On Barb’s Bookshelf: “Born to Soar,” a spiritual journal

The beautiful monarch butterfly is the source of much fascination, the subject of many grade-school science lessons, and the motif around which Born to Soar, Melissa Overmyer’s new Scripture and prayer journal (Servant Books, 2017), was created.

The image of soaring flight evoked by a brilliant butterfly is a metaphor for the soaring prayer experiences described in the poetry of the mystic St. John of the Cross. The author includes short excerpts of this mystical poetry to remind the reader that, in prayer, our hearts seek to soar toward heaven.

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This journal is designed to be used over the course of six weeks, so it’s a perfect summer spiritual retreat. Each of the six chapters of the book corresponds to one of the stages in the life cycle of the caterpillar who ultimately becomes a beautiful butterfly. That science lesson we remember from grade school becomes a lesson for our souls in Born to Soar.

Don’t let the butterflies and flowers on the cover of the book fool you: this journal is designed to push you out of your spiritual comfort zone and motivate you to explore ways in which you can take the risk of growing closer to God.

Praying through journaling can be a liberating and beautiful means of expression. Your writing can take on the feeling of a love letter or a song and can be accompanied by a heart-wrenching release of emotions. . . . Do not be afraid of writing down how you truly feel — God knows your heart already. Instead, offer yourself — in all your beauty and your brokenness — freely to God and ask him to use your journal to bring you closer to him. Do not be afraid to give it all to God, who can turn our ashes to beauty, heal our deepest wounds, and set us free. (from the Introduction, p. xvii)

Each of the six sessions follows this format:

  • Description of the physical stage of the caterpillar’s life cycle
  • Overmyer’s reflection on how this stage compares to the process of spiritual renewal
  • Thoughts to ponder, with space for journaling
  • A moment with St. John of the Cross, including a quote from the saint’s writings, questions for reflection, and space for journaling
  • Thoughts for discussion (for group discussion or journal prompts)
  • Prayer
  • A “renewing truth” to be revisited on multiple occasions during the course of the week
  • Scripture passages for daily reflection, followed by a journal prompt and space for writing

I’d recommend Born to Soar to any reader who seeks to go deeper in the spiritual life. Overmyer makes the mystical works of St. John of the Cross accessible even to people like me who tend toward the practical. Her inviting approach and simple language engage the reader; I found myself wanting to go beyond each day’s reflections because I was hungry for what would come next.
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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: 3 Lenten Reads

It’s not yet Lent, but I’ve had the chance to peek into a Lenten book from Ave Maria Press as well as two new daily devotionals from Franciscan Media, each offering a spiritual companion for your Lenten journey. All three books are sure to help readers have a spiritually fruitful Lenten season.

A book doesn’t have to be brand-new this year to benefit its readers. Paula Huston’s Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit (Ave Maria Press, 2011) is packed with timeless wisdom. The cover blurb touts it as a “practical book,” which means it’s right up my alley. I am, at heart, a practical person, and I can get bogged down and discouraged by books that don’t address my pragmatic side.

In the Introduction, Huston notes,

The beauty of the Lenten season is that it encouragees the development of a humble heart. (xiii)

The beauty of this book, for me, is its learn-by-doing approach. Each day begins with a meditation (usually a vignette from the author’s own experience) and ends with a task. The concreteness of this appeals to me. The author explains that this is not a “handbook for self-improvement” but instead “an invitation to self-knowledge and . . . a small step in liberation from destructive complicatedness–that is, from sin.” (xv, xvi)

My challenge, with this book, will be slowing it down. It’s seriously motivational, and I found myself wanting to do All The Things right now. Slowing down, for me, can be almost penitential in itself, and I need to remember to focus on one day’s task and not try to jump ahead. Lent is 40 days long for a reason. But anything that has me ready to scrub gunk out of hidden corners with an old toothbrush gets motivation points! It reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila’s observation that God is with us every moment, “even amidst the pots and pans.”

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Take your Lenten inspiration from Pope Francis with Diane M. Houdek’s The Hope of Lent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis (Servant, 2016.) Each daily entry is divided into 5 compact parts:

  • Bible readings (find those on your own or at USCCB.org)
  • A Word from Pope Francis
  • Taking the Word to Heart
  • Bringing the Word to Life
  • Pope Francis Prays

I was charmed by the “Word from Pope Francis” sections: each one an anecdote or homily excerpt that showcases both Pope Francis’ down-to-earth style and his desire that the faithful deepen and radically live their faith. You’ll want to keep a journal handy for your own reflections, inspired by “Bringing the World to Life.”

From the Introduction:

The greatest hope of Lent is the discovery that it’s not only about penance deprivation, spiritual struggles, and rooting out sin in our lives. Those are often the things we do during Lent. But the hope of Lent lies in what God does. From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has made mercy his hallmark. It’s no surprise that he declared a special year dedicated to the contemplation of mercy. Pope Francis wants us to realize that God’s mercy and grace surround us not just in special times and places but always and everywhere. Lent is a time to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, to be surprised by God’s mercy when we least expect it. (vii-viii)

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Heidi Hess Saxton shares the wisdom of a beloved modern-day saint in Lent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Servant, 2016.) Begin your daily prayer with a short scripture passage, followed by a meditation with a story or quote from St. Teresa, reflection/application questions, and a brief closing prayer. The book is described by the publisher as a “helpful resource for reflecting upon the mercy of God—and modeling the generous heart of this saint from Calcutta in our own lives.”

Saxton takes an unusual path in the Introduction to the book, dedicating most of it to the story of four Missionaries of Charity who were martyred by ISIS in Yemen in March 2016, while the local priest, Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, was captured (his fate is still unknown). The author notes that this story “calls us to consider just how far we are willing to go when the Lord asks us to take up our cross and follow him.” (ix, x) She continues,

As we contemplate Scripture and the life and teachings of St. Teresa of Calcutta during this Lent, we have a daily inspiration and opportunity to follow her example and that of her community in spreading Christ’s fragrance to others. And whatever the fuure holds–pain or healing, uncertainty or assurance, dismay or delight–we can anticipate with great joy the glory of the Risen Christ at our journey’s end. (xiv)

Lent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta offers daily reflections in a slightly longer format than Houdek’s book, and the subject matter is a bit more challenging. There are two reflection questions per day, which make excellent journal prompts.

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given free review copies of these books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Meeting God in the Upper Room

Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi describes the Upper Room as “the most important room in Christendom” in his new book, Meeting God in the Upper Room (Servant, 2017). In one whirlwind 8-week period, the Upper Room was the location for three significant events in the birth of the Church:

  • the Last Supper
  • Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances to his disciples
  • Pentecost

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By Assaf Yekuel (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Msgr. Vaghi notes in the Prologue that the Upper Room, or Cenacle, was renovated in the 14th century, which explains the architectural style of the room as seen above.

What must the disciples have felt during their time in that room? Did they celebrate the Passover with trepidation, having heard Jesus tell them again and again that this trip to Jerusalem would end in his death? Were they astounded and elated when the risen Christ appeared to them in that room, continuing to teach them to take on the work of building the Church? Were they simultaneously energized and terrified at the descent of the Holy Spirit and their commissioning to make disciples of all nations?

“Once we catch a glimpse of the events that transpired in this room, we will be forever captivated by the mystery of the God who loves us so much that, even as he prepared to return to the Father, promised that ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.’ (John 14:18, NRSV)” (1)

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Msgr. Varghi’s discussion of the history of the Upper Room based on Gospel accounts complements the meditations that are the meat of this book. I found the history fascinating; in various chapters, you’ll read about personalities, prophecy, sacraments, and Catholic social teaching. Each chapter ends with a section titled “Preparing Your Upper Room” in which the reader is invited to consider the personal implications of Jesus’ message.

I recommend Meeting God in the Upper Room for spiritual reading during Lent or, even more appropriately, beginning in Holy Week and continuing through the Easter season, when you can read the book as you liturgically relive the events depicted in it.

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This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: What Pope Francis Really Said

Every time Pope Francis writes an encyclical or makes an off-the-cuff remark on an airplane, the media (both Catholic and secular) jump all over it with various interpretations.

That’s a problem, states Tom Hoopes, author of What Pope Francis Really Said (Servant, 2016). Depending on your news source (or who you follow on Twitter and Facebook) you’ll get wildly different versions of the same wrong story. Add in our lack of critical-reading skills and our willingness to accept “fake news” at face value and you wind up with a great deal of confusion about the Pope’s teachings and motivations.

He is celebrated by some for saying things he never said and rejected by others for doing things they don’t really understand (ix).

That airplane photo on the cover isn’t just a convenient file photo. It’s a symbol of the world’s eagerness to take one sentence out of an entire speech and make a huge (and often hugely inaccurate) news story out of it. The problem is not that Pope Francis holds news conferences on airplanes. The problem lies in what people do with the statements he makes.

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I can’t remember so much attention being paid to things previous popes said and wrote. It’s good, because the world (including the Catholic world) is watching and learning, but it’s challenging, because it’s so easy to take things out of context. I eagerly read Hoopes’ book because I find myself having to say, “That’s not what he said” way too many times when the subject of Pope Francis comes up!

Tom Hoopes traces Pope Francis’ papacy chronologically, from a speech then-Cardinal Bergoglio made in the conclave to the World Meeting of Families in the fall of 2015. Beginning with the retelling of the Gospel story in which Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath and is vilified by the leaders of the synagogue for doing so, Hoopes mentions that Jesus refuses to be “stage-managed by what officialdom is asking him to do and instead [turns] his attention to those who are looking to have a real encounter with him.” (2) Pope Francis operates in much the same way.

Hoopes assures readers who have painted the Pope as “too liberal” of Pope Francis’ unswerving commitment to the dignity of marriage and the right to life, while reminding those who believe he’s “too conservative” that Pope Francis decries the violence that begets more violence and often leads to war. Hoopes also mentions that Pope Francis is not saying anything new. He paraphrases the Catechism of the Catholic Church, echoes Popes John Paul II and Benedict, and frequently references Scripture.

In a fast-paced world with a second-by-second news cycle that reduces entire speeches to 140-character tidbits, Catholics need to read What Pope Francis Really Said to catch up on the truth behind what Pope Francis has said in the past so that they can be prepared to defend, and live out, what the Pope says in the future.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book from the publisher, Servant Books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta

The newly-canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta is especially compelling, I think, because many of us remember when she was still alive, serving the most vulnerable and needy. Saint Teresa did more than serve, though–she inspired through her words and her example.

Heidi Hess Saxton has collected some of Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s most inspiring words and paired them with prayers, daily Mass readings and calls to action in a newly-published seasonal daily devotional. Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta: Daily Meditations offers food for thought and prayer for any reader who is devoted to this fascinating saint.

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Advent devotionals based on daily Mass readings are difficult to put together, as Advent does not have the same number of days each year, and there are special feasts (St. Nicholas, the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe) to consider as well. Heidi has taken care to offer a guide to navigating the liturgical calendar as you read this book, so that it can be used year after year. As a reader, I appreciate such attention to detail!

Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta actually runs through the Octave of Christmas, with a bonus meditation for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, so be sure you don’t put it away on December 24.

In the meditation for the first Sunday of Advent, Heidi summarizes the purpose of this book:

As Christians, every part of our life is oriented toward our place as citizens in the kingdom of God. We are called to love. We are called to serve. We are called to recognize the face of Christ in everyone around us, even our enemies, for the greater good of all….As we begin our Advent journey, consider how God is calling you to choose the way of peace for the good of all…beginning with yourself. (3-4)

This daily devotional for Advent is one you’ll be able to stick with; I had a hard time putting it down! I highly recommend praying with this book through the Advent season and Octave of Christmas.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book from the publisher, Servant Books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

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On Barb’s Bookshelf: Who Does He Say You Are?

When you open up Colleen C. Mitchell’s book, Who Does He Say You Are, expect to be surprised, challenged and changed.

I took the “Which Gospel Woman Are You?” quiz before beginning to read the book, and I got a result that didn’t surprise me: I’m Martha. As Colleen observes in the chapter on Martha and Mary of Bethany, Martha is “stuck in her either/or mindset”–a place I often find myself as well. So when I started reading this book, I didn’t expect the women in the other chapters to resonate with me; after all, I’m Martha.

Turns out, I’m challenged to be like Anna the prophetess, and the woman with a hemorrhage, and the Syrophoenician woman, and, yes, Martha. And so are you.

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Colleen brings out the qualities in each of these women (and several more) that are in every woman, and directs our spiritual journey as we discover how we can be healed as they were. Throughout the book, she shares her own journey of brokenness, faith, healing and trust. The Questions for Reflection at the end of each chapter aren’t merely journal prompts: they are calls to action.

We are not all called to be missionaries in remote parts of the world as Colleen and her family are, but we are called, Colleen reminds us.

“I do not know your story. Yours may read  lot like mine, or it may be altogether different. But I do know this: wherever you are in that story, God desires to draw near to you and remind you who you are. In the midst of your cracks and suffering and hard places and pain, he has a love letter to offer you. He handed it to your sisters of the Gospels in person. He hands it to you now through their stories. And I believe that in these stories there is healing and grace and purpose for you. There is wholeness and newness for the having.
And I know with every fiber of my being that God wants that for you. Because he says that you are loved by him.” (from the Prologue)

When you open Who Does He Say You Are?, open your mind and heart to the surprises and challenges within it. Be prepared to open your soul to God’s transforming love.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book by the publisher, Servant Books, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.

On Barb’s Bookshelf: The Church is Our Mother

I am too young to remember hearing anyone refer to “Holy Mother Church.” In my experience, I’ve only seen that in old books. It sounds like an impossibly old-fashioned phrase to me.

Of course, it’s no stretch to think of the Church as “holy”–it’s the “Mother” part that gives me pause. How can the Church, an organization led by men, be a “Mother” to me?

Gina Loehr is uniquely equipped to answer that very question. In 2013 she was chosen as one of 100 women worldwide to be a delegate for the Pontifical Council for the Laity’s study seminar on women and the Church.

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In The Church is Our Mother: Seven Ways She Inspires Us to Love, Gina Loehr breaks down the functions of the Church into 7 activities which every mother is familiar with doing: creating, caring, teaching, accepting, sacrificing, healing and celebrating. Loehr compares the work of a mother with the work of the Church in concrete ways. For example, in the chapter on teaching, Loehr describes the cooking lessons she received in her grandmother’s kitchen, then goes on to break down the Church’s reliance on Scripture and Tradition by comparing it to the passing along of culinary skills.

…using the (imperfect) analogy of chopping onions, Sacred Tradition is like the actual method of safe onion chopping. Sacred Scripture is like the recipe cards I made with written reference to the method, and Grandma is like the Magisterium. (34)

The Church is more than simply “an organization” or “a building.” It is the Body of Christ. It is all of us. The Church, entrusted to us by Christ, wants what is best for each of us, because–as a mother does–the Church loves us. It is there to guide, to teach, to comfort, to rejoice, to endure.

Writing from the perspective of her own motherhood, Gina Loehr draws concrete parallels that remind us of the Church’s true mission: to bring us to Christ. She challenges us to consider how we can mother the people in our lives, both physically and spiritually.

This book is tailor-made for people who have issues with the authority and tradition of the Church. It leads readers to think about the Church’s hierarchy in a new, healthier way.

Listen to Danielle Bean’s “Girlfriends” podcast to learn more about Gina Loehr!

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This month I’m joining all the cool kids in the #Write31Days adventure! I didn’t pick a keyword or a theme, because just getting something written for all 31 days is challenge enough for me right now.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links; your purchase through these links helps support this blog. Thank you! I was given a free review copy of this book, but no other compensation. Opinions expressed here are mine alone.