Book Review: The Hope of Lent: Daily Reflections from Pope Francis

PrintThere are so many options for Lenten reflections out there. Many bishops and priests will write a reflection series, most parishes will offer some kind of booklet like the Little Black books or a Magnificat Lenten Companion prayer book. If you are starting to think, oh this is just another one of those books/series, keep reading! The Hope of Lent by Diane M. Houdek is a brand new series of reflections….hold it right there. It may say that these are “reflections” in the title, but I would respectfully beg to differ.

What is so delightfully refreshing about Pope Francis is that in one breath he can cause a person to stop, reflect and be moved to act. Houdek has very thoughtfully chosen key moments in Pope Francis’ daily homilies and addresses which invite the reader to not simply consider the daily readings, but to be inspired into practical action.

Lent isn’t only a time for sitting back and internal soul searching, though this can be extremely fruitful. Pope Francis is fearless in his interpretation and explanation of Gospel truths.

How often we find people – ourselves included – so often in the Church who proclaim: “I am a real Catholic!” They should be asked, “What do you do?”

The Lord’s mercy is in doing. Being Christian means acting: doing the will of God. And on the last day – because we will all have one – what will the Lord ask us? Will he ask us: “What have you said about me?” No! He will ask about the things we have done.

– Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Houdek rightfully explores the exhortations of Pope Francis by offering a brief follow-up meditation which typically includes an idea for how to put our pope’s words into action. The daily entry finishes with a few lines of prayer from Pope Francis.

Something I really appreciated about The Hope of Lent is how Houdek frames the purpose for it. She says:

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 (vii).

So here we have a simple book that has found a way to hold two key truths in balance with one another. In one hand, it isn’t enough to talk the talk, we must walk the walk. However, while we are doing all that walking, we must not get caught up in our own action. Rather, the more we are called to action necessarily means we are called to greater contemplation.

We live in a rush, we are on the run, without noticing what the path is like; and we let ourselves be carried along by the needs, by the necessities of the days, but without thinking…Today, at the moment in which we stop to think about these things and to make decisions, to choose something, we know the Lord is with us, is beside us, to help us. He never lets us go alone.

– Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Even though Lent has just begun, The Hope of Lent is more than worth going back and reading from the beginning. And then reading again in June or July. And possibly in October or November as well. Pope Francis’ meditations are full of spiritual insight and practical wisdom that can inspire us to become hope-filled, joy-filled Christians.

Daily Graces.


Book Review: God is Not Fair

god-is-not-fairI almost didn’t review this book because I didn’t slow down long enough to read the whole title. God’s not fair? Of course He’s fair, who came up with such nonsense anyway? Then I re-read the title: God is Not Fair and Other Reasons for Gratitude. Well, ok, since I slowed down enough to read the whole title, I suppose I could slow down enough to recognize the wisdom behind that statement. Thank goodness I did!

This slim-ish book by Franciscan priest Daniel P. Horan has been a game-changer for me. I read the first page, still just the introduction, and before I got to the end I got up and got a pen so I could underline the following:

God’s lack of fairness by human standards should challenge us to consider now how capricious or malicious God is, but rather how inappropriate, unchristian, and inhumane we are. It seems to me that too much of our faith is governed by our own insecurities, self-interests, and fears.

I have underlined, taken notes, asked myself questions and written down challenges in this book in a way I haven’t done since formal schooling (and I loved it!). One of the many positives of Horan’s work is that he writes it as a collection of essays. Each “chapter” or essay is between 2-3 pages in length, some just a single page. Though short in length there is nothing lacking in content, depth or message.

Horan’s book is so refreshing because he is not afraid to proclaim boldly the ways we humans often completely miss the mark in order to show the reader the overabundance God showers on us. Consider the following in a chapter reflecting on Luke 6:36-38:

It can be easy to think about the Gospel in the abstract, but it is very difficult to live it in the particular…It is often for this reason that mercy is not our path; wrath is. Generosity is not our disposition; selfishness is. Forgiveness is not found in our attitude; anger is…Christ calls us to do something else, something far more difficult than minding our own business and watching our own backs. It is to love, forgive, heal, and be merciful in the way that God is already with us, even if we are so preoccupied with ourselves that we cannot recognize it (71-72).

So good, right! And yikes, I think I have some life evaluation to do.

No one is perfect, which is all the more reason why we should be grateful that God isn’t fair by our standards. This truly is the main message. God is Not Fair highlights the ways that we not only need God, we desperately need God’s overabundant love, mercy and forgiveness. It challenged me to slow down and consider my relationship with God and to see the areas that I project my opinions on Him, rather than allowing my attitudes and actions to be formed into His.

~ Happy New Year! If you pick one book to read this year, God is Not Fair should definitely be on the short list of candidates


Book Review: Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit

I don’t typically jump up and get excited about reading biographies. Maybe I’m still scarred from my school days or maybe I just haven’t read any truly excellent biographies. They always seem to me to end up “and then so-and-so did this, then this happened, then so-and-so met what’s-his-name and they went there.” The word dry comes to mind. I don’t know, I just usually can’t quite get into them. Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit by Kevin Burns was thankfully not like any biography I’ve ever read.

Book Review: Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit reviewed by Kate Taliaferro at dailygraces.netI didn’t know a whole lot about Henri Nouwen prior to reading this biography which is one reason why I decided to give it a go. I knew he was a big name in Christian spirituality and was around the time of Vatican II. I had read a few excerpts of his works here and there and recall being impressed by his depth and ability to find say something very meaningful in only a few simple words.

Kevin Burns was able to elevate the genre of biography for me. Rather than recapping the story of Nouwen’s life, Burns found a way to almost paint his life with words. The book is very aptly named: Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit. I do walk away from this book with facts about who Nouwen was and what his life consisted of. But more importantly I feel as though I have been offered a glimpse of the spirit of Nouwen, which is really the whole point of his life. To put it another way:

As his brother [Laurent] says, “I see the way we look at Henri today, and a lot of people who read his books today that do not know him from a personal side. They create another person, generally a very nice person, a wise person. They do not realize that he paid dearly for what he wrote” (107).

I’m sure it was tempting for Burns to “create” this nice, wise person as the central focus of his biography. However, through diligence, patience and an incredible amount of time, it appears to me that he managed to tell Henri’s story while including the reader in some of Henri’s more difficult moments and struggles. In many ways the hardships which Henri weathered are the source of some of his most genius works and contributions in Christian spirituality.

Of course, it is impossible to tell the story of someone’s life in a book. Kevin Burns freely admits that and explains in his introduction

The book in…your hands offers a composite portrait of Henri Nouwen…This portrait is assembled from observations by a small but close group of people who knew him well, and from my own reading of his books…I try, though, to capture something of the spirit and intensity of his life, recognizing the impossibility of trying to capture in words the entirety of any person’s life journey (xii-xiii).

In my opinion, Burns has done an excellent job in his efforts to share the spirit of Henri with us.