Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Jan. 22 (Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 25; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20)

Jonah was definitely unhappy with his divine mission to preach repentance to the inhabitants of Nineveh. This was the capital of the Assyrians — a people regarded with fear and loathing by most of the people of the ancient Middle East. Known for their ruthlessness and cruelty, they had given the Israelites plenty of reason to hate them. The northern kingdom of Israel was totally annihilated at their hands in 722 BC.

Jonah fled as far away from Nineveh as he could when God commanded him to preach to that city — but God was relentless. After many adventures, he performed his task: Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Much to his chagrin and anger, the Ninevites took his message to heart and sincerely repented thereby averting the disaster.

Books that found me over the past year


Since time is always at a premium, I try to be selective in what I read. As well, I like to keep my diet wide, reading novels, books on spirituality, theological treatises, biographies and essays on psychological and anthropological issues.

How do I select a book? I read reviews, get tips from colleagues, receive books as gifts and occasionally browse in bookstores, but what I actually end up reading is often more the result of a conspiracy of accidents than of a studied choice. Books that we need to read have a way of finding us.

What books of note found me over the past year?

Among novels ...

o Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a John Updike-type of commentary on contemporary culture. It’s an easy read, but packs good emotional intelligence.

o Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is stunning both in language and content. A classic that deserves to be read. In a culture that tends to prize good looks and looking good above most everything else, this contains some inconvenient warnings.

o Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a witness to the raw drive to stay alive. This isn’t Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but it touches some of the same places inside us.

o Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is 200 pages too long, but, like all of Lamb’s books, is deeply insightful apposite to our struggle to forgive and reconcile. Lamb’s central character is invariably someone out of touch with his own anger who is eventually brought to his knees in a way that redemptively exposes his anger to himself.

o Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas is a very imaginative take on what happens to Barabbas after Jesus’ crucifixion.

o Oscar Casares’ Brownsville Stories and Amigoland: Warm, emotionally insightful, good stories, with special appeal to anyone living near the borders of Mexico.

o Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is one of the best reviewed novels of 2011, deservedly so.

o Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is your novel, if you’re looking for an intellectual hit.

Among spirituality and theological treatises ...

o Judy Cannato, Radical Amazement: Insights and hints about getting into the present moment and seeing the hidden depth within life.

o John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. If you are dissatisfied with the homily you listen to every Sunday, buy these commentaries on the Sunday readings.

o Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, The Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger: A mature apologetics for those seeking to articulate reasons for their hope.

o Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth — The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale: A great piece on the power of language and the language of the Gospels.

o Rob Bell’s Sex God, Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and Love Wins, A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of every Person who Ever Lived, come from the pen of a young minister who writes with extraordinary balance, good insight and an equal feel for both the Gospel and the culture.

Biography ...

o Two of the most powerful books I read in 2011 were Bush Dweller, Essays in Memory of Fr. James Gray, OSB, edited by Donald Ward, and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Both are powerful stories, the first about a hermit who meets and counsels the world from his hut, the second about a woman struggling to find life in the face of a number of bitter deaths.

Treatises, theological and anthropological ...

o Michael Kirwan’s Discovering Girard is a lay-person’s introduction to the insights of the renowned anthropologist Rene Girard.

o Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul, Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. As with previous books, Plotkin pushes the edges of mainline spirituality, calling always for a much deeper role for nature.

Varia ...

o John S. Porter’s The Glass Art of Sarah Hall is a spectacularly beautiful book replete with photos that belongs on every coffee table and in every library.

o David Servan-Schreiber’s Anti-Cancer, A New Way of Life. This book was handed to me at the cancer clinic just as I was beginning chemotherapy and, among the many books on cancer I have perused these past months, I found this one to be the most challenging and helpful.

o Kathleen C. Berken’s Walking on Rolling Deck: Life on the Arc, foreword by Jean Vanier. Berken, a journalist who lived for some years inside the community of L’Arche, takes us inside an alternative world, but without false sentiment or naïve romanticism.

These are books that have touched me, but, as St. Augustine once famously said: Concerning taste, we should not have disputes! Read at your own risk!

A few days in the abbey, no better waste of time


Just before Christmas, I spent several days at the Benedictine monastery near Sherbrooke, Que.

Beforehand, and while travelling there, I wondered what exactly I was doing. The week before Christmas is a lively time in the city. There were plenty of concerts, gatherings, light shows, treats, sales. There were things to do to prepare for Christmas. That’s where the action would be. Where did I think I was going, and for what?

Those seeking the Lord must practise what He teaches


Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Jan. 15 (1 Samuel 3:3-10, 19; Psalm 40; 1 Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20; John 1: 35-42)

Perhaps some of us have had the eerie experience of hearing our name called when no one was around. It can happen when we are awake or asleep, but there is always the very clear and startling sense that we are being called by someone.

Most of the time we shrug it off and go on our way.  But often it leaves us with a slightly unsettled feeling.

Prayer as seeking God’s guidance


In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day tells of a very difficult time in her life. She had just converted to Christianity, after a long period of atheism, and then given birth to her daughter. During her season of atheism she had fallen in love with a man who had fathered her child. She and this man, atheists disillusioned with mainstream society, had made a pact never to marry as a statement against the conventions of society.

But her conversion to Christianity had turned that world upside down. The father of her child had given her an ultimatum; if she had their child baptized he would end their relationship. Dorothy chose to baptize the child, but paid a heavy price. She deeply loved this man and suffered greatly at their breakup. Moreover, given that her conversion took her out of all her former circles, it left her with more than a missing soul-mate. It left her too without a job, without support for her child and without her former purpose in life. She felt painfully alone and lost.

Epiphany is God’s sending of His light into the world


Epiphany of the Lord (Year B) Jan. 8 (Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)

Just what is Epiphany and why is it important? In some Christian traditions it is celebrated as Christmas, reflecting an ancient and venerable tradition. In the West, the feast is understood as noting the manifestation of the Lord to the gentiles. But that really tells us very little.

“Epiphany” means “manifestation” and in antiquity was usually associated with the manifestation or appearance of a god or divine being. There were rulers and tyrants who claimed to be divine manifestations, the most notorious being the insane megalomaniac Antiochus Epiphanes. He tried to destroy the Jewish culture and religion in the second century BC, igniting the revolt of the Maccabees.

What’s in a name? Everything


Mary, Mother of God (Year B) Jan. 1 (Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21)

What is in a name? For modern people a name reflects personal preference and is often modelled on popular culture or family traditions. The given name has to have appeal or pizzazz.

Praying so as not to lose heart


One of the reasons we need to pray is so that we don’t lose heart. We all do sometimes. We lose heart whenever frustration, tiredness, fear and helplessness in the face of life’s humiliations conspire together to paralyse our energies, deaden our resiliency, drain our courage and leave us feeling weak in depression.

Poet Jill Alexander Essbaum gives us a poignant example in her poem, “Easter.” Reflecting on the joy that Easter should bring into our lives, she shares that Easter can instead be a season of defeat for us because its celebration of joy can highlight the shortcomings of our own lives and leave us with the feeling that “Everyone I’ve ever loved lives happily just past my able reach.”

And this feeling can drive us to our knees, in bitterness or prayer; hopefully prayer.

Jesus comes to make the world right


Nativity of the Lord (Year B) Dec. 25 (Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-16)

Who are the people walking in darkness? This prophetic passage was originally addressed to the nation of Israel under threat from first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. It was supposed to give them hope, courage and perseverance in the face of oppression and the collapse of their world. God had not abandoned them but would lead the nation to freedom and prosperity.

Those with no room at the inn are life’s most meaningful


Mary gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

In the Christmas story, we have always vilified and demonized the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, leaving them no choice for shelter except a stable. And the lesson we took from this was the need for greater hospitality in our lives, the need to not be so busy and preoccupied that there is “no room in the inn,” that is, that there is no place in our busy lives for a messiah to be born, for Christmas to happen.

Our journey depends on what we allow God to do for us


Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B) Dec. 18 (2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Psalm 89; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38)

The idea of building a house for God seems rather preposterous. In the verses omitted from the lectionary reading, God tells David in no uncertain terms that he is out of line.

David is sternly reminded that throughout all the years of wandering in the wilderness God never asked for a permanent dwelling and was quite content. We can have mixed motivations for big God-projects. Often lurking below the surface is a subtle desire to play God. The result is usually a hugely inflated ego.