1. After months and months I finally finished Middlemarch!!!! It was a good novel and, though I’m not in love with it, I’m still pondering it. I don’t think Eliot will ever be my favorite British novelist but I do admire her ability to create a world entire and to people it with believable characters. I don’t love Dorothea Casaubon or Will Ladislaw or Tertius Lydgate; but I believe in them as characters and enjoyed the time I spent with them. I’m glad I pushed through and finished the book and didn’t abandon it halfway through as I did The Pickwick Papers.
2.Free Range Kids by Leonore Skenazy—This book was a quick read but I only kept reading because I kept hoping it would surprise me. It’s not bad, not at all, but I’m obviously not the target audience. It didn’t have much that was new to me. However, it is an interesting topic, one that Dom and I talk about often: how lousy most people are at risk assessment. I liked how the author, a news writer, provides the actual statistics: your child is many times more likely to die in a car accident than to be abducted and killed by a stranger; yet we don’t stop driving them around. A nice antidote to the helicopter parent generation that wants to swaddle our children in cotton wool and protect them from all risks both real and imaginary. My biggest disappointment was that it didn’t address my number one concern about the free range philosophy: the busybodies who call child protective services on parents who have more relaxed ideas about parenting. I think future editions of the book should add a section about that most present danger.
3. By What Authority? Another historical novel about Catholics and Protestants in Elizabethan England by Robert Hugh Benson. This is actually Benson’s first historical novel. According to one site I found, he conceived of the novel as a retelling of the Reformation from an alternative viewpoint, actively avoiding stereotypical portrayals of his day that characterized both Catholic and Protestant treatments of the subject. Indeed, that was what I really liked about this novel. Although the plot gets a bit melodramatic, the characters are never flat stereotypes. There are villains, certainly; but they are not villains merely on the basis of their creedal profession. I especially liked the fact that the Puritan father and daughter are shown as deeply devout and having a genuine interior life with a true relationship with Christ. It is shown as objectively deficient but experientially very rich.
The novel considers two families, one Catholic and one Puritan, living in harmony in a small English village. The Puritan daughter, Isabel Norris, and one of the Catholic sons, Hubert Maxwell, fall in love, which neither family is pleased about. In a dramatic turn she gradually discovers the beauty of the Catholic faith from Lady Maxwell, Hubert’s mother and Mistress Margaret, his aunt, a nun whose convent has been disbanded but who still lives according to her Rule of Life as best she can while dwelling with her married sister. Isabel has a major crisis of conscience because she cannot tell if she is attracted to the Catholic faith just for Hubert’s sake or because she truly believes. Meanwhile, Hubert joins Francis Drake’s expedition and decides to become Protestant for her sake.
At the same time Isabel’s brother, Anthony, goes into service, becoming Master of Horse for the Archbishop of Canterbury. While there he encounters a Catholic prisoner who challenges his preconceptions and then observes the trial and death of St. Edmund Campion. Isabel and Anthony each on their own come to the same conclusion about the truths of Catholicism. Further, Anthony decides to become a priest. The novel concludes rather predictably, though I won’t spoil. I’ve already given away quite a bit of the plot’s turns. As with Come Rack Come Rope, I don’t think it’s a great work of literature; but it is a very readable piece of historical fiction that manages to be quite fair to all sides, showing how the Reformation destroyed lives and caused rifts within families and tugged at the fabric of a nation. Although the protagonists conclude in favor of the Catholic faith, it is not shown as a foregone conclusion and the arguments in favor of a national church are presented fairly.
I especially enjoyed the description of Isabel and Anthony’s first Mass together as Catholics. I need to go back and copy it out because it was very beautiful. But because I read this book on the Kindle app for my iPhone, it’s going to take a bit of work to find it again.
4. Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection—the second volume on Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict II. The perfect book for Holy Week! Pope Benedict has a way of writing that is so very clear and easy to read. I can even manage to follow when I’m quite tired. And yet the insights are so profound. This is a book I will read over and over again.
5. Way of the Cross by Joseph Ratzinger. These are the stations that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote for the 2005 Good Friday devotions at the Roman Coloseum. (John Paul II wasn’t actually able to attend in person as this was just a week before his death.)
I’ve collected many Station of the Cross books—I have a weakness for them—and so almost put this one back; only Dom encouraged me to go ahead and buy it. I am so glad I did because I’ve never read anything like this, never pondered the Stations of the Cross in this light:
The leitmotiv of the present Way of the Cross appears immediately in the opening prayer, and again at the Fourteenth Station. It is found in the words spoken by Jesus on Palm Sunday, after entering Jerusalem, in reply to the question of some Greeks who sought to see him: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (Jn 12:24) In this saying, the Lord compares the course of his whole earthly existence to that of a grain of wheat, which only by dying can produce fruit. He interprets his earthly life, his death, and his resurrection from the standpoint of the Most Holy Eucharist, which recapitulates his entire mystery. He had experienced death as an act of self-oblation, an act of love, and his body was then transfigured in the new life of the resurrection. He, the Incarnate, Word, now becomes our food, food that leads to true life, eternal life. The Eternal Word—the power that creates life—comes down from heaven as the true manna, the bread bestowed upon man in faith and in sacrament. The Way of the Cross is thus a path leading to the heart of the Eucharistic mystery: popular piety and sacramental piety of the Church blend together and become one. The prayer of the Way of the Cross is a path leading to a deep spiritual communion with Jesus; lacking this, our sacramental communion would remain empty. The Way of the Cross is thus a “mystagogical” way.
This vision contrasts with a purely sentimental approach to the Way of the Cross. In the Eighth Station our Lord speaks of this danger to the women of Jerusalem who weep for him. Mere sentiment is never enough; the Way of the Cross ought to be a school of faith, the faith that by its very nature “works through love” (Gal 5:6). This is not to say that sentiment does not have its proper place. The Fathers considered heartlessness to be the primary vice of the pagans, and they appealed to the vision of Ezekiel, who announced to the people of Israel God’s promise to take away their hearts of stone and to give hem hearts of flesh (cf. Ez 11:19).
In the Way of the Cross we see a God who shares in human sufferings, a God whose love does not remain aloof and distant but who comes into our midst, even enduring death on a cross (cf. Phil 2:8). The God who shares our sufferings, the God who became man in order to bear our cross, wants to transform our hearts of stone; he invites us to share in the sufferings of others. He wants to give us a “heart of flesh” that will not remain stony before the suffering of others, but can be touched and led to the love that heals and restores.
On Friday night I read through the first four or five stations. Then on Saturday I sat down in the living room and began to read aloud where I had left off the night before. Soon I had three children crowded in the chair with me, all listening intently. Eventually Sophie and Ben wandered off again; but Bella remained with me until the end. I want to read it again and again this week. Or, more realistically given how busy I am, at least once again on Friday.