Lent is upon us, and hopefully we are upon Lent. This season of prayer and penance is set apart by the Church to prepare us for Holy Week and Easter. As we know, through voluntary amendment of life, acts of penance, and works of charity, we prepare our hearts, similar to those who in serious prebaptismal formation contemplate their own burial with Christ. Among specific works of charity is a rekindled devotion to the scriptures and to “holy reading” (with Lectio Divina or specific books that help us on our own Calvary road). Lent is more than giving up chocolate or social media (certainly good starts), it is a time for us to pursue Christ personally, to find richer meaning in small sacrifices, to find rekindled kindnesses in charity toward those in need. Our column this month brings a few recommendations (and I am sure we will get others from our faithful readership), and we’ll try to be “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52),” highlighting both classic works of spirituality as well as more recent options.
First, the Word of God.
Lent is a wonderful time for reading the Scriptures, and for renewed efforts to read the Bible daily. Our parish at Fort Carson (where I serve as a deacon) made special bookmarks that guide a daily reading program through the Gospel of St. Luke (thanks, Augustine Institute, for the great idea we are imitating). Others can read another gospel or the Psalms, perhaps the prophet Isaiah; these two Old Testament books are cited the most in the New Testament. In many ways, Isaiah is “the fifth gospel”, guiding us to the Messiah. Finally, for understanding suffering and the often-elusive will of God, no book is as soul-searching as the Book of Job. For a helpful (re)introduction to Lectio Divina, try Archbishop Mariano Magrassi’s “Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina” (Liturgical Press). In Lent, as perhaps no other time, we should take the time to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16).
Treasures Old: Classic Recommendations for Lenten Reflection
For a faith older than two millenia, and saints, doctors, and thinkers, the classics can hardly be beat. We immediately go to “The Imitation of Christ,” by Thomas a Kempis, for a sense of just how different our lives should be as Christ’s disciples. “The internal renunciation of yourself,” Thomas says, “unites you to God,” and in the end leads you to the source and summit of the Catholic faith, the Eucharist. In addition to the text itself, the online supports are many and helpful. My wife Mary and I read through “The Imitation of Christ” a few months ago, and a downloadable study guide gave us both a sequenced reading schedule and discussion questions to ponder.
For a Carmelite perspective, there are no two better works than “The Interior Castle” by St. Teresa of Avila and “Story of a Soul” by St. Therese of Lisieux. We prod our sclerotic hearts with “Divine Intimacy” by Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene and “A Lenten Journey with Jesus” and “St. Paul of the Cross,” by Father Victor Hoaglund. For serious preparation, nothing makes my heart more resolute than “The Spiritual Combat” by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli. For a deeper time of reflection, read “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence. We find continued inspiration in “Meditations for Lent” by Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Boussuet, and the classic “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales. What a rich feast is now laid at our readingtable.
Treasures New: Recent Offerings to Guide Our Hearts and Minds
At top recommendation in this category is “The Last Hours of Jesus: From Gethsemane to Golgotha” by Father Ralph Gorman (Sophia Institute Press, cloth, 2018). We know the facts of the Passion narratives of the Gospels, but since we are of a different culture and time, we often miss important connections. This wonderful book by Father Gorman brings us the backgrounds and little-known contexts that we could miss in another “harmony-of-the-gospels” structure. We get, in a single 288-page volume, a narrative that provides a full treatment of Passion Week in a vivid, engagingly-written style. What exactly were the political tensions in Palestine that bubbled over and contributed to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion? Why did the Sanhedrin take such pains to control the burial scene even after Jesus’ death? Can we ever know the various motives of Pontius Pilate? Gorman takes us through these questions and others in a compilation of not only the four gospels, but the relevant and illuminating Old Testament references as well.
Though all his published works have been captivating, the recently-republished collection of studies on the life of Christ by Father Romano Guardini, simpled titled “The Lord,” is a worthy — though ambitious — Lenten read. Published originally in in 1940s, both Guardini and Ratzinger challenge us to put popular myths aside and rediscover Jesus without enlightenment prejudice. Guardini, one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th century, brings us in this 627-page opus a seven-part series of short reflections and studies of the complete life of Jesus. Definitely a recent contribution akin to the monumental two-volume set by the late Father Raymond Brown, “The Death of the Messiah,” which is bound to rekindle new appreciation for the Savior.
Though many have written of Calvary and the last words of Jesus from the Cross, my favorite is the slim volume titled “Death on a Friday Afternoon” by Father Richard John Neuhaus. “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true,” Neuhaus famously said, “then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” This book echoes of C.S. Lewis or Thomas Merton. “Death on a Friday Afternoon” is a sustained meditation on the meanings and mysteries of this day, and Father Neuhaus (the founding editor of First Things journal) is a sure and thoughtful guide.
Lent is a time for a deeper study of the virtues and vices, and no author illustrates them more vividly than C.S.Lewis. We try to re-read “The Screwtape Letters” every few years, and Lent is a fitting time for that continuing discovery of the nature of temptation, evil, and moral manipulation told in all its ironic sarcasm. Screwtape’s notes to his demonic protégé Wormwood ring true to our own experience as tempted disciples. Lewis reminds us that “indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” How could we not both love and fear our “affectionate uncle, Screwtape”?
If Lent is getting too predictable, read “40 Days, 40 Ways: A New Look at Lent” by Marcellino D’Ambrosio (Franciscan Media/Servant Books). We reimagine Lent as a chance to take action instead of the same old routine of giving something up. For greater purpose in prayer, read Mike Aquilina and Mark Sullivan’s “Saint Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer” (Our Sunday Visitor). Given a keener insight into the woman who prayed nearly two decades for the salvation of a wayward son, we come to understand how countless prayers, tears with no relief, and the seeming deafness of heaven finally combine in the profound experience of answered prayer.
Holy Week will soon appear. We enter Lent armed with the best of intentions, but our zeal flags under the inevitable discovery of our own fundamental weakness. Sometimes it’s not reading or prayer, but a hymn or melody or psalm that brings us back. For me, it can even be something like the late Johnny Cash’s song “Hurt,” an elegy of mortality and finitude — an Ash Wednesday country song — find it on YouTube and hear it for yourself. We then confess our sins, we realign our will, and we again dust ourselves off and persevere — for soon we will enter Jerusalem with Jesus.