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!

Pope baptizes 16 infants, says sacraments help parents raise kids right

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI baptized 16 infants and told their parents and godparents that prayer and the sacraments will give them the strength and guidance they need to promote a child's true well-being.

Presiding over the annual liturgy in the Sistine Chapel Jan. 8, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Pope said the sacraments and putting one's trust in God through prayer offer "that light of truth" that illuminates the right path to take in their child's education and upbringing.

Vatican to issue recommendations for celebrating Year of Faith

VATICAN CITY - In an effort to help Catholics have a better and correct understanding of their faith and become authentic witnesses to Christ, the Vatican is issuing a list of pastoral recommendations for celebrating the Year of Faith.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will release a "note" Jan. 7 outlining the aims of the special year and ways bishops, dioceses, parishes and communities can promote "the truth of the faith," the congregation said in a written statement Jan. 5.

Pope, at audience, reflects on meaning of Christmas, Epiphany

VATICAN CITY - At Christmas, the human dream of being like God started to become a reality -- not through any human efforts, but through God sending his son to be born on earth to redeem humanity, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Addressing an estimated 7,000 people gathered for his weekly general audience Jan. 4, the pope encouraged Christians to continue living the joy and mystery of Christmas as they prepare for the feast of the Epiphany, celebrated at the Vatican Jan. 6, and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which the pope planned to celebrate Jan. 8 by baptizing babies in the Sistine Chapel.

John Paul’s childhood Jewish friend dies

ROME - Jerzy Kluger, known as Blessed John Paul II’s lifelong Jewish friend and one who had a deep impact on the late pope’s commitment to improved Catholic-Jewish relations, died in Rome Dec. 31 at the age of 90.

Kluger and the pope were raised in Wadowice, Poland, and attended elementary school there together. Most of Kluger’s family died during the Holocaust, but he managed to survive, eventually settling in Rome.

During the Second Vatican Council, when the future pope came to Rome as an auxiliary bishop of Krakow, Poland, he and Kluger were reunited. They maintained their friendship through the years, and Kluger was a frequent guest at the Vatican after the pope was elected in 1978.

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.

In message for World Day of the Sick, pope stresses value of anointing

VATICAN CITY - Anointing of the sick is not a minor sacrament, said Pope Benedict XVI, but one that "deserves greater consideration today" because of its spiritual benefits to both minister and recipient.

The Pope's words appeared in a message for the 2012 World Day of the Sick, released by the Vatican Jan. 3. The day itself is celebrated annually Feb. 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Pope says Christians look to new year with hope, commitment to peace

VATICAN CITY - Christians should look toward the New Year with hope and a commitment to working for justice and peace, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"God is love, he is just and peaceable, and anyone wishing to honor him must first of all act like a child following his father's example," the pope said Jan. 1 during a Mass marking the feast of Mary, Mother of God and World Peace Day.

The pope ended 2011 by celebrating an evening prayer service Dec. 31 in the basilica and offering God thanks for the past year. The next morning, he celebrated Mass in St. Peter's and recited the Angelus with visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square.

Pope, at audience, encourages parents to teach children to pray

VATICAN CITY - If children do not learn to pray from their parents, it will be difficult for them to ever learn to communicate with God naturally, simply and deeply, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"In the family, children from the tenderest age can learn to perceive the sense of God thanks to the teaching and example their parents give of living in the presence of God," the Pope said at his weekly general audience Dec. 28.