Category: book reviews


Many Catholics (including this one) are struggling in their “daily grind” to attain the happy, holy union with God that He intends for everyone, but without the benefit of a regular spiritual director. While no book can replace the saint-recommended assistance of a person gifted by God and trained to help souls, Connie Rossini’s first full-length book, Trusting God with St. Therese, thankfully comes very close to directing us on this very worthwhile — and challenging — journey. Rossini notes that her book is written at an intermediate level, and I would agree that Catholics who are not regularly attending Holy Mass and Confession, and trying to live their Faith each day, will probably find this book unhelpful — until they are, at which point it is “full speed ahead.” (Spiritual growth — like advanced college coursework — assumes that prerequisites have been met.) I can see re-reading this book several times over the course of one’s life.

Rossini is obviously well-read, particularly in the Carmelite Doctors of the Church (the list of abbreviations for her source material gets the book off to an impressive start), and her book not only captures the reader’s imagination, but methodically teaches and provokes reflection, chapter-by-chapter. The general format is chronological chapters that begin with a biological sketch of St. Therese, then continue with a story from Rossini’s own life, then draw-out spiritual lessons (often with the help of secular thought, such as psychology), and then end with several soul-searching questions and practical applications. I find the book exciting and challenging; it is taking me a while to get the most out of each chapter, but it is well worth it. (I am filling many, many pages in my spiritual journal with ink from my fountain pens, which may be unduly delaying me, but I consider the review e-copy of book the author sent me to be God’s precise answer to my prayers to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in a novena preceding her feast last month. Since then, I have bought a hard copy of her book from Amazon Prime for around $15 with tax, a Kindle copy for only 99 cents more [so I can have my Kindle Fire read it to me while I work, and highlight like mad without violating my strict policy of keeping my personal library of paper books in pristine form for my children and future generations], and another Kindle version for a friend for only $3.99. This is possibly the best $20 I have spent in months.)

Though I am exploring Carmelite spirituality, I have not yet read St. Therese’s Story of a Soul (an awful admission, I know), so much of the biographical information Rossini provides about the saint is new and fascinating to me, as it is not part of general Catholic knowledge, which tends to treat The Little Flower like a wilting daisy (which she certainly was not!) in the same way it treats St. Francis of Assisi like a hippie hardened into a garden gnome (which he wasn’t, either). There are two extremes biography can tend to: hagiography and dirt-dullness, but Rossini avoids both regarding St. Therese and herself; in fact, her description of the fatal problems Therese’s mother had providing adequate nutrition to her nursing babies, and the author’s telling of her own family’s devastation by two car accidents, moved this reader nearly to tears. Similarly, though the reflection questions require us to probe the sensitive areas of our own lives, it’s the kind of probing that a doctor does to expose and heal something that will otherwise sap our energy, or even infect us, year after year. There is much practical help here, too. Rossini performs a valuable service by restoring for us the original purpose of the  “Therese beads” that are found in the homes of most Catholic homeschooling families. When our little ones make them as a craft, we are told to instruct them — as Therese and her sisters, and many people since, were — to pull a bead each time they do some good deed, to essentially “keep score” of the good things they do. It doesn’t take long, of course, before our natural vanity takes over and we are preening ourselves on how well we’re doing (and perhaps even competing with a sibling), all the while fooling ourselves into thinking that we’ve earned God’s love, and even Heaven, by hitting a personal best score. Talk about impeding spiritual growth in the family! As Rossini explains, the original purpose of the beads was to remind us of our sins when we make our daily examen, as recommended by St. Ignatius (“Oh, yeah, I pulled that bead when I said that unkind thing, and that one when I told that lie…”). This is, of course, a far more spiritually-healthy use of the beads (and, since there are ten of them, we can even use them to pray the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, too).

This book is only one of several helpful resources Rossini provides. Her first book was a short e-book called 5 Lessons from the Carmelite Saints that Will Change Your Life. It is available for free on her blog, Contemplative Homeschool  (contemplativehomeschool.com), which also offers frequent posts about practical Carmelite spirituality and helping our children grow in holiness. She also organizes the Catholic Spirituality Blogs Network (catholicspiritualityblogs.blogspot.com) to aggregate blogs that help with spiritual growth. Most recently, she has begun blogging at the popular site SpiritualDirection.Com (spiritualdirection.com/blog/), as well (many useful ideas can be gleaned from the combox there, which is not true of very many blogs).

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Connie Rossini, of the fascinating Contemplative Homeschool Carmelite-themed blog, was kind enough send me an early review copy of her e-book Five Lessons from the Carmelite Saints That Will Change Your Life.

Five Lessons is a very small book (a 21-page PDF), easily savored in one quiet sitting, that can help anyone — Carmelite or not! — reorient herself to what matters most in her life,  an excellent way to start the summer break!

In each lesson, she shares a few short meditation-starters, quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the great Carmelite reformers, Ss. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and then gives a brief reflection about the quotes. Finally, she gives practical suggestions. Each lesson builds in strength on the previous lessons.

I found her fourth lesson most useful: “Little things matter (a lot). Think God doesn’t care about your addiction to caffeine? Think again. If you want to be holy, you must be willing to give up everything for love of God. …”

Most helpfully, she links to more in-depth reflections on her blog, such as her posts about prayer, and gives a bibliography; this little e-book will whet your appetite for a banquet of spiritual reading. She also gives links to places online where those who are interested can discuss their reflections on the book.

Finally, Connie has a second excellent new blog for those interested in exploring the variety of spiritual approaches the Faith offers, at Catholic Spirituality Blogs Network.

We’re a couple of months into the Year of Faith now; are you in need of a kick-start or a re-start? Here’s an excellent resource! Even better, though it appears that Aquinas and More no longer carries it, Catholic Answers still does, and it is currently on sale for $8.95 (regularly $39.95)!

Title: Reasons for Our Hope: A Bible Study on the Gospel of Luke ($39.95)

Author(Sr.) Rosalind Moss

Publisher (Date): Catholic Answers (2007)

What I enjoyed:reasons-for-our-hope

  • This is a thorough and practical study, suitable for adults with any level of understanding or time commitment. Even in its more basic content, it serves as a “refresher” and a prod to evangelize others. I’ve browsed and used a number of Bible studies, and this is one of the best that I’ve seen!
  • It carries an imprimatur from San Diego Bishop Robert Brom, and references the RSV-CE and The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
  • Each of the 36 chronological chapters has teaching with fill-in-the-blanks, and “personal” and “bonus” exercises (with an answer key!).
  • It incorporates treasures from our Church tradition, including the Church calendar (especially Holy Week), and traditional prayers and devotions (especially the Rosary).
  • It has a number of very useful “extras,” including detailed suggestions for group use (including prayers for Bible study that individuals may well use, too), thorough endnotes and bibliography, and a plan for reading and journaling the Bible for future study.
  • The spiral-bound softcover itself is spacious, allowing much room for notes, and is printed in attractive and clear type. Each of the chapters is illustrated by classic-style line drawings.

What I could have done without:

  • It’s a matter of personal taste, but I do prefer that books do not have a “conversation” Q &A format, as this does.

Bottom line: Highly recommended! Sr. Rosalind (who was still working as a laywoman at Catholic Answers when she created this study) is a Catholic convert from Judaism (via Protestantism), and this study is a perfect example of the eye such a journey can develop; Sister’s work reminds us that “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). She explains in the first chapter that she chose the Gospel of Luke for her study because a friend suggested to her that it is “Mary’s Gospel,” containing many of the most beautiful accounts of Jesus’ life that we meditate on in the Rosary (and, I add, in the Liturgy of the Hours!).

Related Resources:

*** Many thanks to Aquinas and More Catholic Goods for providing a review copy to me.

At a recent Bible Study (using the stellar Ignatius Catholic Study Bible to study 1 Corinthians), we found ourselves discussing some of the incidents in the Old Testament and lamenting how our muddy understanding of the Old Testament makes it hard for us to readily understand the richness of the New. Walking with God

I immediately thought of Jeff Cavins’ “Great Adventure” course , which turns-up periodically in its primitive form on EWTN. Even those of us who don’t have the time or money to take such an in-depth course right now have a real need to understand the basic narrative of the Scriptures to give us a framework to put our knowledge in and to understand Jesus’ words and the apostles’ teaching more clearly. So, I eagerly told the ladies that Mr. Cavins and Dr. Tim Gray have given us a scaled-back yet rich course in one essential volume, for our Bible Study groups or for personal use, “Walking with God: A Journey Through the Bible.” ***

I am very impressed by several features, including:

  • a logical and detailed chronological walk through the Bible’s narrative in twelve chapters
  • an attractive layout and detailed maps, charts/illustrations, and index
  • a color-coded system explained on the front flap to aid memory of the twelve eras (this ties-in to the video series and materials), and
  • an imprimatur by Archbishop Chaput and a recommendation by Dr. Scott Hahn.

This volume successfully resists being what it is not — a textbook — but packs-in a vast amount of useful information (with sparingly-used footnotes), including historical references and citations of the Church Fathers.

It has to hit the ground running, so to speak, navigating the creation controversy artfully by addressing literary types and the core of the story: covenant.

I put-together for myself an inexpensive but invaluable study package that I would recommend, consisting of:

Basically, what I am doing is carefully reading this book and referencing the colorful timeline to keep it straight in my mind, while jotting notes in the journal, which is itself printed with many study helps. This method helps me remember (I learn by writing.) and will provide a good reference for me in future Bible studies and in homeschooling.

*** Many thanks to Aquinas and More Catholic Goods for providing a review copy to me.

American Catholics often lamented — at least until the governmental attack on our First Amendment rights shook us all awake last Fall — that our bishops don’t say much that matters to us in our ordinary lives. However, several bishops who are attempting to provide us with timely guidance have contributed to “The Shepherd’s Voice Series,” including one of my favorites, Phoenix’ Bishop Thomas Olmsted (“Catholics in the Public Square“).

I received for review (a shameful amount of time ago — mea culpa!), from The Catholic Company, Cardinal Justin Rigali’s entry into the series, “Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction.” Even though it is short and seems sound to me, I had trouble plowing through it and would have a hard time recommending it to anyone in the grip of an addictive demon.

The problem is, I think, that the book wants to be both academic and practical; the cardinal wants to address students and addicts, and probably reaches neither. The student would find the hokey Q and A style grating, superficial, and disorderly, while the addict would find the very section headings dull and pointless (”Part II: The Importance of a Robust Christian Anthropology,” followed by “Part III: Initial Appraisal of Problems Posed by the Internet”).

The cardinal falls into bishop-speak, too. On page 36, he refers to “the proclivity of the masculine gender to the visual stimulation of sexual desire.” My guess is that a guy struggling with a porn addiction wouldn’t find that wording helpful — and he might not even realize that he’s under discussion!

Though I’m glad the cardinal broaches Internet addiction — my original interest in requesting this title for review — he envisions it solely as addiction to online gambling and pornography, not taking obsessions with social networking, chat, fantasy sports, celebrity gossip, and other such things into account.

A better book about the practical issues of online addictions is “Breaking Free of the Web.”

“Let the Oppressed Go Free” ends with a cursory discussion of the Catholicity of the Serenity Prayer and the 12 Steps. I would imagine that a brief Google search would turn-up the same sort of information about the cycle of addiction and methods of recovery within the Catholic Church. This book would have been helpful had it gone beyond evident or easily-found information and provided the addict a detailed program for recovery, or even had it been written as a properly-formatted academic paper for students training to help addicts.


“I realized that a lot of the time when I repent for my sin and go to confession, it is not because I truly want to be clean, rather it is because I don’t want to ‘stink’ any more. I don’t want to feel guilty or feel bad. … It is the difference between ‘Bless me, Father, for I did x, y and z’ and ‘Bless me, Father, for I have broken God’s heart.’ (p. 70-71)

In Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus, Franciscan Fr. Dave Pivonka, T.O.R., has recorded a travel diary for the spiritual journey, one particularly suited for those who have perhaps tired and turned lukewarm on the road, or those who are willing but reluctant to start.

I particularly enjoyed the author’s light tone and openness in recounting his Spanish pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a L O N G walk undertaken to give thanks to God for the tenth anniversary of his priestly ordination. Though the reader can guess many of the spiritual lessons Father will draw from his tales before he explains them, some (like the one I excerpted above, from a funny account of the laundering differences between men and women on the Camino) really struck home, so the book serves as much more than a breezy travelogue. The book did, however, make clear to me that should the possibility of this pilgrimage ever present itself to me — an unlikely event with four littles at my feet and our one-teacher salary — I have no desire to make it! Give me a few days at a Benedictine monastery instead. 🙂

Speaking of which, Father tells of some Benedictine sisters in Leon who care for the pilgrims as they pass through, welcoming them as Christ and opening their community’s prayer (as is the Benedictine way). A particularly beautiful part of this story is the “ministry” of one sister who greets each visitor entering the church with a large smile. The sisters also segregate the men and women pilgrims (unusual in lodging on the Camino, apparently) and offer to wash their clothes for them for a small fee.

Some spiritual lessons that merited an asterisk in my notes were:

  • When the walk is hard, keep walking forward to find rest; yet, the journey takes as long as it takes, so it cannot be rushed.
  • Don’ t miss the beauty and opportunities on the journey because of pain, but actively unite your pain to Jesus’. Also, understand that others on the journey may indeed be consumed by their pain.
  • Seek Jesus Himself and then His will will become clear.
  • Make meals and Mass together priorities.

As an aside, it occurred to me as I read that, as challenging as this pilgrimage clearly is, the pioneers of our nation’s Western Migration had to have even more grit to endure much more, especially in terms of distance and conditions. There were no yellow arrows pointing the way, or lodgings waiting for them each night, or even priests to offer them the sacraments. Most of the time, it was just your family, your wits and your wagonload of possessions, in the whole wide unsettled world. So, a strange effect of this book surely not intended by the author is a renewed admiration for the pioneers. End of digression. 🙂

This review was written as part of the Catholic Book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Hiking the Camino: 500 Miles with Jesus.

This book review for The Catholic Company will be cross-posted on the Benedictine Spirituality Forum.

“If [lectio divina] is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church — I am convinced — a new spiritual springtime.” –Pope Benedict XVI (p. 37)

One of the most vital and beautiful aspects of Benedictine spirituality is lectio divina, the prayerful reading of sacred texts. Dr. Tim Gray (a seminary professor and co-developer of The Great Adventure Bible study) makes this ancient practice practical for anyone seeking spiritual growth and holiness in his packed but slender book Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina.

In fewer than 130 pages, Praying Scripture for a Change introduces the concept of lectio divina, and then logically devotes a chapter to each of the five “rungs” of the “ladder” of lectio divina: lectio (read), meditatio (meditate), oratio (pray), contemplatio (contemplate) and operatio (apply). The chapters include “walk-through” examples of the different rungs. This book is an easy read, but best done slowly, doubling back over rich passages.

Passages that struck me included:

  • “[St.] Francis is known for his joy and love of God’s creation, but too often people see him as a simple-minded tree hugger. Francis exulted in the beauty of nature because he saw that it, like Scripture itself, is a love letter from our Heavenly Father. … Francis knew how to hear God’s voice in creation because he first listened to that voice in Scripture.” (p. 14-15)
  • a detailed analogy of lectio divina to working a vineyard (p. 32-33)
  • a practical suggestion to record striking passages of Scripture and frequently return to them during the day’s work, as did the ancient monks (p. 85-86)

The author also helpfully contrasts lectio divina with fad practices of today, like Eastern-style meditation, and Islamic prayer.

I was also impressed by the:

  • Imprimatur by Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, well-known to be faithful to the teachings of the Church
  • many quotes from Pope Benedict XVI
  • use of the trusted RSV-CE translation of the Bible
  • author’s use of humor (including citing St. Augustine’s pre-conversion prayer: “O Lord, make me chaste. But not yet.” [p. 18])

For me, the only chapter that was difficult to follow was the one about contemplation, which seemed to jump around. However, I’m not sure that anyone could describe God’s gift of contemplation in linear style, so I appreciate that Dr. Gray tried.

This review was written as part of the Catholic Book Reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina.

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