New Books: Saints, nature and especially for kids
Collections on saints, thinkers celebrate, teach Catholic tradition
Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages by Pope Benedict XVI. Fortress Press (Minneapolis, 2011). 328 pp., $16.99.
A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms: 52 Companions for Your Heart, Mind, Body and Soul by Lisa M. Hendey. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Ind., 2011). 320 pp., $16.95.
"Great Christian Thinkers," a collection of Pope Benedict XVI's weekly audiences on central theological thinkers up to the Reformation, offers a concise, well-balanced introduction to the history of doctrine. Accessible to all, it shows not only Benedict's famously concise language, but also his pastoral side.
While the pontiff is not afraid to depict the frequent, intense theological conflicts that have happened throughout Christian history, he shows how theologians constantly found a solution or offered a new insight that could solve the problem.
Heresy could be a life-and-death issue, as Christians tended to judge each other harshly. Inner divisions were a constant problem in Eastern, Greek- and Syriac-speaking Christianity. Thus, Benedict informs us, Theodore the Studite, born in 759, "became the leader of the iconoclasm of (Byzantine Emperor) Leo V."
Even mundane religious activity would be punished in such a theological battle: "The procession of icons organized by the monks of Studios evoked a reaction from the police. Between 815 and 821, Theodore was scourged, imprisoned and exiled to various places in Asia Minor."
Thinkers such as Theodore were fighting for the truth. Benedict's concern for this battle comes out time and again in these writings. The truth is never easy, so struggles were common.
Each short chapter focuses on the background, life and theology of each individual, and Benedict offers us a sense of the personality of some of these thinkers.
One of the great accomplishments of the first Christian millennium was the use of Greek philosophy in the service of the good news. Rabanus Maurus, born in 780, is only one of many who exemplify this. Abbot of Fulda, then archbishop of Mainz, he was an "exegete (interpreter of the Bible), philosopher, poet, pastor and man of God."
Benedict notes throughout the book the need for a deep Christian engagement with the surrounding culture, writing about Maurus: "This method of combining all the arts, the intellect, the heart, and the senses, which came from the East, was to experience a great development in the West."
The pontiff uses these weekly addresses as a way to emphasize the importance of faith and reason, using the Greek heritage, especially reason, at the service of the faith.
He shows how this has played an essential role in Christianity from nearly the beginning, with the first century philosopher-theologian Justin Martyr, or with the sixth-century Dionysius the Areopagite, the first great theologian who used the Greek term "mysterion" to denote a person's personal journey toward God, and not simply to pertain to the sacraments. (In the Orthodox churches to this day the sacraments are often called "the Mysteries".)
With Dionysius, "the word mystic becomes more personal, more intimate," Benedict notes.
Dionysius would later influence St. Bonaventure in the healing of sharp Franciscan divisions. Benedict is keen to show readers how later thinkers always came back to earlier ones, thereby using tradition as a way to reform the church.
Lisa Hendey's "A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms" also walks readers through the Christian centuries, this time focused more on the concerns of females, and emphasizing the devotional aspects related to each saint. The author offers a saint for every occasion and concern, such as mental health, widows, converts and editors, and reflects on how this holy person has been a part of tradition through the centuries.
Regarding Montreal's Andre Bessette, she notes, "In his early childhood, Andre's father, a lumberman, taught his son a love for his patron, St. Joseph. Research with your children the lives of their own patron saints. Read their stories, learn their lessons, and plan a family feast with a few meals in honor of some of your family's communion of saints."
A strength of this book is the author's positive attitude toward the more traditional aspects of being a woman, such as motherhood and making a home for a family. As such, "A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms" offers a useful alternative to the usual push to reject or minimize the importance of traditional women's work, showing just how important a strong motherly presence is in the life of the faith.
Both books thus celebrate and teach the Catholic tradition in a simple, straightforward, yet challenging manner.
Books draw on creation as abundant source of theology
A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth and the Human Soul by John Philip Newell. Jossey-Bass (San Francisco, 2011). 224 pp., $19.95.
Nature as Spiritual Practice by Steven Chase. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2011). 291 pp., $18.
A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice by Steven Chase. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2011). 155 pp., $8.
"A New Harmony," John Philip Newell's recent work, continues and broadens the trajectory laid by his "Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation," published in 2008. From pointing the way to a Christianity offering healing and renewal for humanity and the earth, Newell now explores the expansive and essential interconnectedness of all things across boundaries of race, religion and time.
A theologian, poet and scholar, Newell claims his own Christian tradition, yet his desire for this new volume is "to communicate across the boundaries of religion and race that have separated us and to honor our distinct inheritances by serving what is deeper still --- the oneness of our origins and the oneness of earth's destiny."
The book's threefold pattern begins with an exploration of the "ancient harmony" of the universe, "the essential interwovenness of all things," all sharing "the oneness of our origins." The second section recognizes the brokenness of this harmony. The extent and depth of this disharmony crosses species, lands and nations, individuals and families, and must be acknowledged before the transformation toward a new harmony. Lastly, we are offered "a new-ancient way of seeing with which to transform the fragmentations of our lives and world back into relationship."
Drawing on his own sojourns across continents and within different communities, and naming brokenness and healing in his own family and history, Newell calls us to our own path to communion in life and to "a way of relating the parts to the whole, of seeing our distinct journeys in relation to the one journey of the universe."
A graceful harmony of parts is presented from the wisdom of Christian mystics, poets, social historians, visionary teachers and religious leaders from East and West, scientists, psychologists and psychotherapists, as well as the inspiration and challenges of art, architecture and landscape, and the aggression of one small biting dog.
This small volume is a gem of spiritual insight. It closes with a question: "Who are the people, the creatures, the lands, the nations that will awaken our compassion, and who in awakening our love will awaken our willingness to make whole again?" Newell is one who prompts this awakening, calling us to wholeness, to holiness.
Author, retreat leader and teacher of spirituality and theology over 20 years, Steven Chase imbues his new book, "Nature as Spiritual Practice," with deep respect, reverence and love for the created world and the Creator. However, the organization and range of content of the volume muddy the overall project.
Chase sets out four goals for the reader: "Making Connections with Nature;" "Recognizing the Creator in the Created;" "Participating with Nature as Spiritual Practice" and "Reawakening Attention, Wonder and Moral Response." The book lacks a straightforward progression toward these clear and compelling goals.
Text (what Chase also calls "theory") and practice are the book's framing pieces: "Practice deepens reflective and critical theory at the same time that theory deepens experiential practice," he says. Some of the text/theory used as resources toward spiritual practice draw from Hebrew and Christian scriptures, ancient Christian writers, religious leaders, theologians, ecologists and biologists, politicians, researchers, poets, Native Americans and Chase's own anecdotes and experience. While each text in itself is thought-provoking, the broad range of interdisciplinary sources is confusing as to their service toward deepening experiential spiritual practice with nature.
The spiritual practices offered in "Nature as Spiritual Practice," and in its companion field guide, are exercises for individuals or groups that "invite you to reacquaint yourself with wonder and astonishment and beauty." The volumes are "intended to be read and practiced together," though many of the practices/exercises of "A Field Guide" are included in condensed and sometimes full form in "Nature as Spiritual Practice. "The reasons for this overlap and/or need for two volumes were unclear.
The strength of these books lies in the spiritual practices. They offer the reader ample opportunities for "wanderings, serendipitous experiences, surprises" in the created world as guides toward the Creator.
The texts referenced within the chapters, the appendices and bibliography provide rich resources for further reading in the areas of nature, ecology and theology and spirituality with a focus on the created order.
Also of interest: "Green Discipleship: Catholic Theological Ethics and the Environment," edited by Tobias Winright. Anselm Academic (Winona, Minn., 2011). 512 pp., $39.95.
---Mary T. Kantor
For kids (of all ages) who like to read…
The following children's books are suitable for Christmas giving:
Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor, by Larry Dane Brimner. Boyds Mill Press (Honesdale, Pa., 2011). 112 pp., $16.95.
Drama, conflict, adventure, marches, police, Ku Klux Klan --- all these elements are contained in this nonfiction history of one of the big civil rights battlegrounds: Birmingham, Ala. The tale, told in a fairly straightforward manner from both sides, is gripping in itself, and the author even includes the stories of the children's march on Birmingham. Excellent use of photos --- some quite dramatic --- from the 1960s, pull-out quotes and the use of black and white add to the graphic attraction of this book. Ages 12-up.
Friendship With Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI Speaks to Children on Their First Holy Communion, edited by Amy Welborn, illustrated by Ann Kissane Engelhart. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2011). 32 pp., $14.95.
This simple, faith-filled "conversation" is based on a chat Pope Benedict had with children in St. Peter's Square. Engelhart's watercolors beautifully illustrate the questions and answers --- not just related to Communion --- that Welborn has chosen, and adults might find themselves inspired if they read aloud to their second-graders preparing for the Eucharist. Ages 7-10.
Secrets of Siena, written by Dianne Ahern, illustrated by Bill Shurtliff. Aunt Dee's Attic Inc. (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2011). 131 pp., $12.95.
This book, another in the adventures of Sister Philomena, has humor and mystery, but its main appeal is its travelogue- and history-in-disguise. The adventure of a young boy and girl spending the summer with their aunt, a nun, takes them from Rome to Siena to Avignon, France. Ahern does a delightful job of weaving in cultural and historical details with real-kid impressions that will keep young readers turning the pages. Ages 8-11.
---Little Croc's Purse, written and illustrated by Lizzie Finlay. Eerdman's Books for Young Readers (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2011). 32 pp., $14.99.
Finlay's humorous, colorful illustrations will draw in the listener, but her text sends a subtle, nonpreachy message about values: honesty and resisting peer pressure. Little Croc finds a purse with money and turns it in to police, but not before being tempted by other options. Ages 4-7.
---Dragon Slayers: The Essential Training Guide for Young Dragon Fighters, by Sir Wyvern Pugilist. Paraclete Press (Brewster, Mass., 2011). 224 pp., $23.99.
This book will not have mass appeal, but young readers who love fantasy can immerse themselves in a parallel world of slaying dragons --- bad things, obstacles to good. Sir Wyvern holds up as examples the chief dragon slayer (God) and other prominent slayers (the saints). The author's engaging story-telling, occasional bravado and clever analogies will draw in the reader, and his low-key humor will help keep them turning pages. Maps and illustrations add to this book's appeal. Younger children will enjoy the fantasy but will need help reading this. Ages 6-12.
Snowflake Baby, by Elise Broach, illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld. LB Kids (New York, 2011). 14 pp., $7.99.
If I had to pick one book for toddlers, this would be it! Simple two- and three-word sentences and fun, bright illustrations fill this cardboard book, good for little hands. It has seven lift-flaps to peek under, too. Adult readers, brace yourself: This is one of those books that will end with the child request of "Again!" Ages 6 mos.-3.
---The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, by Meg Wolitzer. Dutton Children's Books (New York, 2011). 294 pp., $16.99.
Wolitzer has woven a clever tale of young characters, each with his own conflicts and accomplishments. Like in Scrabble, she builds the pieces of the plot off each other, until they all come together at a national Scrabble tournament in Florida. This is an excellent read: part about growing up, part just adventure. Bonus: occasional Scrabble tips. Ages 10-13.
Brian Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.
Mary T. Kantor, a writer and lecturer, lives in Boston and has a doctorate in theology from Harvard Divinity School.
Barb Fraze has been reviewing children's books for more than 20 years. Now she reads them to her grandchild.