Blessed Are the Meek ~ New Books from Kathleen Basi and Elizabeth Scalia Challenge us to Be Humble

Two new titles from Ligouri Publications and Ave Maria Press explore the many things that get in the way of God, and how humility is the bedrock of the virtues that draw us to Christ.

Often, perhaps most of the time, those whose faith strikes us most forcefully aren’t those who talk about it, but those who simply live it—letting the actions speak to the faith that directs them. We all know people who rarely talk about their faith, and yet everyone around them knows it is central to who they are.

Thus author Kathleen M. Basi outlines her hopes for readers of her newest book for families, This Little Light of Mine: Living the Beatitudes

(As an aside – how I wish I could be one of those people, the serene “radiating grace” types, you know? I think I mostly radiate snark.)

Kathleen Basi - This Little Light of MineThe book is an interesting project in that Basi has structured each chapter to include reflection for both adults and kids, with questions that the whole family can discuss. The book walks us through the Beatitudes, exploring the challenges of living out these ideals in everyday life. I think the challenge here for Basi is to present these teachings in a way that grabs our attention, since many of us have heard them so many times that they can come off as platitudes about “how to be nice.”

Basi cuts to the chase. The Beatitudes call us to a life of infinite small sacrifices, not the occasional grand gesture. She asks pointed questions:

“When contemplating a purchase, ask yourself: “Will having this item bring me closer to God, further away, or make no difference?”

When all of a sudden I am the main priority in my life (a false god), where is there room for the kingdom of heaven that Jesus promises?

Does political activism or religious discussion put you in a position where you feel compelled to “trash talk” others in pursuit of a greater good? How can you change that script without compromising your beliefs?

Her book is in part a quick tour of a well-rounded Christian life, as she weaves meditations on the Sacraments, the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, and the liturgy into her exploration of the eight Beatitudes. I liked that she often went in directions I hadn’t thought about when talking about a particular Beatitude, like when she discusses parents’ approaches to fostering religious vocations during a meditation on “Blessed are the clean of heart.”

I’d recommend this book to both families interested in learning more about the basics of their Catholic faith, and those who have been active in the Church but would like a simple, focused way to come together and study the Beatitudes more closely. From the cover, I’d expected something much more “kid-focused” but it’s really targeted at adults, with special content for kids in each chapter. I’m guessing it would be something you’d read to your kids rather than hand over to them to read, as the kid-content is interwoven with the rest of the book. The book overall isn’t age-inappropriate for kids aged middle school and up, I’d say, but I think it would work better if read by parents to kids as part of family discussions about the principles involved.

Elizabeth Scalia - Strange GodsWhen you are ready for Advanced Humility: Think On Thy Sins, turn to Elizabeth Scalia’s take-no-prisoners book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.

My goodness. She does not mess around when it comes to unmasking, for “…the covenant between God and humanity cannot grow and survive if our strange, self-reflective idols are placed between ourselves and him.”

I’ve been a fan of Scalia for years and was so happy to receive a review copy of her book, even as I knew I’d probably find myself indicted in much of what she writes. But it’s okay, because she’s one of us – Idolators Across the Globe.

My experience is grounded in experience, for I am a great idolator and have been all of my life. Like an ex-drunk who is the only one who can understand where you ahve been, where you are now, and how you can escape from a perpetual alcoholic haze, I wish to share what I know in order to assist in clearing out all the cluttering self-created deities that stand before God and before us – between us and the satisfaction of our deepest longing, which is ecstatic union with our Creator.

This idea of idols as whatever stands in between us and God is echoed throughout the book, as Scalia goes beyond the expected “don’t let your desire for a Mercedes get in the way of your vocation” to pointed critiques of how our devotion to a particular cause, or to our own plans, or “coolness” can all become idols. I was particularly sensitive to her thoughts on how the Internet can so easily devour our time, our energy, and our authenticity. “When we lose sight of the great and Almighty because of our passionate engagement with an earthly cause—and even the most worthy fight in the interests of heaven has its earthly measure—we can also, with astonishing swiftness, lose sight of the inherent dignity of the human person. We can begin to think of the person as ‘other.'” So, you know, Facebook political arguments for the win!

I’ve starred and underlined passage after passage in this book – some made me wince in recognition, others made me laugh, and it all made me think. It’s not that she’s focused on taking down our culture’s idols, no stone unturned—easy to point fingers. Instead, she asks what makes these things so appealing and how we can turn ourselves back towards Christ. What could have been a series of trite reminders is instead a deeply personal, challenging book. Highly recommended.

Oh, and the final chapter, in which she describes how the writing process itself became an idol, is hilarious.

Disclaimer: I received review copies of these titles from the publishers, and the links are affiliate links to Amazon, so I get a small “cut” if you decide to purchase the books. But I shall not make of this an idol!

Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols A Tiber River Review

Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a quick read that provides a comprehensive foundation for further investigation into Christian symbolism. I was given a review copy of the book before a family trip that included many museums full of medieval art, and I found it to be a helpful overview for me and my older children.

Signs and MysteriesAquilina excels at writing about the early Christians in a way that makes them seem like long-lost relatives. This book is informative without being too academic in tone for a popular audience. As he says in the introduction, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion – an act of piety towards our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived.” I enjoyed the mixture of testimony from Church Fathers, detailed illustrations showing replicas of actual Christian art, and citations from other contemporary sources.

Each chapter is a short overview of a symbol, exploring its roots in Jewish or pagan culture and showing how it was given new meaning by the early Christians. It’s a great way to learn more about the diverse groups of early Christians, including the Copts in Egypt and the earliest Jewish converts. I learned about several symbols I wasn’t aware had Christian meaning, like dolphins and peacocks, and Aquilina includes intriguing details like the hidden meaning of the “Sator Arepo” square.

Books like this one are a great way to start breaking open the central ideas of our faith. Christian symbols can be the “hooks” that draw us into a deeper understanding of a particular teaching, or allow us to see new spiritual insights in familiar images. I think this would be a great component of a course on either art history or the Creed – it’s short enough to be read in one sitting but organized in a way that makes it easy to refer to a specific chapter if you happen upon a symbol in a church window or a painting that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the early Church. My middle schooler found it pretty easy to understand, so I would say it’s appropriate for young adolescents on up, although that’s not to say it wouldn’t be perfect for adults as well.

I wrote this review of Signs and Mysteries for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods.

Aquinas and More is the largest on-line Catholic bookstore.

I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.

“Between Heaven and Mirth” – the latest from Fr. James Martin Martin's Mirth Manifesto - Humor is Serious Business

Everything I know about funny, I learned from Msgr. Marren.

Well, not everything, as I was too young to understand most of his jokes. But I loved sitting next to my mom in the pew as she would tilt her head back and laugh until tears filled her eyes, all because of something Fr. Marren said during his homily. On the way home, I’d ask her to explain what it was that had the whole church chuckling, and although I still didn’t get most of the jokes, the experience made me look forward to Mass every Sunday.

While Msgr. Marren was definitely the comedy superstar of my childhood, homily-wise, it seems that most of the priests I’ve known have had great senses of humor. Some were more introverted than others, true, but it seems that a good sense of humor is a valuable tool for a parish priest – or anyone involved in ministry.

Fr. James Martin’s latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, is a manifesto of sorts, calling us to joy in our spiritual life and humor even during times of trial. Fr. Martin takes his work seriously, including enough Jesuit jokes to please even the most discerning connoisseur of comedy. He takes us on a tour of humor in sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, and his own experiences ministering to people around the globe, and frequently shares stories of his own foibles that amuse and instruct us about the virtue of humility – and being able to laugh at oneself.

Fr. Martin’s books are “seeker-friendly” and so he includes stories and wisdom from various religious traditions. His writing is strongest when he talks about his own personal experiences, particularly his work in East Africa. I also enjoyed his discussion of how joy pervades Mary’s expression of faith in her Magnificat, and a chapter later in the book that explains that a joyful faith does not require that we constantly “put on a happy face” even amidst deep suffering:

1. Does being joyful mean that I’m supposed to be happy all the time?

No. This is something I would like to underline, since it is a concept that is particularly important to understand in a book on joy. Sadness is a natural response to pain, suffering, and tragedy. It is human, natural, and even, in a way, desirable; sadness in response to a tragic event shows that you are emotionally alive. If you weren’t sad from time to time, you would be something less than human.

For those who struggle to find joy, or who consider themselves to be “just not funny,” Fr. Martin takes the innovative approach of leading us through the Jesuit tradition of the examen and showing how this daily look at our experiences and deeds can help us to grow in gratitude and, subsequently, joy.

The examination is a prayer of awareness of God, of seeing where God is already active in your daily life. But for the purposes of our discussion the most important aspect is gratitude. Gratitude reminds us of God’s gifts in our lives even during times of sadness and can reconnect us with a believing joy. Gratitude reminds us of the underlying joy in our lives.

Okay, fine, bring me a bookmark

Image courtesy of

The one thing I didn’t care for in the book was the inclusion of anecdotes about seemingly humorless religious figures –  never mentioned by name, obviously, but apparently included to support Fr. Martin’s overall thesis that we are in need of revisiting the topic of humor in ministry. While I certainly agree with him about the value of humor, sometimes it felt a little like “thank you, God, that we are not dour and frowny like so many other religious people.” It came across to me as a little uncharitable.

But, then, it just hasn’t been my (admittedly more limited) experience that religious leaders are humorless, nor can I think of anyone in my circle of friends from various religious traditions who doesn’t appreciate a good sense of humor.

Fr. Martin does devote  Chapter Two to “A Brief but 100 Percent Accurate Historical Examination of Religious Seriousness,” which was a very interesting examination of the earliest Christians’ attitudes towards humor and subsequent thinkers’ condemnation of mirth – particularly contrasted with the somewhat ridiculous scenarios Jesus employs in his parables. So, while I get that this is still an issue at times, I think the book would have worked just as well minus the “call to arms” tone he occasionally employs:

…if joy is an obvious outgrowth of a life-giving faith, why does it seem absent from so many religious settings? Why do church services seem so devoid of humor? Why are religious people so often (fairly) characterized as gloomy? In short, when, why, and how were joy, humor, and laughter removed from religion?

Maybe I just need to introduce more people to Msgr. Marren.

I received a review copy of Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life as part of a blog tour coordinated by Trish Collins of TLC Book Tours. Other stopping points on the tour include (links will be updated as reviews are posted):

Kristin Lavransdatter: Powerful themes of womanhood, sexuality, family, and faith A Tiber River Review

The story of Kristin Lavransdatter, from the loss of her youthful innocence to the sacrifices she makes for her family as an older woman, remains relevant and powerful today despite being set in medieval Norway. This new translation by Tina Nunnally retains author Sigrid Undset’s vivid imagery while being clear enough for modern readers. While it may take a few chapters to become immersed in the story, you’ll soon be absorbed in Kristin’s saga.

Kristin Lavransdatter

We see Kristin’s first experiences with love and lust, and how her life unfolds as a result of a fateful decision to place her heart in the hands of the passionate, feckless Erlend Nikulaussøn. Kristin’s defiance of her family, particularly her father, has consequences that resonate over the decades that follow, from her early motherhood to her eventual widowhood and involvement in the lives of her adult sons.

We’re drawn into the story of the volatile marriage of Kristin and Erlend, the implications for her life and the lives of her children, and her efforts to atone for bringing scandal to her family. Kristin is a sympathetic character and her story is particularly relevant for young people today, in our climate of sexual irresponsibility and “relationships” that amount to “friends with benefits.” Although family dynamics may be different today – and women face a wider variety of options as they discern their vocations – the underlying message that our individual choices affect not only us but our families is a powerful one.

Catholicism is subtly woven throughout the novel, providing windows into the practice of the faith hundreds of years ago and timeless moral themes as reflected through Kristin’s experiences. Yet it does not read like a fable written to instruct – Undset is unsparing in her depiction of the consequences of various characters’ misdeeds, and we can draw our own lessons.

Kristin also shows us that a “strong woman” can be thoroughly devoted to the service of her family and the care of her home – without glamorizing the duties of a medieval noblewoman, Undset shows us the expertise required to manage a household.

I wish I’d read Kristin Lavransdatter earlier in life. I look forward to sharing it with my own children, particularly my daughter. Highly recommended.

Carrie Frederick Frost at First Things offers another review of Kristin Lavransdatter

I wrote this review of Kristin Lavransdatter for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods, your source for Baptism Gifts and Oplatki Christmas Wafers.

Tiber River is the first Catholic book review site, started in 2000 to help you make informed decisions about Catholic book purchases. I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.

Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible: Highly Recommended

Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible - New Testament
Through the generosity of the family-run bookstore Aquinas and More, I was able to obtain a review copy of the Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible – New Testament. I was so excited to receive it in the mail that I started listening to it right out of the package. An audio recording of the New Testament, voiced by a cast of professional actors, this 18-CD compilation is an engaging, professional audio version of the Bible perfect for listeners of any age. You can view video clips of the recording process and listening to sample tracks from the CD’s at the website for the Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible.

I’ve enjoyed listening to the CD’s while going about my day – it’s uplifting to hear the Word of God during the mundane duties of everyday life, and it also allows me to experience the Gospels “as the action unfolds.” Hearing the recording on its own or while reading along is a terrific way to reflect upon the readings for the day or to study a book of the New Testament as a whole.

As a catechist, I cannot wait to use these recordings with my students. I plan to play snippets for them each week as we work our way through the New Testament, and I know this will be more effective than my reading aloud from the Bible to them. The packaging says that an Old Testament version is in the works, and I can assure you that I will be first in line to purchase it as well.

The recording carries an imprimatur and is a solidly Catholic endeavor. The text is that of the New Testament, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition. I really feel that this compilation could easily be utilized by scholars and Bible enthusiasts from any tradition, however, and the producers’ commitment to creating a high-quality recording is a testament to the value of this resource for personal and group study.

I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. This would be a terrific gift for a Bible enthusiast or for a friend who is just beginning to learn about the life of Jesus. It’s a treat to hear the voices of some of my favorite actors – John Rhys-Davies, Neal McDonough, Sean Astin, Kristen Bell, and many more, and the quality of the recordings is top-notch. It’s a great value for the price, and it’s an addition to my library that I know I will rely on for personal and catechetical use for years to come.

I wrote this review of the Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible for Aquinas and More’s Tiber River Review Program, though which I can earn cool Catholic stuff by sharing my opinions of other cool Catholic stuff. I appreciate their responsive customer service and excellent selection, and I encourage you to check out their unique Christmas gift options – if you’re stumped for ideas, they have a great list of Most Popular Catholic Gifts in various categories.

Review: Lisa Hendey’s Handbook for Catholic Moms

I’m reviewing this for Tiber River, the super-duper Catholic book review program where I can earn stuff by reviewing other stuff. It’s still pending, but I saw today that Lisa’s book now has a downloadable discussion guide and an e-version for the Kindle or your computer. And she’s even doing this thing via what-the-kids-call “Skype” where you can participate in interactive chats with her. Pretty cool – now, on to the review.

In The Handbook for Catholic Moms, Lisa Hendey has assembled a treasure trove of practical suggestions for all areas of Catholic motherhood. But what’s exceptional about her book is that you can read it, recognize areas you may need to work on, and not feel crummy. That’s a rare thing for me, with my love/hate relationship with motherly advice books.

Handbook for Catholic MomsIt’s her tone – firm but not preachy, admitting her own struggles, and staying positive without sugar-coating the challenges we face as moms. Hendey also doesn’t write for just one type of mother. She provides ideas for moms at all points on the “working” spectrum – those who hold down full-time jobs, those who homeschool, and anyone in between. The book also includes special chapters for single parents, adoptive familes, and families with special-needs children.

The book is very readable in short “chunks,” which is how I tend to approach advice books. Hendey has divided the book into four sections – Heart, Mind, Body and Soul. Within each section, every chapter follows a logical format. She begins with stories of her own experiences, which lead into a general discussion of the topic at hand – why it’s important, how to approach things like fitness or organization (um, two areas at which I do not excel, to put it mildly) from the perspective of our faith. The chapter concludes with “Mom’s Homework” assignments and relevant online resources.

Hendey’s book also contains contributions from Catholic moms at a variety of stages in their lives, so it’s more like you’re hanging out in the kitchen with these ladies, sharing stories, than sitting in an audience being lectured. It was a treat to come across names of other writers I’ve enjoyed and to recognize their unique voices.

This is a book you could give to a friend and not worry that she’ll wonder if you’re trying to suggest that she embark on a quest for self-improvement. I’m happy to have discovered it and will turn to it again and again over the years.