A haunting equation — lightness vs. weight

In her novel Final Payments, Mary Gordon articulates an equation that has long influenced Christian spirituality, for both good and bad.

Her heroine, Isabel, is a young woman within whom a strong Catholic background, an overly strict father and a natural depth of soul conspire to leave her overly reticent and overly reflective, looking at life from the outside, too self-aware and too reflective in general to enter spontaneously into a dance or trust any kind of gaiety  

Jesus lends power to the Word

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Jan. 29 (Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 95; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28)

So many people claim to speak for God. There are voices that clearly communicate the divine will, while others reflect more selfish or even evil motives. Through the babble of voices it is surprising that God ever manages to be heard.

Pope prays for migrants, refugees seeking a better life

VATICAN CITY - The millions of refugees and migrants in the world are not numbers but people in search of a better life for themselves and their families, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"They are men and women, young and old, who are looking for a place they can live in peace," the Pope said Jan. 15, which the Vatican marked as the World Day for Migrants and Refugees.

Eucharist gives strength to those who are weak, weary, lost, pope says

VATICAN CITY - The Eucharist sustains those who are tired, worn out or lost in the world and transforms human sin and weakness into new life, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Speaking at his weekly general audience Jan. 11, the Pope focused on Jesus and the Last Supper, where he instituted the Eucharist, "the sacrament of his body and blood."

"Jesus' gift of himself anticipates his sacrifice on the cross and his glorious resurrection," the Pope said.

Change our ways for the Lord’s coming

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!

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?