Rejoice! Gospel Meditations, by Louis Evely

Lent invites us to refresh our souls, to refocus our lives, to set things right. Rejoice! by Louis Evely, has a way of growing us out of our comfort zones into the light. It challenges us to lift our crosses and follow Jesus. Evely writes: “There were times when Jesus was frightening in his logic, frightening in his relentlessness. He went beyond what was said of him; beyond the half-measures at which the Law had reasonably stopped. Jesus allowed nothing to stop him. He knows only one law: love. And from that law, he draws consequences with logic, which must either electrify or repel his followers.”

Consider the tax collectors and harlots who flocked to the desert to see St. John the Baptist. They asked John, “What must we do?” To their surprise, John told them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.” Luke 3:11.  To approach God who we cannot see; we must first approach our neighbors, especially those in need. The message of John and later Jesus electrified their followers. Imagine the joy among the penitents at finding the path to forgiveness and love. Imagine the community that benefits from their joyful giving.

Consider the Pharisees. Why instead of the Pharisees, did the likes of Matthew, Zacchaeus, other tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes flock to Jesus? Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and angels. They maintained their zeal for the Law and awaited the Messiah. “They should have been Jesus’ staunchest supporters.” On the contrary, many of them joined in the call for Jesus’ death. Evely explains that “The Pharisees were proud of their faith, their knowledge, their good works, and their religious observances. Therefore they were closed to God’s gifts and God’s forgiveness, for they did not believe that they were in need of either.” They believed that they had saved themselves through their rigorous observance of the Law. In their assumption of righteousness, they not only rejected God’s mercy, but they refused to extend mercy toward the unrighteous. Imagine their frustration when Jesus said that they had to change their whole approach to God and that their earlier efforts may have placed them behind the hated tax-collectors on the path to God. The message of Jesus repelled them.

Evely used the Parable of The Prodigal Son to compare the Pharisees to the tax collectors and sinners. The older son keeps the Law, but he does so, resentfully. The prodigal, like the tax collectors, rejects the discipline of the Law, but at least he realizes his sinfulness. He is willing to confess to his father and beg a place among his servants. The father, like God the Father is something of a prodigal in his mercy toward the younger son. God squanders love on sinners and reproves the cold-hearted legalists. God’s ways are not our ways.

Evely observes, “It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that we often find more generosity, compassion, and willingness to serve among libertines and loose women than among our moral rigorists.” To underscore his claim, he cites the Parable of the Vineyard Workers. Those who endured the heat of the day received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Evely writes that those who worked longer should have rejoiced at the good fortune of the last to arrive. The day-long workers grumbled at their fair wage, but Jesus made the point that the vineyard owner was free to do with his money as he wished, despite how it appeared to the workers. God’s ways are not our ways.

If we proclaim Jesus in our liturgy, we must live according to His teachings by radiating God’s love. “God is no more and no less visible than love itself,” Evely writes. “Other men see it and know that the Spirit of God is present. In the early church, only men ‘filled with the spirit’ were chosen for important missions. And the pagans said of the first Christians, ‘See how they love one another!’ The love of these Christians was such that, through it God Himself was made visible.” The lives of the early Christians proclaimed the Law of Love. In loving, they won the culture war against their pagan environment. Why today, have so many churches closed or serve only the elderly? Why today, do some Catholics fear the lure of the secular culture? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about cold-hearted Church members who lack the compelling love that denoted the early Christians and attracted new Christians?

Wishing you an invigorating Lent, one that brings rejoicing.

Louis Evely also wrote a collection of meditations focused on the Easter-Pentecost season: Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity.

Ornamental Graces, by Carolyn Astfalk

31945842
 If you enjoy emotional rollercoasters,Ornamental Graces by Carolyn Astfalk is your book.

Among the author’s many gifts is her ability to conjure up fictional characters in many shades of human decency. Imagine, if you will, Dan Malone. He has let himself go; his business teeters on the brink of failure, and he has lost Kristen, his girlfriend. He struggles to prop up his sinking prospects but hasn’t exactly gotten his act together.

The voluptuous Kristen is a masterwork: pampered, pouty, petulant, a manipulative genius–one of Astfalk’s most impressive creations. Although Kristen and Dan have broken up, she still haunts his existence.

The novel opens with Dan sitting in a freezing shack surrounded by Christmas trees. While his landscaping business hibernates, Dan is selling the trees to make ends meet. Enter the pretty, perky, and pure Emily Kowalski—the polar opposite of Kristen. Dan is attracted but feels that he’d never be good enough for her. Nevertheless, Emily gives him a chance.

Dan’s incredible blunders push their relationship to the breaking point and beyond.  Although his clumsiness damages his chance with Emily, Kristen deliberately interferes, so she embarrasses Dan and demeans Emily. There’s also a stalker—not merely a nuisance, but an actual threat to Emily, Dan and any chance they may have as a couple.

On the positive side, Dan’s grandmother and her cooking comfort him, especially whenever he blows another chance with Emily. Grandma is a cross between a matchmaker and Dan’s guardian angel.  Emily’s brother, sister-in-law, and their kids also raise the general level of stability and hopefulness. Beneath the surface of each example of human solace is the fact that Dan, Emily, and their families connect through the power of their shared religious faith. They have to believe in miracles because there’s no way they would make it without God’s blessings and guidance.

Ornamental Graces is a wonderful Christmas and year-round romance that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end.

Other romances by Carolyn Astfalk—again with fascinating characters and engaging plots—include Stay With Me (2015) and Rightfully Ours, scheduled for publication in April of 2017.

Carolyn Astfalk and I belong to the Catholic Writers Guild Fiction Critique Group. As one of her critique partners, I received a copy of each chapter as she wrote Ornamental Graces, Stay With Me and Rightfully Ours.

Battle for His Soul, by Theresa Linden

Theresa Linden completes her West Brothers’ trilogy with a look behind the facade known as Jarret West. He bullied his youngest brother as recounted in Ronald West, Loner and abused his relationship with Zoe and Caitlyn in Life Changing Love. This capstone volume reveals that Jarret’s fate depends on the outcome of a cosmic battle between Angels and Devils.

His victims might say that Jarret deserves whatever punishment befalls him, but they would miss the point that even a narcissistic, amoral manipulator like Jarret is deemed loveable by God.  Throughout Jarret’s life, his guardian angel, Ellechial has stood by him as Jarret’s personal demon Deth-kye, feeds Jarret’s vanity and passions, leading him to a violent showdown on Earth and an express ride to hell.

Jarret does little to avoid his self-inflicted fate. Despite his obnoxious behavior to countless schoolmates and his brothers, they form a prayer group. They pray before the Blessed Sacrament unaware that their prayers arm the Angels. The young prayer partners facilitate the angel’s access to Jarret’s conscience and enable them to warn Jarret of his danger.

The trilogy’s climax unfolds on an archeological expedition to the American West. Although he continues to mistreat his brother Roland, it is this younger brother who has a chance to save Jarret’s life, scare some sense into him, and sharpen his conscience.

Nevertheless, any strength gained by Ellechial is countered by, Deth-kye’s stirring of Jarret’s emotions, vices, and memories. Roland and his friends pray for and attempt to set Jarret straight during the final scene of the battle for Jarret’s soul?

It helps the reader to walk in Jarret’s shoes during his time of trial, especially at the conclusion of this Year of Mercy.

As a member of the Catholic Writers Guild’ Fiction Critique Group, I have worked with Theresa Linden as she brought A Battle for His Soul to press.

Feast of Pontius Pilate, by E. Ann McIntyre

JC_PP_Front_Cover_Red

Who would have thought that any of the Gospel villains would merit a feast on the liturgical calendar or have churches erected in their memory? Believe it or not, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church considers Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia to be saints. A clear case for Claudia begins in the scriptures where she urges Pontius to have nothing to do with the trial of Jesus, but where does the road begin for Pilate’s conversion?

 

The canonical and apocryphal gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the writings of Flavius Josephus, the letters of Pontius Pilate, the Report of Pilate to Emperor Tiberius, concerning Jesus Christ, and other documents provide the substance from which the fertile imagination of Ann McIntyre traces Pilate’s spiritual journey.

 

As in her previous novel Lazarus of Bethany, the author inserts backstory—logical links that fill gaps in the scriptural accounts. The upper room used during the Last Supper becomes the Jerusalem home of Zebedee and his sons. McIntyre more completely develops scriptural characters including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The Centurion seeking a cure for his servant as Jesus enters Capernaum becomes the same Centurion at the execution and resurrection of Jesus. She expands the role of Cornelius, visited by Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.

 

Emperor Tiberius reluctantly posts Pilate as Prefect of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, placing him on notice that any failure in his management could result in his execution. The enmity of Tiberius comes despite his family connection to Claudia. Pressure on Pilate increases with the constant complaints to Rome by Chief Priest Caiaphas. The condemnation and execution of Jesus place Pilate in a no-win situation. Leniency would allow Caiaphas to say that Pilate “is no friend to Caesar,” but the crucifixion of Jesus also blackens Pilate’s record with Tiberius. As Pilate dispatches a report of the execution, a letter from Tiberius arrives, asking for Jesus to become his personal healer.

 

McIntyre adds a spiritual dimension to her description of the treatment of Jesus before and during his execution—details that enrich meditation, especially during Holy Week.  She nicely exposes Caiaphas’ bribes to cover-up Jesus’ resurrection and seamlessly links the several appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, inserting visits with Claudia and Pilate. Pilate waffles in his belief until disaster strikes.

 

Pilate’s slaughter of Samaritan’s insurgents gives the Governor of Syria the opportunity to replace him with his own man from North Africa. According to the Acts of Pilate, the Emperor orders Pilate to kill himself. Some accounts say that Christ appears to Pilate saving his life and confirming his conversion.

 

Although historical fiction, at times The Feast of Pontius Pilate reads like an action-adventure thriller. The story flows logically as narrations switch between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate’s conversion certainly fits within the Year of Mercy theme. If Pontius Pilate could receive forgiveness and mercy, we can hope for the same.

 

Into the Way of Peace, by Karen Kelly Boyce

Into the Way of Peace blends the mystical with the mysterious.

While a blizzard swirls around an inner city church, a desperate few pass within. Some seek shelter from the storm. Others desire consolation because of life’s overwhelming burdens. One young man hopes to escape a police manhunt.

Fr. D’Angelico welcomes each guest to worship before the Blessed Sacrament. He has served at Holy Rosary Church for fifty years, as curate, pastor and now a retired resident. In his younger days, he had fallen victim to the “heresy of good works.” At that time, he had believed that the success of his ministry depended solely on him. Now, aged, arthritic and terminally ill, he has learned through prayer that Jesus alone brings in the harvest.

The Lord has given this faithful servant the gift of reading souls. This night, Fr. D’Angelico’s special charism tells him that seven souls will kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and receive a life-altering visit from Jesus, himself.

Frankie the Bottle, an alcoholic, seeks a warm place to crash. He drinks to forget that his carelessness killed his wife and daughter. Two professional men enter, full of emotion and conflict—their wealth and position are the consequence of choosing the expedient rather than what they know to be right. Two women mourn for estranged children who will never speak to them again. A Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz, who has lived for others without appreciation, could do much more in life if she only recognized her unique but underutilized charism. Bobby, rich and spoiled—a prodigal son—desperately needs to accept God’s love.

Fr. D’Angelico and the seven souls interact throughout this interlocking collection of short stories. Some souls consider the monstrance and the host an idolatrous perversion of Christianity. Nevertheless, both the Eucharist and the Scriptures make a powerful impression on each as they deal with the hopelessness of their situations.

Karen Kelly Boyce has the knack of stitching together the earthy and the heavenly so that her gripping stories both startle and edify the reader. Many know her for her delightful Sisters of the Last Straw series, her darker novels like In the Midst of Wolves, or her inspirational Down Right Good and A Bend in the Road. Into the Way of Peace finds itself in good company.

Fight for Liberty, by Theresa Linden

 

Fight for Liberty, Book Three in the Liberty trilogy, climbs to a dazzling climax, filled with plot shifts that will tantalize adult, juvenile and young adult readers.

In Book One, Chasing Liberty, an inner voice she calls “My Friend” directs nineteen-year-old Liberty 554-062466-84 of Aldonia to the realization that there is more to existence than a life totally dominated by the Regimen Custodia Terra. With the assistance of Dedrick, a member of the Mosheh, the underground insurgent leadership, she escapes to a remote sylvan colony but not to a life of contentment, as she knows her friends remain trapped in Aldonia.

In Book Two, Testing Liberty, the heroine infiltrates back into Aldonia to rescue her friends and imprisoned colony members, including all of their children, and to undermine the Regimen. She is captured and subjected to Reeducation, a form of video-game brainwashing. Like MacGyver, Liberty becomes more dangerous to the Regimen in captivity than on the loose.

In Fight for Liberty, the now tougher, more accomplished heroine comes into her own as a role model, especially for girls and women, following that inner voice calling them to greatness:

My Friend had never spoken to me as directly as he had these past several weeks. Since Reeducation, He led me to believe I would be instrumental in changing Aldonia, gave me hope that freedom would win out against the all-controlling government, the Regimen Custodia Terra. They controlled every facet of life from population numbers and education to ideologies and individual vocations. Considering all life of equal value, regardless of species, but humans akin to parasites, they had corralled people into cities and forbade entry into the Fully Protected Nature Preserves. We needed to bring them down.

The final push against the Regimen Custodia Terra begins, but instead of an orderly, focused attack against Aldonia, within its electrified fence Liberty, the remnant of the colonists from the Nature Preserves, and their superiors in the Mosheh face a tangle of conflicts.

Liberty’s love interest, Dedrick, doesn’t want her to commit to the Mosheh or participate in the upcoming attacks. The Torva, wild men—a cross between an outlaw biker gang and a Viking raiding party—will join the fray, but they won’t take orders from the Mosheh. They are more interested in owning the young women in the Regimen’s “breeding facility” than in freeing the people of Aldonia.

Previously captured colonial children have escaped from Regimen schools, but they have come under the influence of Guy, a one-armed shadow figure who will follow his own, separate agenda during the upcoming conflict.

Mosheh infiltrators of the Unity Troopers, the army of the Regimen, have found Trooper membership attractive. Silver, the mercenary, has tracked Derek into the Mosheh’s tunnel network. The Regimen would reward her for sharing this information. As dangerous as ever, Dr. Supero has become unpredictable after the treatment of his brain tumor. As the Mosheh subterfuge and subversion begins, no one is sure that their alliance will hold or that the good guys have accounted for all of the Regimen’s resources.

In Fight for Liberty, Theresa Linden has penned her most dramatic and suspenseful dystopian novel yet. The ending is anything but predictable. Although she resolves the many story lines at the end, the reader’s attachment to the characters sparks a hope that a sequel waits in the wings.

It is not necessary to read the series in order, but Liberty fans might prefer to watch the action build to a climax through the earlier volumes.

 

 

 

Life-Changing Love, by Theresa Linden

Theresa Linden weaves three story lines throughout this second volume of her West Brothers trilogy. At the conclusion of volume one—Roland West, Loner—Roland finds a measure of happiness with his new friends, especially Caitlyn. He and she enjoy hanging out without the pressures of a “relationship.” When Roland tells Caitlyn that he’s not ready to be her boyfriend, Caitlyn thinks that his feelings for her have cooled. Can Ronald and Caitlyn find what they have lost?

Caitlyn’s friend, Zoe, the most popular girl at school, begins to show Caitlyn “how to become popular.” To demonstrate, Zoe attracts the attention of Jarret, Roland’s brother. She sees Jarret as handsome, confident and hot.  The real Jarret lives to dominate and control everyone in his life. Can Zoe find happiness with Jarret or has she stepped into emotional quicksand?

Because Jarret had made Roland’s life miserable, as a punishment, their father takes Jarret’s twin, Keefe, to Italy, instead of his other sons. Once out of Jarret’s reach, Keefe’s worldview amplifies. Can Keefe become his own person and find life-changing love?

Of all of Theresa Linden’s characters, Jarret West represents the ultimate Machiavellian as he schemes to bend the lives of Roland, Caitlyn, Keefe and especially Zoe so that he gets what he wants, regardless of the cost or damage. Jarret is an “evil genius” with an innate ability to interpret behaviors and engineer emotional responses that favor his devious ploys. Can love change the direction of Jarret’s life?

Caitlyn shows tremendous depth and strength, especially when Jarret attempts to manipulate and embarrass her. She comes to know her parents and the reasons for their concerns and the limitations they place on her.

Readers of volume one will welcome the return of Peter and Toby, the clear-sighted brothers who have Jarret’s number and give him all the grief they can.

As usual, Theresa Linden’s lively plots and palpable characters make for a compelling read. She shows imagination, intrigue, and originality in yet another novel. Volume three is on the way.