Books to Buy for Mother’s Day (Or New Alumnae)

Mother’s Day is coming up, and for many of us, that means shopping for the perfect present, whether it’s for your mom, your wife, your godmother, your children’s godmothers, your sister, or a woman who’s been like a mother to you or your kids. (Plus graduation’s coming up, and many of us are looking for gifts for young female grads, as well.) And while flowers are nice and jewelry is lovely, there’s really nothing better than a good book.1 So here are some of my favorite books written by female authors and largely geared towards women–which isn’t, of course, to say that you have to get a book written for women, just that this is a women’s holiday and these are (largely) women’s books. Pick from one of these and you won’t be disappointed.

Ponder is a book of reflections on the rosary that uses lectio divina and some journaling techniques to help women enter deeply into the mysteries of the rosary. It’s a beautiful book to help you get started reading Scripture or to transform the way you pray the rosary. There’s a great online community where women share their reflections and experiences of praying through the readings, or you can get your own group together to meet up each week. Plus, I wrote two of the essays!2

There’s also a children’s version available so your kids can practice reading Scripture, too. Designed for 8-13-year-olds, it’s got coloring pages, puzzles, and discussion questions to get you praying with your kids.

Jen Fulwiler’s new book, One Beautiful Dream, is simply amazing. She writes about her struggle to balance life as a mom with doing what she’s passionate about, but it’s a book that will speak to the heart of any Christian, particularly women. I wrote more about it here, but suffice it to say that it’s riotously funny and also likely to make you weep.

The best women’s Bible study book I’ve ever encountered is Who Does He Say You Are? by Colleen Connell Mitchell. Colleen enters deeply into Scripture and wrestles with the stories like a Protestant instead of using them as a framework to make a point, as Catholic Bible studies often do. When I read this book, I kept getting frustrated because she would say something that would just wreck me and I didn’t have time for deep introspection at the moment. I learned to read right before my holy hour because every time I read, the Holy Spirit started working. It’s great for a group study or just for an individual looking to get to know the Gospels better.

If you know a woman who doesn’t yet have a Bible (or doesn’t have a Catholic Bible, or doesn’t have a Bible she likes), the new Catholic Journaling Bible is just lovely.3 It’s got beautiful artwork and calligraphy and wide margins that make me almost sinfully jealous. It’s the NABRE (the translation we use at Mass) complete with footnotes, and it would make a beautiful guest book at a wedding.

My Sisters the Saints, by Colleen Carroll Campbell, is a powerful memoir that will appeal to women across the spectrum, from agnostics to daily communicants. Campbell’s journey from party girl to 20-something speechwriter for President George W. Bush to infertility to high-risk pregnancy will keep you reading, and along the way she’ll introduce you to half a dozen Saints you needed to know better. This is a particularly good gift for women who aren’t that into Jesus–everyone will find something to identify with here.

If you’d rather give a book that has more than six Saints, The Big Book of Women Saints is a great choice.4 I’m very picky about my Saints books, and while this isn’t my favorite ever, the author does an excellent job of telling the stories in a pithy way that makes you want to learn more. There’s a Saint for every day of the year, many of whom you’ve never heard of before, and a Scripture to go along with her. Plus there are quotations from many of the Saints so you can read her actual words. It’s a great way to make some new Saint friends, and with an entry each day, it’s a good invitation to have some discipline in your spiritual life.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read Mary Haseltine’s new book on pregnancy and birth, but everyone I love loves it. My friend Christina said Made for This: The Catholic Mom’s Guide to Birth is the only book you need to read about pregnancy and childbirth, and that woman read a ton of books when she was pregnant. If you know a woman who’s expecting–even if it’s not her first baby–this is a must-read.

And now for something completely different: Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers is a beautiful book about God’s love for the human soul. Rivers was a romance novelist before she met Jesus, and this book reads something like a historical fiction romance novel, but with powerful themes that will honestly transform your prayer life. Redeeming Love is a retelling of the book of Hosea set in the Gold Rush, with Michael Hosea modeling the love of Jesus for his bride. I’ll warn you that there’s some reference to sexual assault and prostitution, so you’ll want to be aware before picking up this book, but the story’s so powerful that I think it’s worth pushing through for most people. (If you want to give it to a younger woman–say, a high school girl–have her mom read it first to get a sense of whether her daughter is ready for the intimacy found in the book. It’s nothing graphic, but it could be too intense for younger girls.)

So there you have it–my favorite books for Christian women. What else ought to make the list? I’m always up for a book recommendation!

  1. Take note, gentlemen: if you’re looking to woo me, books. Also lilacs. []
  2. It’s my first time being published, so you should buy it just because you like me. []
  3. Buy it on Jet. For some reason it’s really cheap there. []
  4. Despite its unfortunate use of the word “women” as an adjective instead of the appropriate “female,” but we’ll blame the publisher for that. []

One Beautiful Dream: Not Just a Catholic Mom Book

A few years ago, Jen Fulwiler’s much-anticipated memoir came out, a book that described her conversion from atheism to Catholicism. Something Other than God was a great read–I know because I bought it as a gift for my mom and borrowed it immediately after giving it to her. I recommended it to all kinds of people as a remarkable account of Jen’s journey.

So when I heard Jen had another book coming out, I was excited. Then I read about the topic–how she balances family life and pursuing her passions. It’s a great topic, and really important, but I’m not a mom. Still, Jen’s a great writer, so I figured I’d give it a read so I could recommend it to my many mom friends.

Last week, I came home to find a package on my doorstep. Inside was One Beautiful DreamI was scheduled to be on Jen’s radio show the next day, so I figured I’d get started on the book.

I was so excited to talk to her about it the next day.

Six hours later, I closed the book with a contented (and bleary-eyed) smile and went to bed, but not before texting my sister to say good morning.1 I had read until 6 a.m. And I wasn’t a bit sorry about it.

The next day, I picked the book up again, this time with a pencil. The first time through, I had been so caught up in the story and so busy laughing that I hadn’t marked up my book. I don’t remember the last time I liked a book too much to write in it. Not to worry–I knew I needed to reread, so the second time through, I underlined and bracketed and annotated to my heart’s delight.

This book is so good.

It’s hilarious, so funny I literally laughed out loud in my house all by myself. It’s a compelling story, filled with cringe-worthy moments and cliffhangers at the end of chapters. How does a suburban homeschooling mom have so many cliffhangers in what the world would see as a mundane life? I don’t know, but Jen is a master storyteller. It’s moving, frequently bringing me to tears, then to a realization that I needed to pray about whatever point Jen had just made. Honestly, there are things in this book that I’ll be praying about for months, maybe years.

Because this isn’t a Catholic mom book. Sure, it’s great for Catholic moms. But Jen’s discussion of discernment and passion and sacrifice and being at peace with your gifts and flaws? This stuff is relevant to every Christian. So let me tell you who I think should read this book:

Catholic moms. Jen is so real about the (sometimes soul-sucking) work that comes with having a lot of little kids, or even with big kids whose needs make it hard to find time for what she calls your “blue flame,” the things that make you come alive. She talks about guilt over her discontentment in her stay-at-home mom life and how she and her husband worked on building a family culture that would be nourishing to all of them. She points out the way different women’s gifts manifest differently in motherhood and how all our competition is ridiculous. If you need to feel better about yourself as a mom, to find strategies for parenting in a way that uses your gifts, or to seek balance in your life so that you have some creative outlet, this book will inspire you in ways you can’t imagine.

Non-Catholic Christian moms. Y’all, this book is published by Zondervan. You know it’s not some crazy Catholic hoo-doo. Now, Jen’s Catholic, and she’s not trying to hide it. But this book is about a woman who loves Jesus and is trying to honor him in her life, through her family and her work. Every time she talks about funny Catholic stuff, she explains it. And her account of what was going on in her heart as God led her to have six children (as an introvert!) will help you understand some of your Catholic friends with the big old homeschooling van. Plus, all the above about peace and balance and not comparing.

Women without kids. Yes, this book is about how Jen worked to be present to her family while pursuing her passions. But ultimately, it’s about how she fought against the devil’s lies, the ones telling her she wasn’t good enough, to follow the Lord. It’s about discernment and communication. And it’s an invitation to live selflessly, whether or not self-sacrifice is foisted upon you by a gaggle of children. Believe me when I tell you that you will benefit from reading this book whether you have children or not. If for no other reason, read it so you can start sobbing at chapter 35–so beautiful.

Men with kids. Gentlemen, if you’re married, this book will give you insight into what your wife is struggling with. And while some of what this book is wrestling with is particularly difficult for women, everyone with a family and a job has to figure out what work sacrifices to make for family and what family sacrifices to make for work. Seeing the way Joe and Jen deal with tough decisions and tricky conversations might help your communication skills. If nothing else, read it for some of Joe’s gems. Like the time Jen told him she was expecting and asked how he felt about the new baby. “I want to wait until I know how you feel. I’ll be devastated or excited or whatever you want me to be.” Well played, Mr. Fulwiler. Well played.

Men without kidsHonestly, it’s just a funny book. But there are points in here that will challenge anyone, like when Jen talks about living a love-first life, about how much of our happiness lies in shifting our expectations, and about how asking for help is a gift to the person helping you. And maybe spending a few hours reading about life with a million kids will help you in your vocational discernment….

People who can’t quite seem to avoid getting pregnant. If you deal with hyperfertility and (like Bl. Maria Quattrocchi) the thought of another baby fills you with dread, reading about Jen’s experience of openness to life will give you a lot to think about. She reframes the conversation about how to survive one more baby, wondering instead how she could live without that child when she’s a 50-year-old who will visit Jen in the hospital one day. It may not get you excited for your fourth under four, but it’ll definitely give you some hope.

Whoever you are, I think you’ll enjoy this book. Unless you don’t like laughing. Or wisdom. Or laughing and crying and taking a long, hard look at your life all in the space of 3 pages. If that’s you, skip this one. Otherwise, head over to Amazon and grab a copy (or 5) today!

@jenniferfulwiler's #OneBeautifulDream comes out this week and y'all, it's amazing. I'm already rereading it and planning to write up a full review this week. Jen and her team asked some of us to share the secret to following your dreams in three words, so here you go: 1. Spend time in silent prayer every day. Even when you're distracted or exhausted, make space in your day for God and trust that he's going to form your heart even if you don't feel like your prayer time is fruitful. 2. Do what brings peace. If you pray about doing something crazy and you feel peace, go for it. If you pray about something ordinary and there's deep anxiety, ask the Lord what he's trying to say and consider that maybe you're being led to do something that doesn't make sense. 3. Don't listen to the voice of the devil trying to tell you that you're not good enough, that you've messed up, that you don't deserve to be loved. When you're tempted to quit because of these lies, remind yourself that God delights in you, whether or not you're messing up royally. Go back to step 1 and ask him for peace and direction. For real, read this book. It is NOT just a book for moms, it's a book for followers of Jesus Christ who want to be saints. (Or just people who want a good laugh–it's so funny.)

A post shared by Meg Hunter-Kilmer (@mhunterkilmer) on

FYI, I got this book for free because Jen’s awesome, but y’all know I’m too lazy to write a whole long review about a book I didn’t love. Opinions are very much my own.

  1. She asked how the book was. I said great. She asked if she could borrow it. I didn’t answer because I really didn’t want to lend it to her because I had loved it so much that I was feeling very possessive. []

An Advent Devotional You Need to Check Out

A few weeks ago, my sister sent me a Facebook message asking me if I wanted to take a look at a new Advent devotional that some of her friends had put together. Now, I’m not usually one for women’s devotionals (or devotionals of any sort, for that matter). But my sister knows this, so when she suggested Rooted in Hope, I thought it was worth a look.

Ladies, this Scripture study is an actual Scripture study! It trains the reader in lectio divina, an ancient practice of prayerfully reading Scripture, then leads you through that practice with different Scripture passages each day of Advent. But more than that, it gives you background and context for each Scriptural passage, followed by a reflection on each passage. The reflections deal with all different kinds of life experiences, with different women reflecting on the different ways they’ve learned to love God.

But the heart of the devotional is God’s Word–both excerpts in the book and additional passages that the authors point you to. It’s impossible to use this devotional well without having your Bible open alongside it, which is exactly how devotionals ought to work. Reading through Rooted in Hope, I found myself flipping to different passages, wanting to chew through the Word of God and enter more deeply into it. And on days when you might not want to take time to ruminate on the Scriptures, the text holds you accountable by inviting you to take notes on your lectio each day. It’s a gentle invitation (the editor explicitly tells you to be gentle with yourself, not to make this yet another task to accomplish, another reason to become discouraged when we fail), but one that beckons, if for no other reason than that it’s supremely unsatisfying to leave these pages blank.

Each week of the study has a different memory verse, urging us to make the Scripture a part of our daily lives. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see Catholics being encouraged to memorize Scripture–as you know, this is something I find incredibly important. Each memory verse is written out in part in a beautiful font and the editor invites you to continue meditating on this verse throughout the week, even as you’re praying with different Scriptures each day.

I have to tell you, though, the thing that most struck me was how this devotional is written for every Catholic woman–not every married Catholic mom of little ones, as often seems the case, but every Catholic woman, whatever her vocation or stage of life. Different days focus on different issues, but the authors are so deliberate about including childless women that they even use the phrase “if there is a child in your life” rather than assuming that their readers all have children. The first time I read that, I gasped–it was such a gentle affirmation of my existence, something that often seems missing in ministries directed to Catholic women. But Take Up & Read (the ministry behind this devotional) seems particularly aware of the many ways women are told they aren’t enough, and the gentle tone that pervades this devotional is so encouraging that I would expect nothing less.

For the many Catholic women who do have children, there’s also a children’s study to go along with the adult study. There are questions for children to ponder, children’s lectio sheets, reflections to help them prepare for Mass, and even puzzles to keep them interested. And all that for free!

The study starts November 30 to help you prepare for Advent, then kicks into gear on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s got monthly and weekly planning calendars to help you plan around the liturgical celebrations. Honestly, it’s just a lovely book that I think will really help you enter into Advent and prepare for the coming of Christ–and with how short Advent is this year, we need all the help we can get!

I’m so convinced that this devotional will be a blessing to you that I’m going to give away a copy–it’s my first ever giveaway!1 So comment and share and all that and one lucky winner will get a free copy of this beautiful devotional. Enter by midnight Eastern this Sunday night and see if you win! For those who don’t, you can buy your copy here. Good luck!

Enter here to win!

(I got a free copy of the book to review, but believe me, the opinions are all mine.)

  1. Wish me luck–I don’t at all know how these things work. []

Lines from a Favorite Book

When God made it clear to me that he was calling me to belong exclusively to him, I was miserable. I knew with every fiber of my being that this is what I had to do, but I wanted marriage and motherhood so badly that there was no joy in it. I consented because I knew it was God’s will. I sobbed and said, “Oh, fine.” It was basically the most unpleasant consent to a marriage proposal in the history of ever.

And I’m so glad that it happened that way. If I had been responding to a desire for consecrated life, I don’t know that I ever would have felt fully convicted. I would have worried that my motives were impure or that my discernment was clouded by my desires. Since he drew my intellect first and my affections only gradually, though, I feel confident that I’m following his will and not my own.

A few months after my snotty betrothal, I was beginning to feel some joy in my vocation but only in the tremendous shadow of my perceived sacrifice. And then I was given this book by a vocation director. I think no book has affected me more profoundly (barring the Bible, of course) than Fr. Thomas Dubay’s And You Are Christ’s. Suddenly, I began to realize that I was really terribly in love with Christ. I began to see how my vocation fit the longings of my heart. I began to let myself rejoice in being his.

I love this book so much that I give it to pretty much any woman who I think might maybe possibly ever in a million years have a vocation to consecrated life. But for those of you who can’t bring yourself to order a copy, here are all my favorite lines from the book. After you read it, I bet you’ll want to buy it in bulk for your single female friends, too.1

Excerpts from “And You are Christ’s:” The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life

by Thomas Dubay, S.M.

Gospel virginity is a love affair of the most enthralling type.  It is a focusing on God that fulfills as nothing else fulfills.

[A religious vocation is] to be head over heels in love as a divine invitation.

From our mother’s womb, indeed, before we were conceived, each of us has been personally called to the universal and most basic destiny of an eternal enthralling embrace with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You and I are to be head over heels in love with God.  All of us in every state of life are to love him as we can love no other: with wholeness of mind, heart, soul, strength (Lk 10:27).  We are to be in such deep love that the eye of our mind is on him always (Ps 25:15), that we pray to him continually (Lk 18:1), that we sing to him in our hearts always and everywhere (Eph 5:19-20).  This is the language of lovers.  Admittedly.  But the Christian virgin is to be a lover before anything else.  This is why one does what he does.  Only one who is in love gives up everything for the beloved.

The virgin anticipates the final age in which there is no earthly marriage (Mt 22:30), the final enthralling fulfillment of all human life.  Even in this world, she gives undivided attention to the Lord as her very way of life.

The virgin who fully lives her vocation is vibrantly alive, much more alive than she could be with an earthly husband, for her Beloved is infinitely more alive than any mere man could be: her heart and her flesh sing for joy to the living God (Ps 84:2).

She can now give herself up to continual prayer “day and night” (1 Tim 5:5)—devotion to prayer and more freedom for this is always the primary New Testament rationale for continence.

The celibate man and woman are thus to be consumed by nothing but doing the Father’s will (Jn 4:54).  They have no other desire, no other ambition.  They are utterly free for the kingdom, completely available to their sole love.

The Benedictines of Mary on profession day–check out the groom on the cake topper.

Actually, there is no more apt and normal image of an intimate, total self-gift between two in love than the spousal one.  Biblical writers inspired by the Spirit knew this, and they liberally used the symbolism to describe the everlasting and unfailing love of the Lord for his people.  Isaiah speaks of Yahweh rejoicing in his chosen ones as a bridegroom rejoices in his radiantly beautiful bride (Is 62:2-5).  Hosea writes of this God wooing his wife in the wilderness that he may speak to her heart and win her back from her infidelity (Hos 2:16).  The Corinthian church is for Saint Paul a virgin bride wedded to one husband, Christ (2 Cor 11:2; cf Eph 5:25f).  Each member of the ekklesia is to cling so intimately to the Bridegroom as to become one spirit with him (1 Cor 6:17), and their love is to be absolutely total—to love with their whole mind, their whole soul, their whole heart, and all their strength (Mt 22:37).  It is a love so profoundly intimate that it brings about a profound inter-indwelling, each living within the other (1 Jn 4:16).

The individual virgin embraces a way of life in which she so exclusively focuses on her one beloved that she declines a marital relationship with any other man.

A communion of love, deep prayer, and absorption in the Beloved must be the primary purpose of the virginal life.

The young woman could reject the charism and marry, but she can not reject it without doing some violence to her being.  God has captured her as only he can capture.  If she rejects his divine desire to possess her in an exclusive manner (God forces himself on no one), she hurts herself in that she turns her back on something that has been done to her.  She refuses an interpersonal gift.

The virginal charism so focuses the young woman on God that she cannot give marital attention to another person.  She has her fullness in the Lord.

Spiritual motherhood, courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

Just as a faithful married woman may be attracted to another man, and yet focuses on no other than her husband, so also a virgin may be attracted to marriage and motherhood, but she knows that she can really give full attention only to the Lord Jesus.

[On John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest considering marriage] He could not, he said, give the attention to the world that marriage requires.  God had already captured his heart with the celibate charism, and he experienced the gift whereby he could not be concerned with the things of the world.  His heart was too wide and deep, too centered on the divine.

Signs of a healthy religious vocation

  1. The first sign is a joyous non-reluctance regarding the sacrifices implied in the renunciation of all things for the sake of the kingdom. …The virgin has given up earthly marriage and motherhood, yes, but she has entered upon a still greater marriage and motherhood.
  2. The inability to give to the world the attention that marriage requires.  Even if the celibate is at a considerable distance from heroic holiness, he should feel at least something of being captured totally by the Lord for the concerns of the Lord.
  3. An ability to see through the superficiality of superficial things.
  4. A love for prayer: the priest (or nun) who is drawn to long (even if difficult and dry) prayer well understands his way of life.

The virginal heart is a large heart, too large to be satisfied in focusing on one man or woman.

God is her first choice.  He is more than first (for any person God must be first)—he is the only center of her being.

The Christian virgin is a woman in love.  I do not say simply a woman of love.  That, yes; but more.  Because her heart has been captured by her Beloved, in at least a beginning manner, she is absorbed in him.  As Paul puts it, she is not concerned with the world and its business, but with the affairs of the Lord.  As anyone really in love does, she gives her undivided attention to him (1 Cor 7:34-35).

Virginity aims at living the being-in-love Scripture everywhere supposes: “My eyes are always on the Lord…my soul yearns for you in the night…ah, you are beautiful, my beloved…with my whole heart I seek you…sing to the Lord in your hearts always and everywhere…” (Ps 25:25, Is 26:9, Sgs 4:1, Ps 119:10, Eph 5:20).  This is why the virgin puts prayer first in her life.  She is in love with God and with his people.

God calls all men and women of whatever vocation to a deep communion with himself.  He invites everyone to a prayer so profound that one becomes radiant with joy; the person tastes and sees for himself how good he is (Ps 34:5, 8).  He wants everyone to hunger and thirst for him (Ps 63:1), to pant after his word (Ps 119:131), to meditate on his message day and night (Ps 1:1-2), to rejoice in him always (Phil 4:4), to experience a joy in him so amazing that it cannot be described (1 Pt 1:8), to pray continually, all day long (Lk 18:1, Ps 84:4).

Because she is literally in love, the consecrated woman is before all else a woman of prayer.  Like Jesus himself, she is drawn irresistibly to long, frequent times of solitude with the Father.  Anyone in love desires to commune long and lovingly with the beloved.  No one has to urge her to it.

“The contemplation of divine things and an assiduous union with God in prayer is to be the first and principal duty of all religious” (Canon 663, §1).

What did the mystics write about?  A breathlessly beautiful love affair with God, a prayerful enthrallment in him, a being lost in love, immersed in it.

“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you….  I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you.  You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace” (St. Augustine).

The virgin is one who wishes a lifestyle tailor-made so that she may more readily attain that life of prayer to which Augustine refers, so that she may be “already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described” (1 Pt 1:8).

“Virgo est quae Deo nubit” (A virgin is a woman who has married God—St. Ambrose).  This formulation well expresses what is implied in the life of complete chastity: exclusive, total love, intimacy of intercommunion, unreserved self-gift, unending fidelity, service to the beloved, mutual delight.

All men and women are called to this utter fullness of God and the primary purpose of virginity is a readier path to it.

Signs of the Vocation

Can a young man or woman know with a reasonably well-founded assurance that God is calling him or her to consecrated chastity?  Given that the Lord does beckon “in a special way, through an interior illumination” (an expression of Pope Paul VI), we now ask just what this inner enlightenment may be and what signs may accompany it.

Ordinarily, the indications of a vocation to celibacy are neither flashy nor extraordinary.  The interior illumination is not a vision, not a tap on the shoulder, not a voice spoken in audible sounds waves.  Not everyone is assailed, as was Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, by a light and voice from heaven (Acts 9:3-6).  Yet we may still ask whether there is some perception of the call, some psychological awareness of the divine invitation.

The answer is yes, even though the awareness may not be what the recipient might expect.  We may, therefore, profitably reflect on it.  The young person called to consecrated chastity will have a greater than usual bent toward God, an attraction to him.  This young person will often readily see that a mere earthly existence is insufficient, fundamentally unsatisfying, basically empty.  He may indeed enjoy parties, dances, and dating, but they invariably leave him with a sense on incompleteness.  Young women attract him but he senses that none of them, no matter how beautiful, will ever fill his heart.  He wants more, much more.

During her consecration, a consecrated virgin wears a wedding dress and prostrates herself in surrender to the Lord.

We must return to what we spoke of earlier, virginity as fullness.  The young person with this gift has been given by God, at least in an incipient degree, a love-gift, a focusing on God that excludes a similar centering on anyone else.  This love-gift may be weak and dim at the beginning, but it is there.

This first sign will be accompanied by a second: an attraction to a particular celibate lifestyle (private dedication, secular institute, active or enclosed religious life), and/or a persuasion that God wants him in that form of dedication.  Some youth feel a clear, strong attraction to the active or cloistered life and together with it, a strong persuasion that God wants them there.  With these people, there is little or no doubt about the matter.  Others feel only the persuasion, more or less insistent, that God is inviting them.  Their mind is that if he wants it, they are willing, even if a felt attraction is absent.  The inner illumination of which Pope Paul speaks seems in this second group to be mostly an intellectual matter, whereas with the first group it is accompanied by a perceived drawing toward the life.

Sound motivation is the third sign of the virginal charism.  Desiring celibacy for the reasons described here is a strong indication that one possesses this love-gift from God.  The virgin does not have a negative view of sexuality, nor is she fleeing the sacrifices of marriage or the responsibilities of life in the world—these motives are inadequate.  She is a woman in love and she is pursuing her Beloved with a greater freedom.  She also wishes to do something to help her brothers and sisters reach God—either by a life of prayer, solitude, and penance or by a life of prayer and apostolic involvement.

The final sign is capability.  When God gives the celibate gift, he also gives the physical, mental, and moral health necessary to actualize it in a specific lifestyle.  Necessary health need not mean absolute perfection, but it does mean a basic sufficiency.  Each institute determines the minimal capabilities required for its life and work.

Preparation in Prayer

The young woman and man called to celibacy are inclined by the beckoning Spirit to a more than minimal interest in prayer.  If they are fully open to God’s gifts, this inclination will be strong and persistent, and it will be actualized in practice.  There is no better preparation for an eventual embracing of this vocation than a fervent, growing communion with him who is the whole purpose of the life.  This private prayer will be fed and furthered by a vibrant liturgical life, by devotion to the first Virgin, by regular, well-chosen spiritual reading, and, when it is available, by competent spiritual direction.

Here is a woman so taken with God that he is the top priority in her life.  She lays down her entire being in loving adoration of him.

When a Passionist nun takes vows, she wears a crown of thorns and carries a cross to show her union with her Beloved Crucified.

She declares by her life that no one has here a permanent abode, that we are pilgrims and should live like pilgrims (Heb 11:13-16).  She is also therefore a sign of the Cross and asceticism, of the hard road and the narrow gate that lead to life (Mt 7:13-14).  Her life tells us that the kingdom does not consist in food and drink but in the joy, peace, and holiness given by the Spirit (Rom 14:17).

The virgin is likewise a symbol of joy.  All disciples in every vocation are called to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4), or as Saint Augustine brilliantly put it, to be an “alleluia from head to toe.”  Anyone full of love will be full of joy.  The joy Jesus gives is not partial; it is full (Jn 15:11).  Surely that woman or man who gives undivided attention to him, the very source of delight, can be nothing other than an incarnated alleluia.

The celibate woman and man are persons whose whole attention is focused on Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, persons whose raison d’être is none other than a profound love covenant and communion with the Word and his Father through their Holy Spirit.

 

Amazing, right? Now, quick! Go buy it, read it, and tell me your favorite lines!

  1. It’s really geared towards women. Sorry, guys! []

Spiritual Reading (Your Christmas Shopping List Part 4)

Novels are great1 and apologetics is helpful, but what most of us really need is some good spiritual reading, some books that teach us to pray and love Christ. Here are my favorites. Maybe you should give yourself a St. Nick’s present and buy one for your Advent spiritual reading?

With obvious exceptions,2 these should all be good for Catholics and Protestants alike. Asterisks once again for the non-Catholic authors. As an aside, if you’re blessed with the kind of friendship where you can get a friend a devotional for a Christmas present, stop and thank God for a second.

Carryll Houselander writes in simple language with very short paragraphs which makes her great for quick devotions for lay people. I read The Reed of God for Advent last year and it was beautiful.3 Every bit of her writing that I’ve stumbled across has been so simple but so profound–definitely check her out if you’re looking for some quiet beauty this Advent.

St. Francis de Sales was famous for his powerful pen and his unprecedented attention to the holiness of the laity. He’d be best friends with Vatican II. If ecumenical councils had best friends…. Anyway, he wrote The Introduction to the Devout Life as an instruction manual to Christianity lived in the world, although it’s applicable to all states in life. Francis is very practical but also poetic. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s serious about their faith. While you’re at it, pick up Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and Br. Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. They’re both spiritual classics and much easier to read than you’d expect given their medieval copyright dates.

Thomas Merton’s Praying the Psalms is a short little text that breaks open the Psalms in ways you never thought possible. We think of the Psalms as repetitive readings that are droned at Mass, but they’re incredible. They’re poetry written from the depths of the heart. As Merton points out, they contain every human emotion. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of this book to help you live the Word of God.

Speaking of God’s Word, I ran across the coolest Bible this summer. The Saints Devotional Edition of the New Jerusalem Bible has more than 200 passages from great Saints interspersed with the text of the Bible. They’re matched up, obviously, with the passage that the Saint is referencing or commenting on to give you some added depth to your daily Bible reading.4 For all you Bible purists out there: don’t worry–the text itself is intact. The Saints’ passages are set apart so you know what’s God’s Word and what’s not.

Your God Is Too Safeby Mark Buchanan*, kicked my butt. I read it years ago and still get a thrill when I even think about this book. Buchanan points out how we’ve made God in our image and challenges us to return to the reality of a God who isn’t safe. He demands that we leave the borderlands of in-between, lukewarm Christianity and embark on the wild journey of following Christ. If you feel complacent and settled and need a fire lit in your bones, Buchanan’s your guy.

Or maybe it’s worse than complacency. Maybe you’re spiritually dead. You’ve been to confession, you pray every day, you’re trying as hard as you can but…nothing. Come Be My Light tells the story of Mother Teresa’s decades in the darkness. It’s encouraging to know that even the Saints walk without divine consolation. More than that, though, this book convicted me. I realized that I was checking off my God boxes but not allowing my life to be converted–not where it was difficult anyway. I’d written off real growth for years, assuming that if God wanted more from me, he’d draw my heart in that direction. This book challenged me to give him everything even when I was getting “nothing” in return.

Women’s Spirituality

And You Are Christ’s could be the most important book a young woman ever reads.5 It’s so important, I’m giving it its own post.

Alice von Hildebrand is beautiful and holy and brilliant and was married to a strong, holy, brilliant man. In By Love Refinedshe writes letters to a young bride with advice on making marriage sacred and joyful. I’d imagine it would be helpful to any married woman, but particularly newlyweds. I read it when I was 20 and actually found it very helpful despite my single state–there are some universal truths in here that could be a blessing to any woman.

Cynthia Heald* doesn’t really write books so much as Bible studies. Her books work best, I think, when you read them on your own in preparation for a group Bible study. I generally find study questions to be shallow and trite but Heald connects passages that draw out the meaning of Scripture as it relates to your life. Her books are interactive, forcing you as a reader to engage–particularly good for those who are easily distracted.

Christian Living

Holiness isn’t just about our relationship with God, though. Sometimes the first step to good prayer isn’t reading a book about prayer but learning how to live in love. Try some of these on for size.

I spent the first half of my life believing that men and women were exactly the same, excepting one minor accident of biology. Once I began to see the complementarity of the sexes, I was hungry to learn more about how men and women think and choose and love differently. Captivating was just the book I needed. In this book John and Stasi Eldredge* explain the particular strength and beauty of womanhood as rooted in our desire to be captivating. We long to be beauty in the world. Wild at Heart gives the men’s perspective: the desire to be the hero of a great adventure. In a description this short, these just sound like sexist stereotypes but John and Stasi breathe new air into them, making you wonder if there wasn’t truth at the heart of the caricature all along. Definitely read the book about your gender. If you know any members of the opposite sex, you’ll want to read the other one, too.

Wendy Shalit* writes brilliantly about modesty–in dress, in talk, in behavior–not least because she’s not a Christian at all but a Jew. In A Return to Modesty, Shalit takes on the sexual revolution with impressive reason and rhetoric. She does have to get a bit scandalous at times in order to demonstrate what’s going on in our world–be warned–but it doesn’t take a Christian to be convinced at the end of this one.

I’m sure you’ve heard about The Five Love Languages* by now, but if you haven’t, at least check out the website. Apparently, people are different! So when you think doing the dishes shows how much you love your wife, she might be bitter because you never tell her she looks nice. Or maybe you buy your son gifts to show him how proud you are but he really needs a physical pat on the back. These books help you to see how you–and those you love–give and receive love. It’s up to you to change how you act and perceive people in response.

When I told you about the temperaments, I hadn’t yet read The Temperament God Gave You. To be honest, it didn’t much help me. My understanding was so different that this book really confused me in places. But if you’re coming in tabula rasa, I think it can be great. That’s certainly what I’ve heard from the dozens of people I know who swear by it. So if my post intrigued you, pick up a copy of this book and see if it doesn’t help.

I want to give a quick shout out to two books I haven’t read but should. These have both gotten rave reviews in the Catholic world so I think I’m safe in recommending them. Unplanned is the memoir of Abby Johnson, the former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic who quit her job to become a pro-life advocate. She now runs a ministry that reaches out in love to abortion workers. Adam and Eve After the Pill seems to be an extremely broad look at the effects the sexual revolution has had on our culture. Mary Eberstadt claims that sexual liberation and women’s liberation have only served to decrease sexual satisfaction and further enslave women, particularly through widespread use of contraception. Maybe not the right book for your white elephant gift exchange, but a fascinating read nonetheless.

While I’m making blind recommendations, Kisses from Katie* is the book written by that incredible girl I keep telling you about who moved to Africa and had adopted 14 little girls by the time she was 21. It’s another book I lent out before I could read it, but the woman I lent it to loved it, so I’ll vouch for it.

 

If this series of books and books and books has been driving you nuts, you’ll be happy to hear that this is it! For now, anyway–a bibliophile like me can’t avoid writing about books for long. Are any of you buying a Christian book as a Christmas present? I’d love to hear your plans (or other recommendations) in the comments.

  1. No, literally awesome. I love them so much. []
  2. The Saints Bible. And maybe St. Francis–he’s very Sacramental. Although so is Br. Lawrence and everybody likes him. []
  3. I meant to read The Way of the Cross in Lent but I lent it to someone and never got it back. Welcome to my life. []
  4. I’d like to tell you I’m doing this but I lent mine out almost as soon as I got it. As usual. []
  5. The Bible excluded, naturally. []

So You Want to Be an Apologist? (Your Christmas Shopping List Part 3)

Props to Evan Bench for the sweet picture.

I’ve been offering you tons of fiction recommendations, but some of you may have friends awesome enough that you can give them non-fiction. Others might just be planning ahead for the gift cards you expect to get this Christmas. But head on over to the Christianity section at Barnes and Noble and the prospect of choosing a book can be overwhelming. From Christian self-help to Doctors of the Church, there’s tons out there, not all of it good. So before you hit the mall (or Better World Books1), here are my favorites. It’s been years since I’ve read some of them, but these are, for the most part, the books and authors that have had the greatest impact on my spiritual and intellectual development. I’ll give you the Apologetics books today and the spirituality and Christian living books…you know…soon.

Christian Apologetics–Books (some more theological than others) defending the divinity of Christ and the validity of Christianity. These are generally good for Catholics or Protestants, with a few exceptions that I’ll point out. Once again, asterisks mark non-Catholic authors.

C.S. Lewis*: Mere Christianity. This is the first book I give to anyone who’s exploring Christianity. Again, all of Lewis’ stuff is awesome, but Mere Christianity sums all of (mere) Christianity up in one spot. While it’s only a jumping off place (largely because Lewis thinks anything beyond the basics that connect all Christians is insignificant, nothing to quibble over), it’s a great start. Best passage from the book:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation. I don’t remember much about this book, but soon after I read it, my 16-year-old brother declared himself an atheist. When he told me, I went straight to my computer2 and ordered him a copy, confident that it would bring him back to the flock tout de suite. I’m still convinced that he’d be Catholic today if he hadn’t lost the book in the abyss of his bedroom before he had a chance to read it. Basically, Athanasius is explaining our need for a redeemer. It’s some serious theology, but a great buy for someone who thinks he’s too smart for Christianity. Especially if that person actually happens to be smart.3

Lee Strobel*: The Case for Christ. Lee Strobel’s is a much more practical look at the issue. Strobel was an atheist journalist who set out to disprove the divinity of Christ. Turns out, it’s hard to disprove truth. Strobel shares his discoveries in a compelling book full of facts and figures that will appeal to the secular mind as well as the Christian. Strobel has written a number of other books with a similar accessible but thorough approach but I’ve found The Case for Christ most compelling.

Gregory Boyd*: Letters from a Skeptic. This book is set up in the form of letters between an Evangelical pastor and his atheist (ex-Catholic) father. It’s conversational in tone and a very easy read, engaging deeper theology than Strobel’s books. I will warn you that there are some anti-Catholic undertones–nothing offensive, but very dismissive of Catholic theology in places. What it does it does well, but I’d only give it to someone who’s solid in their Catholic faith.

G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man. Also everything else. Have I mentioned that I love him? A million times? Okay, good. Everything Chesterton ever wrote was completely brilliant. Orthodoxy is like Mere Christianity for the hardcore intellectual. Any Catholic of an academic bent will love it. And Chesterton wrote it when he was still an Anglican, so many Protestants will be open to much of what he had to say as well. Chesterton is incredibly Catholic, but these two books appeal to a broader audience, from what I recall. Check out one of my favorite things ever written ever from The Everlasting Man:

Above all, would not such a new reader of the New Testament stumble over something that would startle him much more than it startles us? I have here more than once attempted the rather impossible task of reversing time and the historic method; and in fancy looking forward to the facts, instead of backward through the memories. So I have imagined the monster that man might have seemed at first to the mere nature around him. We should have a worse shock if we really imagined the nature of Christ named for the first time. What should we feel at the first whisper of a certain suggestion about a certain man? Certainly it is not for us to blame anybody who should find that first wild whisper merely impious and insane. On the contrary, stumbling on that rock of scandal is the first step. Stark staring incredulity is a far more loyal tribute to that truth than a modernist metaphysic that would make it out merely a matter of degree. It were better to rend our robes with a great cry against blasphemy, like Caiaphas in the judgement, or to lay hold of the man as a maniac possessed of devils like the kinsmen and the crowd, rather than to stand stupidly debating fine shades of pantheism in the presence of so catastrophic a claim. There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter’s apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’

Seriously, don’t you just want to ninja kick something after that? No? Maybe I’ll post a video of me reading it–I’m told it’s quite an experience to watch.

I haven’t read A Doctor at Calvary, but I’ve heard it’s wonderful. Barbet is an M.D. who uses the Shroud of Turin, archaeology, history–all kinds of smart guy stuff–to determine what exactly was going on during the Passion. From what I’m told, it’s a thorough and accurate explanation of Christ’s suffering, a necessary step in the defense of the Resurrection.

Catholic Apologetics–A series of authors (grouped loosely from most important–in my mind–to least) who all seem to be male converts from Protestantism. Maybe this cradle Catholic chick needs to get on her game and write her apologetics book….

Scott HahnThis agnostic turned Presbyterian minister turned Catholic theologian may have done more to revive the Catholic Church in America than any other layman.4 His puns may drive you nuts, but he writes popular theology that manages not to be ing”pop” theology, make my jaw drop at least once every chapter. The connections he makes between the Church and the Old Testament–I tell you what, they’ll blow your mind. Rome Sweet Home is a great choice for someone who’s wading in the Tiber.5 It outlines Hahn and his wife Kimberly’s path to conversion and covers most of the major apologetic points along the way.6 Hail, Holy Queen is another favorite of mine, but really, they’re all good and very readable.

Peter Kreeft. Kreeft is a Catholic theologian (another convert) at Boston College, but don’t hold it against him.7 He has a less Scriptural approach than Hahn, looking at things from a more philosophical perspective. He also engages specific common questions more than Hahn, writing books like Angels and Demons and Socrates Meets Jesus. My favorite of his books (and I haven’t read terribly many) was Fundamentals of the Faith, which really is Christian apologetics, not Catholic specifically, but we’ll let it slide. He defends the creed in short, very readable essays.8 My friend Mike says Kreeft’s book Jesus Shock is one of the best books he’s ever read. I haven’t read it yet, but Mike’s got good taste,9 so give it a shot.

Dave Armstrong. Armstrong, also a convert, is similar to Hahn in that he’s deeply Scriptural, but Armstrong is much more about proof-texting. The thing is, he does it within the context of Scripture as a whole and ties it all together so it doesn’t feel disjointed the way apologetics often does. Try A Biblical Defense of Catholicism to start with and go from there.

Thomas HowardAnyone want to guess if he’s a convert? You got it. His On Being Catholic is powerful apologetics, for sure, but it’s also beautiful. That’s a very hard combination to manage, but Thomas does it masterfully. The chapter on the Mass in this book is my favorite thing I’ve ever, ever read on the Mass. That alone should convince you to buy it.

Karl Keating. Convert. Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism has an impeccable explanation of why we need the Church. After I taught it to a senior class, I had an agnostic in the back raise his hand and ask, “So, is there any way an intelligent person can not be Catholic?” Check and mate, my friend. This book in particular has some irrelevant chapters in the middle, but if you ignore those overly-specific sections, it’s excellent.

It’s not apologetics, really, but you do have a Catechism, right? If you need one, get the green one, not the white one. It’s got better bonus features in the back–a glossary and everything! And the new YouCat is really quite good–interesting with awesome quotations in the margins and mostly non-awkward pictures. It would make a great confirmation present.10

Have I mentioned that I really love books? Here I am in my grad school apartment with some of my books. And yes, we did have a construction paper nativity scene on the wall. In grad school. In May.

It’s rather a daunting list, I know, but what a blessing to be part of such a rich theological tradition! If you’re just beginning, start with Mere Christianity and Hahn’s Reasons to Believe. Then add some Strobel, a little Kreeft, all the Chesterton, and before you know it you’ll be blogging me out of business! Let me know when you’ve read all these and I’ll make you another list. We wouldn’t want anybody to be without a book, now would we?

 

 

Speaking of books, how about the greatest book ever? If you want to join me in reading the whole Bible through in one year (and you know you have to read the whole thing someday), today’s the best day to start! Print off my nifty little schedule here, spend 5-20 minutes a day in the Word, and watch your life change.

  1. I really don’t get anything for all the press I give them, they’re just that awesome. []
  2. After I finished treating him in a kind and understanding manner, of course. []
  3. The translation linked above has an introduction by C.S. Lewis–how fun! You can buy a real book, too, but the whole text is online. []
  4. I’m basing this on nothing, but I really like his books. []
  5. Considering converting to Catholicism. Get it? Because the Tiber is the river in Rome? []
  6. Caveat: it’s filled with awkward family pictures. Might not be suitable for teens who eschew anything uncool. []
  7. Just kidding! But seriously, go Irish. []
  8. Check out an excerpt here. []
  9. In books and friends. []
  10. Or a Christmas gift if the kid is a Jesus nerd, but otherwise giving a teenager a catechism instead of an itunes gift card might just make him hate Jesus. []

Christian Novels Worth Reading (Your Christmas Shopping List Part 2)

Somehow slapping the name Christian on a work of art seems to excuse mediocrity for modern Christians. We listen to lame music, hang pathetic art, and read dull, saccharine novels because they’re Christian. We know in our hearts that God is beauty as well as truth and goodness but we read worthless and uninteresting novels because they’re Christian. My friends, Christian novelists are heirs to the legacy of Dante and Milton–there is power and brilliance in the works of those who truly seek God in fiction. In this installment of your Christmas list, I thought I’d recommend some of the greatest Christian fiction I’ve ever read–bearing in mind that “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s pleasant or evangelical or about a handsome young pastor with a dark past who moves to town just before a very special Christmas. Christian novels shouldn’t read like Lifetime movies, they should read like life.

(Books by non-Catholic authors are marked with an asterisk in case that makes a difference either way.)

For the Ladies

As in my last post, I don’t have much to say about books that are particularly good for men, largely because I’m not one. There are some books, however, that I know would do very little for most men but have been a huge blessing for me. I told you before about Francine Rivers, but I’ll summarize in case you missed it:

Try this edition–or plan to cover the other one with duct tape.

If you’re a sucker for a love story, you won’t do better than Redeeming Love* by Francine Rivers.  The author was a romance novelist before she became a Christian, so she’s a good writer with a good message.  Redeeming Love modernizes the book of Hosea,1 following Michael Hosea–who is hands down the holiest and most attractive male character I’ve ever read–as he marries a woman he knows is a prostitute.  She’s so broken but he’s so good.  Even on a shallow level, it’s a beautiful story; once you realize it’s about God’s love for you, it’ll break your heart.  After the Bible, it may be the most important book a woman can read.

If a perfect man doesn’t do it for you and you need more character development in your romantic interests, try Rivers’ Mark of the Lion* series.  This series has some drawbacks (a really slow start, for one), but once you’re drawn in, you’ll be fascinated by the goodness of the Christian slave girl, the dramatic consequences of evil choices, and the desperate love that breaks down barriers.

If you know a woman who hasn’t read these books, stop what you’re doing right now and buy them. I seriously buy Redeeming Love in bulk and hand it out. I’ve known a number of teenage girls whose lives have been changed by Michael Hosea in Redeeming Love. Tell them that girls who hate reading love this book–I promise they’ll love it, too. Forget the rest of the “Inspirational Fiction” section, all full of forgettable romance novels with the sex cut out–Francine Rivers is the real deal.

Another great series of books for women is Orson Scott Card’s Women of Genesis* series. Card (a Mormon) novelizes Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. These books are definitely fiction but there’s enough of the Scriptural story that the Bible begins to take on new life. Card’s characters are complex and enthralling–I’ll warn you that I’ve had more trouble putting his books down than any other books I’ve ever read. Most of his books are great,2 but these are more than great–they’re moving. Buy them for women who are serious about their faith but hungry for more.

Teenage girls will love Regina Doman‘s fairy tales. They’re fascinating and quite romantic, wildly Catholic but without being ridiculous. I was so caught up in The Midnight Dancers that I couldn’t put it down–even when my mother called. I talked to her on the phone for 20 minutes while reading my book.3 The books are pretty intense, but I’ve known middle schoolers who loved them and I adored them as an adult. If you like fairy tales, they’re definitely worth trying.

I’ll give a shout out here to Kristin Lavransdatter because everybody else loves Sigrid Undset. I thought they were alternately dull and infuriating, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste. Most Christian women I know who’ve read them are ready to tattoo Kristin’s face on their biceps. For me, the highlight was the heroine’s death. But she won the Nobel prize in literature largely because of these books, so I’m willing to admit that I’m probably wrong on this one. Give them a shot–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Great Christian Literature

Anyone can look at the New York Times bestsellers list and find a few decent (and some not-so-decent) books to hand out to the random people who show up unexpectedly at Christmas dinner, books that one barely has to be literate to enjoy. Then there are those books that demand attention and analysis, books that require hard work but are rewarding, emotionally and spiritually. The books that follow are better suited towards your intellectual friends, so don’t hand them out indiscriminately, but the right one could be life-changing.

I already told you about Shusaku Endo’s Silence and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, stories of two very different priests on the run during times of persecution in Japan and Mexico respectively. Endo’s hero will challenge you to suffer for Christ while Greene’s will show you that you, too, fall short. Why not buy them both for a little balance? They’re convicting for any serious Christian, Catholic or not.

While you’re at it, throw in Greene’s The End of the  Affair, a story of conversion and commitment to Christ whatever the cost. Greene’s characters are so real they hurt and while you find yourself hating them at times, you can’t get them out of your head. Graham Greene had the literary distinction, from what I’ve read, of being a great sinner. He had the spiritual distinction of knowing it. In his works, we find a real sense of how one ought to live coupled with the despair that follows failure. He can be terribly depressing, but there’s nothing saccharine about him. A great read for someone who’s learning the cost of discipleship–and aren’t we all?

The heart of Till We Have Faces

It might seem strange, but I’m actually going to throw a C.S. Lewis book into the literature category. I love Jack4 as much as anyone,5 but most of his works are far too accessible to be considered great literature.6 Lewis generally wrote theology and allegory for the common man (or child), so he rarely did much that takes serious thought to understand. Till We Have Faces* is a notable exception. Lewis rewrites the tale of Psyche and Cupid from the perspective of the jealous and then guilt-wracked older sister. There’s something cold and painful about this book, but if you can get through to the end, it’s also cathartic. I’ll be completely honest with you–I don’t understand a lot of what Lewis is doing here. Maybe that’s why I’m sticking it in the literature category…. Anyway, it’s a great book for anyone indy and angsty, so go ahead and check your hipster cousin off the list with this one. Or someone who loves mythology or a Lewis fan who’s growing up or someone with sibling rivalry issues–it covers a lot of bases.

The Brothers Karamazov* is rather slow for the first 300 pages, but the next 700 really make up for it. What I’m saying is, you pretty much have to know someone who loves great literature for this to be anything other than an exceedingly large doorstop. But if you can find a Christian intellectual who is in the enviable position of not yet having read this book, buy it for her and then sit and watch her read it. It’ll be slow going for 5 hours or so, but eventually, you’ll be able to watch the passion and intrigue and terror and beauty and purpose flash across her face as she trips over herself to get to the end while slowing herself down to take in every detail. Dostoevsky’s tough to read, but so, so worth it.

G.K. Chesterton is famous for his wit in defense of the faith, but he was quite the novelist as well. The Man Who Was Thursday is his most famous, but I prefer Manalive. Chesterton’s novels are all a bit absurd and fairly confusing but Manalive is so joyful that you don’t mind feeling a bit twisted up. I won’t spoil it by telling you anything about it, just that I felt as though I was glowing after I read it. It’s rejuvenating somehow–definitely worth a read. If you know someone who is incredibly joyful or (conversely) who needs a shot of joy in his life, Manalive could fit the bill.

Great Christian Books

The distinction I’m trying to make here is not between literature and lame Christian novels that you can buy by the cartload at WalMart. These books are still high quality writing; some, I think, will be read centuries from now. But they are a little more accessible and a little less like your sophomore lit class in college. If the last category was good for intellectuals and academics, this category will generally appeal to your average Joe as well. Trust me–ain’t nobody too smart for Tolkien. The man was a genius.

Even the font makes me want to reread it!

Speaking of Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quite possibly the greatest Catholic novels of all time. It was hard to decide whether to put Tolkien in this category or the last, but he’s so widely read that I think I’ll leave him here. Tolkien is far more sophisticated than mere allegory–sometimes I wonder if he even realized how deeply Catholic his work was. Galadriel is the Blessed Virgin Mary and lembas is the Eucharist and the steward of Gondor is the pope. But more than that, Frodo is a real hero, dirty and weak just like us. Sam is the greatest friend in all of literature, Simon of Cyrene when Frodo can’t make it alone. There is true valor and loyalty and pain and betrayal. If you haven’t read these yet, forget all your prejudices against fantasy and get ready for a modern epic. Some of his descriptions might merit a little bit of skimming if you’re more plot-driven, but push through until you’re immersed in Middle Earth. Then watch the movies again–they’re even better on the other side.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead* is one of those books that you just can’t describe. Like Manalive, it leaves you joyful and refreshed. In some ways, it reads like a sermon, but no sermon you’ve ever heard. I’m beginning to think I’m just terrible at reviewing books, so I’ll stick with this: I found life more beautiful after I finished this book. Buy this for someone with a taste for poetry–there’s something ethereal about this one.

At the other end of the Chesterton spectrum from his intellectual novels, we have the Father Brown mysteries. Father Brown is a meek little priest who finds himself in the most improbable of situations, stumbling across dead body after dead body without any of the gory details or macabre undertones of so many modern mysteries. Chesterton’s stories are impossible to figure out, but they make so much sense in retrospect that it doesn’t even make me angry–I’m just excited to see how it all fits together. It might drive me nuts if these were novels, but they’re short stories, so the suspense is resolved pretty quickly. Think Encyclopedia Brown for the grown-up mind with some one-liners that’ll make you stop and think; buy them for pretty much anyone–they’re fun and fairly easy to read.

Everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote is worth reading, but my favorite of his adult fiction has to be The Screwtape Letters*. Lewis writes from the perspective of a senior demon giving his nephew advice as his nephew tries to woo a human soul to perdition. His writing is clever and interesting and cuts to the heart, shedding light on temptation and human nature in a way that his more prosaic works never could. It’s a perfect gift for someone who doesn’t read non-fiction but is still hungry for spiritual growth.

Bonus Books

I know you could probably come up with a list a mile long of great books without Christian themes, but I had to give a nod to these two non-Christian gems, one because it’s riotously funny, the other because it’s heartrendingly painful.

Have you read The Princess Bride*? I mean, I assume you’ve seen the movie. If not, shame on you! Do it now! But the book is seriously (not to be a cliché) so much better. Goldman pretends that he’s translating a terribly boring book, summarizing 60 pages of analysis of the varies ladies’ hats to be seen at court that season in ways that actually make me laugh out loud. The book is wildly funny and entertaining–a good gift for the non-Christian on your list or for anyone who loves to laugh.

On the opposite end of the spectrum (but still quite secular) is one of the most powerful, chilling, painful, beautiful books I’ve ever read. When a dear friend recommended a book that she’d read in her high school English class, I was expecting a Johnny Tremain at best. Oh, but The Book Thief*, friends. It’ll break your heart. Buy it for someone who feels deeply–and make sure he’s got tissues.

 

If you’re not much of a reader, maybe try reading one or two of these books for Advent–Gilead could be a good one, but The Princess Bride doesn’t count. If you’ve already read all of these, try passing them on to a friend. People who might not otherwise read Christian books are much more likely to if you pick out a book just for them and ask them to tell you their thoughts. However you approach this, remember that literacy is an incredible gift, one that many people around the world long for. Be a good steward of that blessing and use your time and your intellect for transformation, not just twitter.

Hook me up with your recommendations in the comments and don’t forget to check Better World Books for great bargains that save the world. If you want recommendations for someone these books wouldn’t fit, ask that in the comments, too. I’ll be back in a few days with my favorite theology and spirituality books. Get excited!

In case you were wondering why the posts have been so few and far between, here’s a picture I took with my webcam while actually writing this post. Yes, that’s a baby lying on my chest and a toddler next to me asking to be read to. I do not know how all you mommy bloggers do it.
  1. Okay, “modernizes”–it’s set in the gold rush. []
  2. Alvin Maker, Enchantment, Ender’s Game, to name a few. []
  3. Sorry, Mama!! I called you back the next day and totally paid attention. []
  4. That was his nickname. His given name was Clive Staples Lewis. Hence the nickname. []
  5. Remember how his Chronicles were the theme of my childhood? I’m not even exaggerating when I tell you that he was known as St. C.S. Lewis in my home. []
  6. Although who decides, really? Why is a book more “literary” simply because you need a college professor to help you understand it? []

Your Christmas Shopping List–Children’s Gifts

If you’re anything like me, you didn’t go anywhere near anything retail today. I hate crowds and I hate consumerism and I hate spending money I don’t have, so Black Friday isn’t really my thing. Instead, I’m holed up with some cute babies planning to crochet most of my Christmas presents and buy books for the rest. Because ipods will be old in 6 months, plastic toys will break, and nobody needs another tie. The perfect book, on the other hand, won’t be thrown in a drawer and forgotten a day or a year from now. The right book can open your mind and your heart. It can remind you how beautiful life is, draw you closer to Christ, or get you actually laughing out loud. With little ones, it can form the imagination, instill a sense of good and evil, or introduce you to Scripture. To help you out, I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favorites for various different ages. I know I’ll miss a ton, so please add your favorites in the comments!

When shopping, please check out Better World Books. Their prices are usually the best (or close to it) and they donate books and money to increase literacy around the world. Definitely a cause I can get behind. Or go with DealOz–they’ll search about a jillion sites to find you the best price on the web.

For little Christians

Babies (and their parents) love board books, especially those that are Mass-appropriate. The Saving Name of God the Son uses very theological language–not so child-friendly. But the images are gorgeous and the language is beautiful. As every parent knows, children memorize lines from books. Why not teach them the prologue to John’s Gospel instead of a litany of places Spot isn’t?

If you’re going to give a boring (but edifying) book, try pairing it with one of the Lift the Flap Bible books. They’re a little text-heavy for toddlers, but the many flaps will keep them entertained as you read or–wonder of wonders–listen to the homily. Plus, they’re cute and durable, a rarity among board books. My niece and nephew love them–and haven’t destroyed them, despite 3 years of tugging.

Now listen up–this is important. My favorite children’s Bible is the Jesus Storybook Bible. It’s a Protestant Bible so it’s missing some bits and you MUST change the words of the Last Supper–maybe even with a sharpie–but other than that, it seems to be theologically fairly sound. What matters is that the stories are so beautifully told that children–and adults–love it. It’s interesting, it’s entertaining–please, if you know a child who is (or will be) between 18 months and 10 years old, buy him this book for Christmas. You’ll be so glad you did. Don’t believe me? You can read lots of it by looking inside it at Amazon. Go do it now, I’ll wait…. See what I mean?

John Paul loves it. John Paul also loves law textbooks and James Joyce. His opinions should have no bearing on your literary selections for other three-year-olds.

For kids who are a little older and ready to start hunting, try an alternative to Where’s Waldo? The Can You Find books–Can You Find Jesus, Can You Find Followers of Jesus, Can You Find Bible Heroes, and Can You Find Saints1–have the same search-and-find feel with the added bonus of catechesis. The illustrations are fabulous and there are helpful parent guides in the back. Depending on the kid, maybe age 5 and up? It’s hard to know–I tend to hang out with crazy smart toddlers. Natalie loved these books when she was 3.

For Kids Aged 8 and Up

I love catechesis as much as anyone, but sometimes you just want to buy a book that’s fun. For kids who love to read (or need to learn to), try some good, old-fashioned fantasy. E. Nesbit and Edward Eager write lovely books about normal kids who find a touch of magic to liven up their boring summers. The characters (the non-magical ones, anyway) are very real and their relationships complicated but beautiful–they always made me want to spend time with my siblings, an almost miraculous feat when there were still books to be read.

You just have to switch the LWW with the Magician's Nephew. I'm not kidding.
You just have to switch the LWW with the Magician’s Nephew. I’m not kidding.

We can’t forget the Chronicles of Narnia–beautifully written, subtly Christian,2 and practically Scripture in my family. Each child received a boxed set3 for first communion, although our parents had been reading them to us since infancy. I have distinct memories of going to pick my mom up from work 45 minutes early so we could sit in the car and listen to our dad reading the Chronicles. Every child should read these books–every adult, too. While you’re at it, buy the first movie (but not the next two). Read the book first, then get lost in Narnia as you watch the movie. I could go on for an entire post about everything that’s wrong with that movie, but when push comes to shove, it takes you to Narnia. Narnia baptized my imagination–definitely top ten in my required reading list.

Bear in mind that I don’t actually have any idea about reading levels. Most kids probably couldn’t read these until more like 5th grade. But some will be ready much earlier. When in doubt, get a book they’ll grow into, right?

For Tweens

Isn’t that an awful word? But it’s the least awkward way to say 10-14-year-old girls, which is what I’m going for. Really, these are some of my favorite books ever, ever, ever.

L.M. Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame wrote some of the most beautiful, moving fiction I’ve ever encountered. Particular favorites include The Blue Castle, Pat of Silver Bush, Mistress Pat, and all her collected short stories. I literally own every book she ever wrote, boxed up and waiting for my nieces to be old enough to love them. There’s an ache in Montgomery’s heroines; she sums up the single girl’s suffering perfectly in Anne of the Island:

Anne was always glad in the happiness of her friends; but it is sometimes a little lonely to be surrounded everywhere by happiness that is not your own.

Little girls love Montgomer’y’s Anne and The Story Girl. As they grow, they’ll love all the others as well. If you know a girl who loves to read4 and has a sensitive, imaginative soul, please introduce her to my dear friend Anne Shirley. She’ll thank you forever.

Louisa May Alcott fits a similar type of girl. She, too, can get quite wordy and is often trying to teach a lesson.5 But for the right kind of girl (and most girls are the right kind at least for Little Women), she’s lovely.

Noel Streatfeild‘s books are easier reads. They’re about family and adversity but without the long, long descriptions of Lucy Maud and Louisa May. Start with Ballet Shoes–there’s even a good tomboy in that one for girls who aren’t so girly.

Gail Carson Levine wrote Ella Enchanted, one of my favorites for this age group.6 It’s light and easy to read, unlike some of the older books I’ve recommended, and it’s about princesses! Most of her books are–love them! Shannon Hale fits a slightly older audience, as does Juliet Marillier, but both have that fairy tale, good vs. evil feel that’s so enthralling. Their adult books are also excellent, but make sure you only give those to adults.7

I could give you a list of 30 more authors who I find fun or entertaining, but these books are more than that; they’re transformative. I’m sure I’ve missed some great ones, though–notably books for boys! Help me out in the comments and tune in tomorrow (the next day? The day after that?) for some fiction recommendations for adults (and young adults), followed by non-fiction some time thereafter.

**Nobody gave me any money for these reviews. I don’t even know how that happens to a person.**

  1. Which, for whatever reason, isn’t on the website with the other three. []
  2. Subtle when you’re little, anyway. []
  3. In the original order, thankyouverymuch. Don’t you DARE read The Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe! []
  4. These books are terribly dull if you don’t. []
  5. Oh, but if you like her at all you absolutely MUST read Louisa May Alcott Unmasked. It’s not for children, although there’s nothing scandalous by modern standards. It’s just some of the pot-boilers that Jo deplored in Little Women. Terribly entertaining! []
  6. Do not judge it by the movie–they’re totally different stories. []
  7. I love Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, but be warned–there’s some intense violence and at least one rape. Stick with Wildwood Dancing for teens and tweens. []

In Lieu of Fifty Shades

I know the other day I rained on some book-club-parades (do they have those?  Instead of candy, do they throw wine?) when I suggested that Fifty Shades of Grey might not be appropriate Christian reading.

Oh, wait, I called it porn.  I knew it was more forceful than that.

But I love reading so much and I don’t want anyone to quit reading just to avoid those books (although if my choices were 50 Shades of Grey and illiteracy, I’d choose illiteracy).  So I thought I’d give you some alternatives that are just as addictive and much better for your soul.

Try this edition–or plan to cover the other one with duct tape.

If you’re a sucker for a love story, you won’t do better than Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.  The author was a romance novelist before she became a Christian, so she’s a good writer with a good message.  Redeeming Love modernizes the book of Hosea (okay, “modernizes”–it’s set in the gold rush), following Michael Hosea–who is hands down the holiest and most attractive male character I’ve ever read–as he marries a woman he knows is a prostitute.  She’s so broken but he’s so good.  Even on a shallow level, it’s a beautiful story; once you realize it’s about God’s love for you, it’ll break your heart.  After the Bible, it may be the most important book a woman can read.  Warning: if you buy it used, make sure it doesn’t have the ridiculous picture of a blonde woman in front of a sunset–you’ll be too embarrassed to read it in public.

If a perfect man doesn’t do it for you and you need more character development in your romantic interests, try Rivers’ Mark of the Lion series.  This series has some drawbacks (a really slow start, for one), but once you’re drawn in, you’ll be fascinated by the goodness of the Christian slave girl, the dramatic consequences of evil choices, and the desperate love that breaks down barriers.

Read them in order or you’ll be so sad and confused.

I think that what’s most touching in these books is the way that the love of good women inspires the heroes of the stories to become more fully themselves.  They don’t change for their women, they grow because they’re so well loved.  The series is set in the first century, so it gives you some insight into early Christian culture, as well as having one of the best Biblical defenses of Jesus as Messiah that I’ve ever read (book 2).  But more than anything, it’s a love story, and who doesn’t love that?

These books are so good I don’t want to reread them–I’m still emotionally exhausted from the first go-round.

If you have to be one of the crowd (which, in this instance, is just fine), why not try The Hunger Games?  Sometimes it’s fun to have the same experience half the country has had–and to know what they’re talking about when they go on and on about it.  I know people act like they’re just for 15-year-old girls, but these books are some of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read.  Plus, Peeta is a close second to Michael Hosea as the most Christlike man in literature.  I won’t say any more for fear of giving anything away.  I assume you know the plot, so I’ll leave it at this: I LOVED these books and I honestly think they deepened my prayer life.

If you’re up for more of a challenge, try a novel about martyrdom.  Silence by Shusaku Endo and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene are two of my favorite books of all time and they have the added bonus of being great literature.  Christian romance novels are all well and good, but there comes a time when you want to sound impressive when people ask you what you’ve been reading–or, you know, just to further your mind along with your soul.

                      

Endo’s book follows a Jesuit priest fleeing persecution in 17th century Japan.  As he runs from his pursuers, you honestly feel as though you’re walking up Calvary with him.  This one’s great during Lent or for meditating on the Passion any time and ends with a powerful ethical dilemma that will get you asking the question: how far am I willing to go for Christ?

Greene’s hero is much less heroic: a “whiskey priest” undercover during a time of persecution in Mexico, you hate him and yet you love him.  His complexity makes the book alternately inspiring and infuriating, as is most of Greene’s work.  The Power and the Glory will challenge your perceptions of holiness and push you to evaluate what parts of you are just as bad as the whiskey priest.

Any other suggestions?  Books that changed your life/were addictive/inspired great discussion/were just plain fun?  I’d love to hear your book recommendations!

 

 

Before you run off to buy every one of these books, let me recommend DealOz.  I don’t get any kickbacks, I just buy all my books through that site because it searches more than 200 sites to find the best price.  And when prices are close, I always go with BetterWorldBooks, an organization that donates a book to someone in need every time they sell a book.  Cheap books and increased international literacy?  Win-win-win.