In your parishes you are probably awash with daily Lenten guides, reflections, and prayer books. However, if you are looking for a game changer, one book that might impact your thinking about Catholic faith, history, theology, and faith formation during this Lent, I looked through my library and found ten that have profoundly impacted my thinking over the past 25 years:
Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. (1986)
This remains the most balanced and well rounded biography of America’s most famous monk, tragically killed in 1968. Merton is the consummate paradigm of the struggling man of faith. On the one hand he is a man of deep faith, spiritual guide to millions through his books, committed to a rigorous monastic existence; yet he was profoundly human, proud, critical, at times weak, and in his later years racked with uncertainty about the society of the 1960’s and the place of the Church. Mott is the first author to have access to Merton’s diaries, which are now available in print to the public.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (2004)
If it is your determination to read the entire Old Testament cover to cover, begin with Alter’s translation and commentary found at the foot of each page. This work translates Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We begin to see the history and the great wealth of this literature aside from its uses in Christian Theology. (Format not suitable for Kindle.)
John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991) Volume I
Meier, a Catholic priest and scholar from Catholic University, is a brilliant scripture scholar of the modern school of “the quest for the historical Jesus.” In this first volume he establishes his methodology, introduces the reader to the inner workings of professional biblical science, and then explores the sources we currently have (primarily the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) for the infancy and early life of Jesus of Nazareth. The footnotes are rich, informative, and very literate. Volumes II and III are now complete. (Format not suitable for Kindle.)
Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (1995)
Don’t be frightened by the title. “Lectio Divina” translates to “divine reading” or the venerable tradition of daily study by monks. Casey has applied the humble spirit of “obedience to the text” to present day readers of the Scriptures, Fathers of the Church, and all works of spirituality and theological insight. This is a relatively brief work of 150-pages that hopefully will make your future religious studies more fruitful.
Robert Alter, The David Story: 1 & 2 Samuel (2000)
When I first read this biblical translation and commentary, I felt humbled by my failure to appreciate what great literature is to be found in the Hebrew Scripture. Alter provides a fine translation and a footnote/commentary base that finds just the right measure. But it is the original Chronicler who captures the reader; his or her rendition of the early kingship of Israel is a unified and literally compelling narrative that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the early Greek world. (This book is currently available on Amazon Prime 48-hour free home delivery, not suitable for Kindle.))
Francis Moloney, The Gospel of Mark (2002)
This work has many advantages: (1) it is, in my view, a fairly easy commentary to follow; (2) Mark is the “template,” the first Gospel from which other evangelists could pattern and expand; (3) Father Moloney introduces a new student to the theology or unique inspiration that drives an evangelist to reveal the Christ in a unified but distinctive way; (4) the author’s understanding of this Gospel is quite profound and intriguing. Mark’s is the true “cost of discipleship” Gospel, most fitting for reflective Lenten reading. The paperback edition is available on Amazon Prime.
Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Volume I (1998)
I reviewed this some years ago and I observed that the work was more “theological than inspirational.” However, I think of this work all the time, particularly Father Brown’s investigations into the Hebrew Scriptural influence upon the Gospel texts (the Gethsemane scene is highly colored by David’s agony a millennium before.) Again we have here a scholar who examines the four different accounts of the Passion and what each inspired Evangelist is attempting to convey in the stream of events. Another Amazon reviewer wrote that “the footnotes are better than some commentaries. I agree. Volume II is available. (This work is available on Amazon Prime. Not suitable for Kindle.)
Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2005)
Lent is a season to reflect upon sinfulness. There is plenty of sin here, but the more compelling aspect of this work is the complex matrix of sin—popes, rulers, soldiers, royalty all behaving badly, some from excesses of piety or genuine confusion, others from motives of greed, revenge, and the usual grab bag of military atrocities. This is a remarkable summary of the Church of the 1200’s and an insightful summary of why the Church blessed the Crusades in 1095 and stopped the eastern excursions in 1204 and turned west after what was easily the most bizarre of the four major crusades. It does not hurt that for a history book this is an excellent read. Paperback available on Amazon Prime.
If you have any questions with your Lenten readings from any sources, feel free to send me an email.