Travels in Search of the Saints

Traveling around the world seems like only a pipe dream as we slog through a second year of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns. Although we can’t travel wherever we’d like right now, there’s nothing to stop us from reading about it. Readers who misses traveling will thoroughly enjoy Mary Lea Carroll’s two saintly travelogues, Saint Everywhere and Somehow Saints.

Saint Everywhere: Travels in Search of the Lady Saints begins with the story of a trip to Italy in the year 2000. After spending several days touring battlefields, Carroll convinced her husband and daughter to take a side trip to Siena to view the relics of St. Catherine — and she was hooked. Carroll enthusiastically summarized St. Catherine of Siena’s life and accomplishments.

I pondered in the dark this whole implausible tale of St. Catherine. Do I believe it? It’s hard to say yes. But I want to believe. Life seems bigger, grander, more fun if you believe that a person can have mystical powers. That one woman can quell a war. (29)

Subsequent travels took Carroll to places as diverse as Prague, New York City (more than once), Colorado, Bosnia, Mexico City, and Spain. She pondered St. Elizabeth Seton’s influence on Catholic education and her challenging life of suffering, recounted her pilgrimage to see the tilma with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and discovered that a quote from St. Teresa of Ávila would be an apt reminder as she waited in line at the DMV. And she considered her own motherhood in the light of the Blessed Mother’s visit to Guadalupe.

Thinking about Guadalupe, who appeared as the mother of us all, the one we can turn to when we’re afraid or when things turn awful, makes me realize how few women can actually be that type of mother. I never confided in my mother because she’d just judge and correct me. My grandmother, who lived with us, was so vain that she wouldn’t lift a finger around the house, driving my mother nuts. Me, of course, I’m perfect. Well, maybe I care a little too much about some things and get a little uptight sometimes. My girls call it “going crazy on them.” But I’ve tried to do my best, just as my mother did her best. We all continually try. Falling short and feeling bad is part of our lot. But humanity’s been given a gift in the idea of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, who infinitely does not judge, who infinitely says just keep trying, who infinitely advises us to turn to her Son. (125)

Somehow Saints; More Travels in Search of the Saintly finds Carroll sharing more stories and insights from her travels. She begins the book with her trip to Philadelphia to visit the tomb of St. Katharine Drexel in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. St. Katharine’s extraordinary life and work inspired Carroll to consider the frustrations we experience as mothers, the saint’s contribution to the Church’s work against racism and other injustices, and St. Katharine’s emphasis on Eucharistic Adoration.

Further travels took Carroll on visits to upstate New York to the shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha; to St. Marie of the Incarnation’s shrine and the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré at Quebec, Canada; Emmitsburg, Maryland to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s shrine; to New York City to see the resting place of Bl. Pierre Touissant; to St. Brigid’s shrine in Kildare, Ireland; and finally to Venice, Italy, to the tomb of St. Josephine Bakhita.

In each place, she considered how she should pray for saintly intercession.

What would I want to pray to St. Anne for? I knelt down. How about ever more strength and the desire to do and be more? And for my own motherhood, even though my daughters are grown up. Help me be what’s needed now; help me to offer good advice and to keep my mouth shut. Help me to both be there and not be in their way. I prayed for possibly being a grandmother—to be a magical, fun, fairy grandmother. A grandmother who’ll bring out a box of treasures, who’ll take them on trains, who’ll have the patience for loud noise, who won’t be too tired. (81)

This book also contains shorter selections that focus on the heroic efforts of people Carroll knows in person: living women, saints in the making.

Mary Lea Carroll’s books are not fancy travel guides. They’re memoirs of journeys of the soul and reminders how the lives of the saints can inspire us in little ways. They’re stories of memories (good and bad) told with relatable honesty and humor. Maybe, when we can freely travel again, we’ll take inspiration from Mary Lea Carroll and begin our own journeys to visit shrines of the saints along the way.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz; photo copyright 2019 Barb Szyszkiewicz, all rights reserved.

This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchases through these links benefit the author. 

On My Bookshelf: March 2021 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been reading:

Fiction

Veiled in Smoke (The Windy City Saga Book 1) by Jocelyn Green. I read the series out of order, though book 2 was written well enough that I didn’t even realize it was part of a series until I was well into the story. It takes place in Chicago at the time of the Great Fire, and tells the story of two sisters caring for their widowed father, who suffers PTSD from his time in a Civil War military prison. One thing that seemed odd: the family owns a bookstore with a cafe in it. That’s not something I think of when I think of the late 1800s.

Half a Heart by Karen McQuestion. A heartbreaking story of a 9-year-old boy suffering abuse at the hands of his dad, and who misses his maternal grandmother. Told she has died, Logan seizes an opportunity to escape, and finds a way to survive alone, while Grandma Nan frantically searches for him. Great peripheral characters make this a wonderful story.

Not Until Now (Hope Springs Book 8) by Valerie M. Bodden. Paraplegic Kayla happens upon a car wreck and rescues a child whose mother needs hospitalization. Kayla wants to help the little girl, and must convince the child’s uncle, who had been estranged from his sister due to her struggles with addiction, to commit to caring for her. Part of a linked series but can be read as a standalone.

The Restoration of Celia Fairchild by Marie Bostwick. When an advice columnist loses her job in New York, she returns to Charleston, planning to unload an estate left to her by an aunt. But the house is in far worse shape than she’d realized, and she needs it to pass inspection so she can be approved to adopt a child. Celia and some new friends and neighbors work to clean out the house (Celia’s aunt had been a hoarder) and renovate it. Very enjoyable story.

A whole bunch of shorter Christian romances by Jennifer Rodewald: the entire Murphy Brothers series: Always You, In Spite of Ourselves, Everything Behind Us, and This Life. Good stories, quick reads, about a (mostly) close-knit family. In several of them, the brothers meet and fall for their future wives in strange (and often unrealistic) circumstances. But it’s fun reading.

YA/Children’s

I got on a classic children’s-book kick thanks to a conversation with a friend, so I read Little Plum by Rumer Godden and then followed it up with my all-time favorite of her children’s books, The Diddakoi. Some things never change, I guess: both books deal with the topics of bullying and friendship. Little Plum is the story of an active family living next door to a vacant house, and the difficulties of making friends with the new little girl on the block, whose mother is hospitalized. In The Diddakoi, a gypsy child who is continually bullied by her schoolmates is alone after the death of her grandmother, and the citizens of a town who never welcomed her must arrange for her care.

Bubbles by Abby Cooper has a terrific premise that I’d find a little terrifying: 12-year-old Sophie discovers that sometimes she can see what other people are thinking. Their thoughts appear above their heads in little cartoon bubbles. While she sometimes finds it useful, she discovers that it just adds to the stress she’s already experiencing: her mom’s recent breakup and job loss (both of which she blames herself for), friendship issues, and finding out that her best friend likes the same boy she does.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord. A fun takeoff on You’ve Got Mail, but with high-school students, Twitter, and the New York City restaurant scene. Pepper’s parents have her running the social media for their fast-food chain. Jack goes to the same school, frequently drives Pepper crazy, and helps out at his family’s deli. It all gets ugly when Pepper’s family is accused of stealing a secret recipe from Jack’s family, and all during a social-media duel, Pepper and Jack make an anonymous connection online through a secret school app. (For older teens and adults.)

The Truth About Romantic Comedies by Sean C. McMurray. A romance written from a teenage boy’s point of view is already different – and this story was excellent. Timothy lives in a trailer park with his mother (a nurse) and grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and cancer. He meets Rachel when she accompanies her mother to radiation treatments. When they learn that Rachel’s family will be moving soon, the two decide on an experiment to put every rom-com cliche to the test, with unexpected results. (For older teens and adults.)


Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Where noted, books are review copies. If that is not indicated, I either purchased the book myself or borrowed it from the library.

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!)

Visit this month’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!

5 New Books About Prayer

Happy Easter! I hope Lent has been a spiritually fruitful time and that you’ve been inspired to continue a spiritual practice you began during that season. Or maybe you want to try something new during the Easter season? Let’s take a look at five newly published books about prayer that will help feed your soul.

Divine Mercy

Fr. Chris Alar, MIC, has written Understanding Divine Mercy, part of the Explaining the Faith series from Marian Press. Whether you are new to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet or a longtime devotee of this prayer practice, this book will shed new light on Divine Mercy. Chapters are divided into short sections (usually two to four pages in length) so you can easily read a section a day before praying your chaplet. Easy! The book begins with a deeper look at the mercy of God (a perfect Easter Season read), followed by an introduction to the life and spirituality of St. Faustina Kowalska, whose life and writings helped spread devotion to Divine Mercy throughout the world. The next two sections discuss the feast of Divine Mercy (the Sunday after Easter) and the image, novena, chaplet, and hour of Divine Mercy. The book concludes with a beautiful chapter titled “God’s Mercy in the Midst of Suffering and Loss.”

God wants to show us what His mercy can do. He wants to show us that His mercy is greater than anything, even our sin. (141).

If you are going through a difficult time and wondering how you can even find a way to pray, I recommend Understanding Divine Mercy.

Get Close to God

Ten Ways to Pray: A Catholic Guide for Drawing Closer to God by Carolyn Pirtle is part of the new Engaging Catholicism series from Ave Maria Press. This 10-chapter book introduces many different ways to pray: with Scripture, through devotions, with the Church in the liturgy, using the Examen, and more. Each chapter answers these four questions:

  • What is this form of prayer?
  • Why might a person pray this way?
  • When and where can one practice this form of prayer?
  • How does one pray this way in practice?


A free discussion guide is available from the publisher; use this for a formal or informal book study or even for your own prayer journaling.

Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter? by Timothy P. O’Malley is also part of the new Engaging Catholicism series from Ave Maria Press. University of Notre Dame theologian Timothy P. O’Malley helps unravel the complicated biblical teachings and Church tradition about the Eucharist, and discusses Eucharistic devotion.

I count this as a prayer book because one of my favorite prayer practices is Eucharistic Adoration, and this would be a perfect book to bring along to the Adoration chapel, to ponder the mysteries of the Eucharist. Ave Maria Press offers a free discussion guide to use for book study or prayer journaling.

This new Engaging Catholicism series (more books in the series are coming soon) would make excellent resources for new converts or Catholics returning to the faith.

Pray the Rosary

Word on Fire recently published The Rosary with Bishop Robert Barron, which is bundled with a pretty (and sturdy) wooden rosary in a cloth pouch. This glossy book is packed with sacred art to accompany each Mystery of the Rosary. The book begins with an excerpt from St. John Paul II’s Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002), then includes step-by-step instructions for praying the Rosary.

For each of the 20 Mysteries of the Rosary, two reflections are offered (one long, one short) along with the art. The accompanying rosary is made in Jerusalem of polished olive wood beads.

Praying a Christ-Centered Rosary: Meditations on the Mysteries by James L. Papandrea is part prayer book, part history book, and all fascinating. You can use this book, new from Ave Maria Press, in a variety of ways. In the introduction, the author encourages readers to explore different ways to approach the Rosary to “enrich your devotional life and enliven your faith with new insights” (6). Don’t skip the introduction to this book!

Each of the four parts of the book is devoted to a set of Mysteries of the Rosary. A short “A Mystery in History” reading begins each section. After that, the chapter for each mystery contains the answer to four questions:

  • What is (this mystery)?
  • Where was Mary?
  • What does it tell us about Jesus?
  • What aspects of this mystery should we imitate?

A brief meditation ends each chapter. At the end of the book, you’ll find a walk-through of the Rosary in one appendix, and a second one with those brief meditations all in one place so you can access them more easily as you pray.


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given free review copies of the featured books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Image created in Stencil.

Book Review: ‘Treasures’ for St. Patrick’s Day or Any Day

Treasures: Visible & Invisible, a new short story collection from Catholic Teen Books, reads almost like a novel if you let yourself binge on the eight stories, all linked by a mysterious object whose origins can be traced back to none other than St. Patrick himself.

(Pardon the Irish fangirling. It can’t be helped.)

It was easy to get lost in each and every story, some of which come with promises of longer works featuring these characters. And it was fun to note each appearance of the special object that connects each story.

That connection is even more remarkable when you realize that these stories were not written in order, progressive-story-style, with the second author building on what the first author had already contributed. These eight authors composed on their own, with that mysterious object in mind, but with little (if any) idea of what their fellow authors were creating.

But just as we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, the eight authors of this collection were all on the same page as they put together these linked stories.

What’s Inside:

  • A teen boy sets out to save a friend from pagan druids, but maybe he’s the one who needs saving. (“Treasure in the Bogs” by Theresa Linden)
  • Between a baffling scripture verse and a visit from Heaven, a young monk is in for the surprise of his life. (“A Single Day … or Not” by Susan Peek)
  • A young girl seeks a mysterious treasure that holds the key to granting a nun’s dying wish. (“Lucy and the Hidden Clover” by Antony Barone Kolenc)
  • Honora is desperate — then a peculiar clover and a mysterious young man change everything. (“Lucky and Blessed” by Amanda Lauer)
  • William’s weekend job is a little gift from heaven, but now his family needs a real miracle. (“Danke” by Carolyn Astfalk)
  • When threatened by mobsters, Grace receives help from a surprising source. (“Grace Among Gangsters” by Leslea Wahl)
  • Alone and afraid, a young girl finds friendship in a stranger. But could this boy be trouble? (“In Mouth of Friend or Stranger” by T.M. Gaouette)
  • Kyle was determined to save the precious relic – but now his whole family is in danger. (“The Underappreciated Virtues of Green-Fingered Monsters” by Corinna Turner)

From the early days of the Church, objects touched to holy men and women have been linked to the miraculous, such as described in Acts: “when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:12)

Check out the book trailer:

Win a copy of Treasures!

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Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images courtesy of Catholic Teen Books; used with permission, all rights reserved.
An advance copy of this book was provided for the purposes of this review. Opinions are mine alone and are uncompensated.
This article contains Amazon links; your purchases through these links benefit FranciscanMom.com.


An Open Book: February 2021 Reads

The first Wednesday of each month, Carolyn Astfalk hosts #OpenBook, where bloggers link posts about books they’ve read recently. Here’s a taste of what I’ve read last month:

Fiction

When We Were Young and Brave by Hazel Gaynor.

An intense novel set in a boarding school in China during World War II. The students are children of British diplomats and missionaries, for the most part. Mainly focused on one student and one teacher who had met on the boat to the school, the novel follows the entire course of the war and the ways the Chinese nationals and those from other nations who lived in China suffered during the Japanese occupation. It’s a beautiful story of suffering and resilience, and you will need a very light read to follow it up.

Shadows of the White City (The Windy City Saga Book 2) by Jocelyn Green.

Sylvie, a single woman who had dedicated her life to caring for her parents and running the family business, takes in a motherless little girl. All goes well for about 12 years until teenage Rose goes missing during the Chicago World’s Fair. Crime rings, human trafficking, and the hand-to-mouth existence of many late 19th-century immigrants feature prominently in this story of what motherhood really means. Second in a series, but it’s a standalone.

Homestands by Sally Bradley.

I’m not a baseball fan, but I enjoyed this story! Baseball star Mike Connor runs into his ex-wife after he ruins yet another relationship, and discovers that he has a 5-year-old son he never knew about. The story got a little far-fetched as it went along, but it was well-told and an enjoyable read. It’s supposed to be Book 1 of a series, but I can’t find anything else from this author.

Lighter reads (blurbs courtesy of Amazon):

  • The Cupcake Dilemma by Jennifer Rodewald. “It all started with an extra assignment delegated to me at school right before Valentine’s Day… But before we get too far, let me begin by stating this clearly. I was voluntold.” A sweet, funny read.
  • Getting to Yes by Allie Pleiter. “Valentine’s Day is coming. It’s the perfect time for him to pop the question. She’s more than ready, he’s trying to get ready, so why would God throw obstacle after obstacle into the mix?”
  • Change of Heart by Courtney Walsh. “When a public scandal upends Evelyn Brandt’s neatly constructed life, she’s launched on a journey of self-discovery. She finds a new start in the most unlikely place—a picturesque Colorado farm, owned by her estranged friend, Trevor Whitney. Trevor’s unexpected kindness pushes Evelyn to reclaim her dreams, but it also leaves her with many questions, and he’s never been one for sharing.”

YA/Children’s

Middle-grade mystery fans (about age 10 and up) will enjoy The Haunted Cathedral, Book 2 in the Harwood Mysteries series.

Set in 12th-century England, this story can be read as a standalone. Author Antony Barone Kolenc has crafted a compelling mystery featuring Xan, a 12-year-old orphan who has been in the care of a monastery for about a year. When he is forced to travel to the city of Lincoln with Carlo, who was involved in Xan’s parents’ death, Xan faces multiple obstacles that challenge him to forgive — and he learns firsthand the consequences for himself and others when he withholds forgiveness. (Advance review copy received from publisher.)

Catholic Teen Books’ Treasures: Visible and Invisible is the third in a series of short-story collections from a group of 8 authors in various genres.

Unlike the other collections, this one almost feels like a novel because all the stories are linked by a single significant object that passes from the time of St. Patrick into a dystopian future. (Full review coming soon; advance review copy received from the authors.)

Nonfiction

Be Bold in the Broken: How I Found My Courage and Purpose in God’s Unconditional Love by Mary Lenaburg.

I found myself nodding “yes” to so much of what the author says in this book. Mary and I are polar opposites in terms of personality, but I could see myself in quite a few of the personal anecdotes she shared. If you’ve ever felt like you just don’t fit and start questioning what you’re even doing here, this book is for you. (Advance review copy received from publisher; releases March 12)

The Big Hustle: A Boston Street Kid’s Story of Addiction and Redemption by Jim Wahlberg.

This was a gritty, open look at a young man’s path into addiction, crime, and prison, then to faith and a chance at a new life dedicated to helping others in recovery.


Links to books in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases made through these links support Franciscanmom.com. Thank you!

Where noted, books are review copies. If that is not indicated, I either purchased the book myself or borrowed it from the library.

Follow my Goodreads reviews for the full list of what I’ve read recently (even the duds!)

Visit today’s #OpenBook post to join the linkup or just get some great ideas about what to read! You’ll find it at Carolyn Astfalk’s A Scribbler’s Heart and at CatholicMom.com!


Copyright 2021 Barb Szyszkiewicz

Stories of the Saints: A Giveaway of a Bold and Inspiring Book

Do you want to help your children understand that saints are not simply people who sit around and pray all the time? A new book of saint stories underscores the fascinating stories of some of the best-known saints. Stories of the Saints by Carey Wallace, illustrated by Nick Thornborrow, is subtitled “Bold and Inspiring Tales of Adventure, Grace, and Courage” – and it delivers.

From the Introduction:

Saints aren’t born better or braver than the rest of us . … Saints aren’t people who are always good and never afraid. They’re people who believe there must be more to life than just what we can see. This world may be hard and unfair, but saints believe in a God who is bigger than the world, whose law is love, and whose justice is mercy. And this faith gives them courage: to stand up to evil kings, to care for people everyone else forgets or hates, to slay dragons. … Led by their faith, they actually bring the better world to be, and invite us all in.

(ix)

The stories of 70 saints (71, actually, since Perpetua and Felicity’s stories are told together) are told in this oversized book that’s a perfect read-aloud for children 6 and up, and just right for independent readers in 4th grade and up. At the beginning of each saint’s story, you’ll find a box listing their vital stats: year of birth and death, location(s) where the saint lived and worked, emblem (something the saint is often depicted with in art), patronage, and feast day. The saints in this book are listed in chronological order by year of birth.

Which saints are featured in Stories of the Saints? Bishops with healing powers (Blaise), princesses who helped the poor (Margaret of Scotland), visionaries who pioneered a beloved form of prayer (Dominic), a pope who quit his job and was imprisoned by his replacement (Celestine V), a priest who was tortured rather than break the secrecy of the confessional (John Nepomucene), an artist who cried every time he painted a picture of the cross of Christ (Fra Angelico), a young woman who found a buried sword and saved her country (Joan of Arc), a priest who cared for slaves as they arrived in Colombia (Peter Claver), and many more.

The illustrations in this oversized hardcover book are done in a bold, modern style that evokes the active love the saints showed for God through their deeds.

Would you like to win a copy of Stories of the Saints for your young reader? To enter, leave a comment with the name of your favorite bold and inspiring saint.

One winner will be drawn from entries in the comments of this blog and comments on social media. One entry per person per platform: you can enter here, on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram on my posts about the book on those platforms.

This giveaway is open to winners with an address in the USA. Contest closes at noon Eastern on Friday, December 18. Winner will be notified by email or direct message (if winning entry was made on social media) and will have 48 hours to claim the prize. If prize is unclaimed, an alternate winner will be chosen. Prize will not likely be delivered in time for Christmas but I’ll do my best to get it mailed as soon as possible.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
Images courtesy of Workman Publishing. All rights reserved.
This article contains Amazon affiliate links. Your purchase through these links benefits my work.
I received a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions are my own.

Devotionals: A Gift that Lasts All Year

Devotionals are wonderful spiritual gifts for friends and family members. These beautiful books offer food for the soul; the three daily devotionals are all saint-focused, and the weekly devotional is designed with busy women in mind. You’re sure to find one to add to your gift list (or your own wish list).

In Caelo et in Terra: 365 Days with the Saints

by the Daughters of St. Paul (Pauline Books & Media)

This big, beautiful book of the saints is a collaborative effort of the Daughters of St. Paul, often nicknamed the “media nuns.” Their mission is to spread God’s word and make disciples through a variety of media, including writing and publishing.

In Caelo et in Terra features a saint for each day (and contrary to the subtitle, they’ve covered February 29 as well). As the book is larger than an average hardcover (about 7X10 inches), there’s plenty of space to include two substantial paragraphs about the life of each day’s saint on the page, along with a short reflection (with a great journaling prompt) and a prayer. Information on the saint’s patronage and feast day are included. You’ll also find a robust index, which lists the saints by name, liturgical feast day, and patronage – so this is a reference book as well as a devotional.

Each page is beautifully embellished not only with designs of leaves and clouds, which symbolize earth and heaven, but also with drawings of the saint of the day or sacred symbols related to that saint. The interior art, by Sr. Danielle VIctoria Lussier, FSP (who also designed the cover), is done in a consistent style that is simple and beautiful without being distracting.

A great gift for: RCIA and Confirmation candidates, teenage godchildren, and any teen or adult.


Brotherhood of Saints: Daily Guidance and Inspiration

by Melanie Rigney (Franciscan Media)

Melanie Rigney has a special love for sharing stories of the saints. In Brotherhood of Saints, a page-a day devotional for men, she has gathered the stories of 366 saints — ranging from the well-known and beloved Peter, Paul, Anthony of Padua, and John Paul II to more obscure but no less inspiring holy men. This book includes many men canonized within the past 50 years, such as Francisco Marto, Oscar Romero, and Louis Martin.

Following a paragraph about each saint’s life and a short analysis of how this saint is an example for us today, each daily entry contains an inspiring quote either written by the saint himself or from Scripture, and a challenge — a call to action. While all the saints in Brotherhood of Saints are men, women will find their stories equally inspiring.

A great gift for: the men in your life. Dads, grandfathers, brothers, teenage and young-adult sons, and RCIA and Confirmation candidates.


Sisterhood of Saints: Daily Guidance and Inspiration

by Melanie Rigney (Franciscan Media)

The sister volume to Brotherhood of Saints, this book was published in 2013.

Sisterhood of Saints spotlights 366 female saints, many of whom are little-known but far from little in their holiness. Of course, the book begins on January 1 with the Blessed Virgin Mary and includes Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux, Clare of Assisi, and Catherine of Siena, among other well-known saintly women. But author Melanie Rigney gives equal time to the lesser-known saints whose stories of virtue, sanctity, and challenges overcome will inspire any reader.

Following a paragraph about each saint’s life and a short analysis of how this saint is an example for us today, each daily entry in Sisterhood of Saints contains an inspiring quote either written by the saint herself or from Scripture, and a challenge — a call to action.

A great gift for: any woman, including teenagers, RCIA and Confirmation candidates.

Are you giving Christmas gifts to a couple (perhaps newlyweds)? This pair of books would make a lovely gift for the two of them!


Awaken My Heart: 52 Weeks of Giving Thanks and Loving Abundantly

by Emily Wilson Hussem (Ave Maria Press)

If you prefer a weekly devotional with a slightly longer (but still totally do-able, even for the busiest woman) format, Emily Wilson Hussem recently published a yearly devotional for women. Awaken My Heart: 52 Weeks of Giving Thanks and Loving Abundantly offers reflections designed to inspire moments of prayer during the week ahead.

Each of the 52 entries in this book runs about 4 pages and begins with a personal reflection by the author, who shares her own vulnerabilities before gently leading readers to prayerfully consider how God calls them to love themselves and others more deeply. Following the reflection, a Soul Exercise invites you to take time in the coming week to ponder, pray, and journal about that week’s topic. A short prayer concludes each week’s entry, and a simple border evoking bouquets of flowers runs along the bottom of every page.

Some of the topics covered in Awaken My Heart include jealousy, body image, fear, loving the elderly, choosing to change, saying no, giving thanks, becoming childlike, and letting go.

Carve out 30 minutes each week to sip your favorite hot beverage and ponder “how to live life present to the bountiful gifts God provides. … He leaves bouquets of blessings on every surface of our lives, and it’s up to us to notice.”

A great gift for: women of every age (college and up) who would like to live more intentionally instead of being carried along by the everyday distractions of our busy lives.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchases through these links benefit the author. 
I purchased In Caelo et in Terra; all other books were review copies provided by the author or publisher. Opinions expressed here are my own; no compensation was provided for these reviews.

Gather Together: Recipes for Fellowship

The ultimate challenge in 2020 might be releasing a book about the blessings of gathering as friends … in the same week that several states restricted such gatherings to 10 or fewer — and some cities even prohibited getting together with anyone outside the household.

But we Catholics are people of hope. We know that these measures will not last forever, and we eagerly anticipate the day when we can gather outside our household or social bubble to enjoy food, fun, and fellowship.

In the meantime, there’s no point in wasting any of the wonderful recipes you’ll find in Catherine Fowler Sample’s new cookbook, Gather Together. I always recommend that you try a recipe on your family before serving it to guests — so now’s the time to taste-test these dishes, make note of any “to taste” seasoning adjustments you made, and bookmark the ones you’ll want to use when (finally!) you can invite friends over for a meal or afternoon tea.

In the Introduction, the author offers a few creative ideas for making connections with family and friends we can’t see in person:

You could make the recipes with loved ones over video chat, or plan an evening of reflection by phone based on the questions and prayer prompts. While distance makes forming community more challenging, the consistency of intentional connection can be a unique balm during uncertain times.

I firmly believe that the best kind of cookbook is one I can read like a novel or memoir. Gather Together is that kind of cookbook. Each chapter begins with a story from the author’s life, along with a spiritual reflection, a prayer for gathering, a few conversation prompts, and a soup-to-nuts themed menu for brunch, dinner, or afternoon tea. Each menu offers at least four dishes including dessert. 

Gather Together, which releases Friday, November 20, was written with both the cook’s and the guests’ needs in mind. Author Catherine Fowler Sample anticipated the possibility of substitution of certain ingredients containing dairy, as well as where in your grocery store you should look to find specialty ingredients. There are also prep-ahead tips, and along with ingredient lists for each recipe, there’s a list of kitchen equipment needed. That’s a feature I almost never find in cookbooks (and I have a big collection of cookbooks) — but whether you’re a beginner cook or very confident in the kitchen, having this list handy saves you time. When I taught my children to cook, I told them to always get everything in place (ingredients and equipment) before you start. Gather Together makes all of that easy.

If you think the cover is beautiful, wait until you see what’s on the inside of this book! Gather Together would make a wonderful engagement or wedding gift; it’s also perfect for a young person moving to his or her first apartment. But since it’s about building community as much as cooking, this cookbook is an excellent housewarming gift as well.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchases through these links benefit the author.
I received a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation, for this review. All opinions are my own.

Eliminate the Negative: Two New Books that Encourage Holy Habits

As we approach the month when we celebrate All Saints, it’s good to look to their example — and their advice on living holy lives. New books by Gary Zimak and Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP, aim to help readers conquer our tendency toward negativity, as shown in anger, stress, and complaining.

Let Go of Anger & Stress! by Gary Zimak employs St. Paul’s wisdom about the Holy Spirit as an encouragement to transform our mindset. Subtitled “Be Transformed by the Fruits of the Spirit,” this book explores each of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit (found in Galatians 5:22-23) and demonstrates how living out the Fruits of the Spirit in mind can change our lives.

Anger and stress are the opposite of the Fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), and Gary discusses how yielding control of our lives to the Holy Spirit will give us the grace to resist the temptation to give in to stress and anger.

It’s significant that the call to action in the book’s title is “let go” and not “conquer” or “get rid of” — that shows that we are holding anger and stress much too close, and are all too ready to grab them out of our emotional toolkit. Gary’s book explains the ways St. Paul challenges us, instead, to reach for positive virtues: the Fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Each chapter of Let Go of Anger & Stress! is divided into short sections, so if you don’t have a lot of time to read all at once, that won’t be an obstacle. The chapters end with a list of the most important points, several reflection questions (keep your journal handy!), and a closing prayer.

If you’ve listened to Gary speak at a parish mission, podcast, or radio appearance, Gary’s writing style will be immediately familiar to you. He writes like he talks: simply and honestly, with relatable examples from his own life. His books aren’t filled with buzzwords, jargon, or complicated theology; instead, you will find sincere words from someone who clearly loves God and wants to follow His will.  

Sr. Mary Lea Hill, FSP, goes by @CrabbyMystic on social media, so it’s not a reach that she’d write Complaints of the Saints: Stumbling Upon Holiness with a Crabby Mystic. Anyone who knows me knows of my tendency to complain (even if I turn it into a joke, I’m still often complaining), so it’s a comfort to me that saints (AKA people much holier than I am) complained too.

But just because St. Paul, St. Teresa of Ávila, St. Thérèse of LIsieux, St. Damien of Molokai, and St. Faustina, among many others, had their moments of complaining, Sr. Mary Lea reminds readers that this is not an excuse for us to indulge that tendency. 

We aren’t getting off scot-free. If we learn from those who were holy before us, then we need to offer this same example to those whose paths we cross, as well as to those who will follow us. (127)

With each of the 66 chapters running just over two pages, Complaints of the Saints is an excellent spiritual read for people who don’t think they have time for spiritual reading. The last section of the book emphasizes our call to do better: to follow the holy example of the saints who, we have seen throughout the book, have lived with difficulties and challenges and learned to handle those with grace. Sr. Mary Lea offers concrete ideas at the end of each chapter that will help us channel our negativity in a better direction. Some of these include:

  • Pray the news in order to bring all the events of our history to God’s throne (138)
  • Read the life of a saint (80)
  • Pray for couples we know who are experiencing difficulties in their relationships (101)
  • Recall a disappointment that brought you closer to Christ (82)
  • Reflect on a time you blamed another for something that turned out badly (120)
  • Note Gospel incidents that might have sparked both human and holy reactions from those involved (37)

The last part of the book goes through the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, the Characteristics of Charity, expanding upon St. Paul’s list with examples from the life and writing of saints and saints-to-be. It’s different from the rest of the book, but is an excellent summary of the ideas Sr. Mary Lea discusses in a lighter form in the earlier chapters.


These two books were released several months into a pandemic, and the challenges we have faced this year often seem like they’d lead even the most saintly person to complain and to give in to stress and anger. Gary Zimak and Sr. Mary Lea Hill’s understanding approaches and sound advice lead us to follow God more closely, even in difficult circumstances.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I was given free review copies of these books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

In the Christmas Basket: A New Picture Book by Raymond Arroyo

I am of the mind that you can never have too many Christmas storybooks for your children to enjoy. When my children were younger, we had a large basket of Advent- and Christmas-themed picture books, which we would bring out on the First Sunday of Advent, along with our Advent wreath and the empty stable from our Nativity scene. The kids looked forward to rereading their favorite stories, and sometimes I’d surprise them and slip a new one into the basket.

Raymond Arroyo’s new picture book from Sophia Institute Press is a wonderful addition to your collection of Christmas storybooks. The Spider Who Saved Christmas: A Legend, beautifully and vividly illustrated by Randy Gallegos, begins with the Holy Family on the run from King Herod, during the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Entering a cave to hide from Herod’s soldiers, Mary and Joseph notice a large spider protecting a sac of eggs. Joseph, fully on alert and wanting to protect Mary and Baby Jesus from all threats, slashes at the spider’s web with his staff, but Mary stops him, noting, “All are here for a reason. Let it be.”

As the family rests in the darkness of the cave, the distant wails of the slaughtered innocents and their bereaved mothers are heard. The spider, who wants to repair the web Joseph damaged with his staff, realizes that she needs to protect a Child not her own — so she calls forth her dozens of older children to help spin a thick web at the entrance to the cave, so that Herod’s soldiers will be tricked into thinking that no one is hiding inside.

Readers familiar with Charlotte’s Web will enjoy another story in which a friendly spider selflessly takes risks to save someone else. Unlike most stories that feature “saves Christmas” in their title, The Spider Who Saved Christmas isn’t about removing obstacles that threaten to prevent Santa’s delivery of gifts to children. Instead, it’s about a lowly creature willingly accepting a dangerous mission to save the Son of God.

The Spider Who Saved Christmas is based on an ancient Eastern European legend which tells the origin of the tinsel we often use to decorate Christmas trees.

Not only does this book tell a wonderful story, it’s an excellent catechetical tool for the Feast of the Holy Innocents.


Copyright 2020 Barb Szyszkiewicz
This article contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchases through these links benefit the author.
A review copy of this book was received from the publisher. Opinions are my own.