Reviews: The Book of Longings

The Book of LongingsThe Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On recommendation from a friend with superb literary tastes I read The Book of Longings, and I am so glad I did. It is a remarkable narrative with just the hint of the possibility of it being all too historically accurate.

The book sets out the story of Ana, the wife of Jesus of Nazareth, outlining the way in which women were treated at the time. We hear, from the mouth of Ana, a gifted and talented writer, poet and person of intellect, how for most people she was simply something to be married off for financial gain (by her father), treated as an object of sexual desire (by the ruler, Herod Antipas), or controlled and regulated (by the male members of her husband’s family). It is a story of resistance and triumph, even in the face of personal tragedy, of a woman seeking to live a life that is decided by herself and her gifts rather than societal expectations.

Although the story features the person of Jesus and others with whom we are familiar from the Scriptures, this is very much Ana’s story, a story of her longings for something other than what others of her sex could come to expect of ‘their lot’. It is thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly believable, and thoroughly plausible in terms of the greater narrative.

Yet I found that despite the greater intrigue of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, this book was mostly about Ana, and her life and her struggles, to be a voice that would resonate for the times yet to come. Her experiences as Ana seeks this longed-for life is moving, and the turmoil experienced by Ana across her life is readily accessible from the pages of her story.

Thoroughly enjoyable, and thoroughly recommended.

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Review: Finding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering Prayer

Finding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering PrayerFinding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering Prayer by M. Basil Pennington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third edition of this little volume of essays that focus on the practice and history of the ‘Centering Prayer’ that sprang to life in the late 1970s among various monastic and religious communities in the United States of America.

Yet the ‘Centering Prayer’ was not something new or innovative but rather a journeying back to the more ancient practices of the Church. In journeying back to these early sources, those responsible for recapturing this spiritual practice were giving life to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council for returning to those sources to renew and invigorate the life of the Church in the current epoch. The reclaiming of these sources, as one of the essays points out, provides an ‘antidote’ to much of what happened in the 13th and 14th centuries concerning the misunderstanding and suspicion of “contemplative prayer” and a favouring of “mental prayer”.

While those seeking to embrace the practice of ‘Centering Prayer’ will not find too much in this book to assist in starting that journey, there is enough to whet the appetite and encourage the seeker to continue the journey. For the practitioner who is already praying with this method, this volume will help provide some background to the method while also providing guidance to more resources to help deepen both their practice and their understanding.

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Review: Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA

Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIADivine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA by Timothy P. O’Malley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone with a keen interest both in liturgy generally, and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in particular, the contents of this book were both interesting and encouraging.

At the heart of the thesis in O’Malley’s book is that liturgical formation, but which is meant formation that is rooted in experiencing and reflecting on the celebration of the liturgy, is the primary content, indeed the premier content, for preparing those who are journeying through the RCIA. Everything that enquirers, catechumens, elect and neophytes – depending on where they are in the journey – need in order to prepare for and then live Christian initiation can be found there in the Church’s liturgy. No textbooks are required, no curriculum is necessary, other than that offered by living the liturgical life of the Church in full.

O’Malley writes clearly and engagingly, bringing both his wealth of knowledge and personal story to bear in this book. And the book is a great resource for those responsible for accompanying seekers along the journey of the RCIA, a task that can only be described as a privilege. O’Malley’s contribution is a boon to the task and those undertaking it.

From the backcover:
RCIA teams often struggle with getting catechumens and candidates to participate regularly in the church’s liturgy. Those who do often feel bored or confused, or they see it as a nice tradition or an inconvenient obligation rather than the heart of our Catholic faith. So we fill the hpa with more catechesis that explains the liturgy to seekers, and we pray they will have a better personal experience on Sunday. Yet neither causes them to love the liturgy as we do.

In Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA, Timothy P. O’Malley shows us how we can break out of a classroom model about liturgy and instead invite seekers to be formed by the risen Christ through the liturgy. This book will give you a process for preparing your catechumens and candidates to learn the liturgy’s symbolic language of self-giving love that will sustain them with divine blessing and train them to be Christ’s disciples in the world.

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Review: Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent

Jesus Wasn't Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in LentJesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent by Jon M. Sweeney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prompted by yet another shooting in a Jewish synagogue, this series of short yet thoughtful essays are something that every Christian should read. This is especially true for any Catholic who wishes to remain faithful to the teaching of the Church as elucidated in Vatican II’s document Nostra Aetate.

And yet there is more to do, more to think about than simply embracing the official position of the Catholic Church (for those who are Catholics) or being faithful to the revelation to be found in that which we call the Bible (for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And this small tome is one way of introducing the broader context in which Christians need to live if we are to truly see our Jewish brothers and sisters as our brothers and sisters and not just as them.

As a preacher who regularly needs to delve into the Scripture readings proclaimed during the Church’s liturgy, there is much I took from this book that will give me pause to think next time I come across the phrase “the Jews” in one of the Gospel or New Testament readings. There is a nuance there that cannot be ignored or misunderstood, glossed over or misinterpreted. As a preacher, if I am to be faithful to that calling, I will need to take on the lessons to be found in this book – and many others that this book will require from other sources – lest I fail to properly preach the Christian message that I have been entrusted to preach.

As a listener to the Scriptures proclaimed, and as a reader of the Scriptures, the task falls to me – as it does to anyone who also is a listener and reader – to be prepared to engage with the themes of this book when it comes to understanding the phrase “the Jews” lest we all perpetuate the misinterpretation that has brought such horror to those who live as Children of the Covenant, God’s Holy People.

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Review: The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Catholic Church

The Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Catholic ChurchThe Outsider: Pope Francis and His Battle to Reform the Catholic Church by Christopher Lamb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In reading The Outsider by Christopher Lamb, I was constantly reminded of a well-known phrase from any number of police procedural television shows: “Follow the money!” And at the risk of being declared ‘woke’, it becomes clear that when you follow the money – and follow the influence it attempts to purchase – the difficulties being experienced by Pope Francis during his pontificate have less to do with a true understanding of Christianity and more to do with a fear of having one’s ideological position challenged.

One of the most engaging parts of this volume, in which Lamb exposes some of the hostility and opposition directed to Francis, is the very clear timeline towards the end of the book in which the aspects of the hostility and opposition are set out. Lamb goes so far as to name names and speculates on the rationale for those so named taking the position that they are reported to. As I’ve already mentioned, some of that rationale is more about a perceived loss of influence, or a challenge to long-held theological or ideological positions, or even just a perceived ‘opposition’ on the part of Francis to the aims and desires of the one being challenged.

It is was disturbing, though not surprising, to see certain names appear among those Lamb places in the opposition column. That some come from the highest circles of the Catholic Church, where it might be hoped that individuals are more concerned with the service of God and of God’s people rather than their own prestige, only adds to the disturbing nature of the volume. One can understand if not forgive such an approach in the spheres of the media or business – even though it is never right for someone who claims to be a disciple of Christ – but within the hierarchical structures of the Church it becomes a source of great scandal that impedes the proclamation of the Gospel.

Lamb brings his journalistic rigour to this book. It is well documented with facts and insights gained from his role as the Rome correspondent for The Tablet over many years, and strengthened by the reality that Lamb had been right there, in the centre, witnessing the phenomenon on which he writes. It is a compelling read, readily engaging the attention of the reader, as you might expect from a journalist of Lamb’s calibre and reputation.

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Review: Catholicism in the Time of Coronavirus

Catholicism in the time of coronavirusCatholicism in the time of coronavirus by Stephen Bullivant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although written from the particular perspectives of the United States and the United Kingdom, and therefore directly applicable to the Australian context, I’m very glad that someone has given some thought to the response and challenges facing the Catholic Church during and after the time of the COVID-19 pandemic event. I wouldn’t agree with everything that Stephen Bullivant has written – in fact, in some points I believe he has missed the mark completely – it was good to have something with which to engage, and therefore to stimulate my own thinking.

From that perspective, this is a good book, and one worth reading at this time in society’s life.

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Review: See Delphi and Die

See Delphi and Die (Marcus Didius Falco, #17)See Delphi and Die by Lindsey Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our hero, Marcus Didius Falco, and his wife, Helena Justina, take a trip to Greece, to see the sites, visit sacred shrines…and to find a killer!

Prompted by familial commitments, Falco and entourage visit all the sites that one might expect to visit during first century Greece – Olympia, Corinth, Delphi, Athens – in search of a killer who had been preying on young women who were also travelling. Venturing into the world of ‘budget travels and tours’, we discover not only the identity of the killer (at the end) but also the long history of travel company who were seeking to make profits by promising much but delivering the very basics.

Along with the identity of the killer, our hero also uncovers the beauty of ancient Greece, or rather what’s left after the Romans have conquered and ravaged ancient Greece. The situation is beautifully captured in the descriptive writing of Lindsey Davis. The ongoing lives of our well-loved characters is always interesting to follow with each volume of the ongoing series of adventures of Rome’s most well-known informer.

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