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!

What do you expect from a book review?

Important pre-post disclaimer: I am not The Great Decider, On Whose Review Hangs the Fate of Every Book, and I realize that.

I’ve been a blogger reviewer for Tiber River for a few years now and enjoy getting to read new titles as they come out. It’s an opportunity to read books I may not have heard about otherwise and to think about what audiences would best appreciate a given book.

How I put together a review

Here’s my basic approach.

I’m a pretty snobby reader. There are going to be a few books I absolutely love and think should be force-fed to everyone, perhaps while they’re waiting on oil changes at car dealerships.

Then there a lot of books that are well-written, enjoyable, but not necessarily my “thing.” With these, I try to ask “who would really like this book?” and craft my review accordingly.

On the rare occasion that I can’t really recommend a book, I…feel real bad and do nothing. I generally avoid this scenario by requesting review copies of books by authors I’m familiar with and can be fairly confident I’m going to enjoy.

Procrastination and the glass case of emotion

I'm living in a glass case of emotion

Right now, I’m so behind on book reviews that I imagine my picture on the bulletin boards of several publishers, with an “IF YOU SEE THIS PERSON, ASK FOR OUR REVIEW COPIES BACK” advisory. And it really has nothing to do with the caliber of the various books in the “to-review” basket. In fact, I’ve already read some of them – most notably, the works of both Hallie and Dan Lord – and am eager to recommend them. But this is what happens:

1. I read the book, or look at the author’s name and think, “hey! I sort of know this person on the Internet! This is going to be great! I’ll write the most thorough and insightful review of all time!”

2. I lapse into Project Amnesia, a condition which also explains why my kitchen window has a random piece of fabric clipped to it for a curtain and why my sons’ pants will never be patched at the knees. I completely forget that I want to write a review of said book.

3. I see the book again. Now, I imagine the author, fretfully clicking over to my site every few weeks, cursing the day that a copy went out to me in the mail when I so clearly don’t appreciate the time and effort—the blood, sweat, tears, and soul—that went into the writing of the book.

4. I feel bad. Real bad.

5. I decide I’m going to write an even better review and I absolutely cannot start on it until I have time to really peer into the heart of the work, transcending space and time to distill the work into its purest essence through my words which will then launch an avalanche of purchasing that will let the writer take early retirement.

Meanwhile, my other reviews are read by, on average, 15 people per annum, half of whom are Ukranian spambots.

6. I feel more bad – so bad that I deliberately squint so as to not see the Book Review Basket as I sprint past it on my way to the computer.

Do you read reviews? How do they affect your purchasing decisions?

So – here’s my question. What to do when it’s a book that I can’t recommend, for whatever reason?

To whom is my obligation, as a Two Bit Reviewer? Am I here to promote all of the great new works by Catholic writers and help them find audiences? Or am I writing reviews so that readers can make good decisions about what books to buy?

I saw this on Twitter the other day and I hadn’t really thought about taking this approach to reviews:

I’d like to know, if you’re out there:

  • what you hope for when you read a book review
  • how the review colors your own experience of the book (or other media)
  • how often you choose to buy a book based on a review

And I’d also like to know what you consider to be the ethical obligations of a reviewer, to get all high-and-mighty about it.

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.

Mystic Monk Coffee and other Cyber Monday Specials from Aquinas and More

Mystic Monk Blend Whole Bean CoffeeAquinas and More is offering some terrific deals for Cyber Monday – I am definitely going to take advantage of the 20% off Mystic Monk Coffee promotion, because I’ve been meaning to try their coffee for a while and never seem to get around to it. Great gift idea, too!

Here’s the full list of promotions for today:

Non-custom Aquinas and More holy cards – 40% off

All Aquinas and More ebooks 75% off

All Patron Saint Medals (Over 4000 to choose from) 25% off

In-stock Mystic Monk Coffee 20% off

St. Joseph Missal Hymnals 25% off

We print it – design your own holy cards – 35% off

In stock Advent Calendars – 25% off

In stock 2013 Calendars – 25% off

Free Blessed be God imprinting ($10 value)

Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints ~ Catholic review for Tiber River

AblazeI knew I’d enjoy Colleen Swaim’s Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints just by the cover. (Yes, there’s a saying about that.) It’s contemporary and engaging without screaming “STORIEZ 4 TEENZ.” Just like Coleen’s writing.

I enjoyed learning more about familiar saints while also being introduced to several saints I hadn’t heard of before, particularly those canonized in the past couple of decades. Swaim has included saints whose lives can be tied to familiar themes for young people today – family conflict, physical violence, sexual immorality. Her writing is subtle in showing the grace at work in each saint’s life without becoming preachy.

The saints included in this first volume are:

  • Saint Dominic Savio
  • Saint Teresa of the Andes
  • Saint Kizito
  • Blessed Chiara Luce Badano
  • Saint Stanislaus Kostka
  • Saint Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception
  • Blessed Pedro Calungsod
  • Saint Maria Goretti

Each biography is bookended with a Scripture passage, memory verse, “Saintly Challenges,” and space for journal writing. I liked the use of photographs and the focus on saints from around the world. The suggestions in the “Saintly Challenges” are pretty clever, such as when Swaim suggests that you could “strive to really listen to the other person in a conversation, striving not to cut him off or monopolize the discussion,” in imitation of St. Dominic Savio.

I originally purchased this as a resource for my 10-year-old, but the “mature content” of some of the stories means that I will be waiting a couple of years to share the book with him, although I may read some of the stories aloud to him. Some of the saints either died very violent deaths or encountered graphic sexual violence, and these aspects of their lives are handled with candor without being overly sensational. St. Maria Goretti’s story, with which many readers may also be familiar, is told frankly enough that for a younger child unfamiliar with the concept of rape it would require an explanation. The book is geared towards teenagers, though, so it’s not that I don’t think these subjects should have been included; just something for parents to consider when evaluating the age-appropriateness of the material.

I would recommend this book as a Confirmation gift or as supplemental reading for seventh graders and up, based on the content, although I myself found things to contemplate as a much-older-than-teenaged reader. It’s poignant to read about these lives that ended so soon and how strongly these young people adhered to their faith, often without the support of their families. It’s also an excellent window on global Catholicism to learn about the lives of saints from India, Uganda, and the Philippines. I’m excited to see that Coleen has a new book out and I’m looking forward to adding that to our library, as well.

For an excellent interview with Colleen Swaim, check out Nancy Piccione’s Q&A, where Colleen addresses the scope of the book:

My goal throughout the process was to seek out saints of both genders who are representative of the worldwide vitality of Catholic youth lived to incredible heights. With some saints and blesseds, that meant scouring Vatican resources for newly recognized individuals, while others fell into my lap through the recommendation of a friend of a friend. I tried to include both classics and those who I felt Americans need an introduction to, and I believe the book succeeded on those fronts.

I agree! Very nice to see this slim-but-substantive collection of biographies that speaks to the challenges that modern teenagers face.

I wrote this review of Ablaze 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.

“Weightless”: Kate Wicker on Body Image and Food for the Soul ~ A Tiber River Review

Kate Wicker combines a frank and sensitive memoir of her own struggle to overcome an eating disorder with an examination of the manifold ways in which women burden themselves with self-criticism in her thoughtful book, Weightless. Her book stands out in a field of seemingly endless volumes designed to “help” women reach perfection by any means possible – extreme dieting, drastic surgery, whatever it takes to equal the pictures that grace our magazines. While Wicker’s own story involves an honest account of the perfectionism and self-doubt that led to her eating disorder, the book is for “any woman who is trying to spackle God-shaped holes with thinness, physical beauty, youth, or food.”

Weightless - Kate WickerReading the book – with each chapter devoted to a different aspect of women’s self-image – is a journey towards truly feeling “weightless” in that we’re no longer weighed down by constant worry about our appearance. Each chapter contains a “Soul Food” section with specific spiritual direction and tools for a given topic, whether it be combatting the media’s constant barrage of superficial messages about physical perfection or welcoming the aging process instead of trying to cling forever to our youth. Wicker also includes a personal meditation and a prayer in each chapter. The book’s organization would make it terrific for a women’s book club or online discussion.

Being at peace with your body while still striving to take care of it is such a difficult challenge in today’s environment of constant comparison with others – whether through friends’ pictures on a social network, the heavily edited photos of celebrities, or our own memories of ourselves. Wicker doesn’t skirt any of these issues, particularly the tough question of how to pass along to our daughters a healthy concern for physical fitness and appearance without loading them down with criticism. She also recognizes that each person’s situation is different, so what might be a healthy focus on eating right for one woman could end up an obsession with calorie-counting for another.

I want to show appreciation for the body God gave me. I also want to be healthy and strong, so I can be better equipped to carry out God’s will for me, which includes the seemingly endless physical work of motherhood.

So many women are caretakers, whether of young children, aging parents, or coworkers and community members. Wicker reminds us that making our own physical health a priority isn’t selfish or vain, but in fact a recognition of the wonderful gift of life that our Creator has bestowed upon us.

I would especially recommend this book for mothers who are concerned about how to be positive role models and influences in their daughters’ lives, as it touches upon so many aspects of womanhood and acceptance of ourselves, imperfections and all.

I wrote this review of Weightless: Making Peace With Your Body for the free Catholic Book review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods, your source for Baptism Gifts and First Communion Gifts.

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.