Last week, in his column, The Catholic Difference, George Weigel offered a list of recently published books that he recommended for Christmas gift-giving in 2011.
One of the suggested titles was
“The companion book to the brilliant 10-part television series, this eminently readable exploration of Catholicism-in-full is an even ampler introduction to the mind and spirit of the Church’s most important American apologist.”
As we read over Mr. Weigel’s list, pined over the titles, and hoped that our small office gift exchange might yield pristine, roughly-eight-by-five-inch packages of fresh, hot-off-the-press literary goodness, we had an idea! Why not give our readers even more options? Why not overwhelm them with choices and decisions? Why not take a Word on Fire poll, a Barnes-&-Noble–style “Staff Recommends” to assist our faithful blog followers in procuring meaningful gifts for the ones they love this Christmas season?
Why not? Why not!
So, we polled the staff. And the blog contributors. And our other friends in the New Media. And a random woodland creature in the office (who actually turned out to be Bobby Mixa wearing a moose hat with antlers).
Here is what we have to offer. The list includes titles that range from deeply reflective Advent and Christmas reading to baby board books detailing classic Christmas carols (complete with sing-along songs). One thing is sure: they are all surefire people-pleasers for placing under the tree (and Rozann recommends an analysis on alliteration).
To begin, regular Word on Fire blog contributor, Ellyn von Huben, opens with two very timely selections which she describes in a witty and expectedly insightful commentary on the season of Advent:
“Were there elves with jingly bells dancing across the screen of your TV while Halloween trick-or-treaters were still actively working your street? Did the homey and patriotic ambience of Thanksgiving disappear, subsumed into the manic anticipation of the new material holy day called Black Friday? Has the first candle been lit on the Advent wreath, yet Christmas has been surrounding you for weeks? Is that what’s bothering you, Bunky? For anyone feeling overwhelmed, perplexed yet fascinated by Advent’s attendant secular chaos, I would like to recommend an engrossing book on the “American” Christmas. Though published two years ago, it is still compelling reading for those pondering the dichotomy of the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ and the celebration that surrounds so many of us.
Tinsel by Hank Stuever documents the author’s long term participation – or I could say immersion - in three distinct Christmas preparations/celebrations in Frisco, Texas. Stuever worked alongside Tammie, a high-energy (manic, perhaps) suburban mom who channels her enthusiasm for the glitz of Christmas into her small holiday decorating business. He spent many hours with Jeff and Bridgette, the ‘childless by choice’ young couple who have made a year-round obsession of their home’s computerized light and music display. (You know, the kind of display that makes it on to the evening news, makes people drive from a distance to see it and makes you very glad that you don’t live on their block.) And Caroll, a divorcée of modest means whose Christmases center on her Black Friday shopping tradition and megachurch pageant.
Stuever documents this sampling of contemporary American Christmas activities with amazement, just the right amount of snark and a touching compassion for the people he was observing. As much as I maintain a bit of my youthful exuberance for the trappings of the season, I also find myself as an outsider, wondering, “What are these people thinking?” And that is what “Tinsel” has to offer us.
(As an aside, I must also recommend The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum. This was in “Tinsel’s” bibliography and is an intense compilation of information on the place of Christmas in the history of the U.S. An interesting contrast: while Hank Stuever, complete with childhood Advent wreath memories falls in the fallen away ‘former altar boy’ Catholic category, Nissenbaum was raised in an orthodox Jewish home, but has had a lifelong fascination with Christmas. He once, as a child, went so far as to put his own toys in a sack and deliver them a la Santa Claus to the children in his apartment building.)
This is all fascinating to observe but it can be just too much to be surrounded by. In church, it is Advent. No tinsel. No twinkly lights. One purple candle on the Advent wreath. That is what the Church has to offer. The time for longing. The time for preparation. Sanctuary.”
Dear friend of the ministry and prolific writer, Heather King (who also moderates the blog “Shirt of Flame,” responded to the prompt with her suggestions:
“Advent is upon is! I love this time of year and have taken to rising before dawn and sitting in the dark with the Christmas lights, the Divine Office, and Jesus....
Here are some books I like:
Carl Olson, the author of the CATHOLICISM Study Program study guides and blogger over Ignatius Insight Scoop recommended the following titles:
Advent (Sheed & Ward, 1950), by Fr. Jean Danielou. This is the first book about Advent that I ever read, and I return to it often. It begins with Abraham and the Hebrew covenant; discusses John the Baptist, the angels, and the Blessed Virgin; then concludes with a section on the mystery of the Passion and the Ascension.
Alfred Delp: Priest and Martyr—Advent of the Heart (Ignatius Press, 2006). A very powerful and challenging collection of the Advent sermons and related writings from 1941-1944 of Fr. Delp, a Jesuit who was arrested by the Nazis in 1944 and then executed the following year.
The Everlasting Man (1925) by G. K. Chesterton. Arguably Chesterton's greatest book, this is a rollicking, witty, wise, and often surprising defense of and reflection on the great mystery of the Incarnation, written in part as a response to H. G. Well's best-selling book, The Outline of History (1919).
Redemptor Hominis ("The Redeemer of Man", 1979) and Redemptoris mater ("The Mother of the Redeemer", 1987) by Blessed John Paul II. Every Catholic should read these two great encyclicals about our Savior, Jesus Christ, and His Blessed Mother, each filled with a wealth of spiritual insight and theological acuity. The 1996 volume, The Encyclicals of John Paul II (Our Sunday Visitor), has excellent introductions to each encyclical by Rev. J. Michael Miller.
Brandon Vogt knows a thing or two about books. A self-professed bibliophile and published author at the age of 24, no doubt Brandon’s bookshelves are filled to the brim (and are starting to sway a bit in the middle). His library suggestions, therefore, are not to be discounted; he knows of what he speaks. Brandon recommends:
On the Incarnation (St. Athanasius) - This is my favorite book on Christianity's most "distinctive" doctrine (CCC 463), which makes it a perfect read for Advent. St. Athanasius, a fourth-century defender of orthodoxy, presents a beautiful exploration of who and what the God-man is and what the Incarnation means for the world.
Many Christians hesitate to read the Church fathers because they're afraid they'll be smothered by complexity and dusty language. But that's not Athanasius. His writing is deep and ancient but also short and accessible. Even sixteen centuries later it's still a lucid read and remains the most important book on the Incarnation.
One side note: be sure the edition you buy includes an Introduction by C.S. Lewis--it alone is worth the price of the book. There Lewis issues his famous call to "read old books" while encouraging readers not to be afraid of the classics. You can hardly find two better companions to explore the Incarnation: a master Church father and a modern spiritual giant. Let them guide you this Advent toward the God-made-flesh.
To Know Christ Jesus (Frank Sheed) - From a devotional standpoint, this is simply the best life of Christ I've read. Sheed's work recalls C.S. Lewis and Fulton Sheen in that he writes about Christ with clarity, charm, and enchantment. Through decades of teaching and preaching on street-corners he's spent years contemplating Jesus' life. And he lays it all out in this book.
What sets it apart is that it offers an intensely personal look at Christ. It's definitely not a distant biography or an academic study. Sheed moves close to Jesus and explores him up close. As his title suggests, his goal is to draw us beyond a knowledge about Christ to a place where we know Christ himself.
When someone tells me they want to "deepen their personal relationship with Jesus", this is the book I give them. Consider the same this Advent.
Diane Archibald, Father Barron’s Executive Assistant and master of all trades, is generally reading the pages of a day planner or a Franklin Covey schedule-r in order to keep Father Barron and the ministry on his/its toes (or at the right place during the scheduled time). Here’s what she reads when Fr. Barron is on retreat:
compiled by Jaya Chalika and Edward Le Joly. I might actually suggest this for the beginning of the year as part of a New Year's resolution type of reading.
I just think the Saints are a good read, especially this time of year. It's
meaningful reading, but not so hard to understand when we are busy with so
many things. At a time when we are celebrating the Birth of Christ, what
better way to put meaning to His birth than by looking at the lives of the
Patrick Thornton, the Word on Fire Director of Sales, spends a solid amount of time making sure that there are plenty of box sets of the CATHOLICISM series in inventory for your holiday orders, but he still has a bit of spare time to read here and there…
“My wife always jokes that I only read two books:
I've read them each 4 or 5 times. They are not that good, but I read them anyway. They are both about sailing. I have no idea what that might mean.
Oh, and one more:
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
…or maybe not.”
Kerry Trotter, the newest Word on Fire staff member and the mother of an angelic one-year-old baby girl named June, took a few coveted minutes away from her time with said angel to recommend the following book, which we think will prove to be a celebrated means to begin Christmas traditions with your young children.
“All I'm reading these days are "Baby's first..." board books and catalogs. Is that the sort of thing you're looking for?
Actually June's latest book obsession is a book full of religious Christmas carols:
It's your standard six-pager board book; colorful illustrations and a nice mix of religious and secular carols ("We Wish You a Merry Christmas" follows "Silent Night"). I mean, I love me a good Christmas carol, the more religious and spooky the better, but I was not expecting June to take to them quite the same way I did. What's more interesting is her favorite song / page. Eschewing the kid-friendly illustrations and lilting melodies that accompany "O Christmas Tree" and "Away In a Manger," she becomes downright giddy when we get to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." She delights in pointing out all the characters on the page — four male carolers in Revolutionary War-era garb and a woman in sort of a scandalous maid's get-up carrying a plate of figgy pudding or something. She actually squeals in delight. It could be the illustration in conjunction with my singing, in which I invoke a warbly chamber choir-ish alto, but whatever it is, she can't get enough.
You don't get much more Advent-y than that!”
CATHOLICISM’s Executive Producer Nancy Ross is well-known for her ability to make juggling a thousand tasks seem effortless. So, it came as no surprise when she found a few extra minutes over the Thanksgiving holiday to read John Allen's new book on Archbishop Dolan, A People of Hope, which she “highly recommends!” for all audiences.
Peggy Pandaleon, the Director of Marketing, stays plenty busy during her days at our Skokie office. Working hard and putting in long hours, no doubt, makes this season of Advent especially hectic. In response, Peggy finds a balance in one of her old favorites, about which she says, “It is a good reminder about the dangers of always being busy“:
Dave Brenner and Joe Block, both Seminarians at Mundelein Seminary just north of Chicago and invaluable interns for the ministry, offer us ever-increasing confidence in the upcoming generation of Catholic priests and the future of the priesthood. These two each shared a book selection that has proven to be fruitful in their discernment and spiritual growth:
“The book is a compilation of his reflections during his 23 years as a prisoner in Soviet Russia (he was arrested for being a priest) from 1941 until 1963. It covers topics of discernment, prayer, redemptive suffering, Eucharist, confession, freedom and many others.”
Matt Leonard, Director and Editor of the CATHOLICISM series, wound down between filming and splicing footage for the 10 episodes with the following books, which he highly recommends for your Christmas gift (or wish) list:
Bobby Mixa, whose name you know well from following his philosophical musings on the Word on Fire blog, offers book recommendations for the philosophically-minded on your Christmas register:
This is a little manifesto for the retrieval of the liberal arts in the Catholic sense.
Even though Fr. Steve told me that if I'm going to argue Wendell's points I'm going to have to be prepared to be "mowed over by today's economic juggernaut", I think this is a great read and really calls the reader to change the way he or she lives. “
Rozann Carter was deciding between books when she serendipitously ran across a bit of lighter reading material: November’s issue of Chicago magazine. This, she feels, speaks perfectly of the beauty of those aspects of life that offer a small glimpse of heaven on earth:
Not to mention, after a good breakfast, one can feel revitalized for an afternoon of reading:
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. This book is an autobiographical account of true love, chronicling the conversion of a relationship from an almost-pagan idolatry to a means of mutual sanctification—a phenomenal story of the lengths to which God will go to open our hearts up to receiving his Divine life so as to share it with us for eternity.
Elizabeth Scalia, popular Catholic blogger over at The Anchoress and moderator of the Patheos Catholic Portal on Patheos.com, places her book recommendations in an easy-to-check-off-the-list format. Who doesn’t miss fiction about the nuns?
A Medieval Christmas by Frances Lincoln (2003, Ignatius Press)
This slender but luminous book recounts the story of the birth of Jesus by combining the text of the RSV with magnificent reproductions from illuminated manuscripts of the High Middle Ages. An informative appendix offers background information on each of the sources used.
The Blessing of Christmas, Joseph Ratzinger (2007, Ignatius Press)
While we eagerly await Pope Benedict's forthcoming third volume of Jesus of Nazareth on the infancy narratives, this collection of Christmas meditations by Cardinal Ratzinger previously published in two volumes are combined with high-quality reproductions of works of sacred art. A feast for the mind, spirit and imagination.
Finally, Fr. Steve Grunow, the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, proposes the following erudite theological and biographical works to truly invite the reader ever deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation and into Jesus’ love lived out in the corporal and spiritual works or mercy during this most sacred season:
I read this book every year during the season of Advent (and I would also like to note that I began reading this 30 years before Brandon Vogt was even born). I think sometimes the cultural commemoration of Christ birth can obscure the awe-filled wonder of what actually is revealed in the story of his birth- not just the birth of a man of historical importance, but the revelation of God, who takes for himself a human nature and lives a real, human life. Few Christian authors have provided a better distillation of the implications of the Incarnation of God in Christ than St. Athanasius. Dorothy Sayers described the revelation of Christ’s birth as like a lightning bolt that divides all of history and I think that it a good image of what the Incarnation effects- Christmas can never be just twinkling lights and tinsel. It is about being struck by God’s lightning.
Father Barron encourages us to cultivate spiritual friendship with saints and in the case of Dorothy Day, a saint that may one day be, who are very different from one’s self. I read “The Duty of Delight” while on retreat several weeks ago and discovered, to my surprise, a spiritual kinship with Day that I did not expect. A careful read of this book quickly dispels the caricatures of Dorothy Day that are presented by both her detractors and supporters and demonstrates that whatever you think of her politics or manner of engaging the culture, she manifested in her life a holiness that transformed the grit and grist of both evangelical and material poverty into a sacrifice pleasing to the Lord whom she sought to serve.
Another book I revisit time and time again, not only during Advent, but also throughout the Church’s year. St. Anselm’s erudite and lofty consideration of an answer to the question of why God acted in such an extraordinary way in the Incarnation is often dismissed and pilloried by some who have construed St. Anselm’s thesis to be promoting an act of divine child abuse. Nothing of the sort! St. Anselm is presenting the depth of God’s love for humanity, a love so profound, that God is willing himself to descend into sin and death so as to raise up humanity to share in the fullness of his divine life- not just in some things, but in all the events and circumstances of human existence.
Thank you for staying with us until the very end. This skill will prove valuable when tackling your new list of must-reads.