Advent reading

5 Books For Advent Reading (And A Bonus Book For Kids)

Advent is a great time to focus on Catholic traditions for the home, and also a great time to work on your own spiritual development. Many parishes offer special prayer services, Scripture studies and talks. We know how easy it is to get caught up in the commercialism that surrounds this time of year, and the busy-ness many of us feel as check things off our Christmas lists. Advent is the perfect time to treat yourself to some spiritual reading and to nourish the soul. Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, John Zmirak, author. If you haven’t ever read Zmirak, you’re in for a treat. His sense of humor blasts through every page of the Bad Catholic’s series and will have you laughing out loud. However, Zmirak is not “lite” on catechetics. He takes the teachings of the Church seriously and you’ll learn fabulous things about our faith.
  2. Tears of God, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, author. For many people, the holidays are very difficult. The loss of loved ones, personal illness, loneliness: all of these can make the “happiest time of year” very bleak. This little gem of a book by Fr. Benedict Groeschel addresses how life’s difficulties are not inconsequential to Our Lord. For those crying out, “Lord, where are you? Why has this happened to me, to my family?” this book is balm for the soul.
  3. Parched, Heather King, author. Heather King bares her soul in this memoir. King, a Catholic and an alcoholic, recalls her family’s tepid faith and her chaotic childhood. As an adult, her alcoholism cost her nearly everything and drove her to her knees. King’s writing is both eloquent and utterly humble. Even if you do not suffer from substance abuse yourself, Parched is ultimately about the search for God, that unquenchable thirst we all share.
  4. How to be Holy: First Steps in Becoming A Saint, Peter Kreeft, author. Kreeft is a convert to Catholicism, having been raised a staunch Calvinist. He now teaches philosophy at Boston College. Philosophers can sometimes be daunting to read, but Kreeft has a gift for making heady thoughts manageable. In this book, he reminds us that each of us shares exactly the same destiny: to be a saint. However, we must choose this. So just how does one become a saint? Check out this book and see.
  5. Seeds of the Word, Bishop Robert Barron, author. Bishop Barron, known for his wildly popular “Word On Fire” videos and website, knows that God can show up in the most unexpected places. How can we find God in our culture, especially in a time when our culture is in such upheaval? Barron explores popular media (primarily movies) to show us that since all Truth is of God, then God is in Coen Brothers movies, “True Grit,” “The Giver” and a host of other pop culture offerings. Who knows? Maybe this book will spur you to a reading AND a movie expedition for Advent.

Finally, here is a book the whole family can enjoy together: Saint Francis Celebrates Christmas, Mary Caswell Walsh, author and Helen Caswell, illustrator. This incredibly charming children’s book tells the story of how St. Francis of Assisi brought the birth of Christ to life in order to deepen the faith of the people he served. Out of this grew the tradition of the Nativity set, which so many of us set up in our home for Christmas. With its charming illustrations and touching story, this will surely become a family holiday favorite.

When preparing for Advent, keep in mind this quote from St. Jerome: When we pray we speak to God; but when we read, God speaks to us.

Saint Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi: Not A Catholic Dr. Doolittle

Tomorrow (October 4) is the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis played a major role in reforming the Church, founded an order of male and female religious, and received the gift of the stigmata. He was not a priest, but his fervor for spreading the Gospel took him places he never had imagined as a young man.

The world seems to”know” St. Francis as a guy who liked animals. He tends to be pictured with birds or a dog (it’s really a wolf!), and many people don’t really get much further than that in terms of getting to know this great saint. To imagine him as a Catholic Dr. Doolittle does him (and God) a great disservice.

Many times we read of saints who seem to have been pious since birth. Francis was not that guy. Born to a wealthy family, Francis was what we might today call a “party animal:” he loved song, women, wine. He had no interest in his father’s business (his father bought and sold cloth to be made into fine garments for the wealthy.) Francis did have one dream: to be a knight. One can easily image how the knight would be a “superhero” to a young man at this time: the armor, the sword, a fine horse and the victory of battle.

When Francis was about 20, Assisi and Perugia were at war – a petty war, but war nonetheless. Francis answered the call to defend his city. However, Francis was injured and taken captive; he was in captivity for about a year. After his release, he suffered a long illness. It was during this time that the dreams of knighthood changed to dreams of Christ, from dreams of the life of a soldier to the life of a Christian.

While lying helpless, a voice seemed to tell him to turn back, and “to serve the Master rather than the man.” Francis obeyed. At home he began to take long rambles in the country and to spend many hours by himself; he felt contempt for a life wasted on trivial and transitory things. It was a time of spiritual crisis during which he was quietly searching for something worthy of his complete devotion. A deep compassion was growing within him. Riding one day in the plains below Assisi, he met a leper whose loathsome sores filled Francis with horror. Overcoming his revulsion, he leapt from his horse and pressed into the leper’s hand all the money he had with him, then kissed the hand. This was a turning point in his life. He started visiting hospitals, especially the refuge for lepers, which most persons avoided. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he emptied his purse at St. Peter’s tomb, then went out to the swarm of beggars at the door, gave his clothes to the one that looked poorest, dressed himself in the fellow’s rags, and stood there all day with hand outstretched. The rich young man would experience for himself the bitterness and humiliation of poverty.

St. Francis became a man of poverty. It was not simply a poverty of belongings or money, but a deep spiritual poverty. He strove to empty himself of sin, and to be nothing more than a “troubador for Christ.”

Francis wandered outside the city of Assisi, sleeping where he could and begging for food. He prayed, studied Scripture, and sought advice from holy men. Near San Damiano, Francis found a small church in ruins. Hearing the voice of God saying “Francis, rebuild my church,” Francis began the arduous task of putting brick upon brick in order to rebuild this church. Other men began joined him, and the Order of Friars Minor was born. Poverty was a mainstay of this order: they lived a radical poverty so as to be more and more like Christ.

As Francis matured, the order to “rebuild my church” became less and less literal and more about preaching the Gospel to all. Francis and his friars (both priests and deacons) traveled from town to town, preaching the good news. Francis desire to serve God took him across Europe, even to speak to the Sultan of Egypt in an attempt to bring peace but to bring the Gospel to Egypt.

When he was brought before the Sultan and asked his errand, Francis replied boldly, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.” Discussion followed, and other audiences. The Sultan, somewhat moved, invited Francis to stay with him. “If you and your people,” said Francis, “will accept the word of God, I will with joy stay with you. If you yet waver between Christ and Mohammed, order a fire kindled and I will go into it with your priests that you may see which is the true faith.” The Sultan replied that he did not think any of his imams would dare to enter the fire, and he would not accept Francis’ condition for fear of upsetting the people. He offered him many presents, which Francis refused. Fearing finally that some of his Moslems might desert to the Christians, he sent Francis, under guard, back to the camp.

Yes, there are indeed stories about Francis asking the birds to be quiet as he preached, finding a wolf that was terrorizing the town of Gubbio and asking the wolf to leave. However, St. Francis was not simply a man who spoke to animals; he regarded all of God’s creation as holy. His Canticle of the Sun praises creation not for the sake of creation, but to acknowledge that all creation praises God. It also reveals the joy that Francis had for Christ, a joy that carried Francis through many hardships.

St. Francis suffered greatly in terms of his own health, but he refused to stop preaching until he could hardly walk. In fact, his brothers needed to carry him to Assisi as he neared death. On his deathbed, he sang Psalm 141:

Do not let my heart incline to evil,
to perform deeds in wickedness.
On the delicacies of evildoers
let me not feast.
Let a righteous person strike me; it is mercy if he reproves me.
Do not withhold oil from my head
while my prayer opposes their evil deeds…
For my eyes are upon you, O Lord, my Lord;
In you I take refuge; do not take away my soul.
Guard me from the trap they have set for me,
from the snares of evildoers.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets,
while only I pass over them safely.

St. Francis of Assisi should be remembered as a man who lived a radical conversion to live in Christ. He answered Christ’s call to give up everything and to follow Him, and Francis led others on that same path. St. Francis loved God, and came to know God through all His creation. As the Church celebrates St. Francis, let us recall him through his own words: “Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society.” If Francis managed this, so too can we.

crazy for God

Crazy For God, Trusting In Christ

One thing many saints have in common is, well, they are a little over the top. One might look at things they’ve done and think, “That’s crazy!” Who in their right mind would sail across an ocean to uncharted territory in order to bring the Gospel to a hostile and dangerous people? What kind of people would joyfully sing on their way to their own execution? And it’s a little weird, isn’t it, to strip down completely naked in a very public place, disavow your wealth and head off to preach the Gospel? Crazy, right?

Indeed, our world thinks such behavior is crazy. As Catholics, however, we don’t belong to this world. We belong to the Kingdom of God. And what might seem totally crazy in this world (like allowing yourself to be nailed to a cross) makes perfect sense in the Kingdom of God. As Catholics, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Justo Gallego knows that people call him crazy. He says that he is just trusting in Christ. For 53 years, he has been nearly single-handedly building a cathedral near Madrid, Spain. Not a little chapel in his backyard: a cathedral.

It’s crazy to abandon your business, and follow a Man who promises to make you fishers of men. It’s crazy to say “yes” to becoming the Mother of the Messiah when an angel visits you. It’s crazy to build an ark, or to care for the poorest in the streets of Calcutta. Remember, though: we are people of the Kingdom of God. Maybe it’s time to show this world what it’s like to trust in God, regardless of how crazy it might make us look.

Here is Justo Gallego’s story: