Sabbaticals have a life of their own, meaning that as much as we like to think of them as intellectually organized searches, our passions and interests draw our eyes to a particular color in a large jewel that captivates us to behold it longer and longer. If you take the leisure to look at the literary and artistic jewels of theology, “the study of God,” go where your soul’s enthusiasms take you. Because I wanted to take some graduate courses on my sabbatical, and I was late applying, I ended up with two history courses not of my choosing but which opened my eyes to new realities, particularly a course on Catholic-Episcopal ecumenical ventures prior to Vatican II that sparked in me an interest in interfaith experience, Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel that “they all may be one.”
Theology is a family of subsets. When you are choosing the kinds of books and other material you would like to pursue, you can do so in the fashion of someone entering a seminary or a master’s program in a major Catholic University. St. Vincent de Paul’s regional seminary has a rich, almost overwhelming curriculum [scroll down to page 52] for seminarians from Florida and South Georgia. If nothing else, viewing a curriculum gives an idea of the large number of choices in the study of theology, choices you might not know you had, such as medical ethics, philosophy, pastoral counseling, sacraments of initiation, etc. When safety permits, visit a Catholic graduate school if you are lucky enough to live near one, just to sniff it out for independent studies, libraries, lectures and other events open to the public, etc.
On the other hand, sometimes you just come upon a theology book from any specific subject and you jump right in, like a kid in the bakery snatching the cupcake with the most frosting. A good text in theology [or any other discipline, for that matter] will be so well footnoted with a rich bibliography that you can organically spin off into other related texts that grab your fancy. If you start your sabbatical with Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas, for example, your curiosity may take you backward into later medieval times and how the Church fell into disarray, or forward toward the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the reform Council of Trent.
I would suggest that early in the sabbatical you do go out of your way to touch base with the New Testament, particularly the four Gospels. Vatican II’s primary agenda was a refocusing upon Christ as the full expression of the God who loves us. Every bit of theology written and taught today is impacted by intensive Scripture scholarship. A good measure of your Gospel acumen is your handle on why the four Gospels are different, and what aspect of Christ’s message is emphasized in each Gospel. If you have no experience in college level scripture study, an introduction such as Paulist Press’s Invitation to the Gospels  can be very useful and dependable, or for the more ambitious, Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus.  On the other hand, diving directly into an excellent text and commentary of your favorite Gospel might be more intriguing and get you off on a good start. I used Francis Moloney’s The Gospel of Mark  in the Café Blog a few years ago; the narrative was intriguing scholarship, but he did not include the Gospel text itself. When buying a Scripture book, check to see that the full text is included with the commentary; otherwise, you’ll need your bible on your other knee, which can be cumbersome.
So, let’s hit the mall with the touch of a mouse, so to speak, to do a little window shopping. Our first stop is Paulist Press, a primary apostolate of the Paulist Fathers. The Paulists were founded by Father Isaac Hecker in the mid 1800’s and devoted themselves to preaching and publishing in the name of Catholic evangelization. To serve the entire Church, Paulist offers a wide range of publications and products. The Paulist Biblical Commentary is a new reference gem. This is a good publisher to subscribe to its printed catalogue, which I have here next to me. The quarterly catalog via snail-mail offers a better view of Paulist’s best resources. Paulist offers “The Catholic Biblical School Program,” an extended study guide to the full Bible over several years, and reasonably priced.
Moving along, we come to Liturgical Press, known from its founding in 1920 as the ‘Collegeville Press.” LP began as a monastery in Minnesota and became one of the first institutions in the United States to study reform of the liturgy; consequently, its publications focus on Liturgy, Scripture, and Parish Life. To find its publications this link proceeds to the book section. LP continues to this day with imaginative energy in scholarship. Its Wisdom Commentary series on books of the Bible draws from feminist theology and experience.
Continuing along, Catholic University of America Press, my alma mater, publishes some of the most advanced theological works available in English. If you think you know everything, browsing its spring catalogue will bring you back to earth. In my years there, I was more frequently found in the Rathskeller than with these volumes of advanced erudition. However, I may purchase one new offering in this spring’s catalogue, A Guide to Formation Advising for Seminarians [p. 12]. I would like to see how today’s seminarians are counseled and evaluated compared to my seminary experiences of a half-century ago. [Simple answer: we weren't.]
Returning home and looking at the books on my desk at this moment, they were published by a wide variety of other universities and firms, including Yale University Press, Eerdmans, Orbis, and W.W. Norton, to cite several. Some of the best treatments of things Catholic have come from outside the world of Catholic publishing; I have included some secular samples including Eerdmans’s and Norton as examples. Yale's Divinity School is world famous. Nearly all publishers mentioned in today’s post will send you free updates on books in your field[s] of interest that are just going on the market--even if you don't buy, you can stay connected to trends in religious academia.
I admit that the price of books can be problematic. There are a few things you can do to reduce the price. When I receive a notice for a book that I need for the Café posts or my own interests, I check with Amazon to see how the publisher’s price compares with Amazon’s. Usually, Jeff Bezos has it for a few dollars cheaper and Amazon Prime can usually overnight the purchase. Often, though not always, a sought after book comes in multiple formats, too. I prefer paperback because, among other things, I mark up books I use. Kindle is often cheaper than hardcover or paperback. Amazon also networks with many small local bookstores who can sell the same book, used, at considerable savings. This is particularly true with older texts. That said, I do have qualms of conscience about buying from "big box" bookstores rather than Catholic publishers directly.
Just one man’s opinion, but if you are reading a text of particular helpfulness to yourself and/or your work, you might do better with hardcover or paperback. It is probably a book you will refer to down the road, and you may want to mark it up and make notes. In doing the Café blog, I learned quickly that it is easier to retrieve a book quote from a shelf than to try to find it in my Kindle app.
Feel free to contact me with any questions. The next post will be in the book review stream; the next sabbatical post will be around Wednesday or Thursday.