Book Break: Three Little Books

I’m playing catch-up on a few recently completed books, lest you think (aside from The Brothers Karamazov) I haven’t been reading in the past year. All of them are “little” books in one sense or another, but none are insubstantial; in fact, all three have Catholic or spiritual underpinnings and overtones. I shall write about them in the order that I completed them, though the last one I began reading even before Dostoevsky.

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism by Douglas Brinkley & Julie Fenster is a short biography of the founder of the Knights of Columbus and an intriguing glimpse into the struggles of American Catholics in the nineteenth century. Fr. McGivney, like many priests of his day, died young, but nevertheless transformed the communities of which he was a part, and ultimately re-envisioned the role of Catholic men in America. The authors admit he left few personal papers or other items behind, and at times, it felt as though the material on Fr. McGivney was a bit thinner than the book. I was particularly struck by several points, however:

  • Fr. McGivney’s gifts as a parish priest, and his ideas behind the Knights of Columbus, first manifested themselves at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Conn. Interestingly (to me, at least), when I was at Yale, this was a church I walked by on a daily basis, and when I met my bride and began (occasionally) to attend mass, it was at St. Mary’s. As a result, the book was full of names and places I knew and could envision from my college days.
  • Catholics in America were subject to discrimination; however, New Haven’s sophisticated liberal leanings made the community quite tolerant of its Catholic immigrants. On the other hand, when I was at Yale, the community’s sophisticated liberal leanings caused the students to look sideways at the priests and parishioners at St. Mary’s.
  • Fr. McGivney’s desire to start the KCs stemmed from the problems he saw in his Irish Catholic community, including poor widows, fatherless children, and men who wanted something more than their workaday lives, but were seeking it in the bottle and secret societies that separated them from their faith and their families. As they say, the more things change…
The book was a quick read, and especially for Yale Catholics and my KC brothers, I recommend it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is a grown-up fable masquerading as a children’s book. It’s a book I’ve seen often and have often wanted to read based on the whimsical illustrations alone, but until I recently heard an interview about the book on the local Catholic radio station, I’m embarrassed to say I knew almost nothing about the book or the author. I found a like-new, soft-cover, second-hand copy at The Sixth Chamber in St. Paul, brought it home, and did something I certainly haven’t done since Trevvy learned to read for himself: I began to read to the kids after dinner.

It’s neither overtly Catholic nor overtly religious. It is beautiful. I won’t tell you a thing about the story; I knew very little, and I found my voice choking with emotion throughout as I discovered my kids, and especially myself, in the characters in the story.* I will say only that it is worth reading and worth sharing. Everyone, from six-year-old Trevor to Jodi and I, loved the book. Gabe says it may be his new favorite. Our teenager said, “Will you pick another book, Dad? I really like this!”

If you want just a taste, my good friend Fr. Tyler wrote about The Little Prince, as well, on his Prairie Father blog. The excerpt he used is one of my favorites, too. Read this book!

Finally, the other night at Adoration I finished Introduction to a Devout Life, a Catholic spiritual classic written in the early 17th century by St. Francis de Sales. The copy I have is a pocket-sized hardcover; an undated old printing of an old translation, I suspect. The book is available for free in its entirety on several web sites; CatholiCity.com describes it this way:

Introduction to the Devout Life is the most popular Catholic “self-help” book of all time. First published in the early 17th century, it has proven its value as a daily spiritual guide and helpful reference for living an authentic Christian life. Written specifically for laymen, it began as letters from Saint Francis to a married woman who was seeking holiness amidst the distractions of her life of wealth and status. It contains treasures of wisdom for every reader, from eager beginner to lifelong Christian.

I came late to the Church and was confirmed as a young husband and father and an aspiring writer.** I picked St. Francis de Sales as my confirmation saint, primarily because he is the patron saint of writers. I read a bit about him and learned that he had a privileged education and upbringing, and he was looking for signs all the time…so it took him awhile to come to the decision to serve God. (That seemed appropriate.) Once he became a priest, he went into fairly hostile areas to convert people, and often used his writings to do so. These details, plus the fact that Francis is a family name on my father’s side, seemed like good reasons at the time. (I never even considered any of the numerous St. Jameses.)

It wasn’t until years later that I realized St. Francis de Sales was a doctor of the church and decided I should probably read my patron’s writings. I searched for a copy of the book and wound up with two (one in English, and one in French, which I don’t read or speak. I’ve been reading it a bit to a time each Monday night in the Adoration Chapel ever since. The sentences are often intricate, but the saint’s voice and genuine joy in serving God shines through. The book provides step-by-step guidance for increasing devotion and holiness in your life, and the saint’s suggestions, while intimidating taken in their entirety, are individually small, practical, and still relevant today. And every so often something strikes you as so profound that you incorporate it immediately into your prayer life. It is a challenge to anyone living in this world, but I suspect it rewards repeat readings.
—-
* Of course, I am an emotional guy…
** I’m still all of these things except young.

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