Millennial’s Summer Reads: Sarah’s Selections

Over the past two years, I’ve planned my wedding, been pregnant, and had my first child, now a precious four-month-old little girl.  With so much going on, I’ve been struggling to find any time at all to read anything other than wedding planning and/or baby books, and my spiritual reading has definitely suffered.  But there are some standout books I’ve read that I would recommend for anyone looking for a great end-of-summer spiritual lift – books that I pick up myself when I can snatch a moment, books that yield peace, thoughtful reflection, and sometimes a little laughter for my soul.

Anything by Fr. James Martin tends to be a winner, but I especially enjoyed The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. It offers an overview of Ignatian spirituality and the Jesuit way of living in a fresh, easily accessible way, and outlines ways that we can adopt aspects of this way of life into our normal everyday experiences.  His guidance on discernment (decision-making led by the Holy Spirit) continues to be especially valuable, and there is a striking passage on accepting oneself as God sees you—beautifully made—that brought me to tears and still resonates strongly with me.  I would highly recommend this to anyone, Catholic or not, as a way to help see God in all things, a cornerstone of Jesuit spirituality.

Like Fr. Martin’s writing, anything by Thomas Cahill is pretty much a sure bet – especially his Hinges of History series.  I recommend two of them in particular: The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels and Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus.  Both books are a delight to read, with a sometimes playful tone and giggle-worthy asides (more so in the former than in the latter, however).  Cahill’s writing is informal, but the subject matter is fascinating and informative.  In the Gifts of the Jews, he explores the famous tales of the Old Testament and how the Jewish people and their monotheistic beliefs helped to reshape the world.  In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, he provides an entirely readable popular analysis of the writers of the gospels and the letters of the early Christian communities, examining how they interpreted and were influenced by Jesus’ message.  Cahill makes some speculative leaps here and there, but this only adds to the pleasure of reading!

Pope Benedict XVI’s introduction to his series on Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, captivated my attention.  Not as accessible as the other books I’ve recommended, I finished reading this, turned to my husband, and said “Wow.  This pope is BRILLIANT.”  His exceptional commentary on the Sermon on the Mount alone was worth the read.  I admittedly had a hard time wading through the chapter on John, as I was unfamiliar with the academic controversies surrounding that gospel, but was otherwise delighted and inspired by this book and am determined to read back through it at a slower pace to chew on the thoughts a little more – and then of course, on to the next in the series!

I’m going to recommend Waiting for God by Simone Weil for purely selfish reasons: I would really like someone to read this along with me again to help me digest it!  I found her work to be very challenging, and will probably need to beat my head against it for a while to really solidify my thoughts and feelings towards this short, intense book. However, Weil’s thoughts are fascinating and troubling, sometimes beautiful, and seem to be well worth the effort, as she explores the nature of God and our relationship to Him.

For those short on time and in need of some daily inspiration, I would recommend All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, & Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsburg. He provides short biographies of saints and other inspirational figures throughout history in daily reflections, from St. Therese of Lisieux to Gandhi to Vincent van Gogh.  Not only will you find inspiration, you may just find yourself longing to learn more and hunting down additional reading material to better acquaint yourself with these people who made the most of the lives they were blessed to live, lives that might inspire us to do the same.

As for fiction, I have a soft spot in my heart for beautifully written, peaceful, heartbreaking books.  If you have similar tastes, I would highly recommend Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which follows an aging minister leaving an account of his life to his young son.  It is very moving and reflective.  My favorite quote should be enough to reel you in: “I remember once as a child dreaming that my mother came into my bedroom and sat down in a chair in the corner and folded her hands in her lap and stayed there, very calm and still. It made me feel wonderfully safe, wonderfully happy. When I woke up, there she was, sitting in that chair. She smiled at me and said, ‘I was just enjoying the quiet.’ I have that same feeling in the church, that I am dreaming what is true.” My heart ached for days while reading this (in a good way), and the novel made me reflect upon my own soul and my humanity.

Millennial’s Summer Reads: Brian’s Books

I almost always have a list of books I want to read, and it never seems to get any shorter, but while on vacation last week I made a good dent in it.  Being fortunate enough to have a family vacation home on Cape Cod, I’ll have plenty more opportunities this summer to check off a couple more books.  After all, as I am fond of saying to friends who notice I disappear for the middle months of each year, the beach isn’t going to sit on itself.

With that in mind, and since Mike was kind enough to share with us some of his summer reads, I thought I’d do the same.

  1. Just this morning on the T, I finally picked up Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  It is a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time, but for one reason or another have always put off.  With failed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s run for office last year, and with all the discussion about whether the Russian-born novelist or his Catholic faith had more influence on his policy decisions, I firmly placed it on my list for this summer.
  2. I had actually planned to read Atlas Shrugged while on vacation, but got distracted by several other excellent works.  One of the best, which I finished in less than two days  baking on the beach, was Forbidden Fruit by Mark Regenus.  The title comes from the Book of Genesis and is a sociological study of sex, religion, and American teenagers.  The work was fascinating, but I think it can be summed up by saying that which denomination an adolescent belongs to is less important than how deeply they feel religious convictions.  That is to say that the sex lives of nominally Catholic and nominally evangelical youths look a lot more alike than those of devout and non-practicing Catholics.  Almost none of them, however, reflect  Church teaching on the matter.
  3. Also in the world of sociology, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel will hopefully be checked off before Labor Day.  It describes a cohort of 16-22 year old guys in America who are “obsessed with never wanting to grow up; this demographic, which is 22 million strong, craves video games, sports and depersonalized sexual relationships.”  Even though I am now outside this age bracket, I can’t say that I don’t recognize at least a few of these traits in my friends, and myself.
  4. As much as there is to condemn in modern American guy culture, I think most of us would pick it over the world of Yanomamö Indians, one of the last large tribal groups still living in isolation.  Far from being the peaceful, if undeveloped, people described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Napoleon Chagnon found a remarkably violent society where men often killed for women and revenge, and described it in Noble Savages.
  5. I don’t normally read much fiction, but I try to reread Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World every few years.  My civil libertarian tendencies aside, I am much more worried about the “utopia” described here than I am with, say, the Big Brother dictatorship described in Orwell’s 1984.  When I look at our own country, I am not as concerned about the overreach of the government–though it is at times certainly an issue–as I am with people willing to numb themselves with a drink, drug, or screen.  Society worries more me much more than the Feds.  How many more people would choose a life of luxury devoid of any real humanity to an authentic life under the thumb of a brutal tyrant?  Bravehearts most people are not.
  6. The novel Small Gods satirizes much of religion, religious practices, and the role of religion in public life.  Terry Pratchett’s criticisms aren’t totally off the mark, but I’m not running out to pick up any of the other books in this series.  It wasn’t bad, but fantasy novels just aren’t my thing.
  7. If a little neuroscience is your thing (or even if it isn’t) I really enjoyed Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Conklin.  A professor at MIT, she tells the story of a man who had experimental brain surgery in the ‘50s to cure his epilepsy, and unfortunately lost his ability to form new memories.  He lived his life in 15 to 30 second increments, and as soon as the moment was over he had no recollection of the experience.  It gets a bit technical at times, but the underlying story is well worth the read.
  8. I’m saving Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan for some weekend when the house is overrun with guests.  It’s not that I think the book is unimportant, but I don’t imagine that I will need to concentrate much to read this Catholic comedian’s take on living in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan with his five kids, and the other joys of parenthood.  I’m not a father myself, but I take some comfort in Gaffigan’s statement that “Ten years ago I couldn’t get a date, and now my apartment’s crawling with babies.”
  9. I know this list is all over the place, and so to round it out I thought I’d include a few of the others that have made my list that might be of interest to Millennial readers.  On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is Jim Wallis’ latest.  Robert George writes at the Catholic legal blog Mirror of Justice, and his new book is Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.  Finally, when the Iranian-born Reza Aslan first heard the Gospel as a young teen, he had a powerful experience and converted from Islam.  On NPR last week discussing his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he described how he now considers himself a follower of Jesus but not a Christian.  Should be an interesting read on multiple fronts.

Millennial’s Summer Reads: MJL’s Picks

Who says theology and spirituality books aren’t good for beach reading? A well-balanced diet of mysteries, romances, legal thrillers, and Catholic Social Teaching texts is ideal during the summer months.

Here are five favorites:

1. The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser
If someone asked me to explain why I  love Catholic spirituality, I’d hand them this book. Rolheiser outlines four pillars of the Christian spiritual life: Private prayer and private morality; social justice; mellowness of heart and spirit; and community as a constitutive element of true worship.

A great passage: “When we make spirituality essentially a privatized thing, cut off from the poor and the demands for justice that are found there, it soon degenerates into mere private therapy, an art form, or worse still, an unhealthy clique.”

2. Jesus Today by Albert Nolan
Nolan surveys the signs of the times and then shows how the spirituality of Jesus the Nazareth can inform our actions today.

A great passage: “In reading the gospels, the general impression we get is that Jesus was very much a man of action: preaching, teaching, healing, and confronting the religious and political leadership. What we do not always notice is that behind, and in support of, all these activities was a life of constant prayer and profound contemplation.”

3. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day
The autobiography of Dorothy Day, one of the most important and influential Catholics in American history. Co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin, Day describes her conversion to Catholicism and her decades of work with and for the poor.

A great passage: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

4. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Dillard finds miracles in creation all around her, and her prose matches the beauty of what she describes. Her writing helps renew my sense of wonder and awe, which is a critical in the fight against cynicism and frustration.

A great passage: “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

5. Compassion by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison
A meditation on what it means to live compassionately — a word that literally means “to suffer with.” It’s a powerful blueprint for how we’re called to live as disciples.

A great passage: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

Happy summer, and happy reading!

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.