Ash Wednesday is just around the corner (March 9), so I wanted to share my suggestions for great Lenten reads, and get your suggestions as well.
Also, based on some emails I’ve been getting with questions about Lent, I wanted to say: If you’re considering observing Lent but aren’t familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to go ahead and do so! If you’re not sure where to start, just give up some small thing that you like (e.g. listening to the radio on the way to work, sugar in your coffee, a certain TV show, etc.) and try to do a little more praying. You can find out more here at Marcel LeJueune’s excellent “All About Lent” post.
I first observed Lent a few years ago, before I was Catholic or Christian — in fact, I wasn’t even sure I believed in God! — and it was a very transforming experience. I hadn’t read up on any of the theology behind it. I just heard people on Catholic radio talking about how they were giving something up, so I decided to give up something too (a food item I enjoyed). The impact of that tiny “fast,” along with trying to read more spiritual books, ended up leading to more spiritual growth than I could have imagined.
Anyway, without further ado, here is my recommended reading list:
To Know Christ Jesus by F.J. Sheed
No other book has brought the Gospels alive for me like this one. Sheed offers all sorts of interesting thoughts on the life of Christ, without veering into unfounded speculation. He mines the Scriptures and comes up with gems that I’d never seen before. It is a bit dense (I almost gave up on it about 40 pages into it), but it really picks up around page 50. If you can stick with it, you’ll be richly rewarded.
10 Prayers God Always Says Yes To by Anthony DeStefano
This slim little book is packed with all sorts of interesting thoughts about what God’s will is for you, and how to grow closer to God in times in silence. I found it to be particularly helpful in the discussion of the age-old “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” question. This is the perfect read if you’ve been feeling angry with God, wondering why he’s silent, feeling like he hasn’t been answering your prayers, etc. (I first discovered it through this recommendation from a mother whose only child was murdered in the Virginia Tech shootings.)
He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek
This stunning autobiographical account of Fr. Ciszek’s wrongful imprisonment in Russia is one of the most life-changing books I’ve ever read. I read it more than a year ago and yet I still find myself thinking about it almost daily.
What was most surprising to me was how applicable the lessons he learned are to modern American life. His insights about everything from suffering to discerning God’s will to trusting God in all things — which he learned the hard way during five years of brutal solitary confinement and fifteen years in a Siberian death camp — are amazingly inspiring, whether you’re experiencing great suffering or just feeling numbed by the daily grind. I particularly loved his thoughts on how to maintain a lively spiritual life even when life feels mundane or boring. I highly, highly recommend this book.
Journey to Easter by Pope Benedict XVI
Based on a Lenten retreat he gave for John Paul II in the 1980’s (hosting a retreat to help John Paul II grow in faith — how’s that for pressure?!), Pope Benedict XVI walks us through a series of meditations based on Scripture readings for Lent. I admit that there were two or three chapters that were just way over my head, but the rest of the book offered powerful insights on everything from prayer to the Paschal mystery to conversion to the Church. I find myself going back to this book over and over again for inspiration. An excellent read for Lent.
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
When I first read the 17th century classic Introduction to the Devout Life, I didn’t feel like I got that much out of it. When I reached the last chapter I felt like I’d enjoyed reading it but couldn’t point to anything specific I’d taken away from it. Then I picked it up off my desk one day and, as I flipped through and re-read the various passages I’d starred and highlighted, I realized just how much I really had taken away from this book.
Now that I’ve gone through it again, I count it among the best books I’ve ever read. It’s the ultimate how-to manual for conforming yourself to Christ. Also, perhaps because the books is based on de Sales’ letters of spiritual direction to his sister and other women who wanted to grow in faith, I find that his advice perfectly fits the things I struggle with on a day to day basis as a wife and mother. Just know that you may have to read it more than once to have the lessons really sink in.
Finding God’s Will for You by Francis de Sales
How do we know what God wants us to do? Should we try to discern God’s will even for little decisions like what to eat for dinner? What if we pray and it seems like God is telling us nothing at all? These were the questions I had when I decided to get a copy of this book. I found good answers to those questions and a whole lot more: the book has lots of practical advice for daily living that you can start applying to your life right now. It’s also a little bit less dense and more readable than Introduction to the Devout Life.