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BLESSED AMONG ALL WOMEN: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time
THE ROSARY PRAYER BY PRAYER: How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed Mother
MEETING ISLAM: A Guide for Christians
MARY MAGDALENE: The Modern Guide to the Bible's Most Mysterious and Misunderstood Woman

BLESSED AMONG ALL WOMEN: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, by Robert Ellsberg. Crossroad Publishing Company. 316 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a native Cincinnatian and a retired public librarian.

ROBERT ELLSBERG, a convert to Catholicism and editor-in-chief at Orbis Press, is fascinated by saints—canonized and non. His earlier books, All Saints (1997) and The Saints’ Guide to Happiness (2003), were well reviewed and widely popular; Blessed Among All Women is a worthy companion.

Most of the profiles of these holy women average two pages and come complete with quotations from the individual portrayed as well as references for further reading. In chronological order, and categorized by their practice of the beatitudes, Ellsberg profiles 137 women who, “by their heroic faith and love, exemplified the gospel challenge.”

When some of these profiles appeared in the All Saints book, the author received criticism from an acquaintance named Daria Donnelly for not including more “gal saints.” She wrote: “Your book was full of insight and sharp people but where were the kids? That’s not your fault: Does our Church ever give the high five to saintly parents? The noise, the joy, the distraction. Nouwen, Merton, the modern prophets, they don’t have kids, and as a result they can’t sort all the noise of culture: and their diagnoses are limited....Saints use it all.”

In this entire book of “gal saints,” Donnelly herself is included and described as “a woman of symbol, of story, of sacrament. She reached in the deepest Catholic sense toward the loving, nourishing, reconciling grace of God through the ordinary, commonplace things of God’s created universe.”

Ellsberg admits that women are underrepresented as saints, perhaps due to the obscurity in which they lived or their few writings and that the canonization process is controlled by men.

Additionally, traditional accounts emphasize only their “feminine virtues.” Isn’t it ironic that many female saints were excommunicated for a time? This collection includes non-traditional, non-Catholic, non-Christian women, some identified only by an action, nationality or calamity.

There is Karla Faye Tucker, who “while in jail awaiting her trial...was moved by curiosity to attend a meeting with a prison ministry group. Members of the group shared their own experiences of prison, prostitution, drugs and violence, and Karla observed that ‘they had a peace and joy—something that was real. I had never seen that in anybody.’ She found herself wanting ‘to feel what they’re feeling.’ That night, not knowing that Bibles were free for the asking, she stole one and snuck it back into her cell.

“As Karla began to read, she experienced for the first time the full magnitude of her actions, the realization that ‘I had brutally murdered two people, and there were people out there hurting because of me.’ On her knees, she asked God ‘to come into my heart and forgive me for what I had done.’ And almost at once she felt an incredible infusion of God’s love. ‘He reached down inside of me and ripped out that violence at the very roots and poured himself in.’”

Other examples are Mary Slesser, Scottish-Presbyterian missionary to Nairobi; Evelyn Underhill, Anglican author of Mysticism; Lady Godiva of Coventry, defender of the poor; Mother Ann Lee, Shaker foundress; The Martyrs of Birmingham, four Baptist girls killed in a bombing; Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Quaker abolitionists and feminists; Cassie Bernall, Columbine High School student and shooting victim; Eileen Egan, Catholic peacemaker who coined the phrase “seamless garment.”

The women portrayed here, so very unique in the situations of their lives, nevertheless share a striking similarity in their display of courage, resourcefulness and optimism across the years. Julian of Norwich, who lived through the Black Plague and the Hundred Years War in the 14th century, could still write: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

But teenage Holocaust victim Anne Frank—singled out for extermination because of being Jewish—could also write: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart....I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right....”

This easily readable anthology makes female saints more understandable and makes sainthood seem more attainable for the rest of us. I recommend it for ordinary Catholics and for religious.

You can order BLESSED AMONG ALL WOMEN: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE ROSARY PRAYER BY PRAYER: How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed Mother, by Mary K. Doyle. Cover art and illustrations by Joseph Cannella. 3E Press ( 224 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $19.95, paperback.

Reviewed by VICTORIA E. HÉBERT, lay associate editor of the English-language magazine The ANNALS of St. Anne de Beaupré, based at the shrine of the same name in Quebec, Canada.

YOU MAY ASK, “Why another book about the Rosary?” The answer is simple: In this day and age, we realize that we need additional help to deepen our personal experiences of prayer.

You may also ask, “But why reinvent the wheel?” We all know (and love) the Rosary, so what new information can we possibly need? How can the Rosary be brought to us in a different way? All of these are great questions which this book more than handily answers.

There is so much I want to tell you about this book, but I want you to travel on its voyage for yourself. So where do I begin? I came to be interested in this book because the cover threw sparks at my heart! It is powerful, touching and a small introduction to more of the same inside.

From the “first-time learner” right to the advanced, daily Rosary pray-er, this book has something for everyone. It is written in easily understandable language, delivered in manageable portions.

The book is divided into three main parts. In Part One, this Marian devotion is discussed as a means to grow closer to Jesus and a way to honor the Trinity. In addition, we are given some Rosary history and an in-depth explanation of how to pray the Rosary.

Mary Doyle also introduces us to the mysteries—all four sets of them, including the new Luminous Mysteries proposed by Pope John Paul II in October 2002. Doyle describes the mysteries as “reflections on the events and lives of Jesus and Mary, telling the story of redemption, making the Rosary a true history of salvation.”

With each mystery, we are offered pertinent scriptural verses, asked to reflect on these verses and consider various inner-directed questions (an excellent set of suggestions), given a special prayer and then treated to an illustration.

Concluding Part One, we are reminded to think about our intentions in praying the Rosary. Prayer intentions fall into three main categories: adoration, petition and thanksgiving. The author observes, “The only prayer unanswered is the one that isn’t asked.” Quite astute!

The “heart” of the book is Part Two, which explores the four sets of mysteries. This is where I feel the book sets itself apart from others in the same category.

I must mention the illustrations. Although not always “typical,” they are poignant, some so dynamic you may find yourself almost in tears (as I was). Look at each carefully for the “hidden” symbols. Keep an eye on the work of this young man, Joseph Cannella. I predict many more good things to come from this talented, insightful, young artist.

Finally, in Part Three, the Appendix offers additional prayers and basic how-to’s, as well as a comprehensive list of contact information for Marian organizations and addresses where rosaries can be purchased.

The author wrote this book to help readers have a richer prayer experience of the Rosary. To those who are overwhelmed or confused, she wants to make this wonderful devotion less intimidating and more approachable. This book makes you want to pray the Rosary more often, and it will mean more to you when you do!

You can order THE ROSARY PRAYER BY PRAYER: How and Why We Pray the Christ-Centered Rosary of the Blessed Mother from St. Francis Bookshop.


MEETING ISLAM: A Guide for Christians, by Deacon George Dardess. Paraclete Press. 242 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by RACHELLE LINNER, a librarian and writer who lives in Boston.

GEORGE DARDESS, a Catholic pacifist and permanent deacon, was horrified by the 1991 Gulf War and accused himself of complicity with its violence because of his ignorance of Iraq and Islam.

As befits a lover of languages, his path out of ignorance began with the decision to study Arabic. The language classes he took at Rochester’s Islamic Center initiated what became a profound encounter with Islam, including two years of studying the Qur’an (which Muslims believe is “the reciting of God’s very words”), participation in Muslim-Christian dialogue and friendships with individuals and the multiethnic local Islamic community.

Dardess was guided in this interreligious journey by a model of “passing over” that was proposed by Notre Dame theologian John Dunne. “When one is no longer concerned about reaching agreement...but simply about attaining insight and understanding, then one can enter freely into other cultures, lives, and religions and come back to understand one’s own in a new light.”

This model informs the structure of the 12 chapters in Meeting Islam. Most begin with a personal anecdote, offer a lucid explanation of a tenet of Islamic history, faith or behavior, and conclude with a reflection on a comparable Christian practice or doctrine.

The book’s strength lies in Dardess’s non-ideological, respectful presentation of the depths and beauty of Islam, an implicit rebuke to those who would see only negative stereotypes. In almost every chapter, Dardess conveys the inherent moderation and balance of Islam as it is engendered in practices that foster personal and communal responsibility.

“Islam is an experiment in practical human community, in life lived harmoniously among diverse populations, thanks to a common vocation of praise of the one God,” he contends.

Dardess even experienced Islam in his body, by praying Salat, the public prayer that is practiced five times a day, a key action of which is Sujud, often wrongly translated as prostration. “Salat...expresses at once dependence and independence, self-yielding and self-possession....If touching the forehead to the floor expresses the extreme of dependence, standing up again asserts human dignity, for did not God uniquely bestow on humankind his ruh or breath/spirit?”

His discussion of this tradition of “embodied liturgical prayer” introduces the concept of Taqwa, the “total commitment of body, mind, and heart to the praise of God” and leads to a thoughtful meditation on Christian watchfulness in the Parable of the 10 Virgins.

Dardess’s goal of “meeting Islam as a Christian” imposes an asceticism of restraint. For example, he writes about the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, as a symbol of unity, and proposes its Christian analog in Easter. He does not want to “force a comparison or project a uniformity with Islam that does not and probably should not exist. The point is to enable us Christians to look at our own symbols of unity with fresh eyes....”

This is a large responsibility, which he handles particularly well in clarifying the doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity. Two of the finest chapters are on ‘Isa, the Qur’an’s name for Jesus, and Islam’s rejection of Trinitarian theology. “...[T]hese differences, in their polemical expressions, can and should be tabled. Not that the differences aren’t central to our capacity for relationship—as we said before, there can be no relationships without difference. We simply don’t know each other well enough yet to talk about our differences in a tone that will bring joy to the Holy Spirit.”

Meeting Islam is a fine book, but it would have been a more interesting one if Dardess had been explicit about spiritual struggles only hinted at. Despite being such a respectful tour guide, Dardess remains a one-dimensional narrator, and it is possible that both his reticence and his idealistic portrait of Islam mask a still-unresolved ambivalence over the cost imposed by this journey.

You can order MEETING ISLAM: A Guide for Christians from St. Francis Bookshop.


MARY MAGDALENE: A Biography, by Bruce Chilton. Doubleday. 220 pp. $23.95.

MARY MAGDALENE: The Modern Guide to the Bible’s Most Mysterious and Misunderstood Woman, by Meera Lester. Adams Media. 234 pp. $9.95.

Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger and author of a Catholic Update on Mary Magdalene (May 2006).

DEVOTEES OF Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code will not be enamored of Bruce Chilton’s biography. His book is less biography than academic digest and critique of earlier Magdalene scholarship, plus his own analysis of this biblical mystery woman.

Publisher Doubleday says Chilton will “set the record straight.” Since he’s a widely published scholar who has read pertinent texts in their earliest extant languages, I suppose I should concede his success. Still, though he offers evidence to counter Brown’s fictional assertions, he also posits a debatable spin on Mary Magdalene’s role in the life of Jesus and the Church. I, for one, am not ready to sign off on Chilton’s portrait, either.

The author attempts to change Mary Magdalene’s undeserved reputation as a scarlet woman. But he mitigates his defense by speculating that she may have been a mamzer, a child of what Jewish law calls “doubtful paternity.” It seems a faint favor to replace one shady rumor with another.

Chilton sees Mary Magdalene as exorcist, anointer and visionary, and elevates her as a primary source for biblical narratives on these three themes.

Some Scripture scholars question the literal character of demonic possession, thinking it a catch-all diagnosis for all manner of physical, mental and emotional disturbances. But Chilton sees Mary’s exorcism as seven actual powerful demons expelled over a long period, due to their number and hold.

The author names Mary Magdalene as the woman who anointed Jesus (in Mark), though that woman is described by Luke as “sinful.” (To be fair, Chilton doesn’t think Mark’s and Luke’s narratives are about the same woman.)

While Chilton returned to early sources and rendered his own independent analysis, his work seems inconsistent. If the demons are real, then why isn’t Mary’s vision of the resurrected Jesus equally real, not ecstatic and spiritual, as Chilton claims? He seems to change interpretive lenses.

I appreciated the book’s back matter: the chronology, the notes and the Magdalene sources (the author’s own translation/compilation of texts he traces to her). His informative footnotes are not hinted at in the text, which seems a bit odd.

Mary Magdalene: A Biography is a scholarly attempt to surf the wave of interest in this saint. The book would be better titled Mary Magdalene: An Investigation.

In the other book, Meera Lester, a teen convert to Catholicism, offers no Magdalene biography either, though she doesn’t promise one in her title. While Catholic teaching and tradition are given their due, so are many eclectic and offbeat strains of thought. Repeated references to the adoration of Magdalene, which many will recognize as an attitude reserved for the Almighty, seem a fairly serious vocabulary glitch.

While I’m into glitches, the cover depicts a penitent Magdalene while the book describes a powerful and inspired disciple. False start! The author sometimes refers to an informative box (of which there are almost too many) as already known to the reader when said box doesn’t appear until pages later. The designer who misplaced these boxes also overdid the special visual effects. It creates a visual competition— even a disconnect—between word and design.

This reviewer will stifle any further complaints to focus on the book’s pluses. As a back cover blurb suggests, this book is really devotional in character. That’s true. Lester diligently links the life of Mary Magdalene to that of the reader. It’s accessible in the main and offers an interesting bibliography.

I valued Lester’s summary of Cathar beliefs (deemed heretical by the Catholic Church) and her intimation that Mary might have been the Beloved Disciple (attributing this notion to the late Raymond Brown, though the scholar only suggested that it wasn’t John the Evangelist). It’s surely as stimulating to read the Gospel of John while envisioning the Beloved Disciple as Mary as it is to grapple with the purported history in The Da Vinci Code!

You can order MARY MAGDALENE: A Biography and MARY MAGDALENE: The Modern Guide to the Bible’s Most Mysterious and Misunderstood Woman from St. Francis Bookshop.


MUSIC FOR THE END OF TIME, by Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Beth Peck. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. 32 pp. $17.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication. She has visited Auschwitz, a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation in Poland.

WHILE THIS LOOKS like a picture book for young readers, Eerdmans places a warning on the dust jacket that the book is intended for children aged eight and older—and rightly so. It is the true story of Olivier Messiaen, a French composer who was captured by the Germans during World War II and taken to a prison camp in Gorlitz (now part of Poland). There, he survived his internment and managed to write Quartet for the End of Time, despite the privations.

Messiaen was inspired by a nightingale’s song and used the bird’s notes as the opening of his quartet music. A young German officer provided him space, privacy and a piano to aid his composition. The officer also dredged up a cello for Messiaen’s friend Etienne. The quartet also includes parts for violin and clarinet; two other prisoners had brought those instruments with them.

This inspiring story describes how the most awful of situations can be the most creative and how one good person, like this young officer, could change things for the better.

The quartet is based on the Book of Revelation where an angel descends and says, “There will be no more time.” The music became one of Messiaen’s best-known works.

It was performed for the first time in Stalag 8A on January 15, 1941: “In the coldest, darkest part of winter, 5,000 prisoners hear Olivier’s tune. No one talked. No one sneezed,” says Bryant’s poetic text.

After the war Messiaen returned to the Paris Conservatory and is now regarded as one of the 20th century’s most respected and influential composers.

The pastel illustrations hint at more than the book’s words say. They provide realistic settings, plus evocative images like birds soaring in and through bars of music.

My only criticism is that so much of this information is contained only in the “Author’s Note” at the end.

Those who can hear hope in a bird’s song and create wonderful music in a prison camp should inspire all of us now and until the end of time.

You can order MUSIC FOR THE END OF TIME from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

These four books can turn casual readers into armchair pilgrims, and armchair pilgrims to footsore ones.

WALK IN A RELAXED MANNER: Life Lessons From the Camino, by Joyce Rupp (Orbis Books, 264 pp., $15), and FUMBLNG: A Journey of Love, Adventure, and Renewal on the Camino de Santiago, by Kerry Egan (Broadway Books, 232 pp., $12.95,U.S./$17.95, Canada), describe very different experiences of pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela, in northern Spain. The 66-year-old Rupp is a well-known spiritual writer. Egan wrote this as a student at Harvard Divinity School, struggling after the death of her father.

TRAVELING WITH THE SAINTS IN ITALY: Contemporary Pilgrimages on Ancient Paths, by Lucinda Vardey (HiddenSpring/Paulist Press, 426 pp., $22), sketches the life and “spiritual essentials” of Italian saints, like Francis and Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Anthony of Padua, Padre Pio and Blessed Pope John XXIII. The tour-guide author describes how to follow the saints’ footsteps—literally.

HEAVENLY CITY: The Architectural Tradition of Chicago Catholics, by Denis R. McNamara, with photographs by James Morris (Liturgy Training Publications, 150 pp., $59.95). Closer to home, this gorgeous picture book takes readers on a tour of 58 of the archdiocese’s most significant churches. It highlights the rich diversity of Catholics who built their best for God’s houses.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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