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Letting God Have the First Word

Q U I C K S C A N

CONVERSING WITH GOD IN SCRIPTURE: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina
A MENDED AND BROKEN HEART: The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi
ENGAGED SPIRITUALITY: Faith Life in the Heart of the Empire
TEN PRAYERS GOD ALWAYS SAYS YES TO: Divine Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Problems
WHEN PRAYERS AREN’T ANSWERED: How to Accept Life’s Trials With Honesty, Love and Grace
THOUGHTS OF A BLIND BEGGAR: Reflections From a Journey to God

New Ways to Explore Scripture



CONVERSING WITH GOD IN SCRIPTURE: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina, 1988-2007, by Stephen J. Binz. The Word Among Us Press. 150 pp. $11.95.

Reviewed by HILARION KISTNER, O.F.M., editor of Homily Helps for Sundays for St. Anthony Messenger Press. He studied Scripture at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

STEPHEN J. BINZ, a Catholic biblical scholar, wants to help people meet God in and through the Bible. He believes lectio divina, an ancient way of reading and praying the Bible, is a very helpful way for people to get personally involved with God. He claims that lectio divina is “revitalizing the lives of many throughout the Church.”

Lectio divina begins with the Bible. The Bible is God’s word to us as individuals and as members of the Church. It is extremely important when we wish to pray to realize God has the first word. God loves us, the Bible says, and it is God’s love that enables us to pray. Just as the Holy Spirit inspired the sacred text, the Spirit is at hand to help the Bible reader assimilate God’s Word and be transformed into images of Christ. The Spirit helps us delve into both Old and New Testaments and find Christ. Christ speaks to us throughout the Bible.

In Chapters 3 to 8, Benz offers six steps to follow. He cautions us, however, not to follow these steps slavishly. The important thing is to pray, not to follow some rigid pattern. Often, too, the stages can overlap. It would be self-defeating to stick to each stage and miss out on the Spirit’s promptings. Here are the titles of each stage with some brief observations:

1) “Lectio: Reading the Text with a Listening Ear.” With the Spirit’s help, we try to grasp the meaning of the text. A commentary can help us gain insights into the text.

2) “Meditatio: Reflecting on the Meaning and Message of the Text.” I ask what the text means to me as I live in today’s world. I look at my own experience and ask what God’s word is telling me about the mysteries of faith and how to deal with joy and sorrow, success and failure, health and sickness, my relationship with myself, others and God, my present life and my eternal destiny.

3) “Oratio: Praying in Response to God’s Word.” We have been listening to God. Now we are to respond from our heart (our inmost being). We praise, thank, repent, beg. In our prayer we depend on the Holy Spirit to be our helper.

4) “Contemplatio: Quietly Resting in God.” “[W]e no longer think or reason, listen or speak.” Contemplatio “is prayer that remains after words are no longer necessary or helpful.” It is like a loved one’s enjoyment of the embrace of a lover.

Steps Five and Six are operatio (bringing the gospel to others) and collatio (praying together with others to form the body of Christ).

Chapter 9 provides examples for lectio divina (four from the Old Testament, three from the New). These are valuable for providing a concrete way to practice lectio divina.

The book ends with questions for reflection or discussion. Perhaps most provocative is the final one: “What did you find most encouraging and motivating in this study of lectio divina?”

This book can help readers become closer to God.

You can order CONVERSING WITH GOD IN SCRIPTURE: A Contemporary Approach to Lectio Divina, 1988-2007 from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

A MENDED AND BROKEN HEART: The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi, by Wendy Murray. Basic Books. 304 pp. $25.95.

Reviewed by MURRAY BODO, O.F.M., author of Francis: The Journey and the Dream, Clare: A Light in the Garden and Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God (St. Anthony Messenger Press) and many other books.

THE BACK COVER’S BLURB does a disservice when it states, “Wendy Murray slices through the bowdlerized version of Francis’ life promoted within the Catholic tradition and reveals instead a saint who was in every way a real man.”

Actually, many biographies over the years have contributed to the portrait of the real Francis, and the so-called bowdlerized early “biographies” of Francis were not biographies at all, but books written to show that St. Francis was a saint. Granted, things were omitted from those “biographies” that moderns consider essential to the writing of a true biography, but all the same, cumulatively, we have a rather clear picture, even in those early works, of the essence of what made Francis of Assisi the saint and man he is.

Wendy Murray has written a trustworthy and well-researched modern biography. Her sources are impeccable and she has, as she herself remarks, written this book with her feet. She went as a pilgrim to the places connected with Francis and Clare and conducted many interviews that are quite helpful.

On one topic, though, she seems to have made an interesting conclusion that requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader. With regard to the relationship between Francis and Clare, Murray maintains rightly that “there is general agreement on two points: First, Clare of Assisi was irrefutably an influence on Francis’ life...and whatever their relationship had been before their respective conversions, after their religious vows, it remained pure.” The implication is that, before their religious vows, their relationship may not have been pure.

This seems like conjecture to me, especially when Murray states, “Out of an increasing love for God and [this writer asserts] in the throes of an unresolved mutual love for each other (both at once and both thoroughly), he acted first and prepared the way for Clare to follow, which... she did a few years later.”

If “an unresolved mutual love for each other” implies that their previous love was not pure and continued to trouble them, that is problematic and would be contested by most scholars both within and outside the Catholic tradition. If it implies that there was a human love between Francis and Clare, that is less problematic and still much debated.

Otherwise, I found this a beautifully written and engaging biography of both Francis and Clare, containing helpful notes and maps. She herself has achieved what she quotes from the great Franciscan scholar Jacques Dalarun: “Francis of Assisi is not a man who can be calmly observed. He is a man who must be confronted, with sympathy and commitment.”

Murray’s sympathy and commitment are abundantly evident in this interesting contribution to the literature of Francis and Clare of Assisi.

You can order A MENDED AND BROKEN HEART: The Life and Love of Francis of Assisi from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

ENGAGED SPIRITUALITY: Faith Life in the Heart of the Empire, by Joseph Nangle, O.F.M. Orbis Books. 170 pp. $16.

Reviewed by JOHN FEISTER, an assistant editor of this publication, who has been active in various Church-related community ministries since the 1970s.

WHEN AN OLDER PRIEST, a brilliant one and a Franciscan at that—one with rich immersion in the foreign missions—reaches into his experience to pull it all together, listen. You may not agree with everything he says but, even so, there is much to be harvested.

Nangle worked in Lima, Peru, for 15 years, organizing parish communities true to the vision of the groundbreaking 1968 Medellin conference of Latin American bishops. Here, a Franciscan formed in the United States in the days before Vatican II generously followed the call of the poor into a life- and mind-changing career.

In recent decades he has lived in Washington, D.C., in the Assisi community, helping to animate the work of justice from the political center of U.S. society. Until recently, he co-directed the Franciscan Lay Mission service, which sends layworkers into Third World pastoral ministries around the globe and helps them readjust when they return. His book is a theological reflection informed by all of those experiences.

Let me preface my look at Nangle’s challenging message with a comparison drawn from my experience as a Scoutmaster in my sons’ Boy Scout troop in Ohio. We camped frequently, sometimes in rugged situations. One of our leaders talked to the young Scouts about “reality-based living”—an expression which referred to your need to read what’s going on around you and be sure that you are doing all that is necessary to remain safe, dry, warm, well-nourished.

Nangle is telling our Church how to read the “signs of the times,” as Vatican II put it, and to be true to our calling. How ought we, living in the world power, or “Empire” nation, as Nangle puts it, remain true to our deeper calling of Catholic Christianity? What is “reality-based living” from a Christian point of view?

He reaches for the tools that have enabled his sense of mission to grow and develop over the years: basic theology, Franciscanism, living among the poor, living in community, the guidance of leading thinkers in liberation theology Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino. Frankly, his experience turned his life inside out.

Nangle lived among people who are very poor, but he ultimately sensed that his vocation would be to live at the political center of the United States, in Washington, D.C., and work for better U.S. foreign policy and deeper engagement from Catholics of goodwill from within this country.

Chapter headings include such rich themes as the Incarnation, political reading of the Scriptures, prayer and contemplation, sin and grace, poverty and chastity, the Eucharist and creation spirituality. Chapter 8, on ecology in the light of the Franciscan movement, is worth the price of the book.

All of his reflections are infused with a sense of wisdom and joy, which he links to solidarity: “Francis felt that being treated as a poor person, being mistaken for one, even by a fellow friar, was ‘perfect joy.’” This, Nangle reflects, was Francis’ own option for the poor. For a clear look at the connection between Franciscan spirituality and the world today, read this book.

You can order ENGAGED SPIRITUALITY: Faith Life in the Heart of the Empire from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

TEN PRAYERS GOD ALWAYS SAYS YES TO: Divine Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Problems, by Anthony DeStefano. Doubleday. 197 pp. $18.95/hardcover; $11.95/U.S. paperback; $13.95/Canada paperback.

WHEN PRAYERS AREN’T ANSWERED: How to Accept Life’s Trials With Honesty, Love and Grace, by John E. Welshons. New World Library. 272 pp. $22.95.

Reviewed by SISTER JUDITH MESCHER, O.S.C., a Poor Clare nun for over 25 years and a member of the Poor Clare Monastery in Cincinnati, Ohio.

GROWING UP, WE ALL were so used to asking for things from our parents and hoping to get them right away. We tend to treat God in the same way and then wonder why God didn’t give it to us.

In Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To, we are presented with a different approach that is refreshing and, simply put, opens our hearts to what God really wants for us. People often call us Poor Clares to request prayers that they want answered right now. Of course, when the prayers aren’t answered, they want to know what they did wrong or if there is a special formula to use.

This book helps people to look at the priorities in their lives and what they truly are seeking in God. Even the petitions at the liturgy would be enhanced if this book were put into practice. I recommend this book for readers who want to grow closer to God and want to know also what God wants from them.

Anthony DeStefano has written short chapters dealing with topics of ordinary life: finding God, getting involved, generosity, suffering, forgiveness, finding peace, finding courage, receiving wisdom, working through bad situations and finding one’s destiny.

DeStefano writes in a conversational style, understandable to the average person looking for answers to prayer. At one point he quotes from St. John Vianney, curé of Ars, “When we pray properly, sorrows disappear like snow before the sun.”

Now if readers would like to study prayer and how it affects their life, I recommend John Welshons’s When Prayers Aren’t Answered. I find the title misleading, for the book is less about unanswered prayers and more about the acceptance that the subtitle promises.

John Welshons offers people help in dealing with dramatic life changes and advice on how to walk through these changes to become a new person in God. Prayer is basic to these changes, but what and how to pray are the essential parts of this book.

Welshons advances the idea of looking at prayer as listening to God and then doing something about what is heard. This attitude of prayer is for 24 hours a day, every day, not just a few minutes in the morning or at liturgy, but acting as God would in each situation of our lives.

I find this book valuable for reflection and also recommend Welshons’s earlier book Awakening From Grief as a way of walking through suffering and pain to new life. He points out that we are not alone in these life changes but that God is ever present to guide our way.

Welshons’s book includes prayer from many religions, but shows the similarity of prayer in all reaching toward God. Prayer is the universal vehicle that opens the doorway to God, and so life’s struggles are similar for all people of prayer.

He includes this insightful quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel: “Prayer means learning to see the world from God’s point of view.”

You can order TEN PRAYERS GOD ALWAYS SAYS YES TO: Divine Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Problems and WHEN PRAYERS AREN’T ANSWERED: How to Accept Life’s Trials With Honesty, Love and Grace from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

THOUGHTS OF A BLIND BEGGAR: Reflections From a Journey to God, by Gerard Thomas Straub. Orbis Books. 189 pp. $18.

Reviewed by PATRICIA M. BERLINER, C.S.J., Ph.D., a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, and a licensed psychologist in private practice in New York City. She is the author of Touching Your Lifethread and Revaluing the Feminine: A Process of Psychospiritual Change.

IN THE INTRODUCTION, Jonathan Montaldo of the Merton Institute for Living calls this book the story of a man’s journey from rags to riches. I see it as being that, plus a journey from self-serving to soul-searching and, quite likely, soul-saving.

In the first section of the book, we follow Gerard Straub through his enslavement to worldly status and fame to the freedom of Franciscan poverty and humility.

Early in his life, Straub seemed to be blessed by the angels—and drawn to the fast track. After graduation from a Roman Catholic high school in 1964, he landed a four-week summer job at CBS studios in New York City, just in time to be hired to answer sacks of mail requesting tickets for the Beatles’ upcoming concert. He was soon offered an entry-level job with CBS.

As he acknowledges, “It was crazy, but fortuitous.” Rapidly rising through the ranks at CBS, he reached executive level when he was only 21. By the time he was 35, Straub was very successful and very unhappy. Then he was rudely jolted when one of the vice presidents told him, “Your problem is that you think you’re an artist. But the thing is that we don’t want art....We want filler to keep the commercials from bumping into each other.”

Instantly, Straub realized what he had intuitively known, that in television “economics were more important than art.” Unable to bring himself to resign, he was grateful that the cancellation of his soap opera provided him with a way out.

Freed, he set out to fulfill his longtime desire to be a writer, and finish his novel about St. Francis of Assisi and Vincent Van Gogh. Thus began the next leg of his journey—to Rome and Assisi, to St. Francis and to himself.

Given hospitality at a friary of Irish Franciscans in Rome, Straub had time to explore the ancient city. One day, stopping to rest in an empty church, he felt overwhelmed by the presence of God. In that moment, he wrote, “I was transformed from an atheist into a pilgrim.”

His novel has never been completed, but his work on the life of St. Francis and his new life as a disciple-advocate of Francis and his work was begun. In living and working with Franciscans in many of their missions to the poor, Straub found that his conceptions, now recognized as misconceptions, of poverty and the poor were shattered.

Wanting to serve the people of God through the work of Franciscan humility and charity, he began to use his writing and filmmaking gifts to tell the stories of groups dedicated to enhancing the lives and possibilities of the poor.

The journey Straub has been engaged in is a fascinating invitation to all of us who, like the author, find ourselves in a place that once was right for us and no longer is.

This is a two-part book. In the first and, unfortunately, shorter section, Straub’s own story is briefly told and the stories of those he met mere glimpses.

The second and longer section is a series of personal reflections which Straub probably saw as being “the book.” But for me, this section is less powerful than the personal stories of Straub’s journey to Francis and the Franciscan ministry. Perhaps the mode in which he is more comfortable presenting the “flesh and blood” people is in his 12 films. (For a list of these, see www.sandamianofoundation.org.) I will have to search them out.

You can order THOUGHTS OF A BLIND BEGGAR: Reflections From a Journey to God from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

New Ways to Explore Scripture

With the World Synod of Bishops meeting October 5-26 in Rome and focusing on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” it’s a good time to consider some exciting books on Holy Scripture.

LIBERATING THE BIBLE: A Guide for the Curious and Perplexed, by Linda M. MacCammon (Orbis Books, 269 pp., $24), comes from a religious studies teacher at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. MacCammon claims that the Bible needs “liberating” because it’s too often interpreted simplistically. Instead, it “offers a vision of reality that actively challenges our presuppositions and prejudices, sparks our imagination, and introduces values, standards and alternative modes of living that readers can consider and adopt.”

THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE BIBLE: An Environmental Exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures, by Daniel Hillel (Columbia University Press, 354 pages, $24.50), looks at the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of an environmental scientist. This fascinating book looks at the river valleys, steppes, deserts, forests, farmlands and seacoasts that the early Israelites experienced and suggests how the ecology shaped their views of the Creator and humanity’s role.

WORD ON FIRE: Proclaiming the Power of Christ, by Robert Barron, illustrations by Michael O’Neill McGrath (Crossroad, 225 pp., $16.95), uses biblical passages to open up the riches of Christian tradition. Father Barron teaches at Mundelein Seminary.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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