In Chapter 48 of his Rule, Saint Benedict writes of Lenten reading: “During this time of Lent each [monk or nun] is to receive a book from the library, and is to read the whole of it straight through. These books are to be distributed at the beginning of Lent.”
The books an abbot or abbess might choose for the benefit of a particular monk or nun were not always religious; sometimes fiction or secular books were given, too.
And that became the case here at the Word on Fire Institute as well, when I asked some friends and Fellows to share what they were planning to read over Lent, or what they might want to highly recommend to others and why. Their answers included all sorts of reads, from spiritual classics to literary fiction.
Andrew Petiprin, the Word on Fire Institute’s Fellow of Popular Culture, replied, “This Lent, I’m continuing my slow read of Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ. I love to be deep in the Gospels, and Sheen has a way of putting me right in the events as they unfold. It’s perfect preparation for the joy of Easter on the other side of our Lenten journey.”
Fellow and Word on Fire blog contributor Haley Stewart suggested Sigrid Undset’s remarkable novel Kristin Lavransdatter: “Because it’s a three-part epic, it’s plenty long to last through the forty days of Lent. It follows the life and winding spiritual journey of a young woman in medieval Norway, full of unforgettable insights into the painful fruits we bear through our sin, and the abundance of grace always waiting for us when we return to God.
“I recommend Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent: Journey to Pascha as a guide into the spirituality of this liturgical season,” writes Education Fellow Robert Mixa. “Better than most reflections on Lent, this renowned liturgical theologian shows how within the Lenten liturgies we find the essence of the Christian life.”
Dr. Holly Ordway, whose delicious new book, Tolkien’s Modern Reading, is the first book in Word on Fire’s Academic line, recommended reading the letters of a saint—any saint. “It’s encouraging to get this kind of inside look into the life of someone whom we know is now in heaven, to see how they faced and dealt with the difficulties of ordinary life. Two that stand out are the Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and The Journey of Our Love: The Letters of Saint Gianna Beretta and Pietro Molla.
I like her suggestion so much, I will make a related recommendation: Check out St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, another great Carmelite nun whose two volumes of letters are accessible, often amusing, and very instructive, most especially on the reality and meaning of love. I personally learned a great deal I’d never realized about love through reading her letters.
“I will be reading Romano Guardini’s work The Last Things,” responded Tod Worner, the busy, busy editor of the Word on Fire Institute’s quarterly journal Evangelization & Culture. He explains: “The Last Things is a brief reflection on man’s end and eternal beginnings. Guardini (a mentor of the young Joseph Ratzinger) gracefully ushers us through the mystery of our final disposition only to wallop us with edifying truth when we most need to hear it. ‘In a good ending,’ Guardini insists, ‘the whole acquires its validity.’ During Lent, let us strive (with Guardini’s help) in our suffering and privation to once again begin well so that we may truly end well.”
Indeed, or as a favorite auntie of mine would say, “Begin as you mean to continue.”
From Institute Fellow Leah Libresco Sargeant: “I recommend The Friendship of Christ by Robert Hugh Benson (newly back in print thanks to Oak and Linden Classics). Benson invites us to consider Christ in each place we meet him (the Eucharist, the priest, the least among us) and helps us to take each of these encounters as an invitation to deeper friendship with him. It helps me understand what it means to pray ceaselessly—consecrating every action and relationship to God.”
And what am I reading? I’m taking on two “big” books, and one small one full of big thoughts—two for browsing and one for sustained reading (because I really must try to heal my internet-fractured attention span!). The first is Susan Muto’s A Feast for Hungry Souls: Spiritual Lessons from the Church’s Greatest Masters and Mystics, because I love books that bring us varied voices and perspectives on the life of faith and the relationship to Christ, and find that the Holy Spirit likes to throw little mic-drops at me when I really need them from just such a collection as this.
For that reason I’m also going to dig into Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire by Bishop Robert Barron. Yes, yes, I know, I work here, but when this little book was released I was busy and really didn’t get to give it a good look. Picking it up a few days ago, I was reminded at how succinctly and penetratingly Bishop Barron gets to the heart of a matter, without ever being strident, narrow, or unkind, and that’s so needed and refreshing right now. As ever, I read Barron and find myself thinking, “Rem acu tetigisti! You’ve touched on the point with a needle, Bishop!”
For sustained reading, I’m going to return to Ralph Martin’s The Fulfillment of All Desire, because my bookmark (a page of notes) tells me I was enjoying this book before losing track of it, because . . . I don’t know, my eye caught something shiny and I was off and running.
Also, I just received a review copy of The Relevance of the Stars: Christ, Culture, Destiny, a collection of essays and presentations by the late great—and utterly original—Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who was hugely influenced (and disrupted) by meeting Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, and thereby had a new experience of Christ (“An event, an encounter,” as Pope Benedict XVI would have put it). Albacete said, “I am proud to consider myself a son of Father Giussani. But making me find this towards the end of my life? I began to be even a little bit angry. The removal—the setting aside—of whatever theological knowledge I had in order to try out what Father Giussani was trying to teach me . . . it was a decision that I made willingly. Why? Because I am very saintly? No, because what is at stake is my ass. The future of my ass.”
Well, yes, of course I have to read Albacete in Lent. Of course, I must! Possibly one of these books is striking you as the spiritual must-read for your Lenten journey in 2021 too!