before my husband and I were even certain we were going to convert to Catholicism, I decided to participate in traditional Lenten practices. I’d heard people on the Catholic radio station talking about what they were giving up for Lent, and I decided to give something up too. I didn’t know exactly why I was doing it, but it sounded right on a gut level that it might be a good thing to take a step back from the decadence of modern life for a while, so I gave up something I really enjoyed: wheat/flour products. It was very difficult to pass up goodies like cookies, cakes, pasta, pizza and breads, but I stuck to it for all of Lent.
Giving up so many of my favorite foods for such a long time without a selfish ulterior motive like wanting to lose weight did an interesting thing to my state of mind: it naturally left me thinking about how often I felt entitled to whatever I wanted, and how rebellious I was at the whole concept of sacrifice.
The physical surroundings at the parish church where we were regular visitors only reinforced this mindset. The decorations were sparse, and the priests wore robes that were deep purple, the color of penance. The music was slow-tempo, serious and occasionally somber. There were no festivities on the parish calendar, other than the weekly Friday night fish fry where people got together to eat a meat-free dinner. The entire parish seemed to be in a slower, reflective state.
When the weeks-long Easter season rolled around, it was like a great exhaling to shift gears and begin a time of feasting, lavish decorations and joyous singing. The altar that had been bare for all of Lent was now banked with colorful, fragrant flowers as the choir belted out bright, merry tunes. Once again, even having only a basic awareness of what the Easter season was about, I naturally fell into a celebratory mood. It had been good to take a big step back from it all during Lent, and now it felt equally good to balance that with merriment and celebrations during Easter.
When Advent began later in the year, once again I merely mimicked what I saw other families doing, taking time to talk with the children about nice things we could do to make the baby Jesus happy, or lighting an increasing number of candles as the pre-Christmas weeks wore on. Our church was decorated with some simple green trees — nothing like the lavish decorations we’d see in the 12-day Christmas season that began on Christmas day, but pretty nonetheless. I noticed that they had the one candle lit, and knew that we would not see them all lit until the end of this season.
It wouldn’t be until months later that I really began to internalize the profound truths at the root of these practices, to embrace Advent as a season of waiting, or to have Lent inspire me to awe at the greatest mystery ever seen. For quite a while I was simply, almost blindly drawing close to the great Body of Christ, inhaling when it inhaled, exhaling when it exhaled. And yet these motions began to have a profound effect on my soul, even when I didn’t know the how’s and why’s behind them. It started me thinking in the right direction, regularly breaking me out of the apathetic routines and thought processes of my daily life as I changed my habits to move the with motion of the Church. This “breathing” with the Body of Christ functioned as a sort of CPR to resuscitate me from the spiritually dead state I was in.
Obviously it’s not ideal to go on too long participating in customs that you don’t completely understand, and I certainly have a deeper, more spiritually fulfilling relationship to the liturgical year now that I understand each of its seasons better. But, as another Advent rolls around and I’m reminded of how I once didn’t understand this season at all, I’ve been thinking about how much the soul benefits from participating in the liturgical year, even when a person is just going through the motions. The simple process of clinging to the Body of Christ, breathing in and out along with its gentle rhythms, can be the beginning of the resuscitation process that will lead a suffocating soul back to life.
- An Advent radio retreat (Franciscan Radio)
- By Sun and Candlelight and Waltzing Matilda are both good blogs for getting inspiration for celebrating the liturgical year
- My thoughts on living the liturgical year after a life of atheism
It started back in 2005, when I was still researching Christianity and not sure that I believed its claims. I’d be driving around, yapping into my cell phone, glaring at people who drove too slowly as I rushed to buy presents I should have bought weeks before, and then I’d catch sight of some nativity scene and all my racing thoughts would stop. For just a moment, I’d remember that I had a question to answer far bigger than what I should get my husband for Christmas.
During this time I always paused when I heard the song What Child is This?, its slow, ethereal melody sending chills down my spine, the simple question it asked seemingly whispered in my ear by something closer than the tinny mall sound system.
It haunted me, challenged me, to stop everything and consider the baby who was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, to look at the manger scenes that dotted the winter landscape of my city, and ask:
What child is this?
When I thought of the implications of the answer, I was stunned to see that it was not only the most important question I could be asking right now, but the most important question I could ever ask. I came to see that if this child was who the Christians said he was, the question of his identity was the only question that really matters.
And even though I’ve now found the answer, the song haunts me still, because the question it states leaves another one unspoken:
Am I living like I really believe the answer?