Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Title Says it All: Transforming your Life through the Eucharist

by John A. Kane

I purchased this book directly from the publisher years ago, probably when it was one of their $5 books. Languishing on my bookshelf, I finally noticed it when considering Second Daughter's First Communion year. I like the idea of reading a book on the Eucharist myself during the preparation year, though I think I have only succeeded once in three attempts. Either it was worth the wait to find this particular book, or I missed out on a tremendous opportunity for a growth in faith (probably the latter).
How much, therefore, depends on our preparation! For although we receive Christ fully, He unfolds His life according to the measure of our cooperation. Unlimited are the possibilities of the eucharistic indwelling, but our resultant spiritual development is slow, because the reception of the fullness of grace in Holy Communion demands our full accord with the Savior's eternal yearning to be one with us.
Kane's book was like a revelation, guiding me through a deeper understanding of the Eucharist in adoration, at Mass, and in reception.
Thus restraining His communication, thus concealing His unimaginable beauty, He makes our reception of Him silent, peaceful, gentle, and restful. Advance as we may in holiness, however, we shall never unravel the mystery of this amazing union.
The author contends we will continue to contemplate with wonder the miracle of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.
Inseparable union with man was the goal of the Incarnation and is the reason for Christ's life in the tabernacle. On the altar, He watches over us with love unquenchable.
It's all too easy to take communion at Mass as a matter of course, distracted by our children, who's missing from Mass, or an itchy sweater. The statements in this book helped me focus, not just by berating myself to pay attention but by pointing my thoughts to particular ideas and showing me how to beg Christ to ready my soul for the great miracle of taking communion.
Although Christ dwells in us with His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in order that His life may develop, may permeate our souls, and may direct our thoughts, words, and actions, the sacramental life must have circumstances favorable for its development, just as the plant needs sun and rain to grow to maturity. Without such circumstances and conditions suited to its growth, that life will never enrich us with its heavenly store; it will abide in us with the mere possibility of its infinite power, and we will be unconscious, not only of its greatness, but of its very existence.
We are not to despair, however, when we do not discern progress in our spiritual life, when we feel the Eucharist is not effecting change within us, or developing our relationship with Christ.
Holiness is most beautiful in the midst of the most uneventful. Few are called to do the extraordinary for God. All are called to be faithful in that which is least...
The minute care by which we restrain our looks, words, and actions; the vigilant supervision that compels us to check the effusions of our nature; the unobtrusive acts of self-suppression--these apparent trifles perfect the soul by completing in it the likeness of God. 
This would be a perfect book to read during time of Adoration with frequent breaks to pray and sit quietly in the presence of the Lord. For those who are recent converts to the Catholic faith, it can elucidate the theology of the Eucharist.
As He transfigures us with His grace, we, too, must elevate and ennoble all who come within the sphere of our influence.
It may also be an excellent book for someone who is not Catholic but wants to better understand what Catholics really believe about the Eucharist and how the theology of transubstantiation supports a rich faith, with the understanding that it is directed to Catholics.

I wish I had read this book years ago and I hope to make time to read it again in future years. I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in learning more about the Eucharist, how to approach the Eucharist at Mass, and how to purposefully devote the reception of the Eucharist to growth in the life of Christ.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Action, Adventure, and a Growth in Virtue: The Chronicles of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

I started this series on the recommendation of a friend before handing them over to First Son, who was 12. He finished the series before I did and wouldn't let me stop insisting the fifth book was the best.

The books follow the adventures of Taran, an assistant pig keeper, in a land of magic and mystery based loosely on Welsh myths. He's a child at the beginning of the first book, The Book of Three, and eager to be off in the world fighting battles. Over the course of the novels, he matures, learning to treasure skills and relationships.

Throughout the books are sprinkled bits of wisdom. For example, in the second book, The Black Cauldron, Taran journeys with Adaon, who becomes a friend and mentor to young Taran.
"There is much to be known," said Adaon, "and above all much to be loved, be it the turn of the seasons or the shape of a river pebble. Indeed, the more we find to love, the more we add to the measure of our hearts."
And later:
Adaon smiled gravely. "Is there not glory enough in living the day given to us? You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too.
In the fourth book, Taran WandererTaran goes in search of his family, being an orphan. The book is a series of encounters with figures representing different strengths and weaknesses as well as Taran's explorations of various occupations. He finds some at which he excels but does not enjoy and some he enjoys but at which he does not excel.
The potter shook his head. "Not so. Craftsmanship isn't like water in an earthen pot, to be taken out by the dipperful until it's empty. No, the more drawn out the more remains. The heart renews itself, Wanderer, and skill grows all the better for it."
When he finds a man who claims to be his father, he suffers his own unhappiness in order to remain on the land to work it. I think that's the most interesting part of the book. He struggles with his own desire to abandon the man and learns too late what it might have taken for him to sacrifice himself lovingly for a "man of courage and good heart."

The final book, The High King, brings Taran to the end of his youth. A greater crisis than ever before wracks the land. He and those loyal to Goodness and Truth must battle for the survival of mankind against the greatest odds. Along the way, Taran struggles to discern what is right, encountering false arguments from those who choose otherwise.
Math raised his head. "Is there worse evil?" he said in a low voice, his eyes never leaving Pryderi's. "Is there worse evil than that which goes in the mask of good?"
These books provide examples of courage, redemption, forgiveness, and sacrifice. I always appreciate books in which characters grow in maturity and wisdom, showing one path of such growth for our children. These do that wonderfully.
Taran nodded. "So be it," he said. "Long ago I yearned to be a hero without knowing, in truth, what a hero was. Now, perhaps, I understand it a little better. A grower of turnips or a shaper of clay, a Commot farmer or a king--every man is a hero if he strives more for others than for himself alone. Once," he added, "you told me that the seeking counts more than the finding. So, too, must the striving count more than the gain."
My friend who recommended the books wanted her son to recognize the similarities between this series and The Lord of the Rings, of which there are many. The last book draws on the end of that trilogy almost explicitly. I think they could be a good preparation, an introduction to the great battle between good and evil, without quite the same level of darkness and despair as The Lord of the Rings. They're also quite a bit easier to read. My son flew through these books though he floundered a few chapters into The Fellowship of the Ring. I am comfortable with my ten year old daughter reading them as well.
"Evil conquered?" said Gwydion. "You have learned much, but learn this last and hardest of lessons. You have conquered only the enchantments of evil. That was the easiest of your tasks, only a beginning, not an ending. Do you believe evil itself to be so quickly overcome? Not so long as men still hate and slay each other, when green and anger goad them. Against these even a flaming sword cannot prevail, but only that portion of good in all men's hearts whose flame can never be quenched."

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

December 2016 Book Report

Three Short Novels by Wendell Berry - link to my post (purchased used at a library book sale)

Simon Brute and the Western Adventure by Elizabeth Bartelme is recommended by Connecting with History for American History. After consulting with the publisher (Hillside Education is just wonderful), I decided to read it aloud to the whole family and enjoyed it right along with them. It's a delightful novel of historical fiction based on the life of Simon Brute, a French priest who travels to the colonies to be a missionary to the Native Americans, though he spends most of his life teaching and as a bishop. He is a humble and dedicated man who loved and served God and His people. (copy purchased from Sacred Heart Books and Gifts)

Chaplain in Gray: Father Abram Ryan by H. J. Heagney is recommended by Connecting with History for American History at the time of the Civil War. It is only recently published (a reprint of a previously out of print book) by Hillside Education. It follows the adventures of a Confederate priest who became famous for his poetry. I appreciated reading a story aloud to the family that helped to alleviate the tendency to view all Confederates as perpetually in the wrong. It doesn't really explain why someone who didn't own slaves would fight for slavery (Rifles for Watie did that rather well, for older readers) but it did engender compassion for the people of the Confederacy. (copy purchased from Sacred Heart Books and Gifts; it's not on the site yet but she'll order it for you if you ask)

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is a classic I had never read. The Audible version was well-read and enjoyable, though the story itself is even darker than I had expected. (free Kindle version and audio book purchased at a discount)

Classics of Russian Literature with Professor Irwin Weil from The Great Courses (purchased from Audible) covers the classics of Russian literature in 36 lectures. It has inspired me to fill in the substantial gaps in my own reading. The professor seemed knowledgeable and was entertaining. I loved listening to him quote in Russian. (purchased from Audible)

Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler's Guide to Unshakeable Peace by Sarah Mackenzie is a very short book, easy and accessible for the harassed homeschooling mom. I don't think it covered anything I hadn't already seen or read (being a slightly experienced homeschooling mom at this point), but it was pleasant listening to the author's chatty voice. It's also useful to have a reminder of what's really important and encouragement to ensure our days are centered around a life of faith together first while also managing the more traditional academic educational stuff. This would be an excellent book for a young homeschooling mother with little ones who is feeling a little overwhelmed. (purchased Audible book)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy - link to my post. (from a member at

Books in Progress (and date started)

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Keeping a Book of Centuries

First Daughter's Book of Centuries
Each week, I record what the children finished during the week and prepare for the next. I try to read anything anyone is going to narrate to me, if I haven't read it in a previous year. Mainly, I read First Son's readings, with a few for First Daughter. As I read, I keep my Book of Centuries near-by and add to it any events that catch my eye.

The children are asked to add three entries a week. I used to check each day to see what they were adding, but as I expanded the entries in my own book week after week, I realized the process itself and the satisfaction of seeing the centuries fill with events was rewarding. I trust they are beginning to sense the same thing so while I list in on their schedule of lessons, I do not require them to show me what they have entered each day.

There are always lots of questions about Books of Centuries - how to keep them, what's on them, what the pictures should be, what kind of book to purchase or create. I thought I'd just write a little on the basics in an attempt to encourage any Charlotte Mason homeschooling moms out there to begin by keeping their own book. Even as an adult, I can begin to see a richer tapestry of history forming as I make entries of events in multiple countries at the same time.

The children draw many more pictures than I do, as you can see from the above picture. The bottom book is mine, with lots of writing on the date links and only a few small lightly sketched pictures on the right.

Here's a closer look at some of First Son's Book of Centuries artwork. I'm not sure what all of these pictures are, but he knows.

Entries in the Book of Centuries take only a few minutes, but over the years, the book grows to encompass everything a child (or teacher!) has encountered.

There are lots of books available now for those in the homeschooling world who want to keep a Book of Centuries. We have a few different ones ourselves. I would encourage you to look for something sophisticated enough that a child may choose to take it along to college. The idea is to have one book to which a person can add throughout his or her life. This isn't a school book for one year or for a child, but one for a lifetime of learning. For the same reason, I would encourage a hardcover book.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Beautiful Book of Prayer for Children

Pray Always: A Catholic Child's First Prayer Book compiled by Conor Gallagher, from Saint Benedict Press

This is a beautiful hardcover prayer book, perfect as a First Communion gift for a boy or a girl. It is a little expensive, but it's the kind of book a child could carry for many years as it is well-bound and printed. Second Daughter was blessed to receive this book as a gift.

The book includes any basic prayer a child might want like the Our Father, the Apostle's Creed, the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel (a particular favorite at our house), and instructions on how to pray the Rosary. An examination of conscience precedes the Act of Contrition. A couple of pages encourage children to find times of prayer within their daily activities.

A second on Praying with the Saints talks about why we ask saints to pray for us. It's followed by thirteen saints with illustrations, short descriptions, and a prayer for each one.

The book ends with the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Divine Praises.

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This book may be less expensive from the publisher or from Sacred Heart Books and Gifts. Neither of these are affiliate links, but they are both places I have shopped and been pleased with the prices and the service.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Short Stories of Murder and Mayhem: The Innocence of Father Brown

The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

I read this book with a book club. It's the first book of Father Brown stories and includes twelve short stories. We read four stories for each of three meetings.

I enjoyed these stories, and much of the writing was wonderful. The very first sentence of "The Blue Cross" reads:
Between the silver ribbon of morning and the green glittering ribbon of sea, the boat touched Harwich and let loose a swarm of folk like flies, among whom the man we must follow was by no means conspicuous--nor wished to be.
A few of the stories didn't make much sense, given what we know now after a few decades of crime television shows. In more than one, it seems like Father Brown figures out the mystery, but allows the murderer to go free. In at least one, he claims he will keep the secret but encourages the murderer to turn himself in, but it's not always clear the guilty party does so. Perhaps the debate within a guilty conscience is part of the consideration of the stories.

The final story in particular seemed to allow a guilty party, one guilty of leading an army to its death to cover his own misdoings, to remain unsullied in public opinion. The mystery unveiled seemed contrived compared to the events described and the person's character as he was remembered and described. It seemed unlikely to us that someone who be so misconstrued but it was another time.

There are bits and pieces within the stories that encourage the reader to consider more than just the events within the plot. In "The Sins of Prince Saradine," Father Brown considers justice.
"I mean that we here are on the wrong side of the tapestry," answered Father Brown. "The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else. Somewhere else retribution will come on the real offender. Here it often seems to fall on the wrong person." 
So, fun to read. Perhaps not the best choice for our book club, which was much more interested in chatting for a few hours a month than actually discussing anything. Though I hear that's pretty often true so perhaps it doesn't matter what book we choose.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Heroism in a Mask: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

I selected this book for First Son to read in seventh grade as his second "classic." It is one of the recommended books for Level 3 on the Mater Amabilis site. I assigned it as First Son's second classic, but I really think it was easier to read than Ivanhoe which he read earlier in the year.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the first superhero books. The hero is a masked master of disguises, his identity a secret to all but a few trusted followers. The mystery of his identity is revealed before a grand escapade at the end of the book. It all wraps up rather nicely (and quickly) but it's a fun tale of adventure, courage, and heroism amidst the French Revolution.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Consolation, Peace, and Constant Prayer: Love, Henri

by Henri J. M. Nouwen
edited and with a preface by Gabrielle Earnshaw

Nouwen is the author of The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I read and loved a few years ago. This book, a collection of letters Nouwen wrote to friends, acquaintances, readers, and petitioners, offered a chance to get to know the author better and to see development of his thoughts on different subjects like conflict, inter-personal relationships, and vocation.

The letters are organized chronologically (from December 1973 through 1996, the year of his death) and divided into three parts, following his vocation in life and his eventual decision to make his home at a L'Arche community in Canada. The letters were selected because they all touch on "the spiritual life" but the subjects cover multitudes of subjects like marriage, ordination, the birth of children, new jobs, vocations, suicide, death, and divorce.

One of the most striking aspects of Nouwen's letters is his gracious recognition of the gift of the sharing of a soul through the letter he received and to which he is responding. Nearly every letter in this volume begins with a thankfulness to the recipient for the story he or she shared, the fear or loneliness. Nouwen didn't always offer advice in particular situations (though always always he counsels time set aside for regular quiet prayer); it wasn't about solving problems. It was about acknowledging other people for who they are and what they were experiencing. We don't write many personal letters today and perhaps electronic communications discourage such thoughtful introductory paragraphs when we respond to a query, but it occurred to me that I could adjust my own attitude, not only in writing but in person, by outwardly recognizing the vulnerability of others. I'm not exactly certain what this would look like in conversations, but I hope it stays on my mind.

I copied a great many quotes from Nouwen's letters into my commonplace book. For those who are struggling in just about any way, there are bits and pieces throughout this book that will comfort or challenge. Responding in 1981 to a man fearful of nuclear holocaust and war, Nouwen wrote:
But important for me is not if our civilization will survive or not but if we can continue to live with hope, and I really think we can because our Lord has given us His promise that He will stay with us at all times. He is the God of the living, He has overcome evil and death and His love is stronger than any form of death and destruction. That is why I feel that we should continually avoid the temptation of despair and deepen our awareness that God is present in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us and that that presence allows us to live joyfully and peacefully in a world so filled with sorrow and conflict.
Nouwen championed social justice, peace, forgiveness, and unity throughout his life. He often spoke at social justice conferences and corresponded with those working for social justice throughout the world (especially Central and South America).
Working for social change, to me, means to make visible in time and place that which has already been accomplished in principle by God Himself. This makes it possible to struggle for a better world not out of frustration, resentment, anger or self-righteousness but out of care, love, forgiveness and gratitude.
Nouwen was a Catholic priest who studied psychology and taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. (You can read more about him on the Henri Nouwen society website.) He was also a homosexual, though lived a chaste life (as far as I know). His correspondence in the book includes kind and encouraging letters to homosexual men living with partners or hoping for life-partners. So this book has the ability to alienate traditional Catholics and strident atheists both.

There is a particularly moving letter written in February 1993 to young participants at a social justice weekend at which he was invited to speak but declined. (You can find it on pages 307-308.) Near the end he writes:
We have to do any possible thing to heal these wounds of injustice, whether in Europe, North America or Africa, Asia and Australia. But we have to do this not in a spirit of fear, panic or alarm. We need to work for justice in the deep knowledge that Jesus has already overcome the world and that all our actions flow forth from this spiritual knowledge. This spiritual knowledge will grow deeper in us when we remain faithful to a life in community always dedicated to care for the poor. There you will find true joy and peace and this joy and peace will help you to discern where and how to make your life a life for justice in this world.
Later, he writes a lovely response to a woman interested in the doctrine of purgatory.
The doctrine of purgatory is a doctrine to assure us that God will fulfil our deepest desire to be united with him even when our heart is not totally pure yet. God will then offer us this purification. So it has very little to do with punishment. It is an expression of God's infinite desire to unit himself with us, and in that sense, as a doctrine, purgatory offers consolation and help. 
Nouwen was often intense and depended heavily on his friends. Based on the letters, it was sometimes difficult to meet his needs. On the other hand, his letters also show a great compassion for others and a tendency on his part to overextend himself in service to others.

The news today is as terrifying and distressing as it was in Nouwen's day. His letters offer the same consolation and peace he preached during his life.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions above are my own. The links in this post are not affiliate links.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Measuring a Tiger

I found this post in my drafts. These are pictures from a year ago, when Second Daughter was in first grade. I asked her to measure her ridiculous and enormous white tiger stuff animal for a math lesson. She happily measure bits and pieces of him.

Safe to say, this was one of her favorite math lessons of all time.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Port William Past and Present: Three Short Novels

by Wendell Berry

This book includes three novellas: Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost. The stories are all set in the Port William community and involve the same characters but with different protagonists.

Nathan Coulter, the first novel, concerns Nathan as a young boy. In it, he begins to discern the connections that run throughout time within his family and the land.
I thought of the spring running there all the time, while the Indians hunted the country and while our people came and took the land and cleared it; and still running while Grandpa's grandfather and his father got old and died. And running while Grandpa drank its water and waited his turn. When I thought of it that way I knew I was waiting my turn too. But that didn't seem real. It was too far away to think about. And I saw how it would have been unreal to Grandpa for so long, and how it must have grieved him when it had finally come close enough to be known.
In the middle novel, Remembering, Andy Catlett is an adult struggling to adjust to life after an accident leading to the amputation of his hand. Through flashbacks, the reader discovers the turning points in his life that led to his renunciation of the pressures of modern life and a return to his family's land.

I always pick out the passages on marriage. Here, he's thinking about their marriage before the current crisis:
It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined. And though Andy did not understand this, and though he suffered from it, he trusted it and rejoiced in it.
Wandering around in San Francisco, his mind wanders through his past and he begins to emerge from his depression. His thoughts turn to his wife:
He has been wrong. His anger, his loneliness, his selfish grief, all have been wrong. That she, entrusted to him, should ever have wept because of him is his sorrow and his wrong.
The third story, A World Lost, Andy Catlett is a young boy, adjusting to life after his uncle was shot and killed. I struggled in this story to remember that Nathan (from the first story) and Andy (from the third) were different boys, but that was more my own problem with books of short stories rather than a deficiency of the book.
Somewhere inside the jail, only a few feet from us, was the man who had killed him. For a long time there was nothing to be done but stand there in the large silence and the failing light, and know and know the thing we knew. 
This was my Wendell Berry book for 2016 and one I finished just as December was ending. I love reading a little Berry every year, but this book didn't compare to Hannah Coulter for me.