The King’s Prey, by Susan Peek

 

Terrible but true, Princess Dymphna flees Daemon, her father who, in his madness believes her to be his late wife, Odilla. He demands that Dymphna marries him. With the aid of her confessor and a few companions, Dymphna flees across Ireland and eventually reaches Belgium.

Susan Peek stays true to the Lives of the Saints’ outline for St. Dymphna. She fills in the gaps with a fast moving tale of her companions, especially two brothers, Brioc, her minstrel and Turlough one of her father’s soldiers. Like the fog of war, confusion and misinformation plague Dymphna’s escape. Peek amplifies tensions and leads her characters into conflict, danger, and excruciatingly painful decisions.

Although the words Irish and Catholic seem to be welded together, Dymphna story shows her not only as a Christian but a consecrated virgin living in a pagan household. Her father’s druid companions ignore her religious values and agree to the king’s intended incest.

Dymphna’s plight resonates with many young women in society today. She suffers attempted sexual abuse in her home. She becomes a homeless runaway, a refugee, and a victim of violence and the uncontrolled mental illness of her father. Through all of her flight, she places her hope in God and takes consolation in His protection. She submits to God’s will. In the end, through her intercession, God showers blessings on her friends. She remains a patron of those troubled with mental illness.

Turlough and Brioc dominate the novel. Their entire family dies of disease and famine. The older brother, Turlough makes a desperate choice to save the young Brioc, setting them at odds for many years. Turlough cannot persuade Brioc of his love. In fact, every attempt to help Brioc convinces the younger brother that Turlough plans to kill him. Throughout most of the book, Turlough attempts to reconcile with Brioc. His attempts are thwarted by conditions related to Brioc’s own mental illness. Dymphna brings the brothers closer.

 

Susan Peek writes for the younger readers, a word that will rouse them. She has devised a clever, perhaps labyrinthine tale, a tragedy of errors on the part of Brioc and his wife, Ethlynn. They experience a difficult life, and their role in Dymphna’s escape only deepens their pain. Peek delivers a spellbinding tale of suspense.

 

The King’s Prey should appeal to young, religious Catholics, but would engage people of other faiths and ages. Victims of family sexual abuse, runaways, and refugees can see in Dymphna a courageous companion. Hers is a heroic tale and will grip the reader’s emotions.

 

Since I am a fan of Saint Dymphna, I wanted a greater focus on her life and thoughts. Unfortunately, little information is available. The story of the brothers, although fictional, did have an impact. The most powerful moments came in the last chapters of the book where Dymphna rewards her friends, and the brothers have a chance to untangle their relationship.

 

Of all the characters, I liked Turlough the best. He always loved Brioc, made difficult decisions to save him, and responded to Brioc’s rejection without malice.

 

Susan Peek’s mission is to bring to light some of the forgotten saints such as Saint Magnus, the Last Viking, and Saint Camillus de Lellis. The King’s Prey clearly brought attention to Saint Dymphna. I would like to see more research into her life and her patronage extended in a world that is in woeful need of her strength.

 

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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.

Feast of Pontius Pilate, by E. Ann McIntyre

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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.

 

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

“The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be just to leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war.”

Polarization, random violence, and racial injustice disturb the domestic tranquility. Sebastian Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm, points to root causes and possible solutions to a growing national fratricide. As a war correspondent, Junger regularly observes the formation of “tribes”— fiercely loyal, egalitarian, classless, aggregations of humans that align their attitudes and values for the survival of every member.

He recounts examples of how humans meet disaster with amazing courage, composure, and unity. During World War II, the London Blitz and the Allied bombings of German cities brought local civilians together in air-raid shelters, forming them into classless communities that not only survive but thrive. The rate of suicides drops below peacetime levels, and industrial production increases as the bombing continues. He notes that persons of different social classes and background forget their differences and unite for national survival.

Because of war and other traumas, local ad-hoc groups exhibit the collective effort typical of the tribes that flourished in North America before the European invasion. After the war, the denizens of bomb shelters often go back to their individual lives and the tribal connections fade. Although they hate the war, some miss the closeness they experienced in the shelters.

The traditional Indian grouping is the band or clan of about fifty individuals. Its members work to preserve tribal unity because, without it, they could not survive. Migratory bands limit their personal property to what they could carry from campsite to campsite, reducing their ability to develop class distinctions based on wealth. After the hunt, every band member receives an equal share of the quarry ensuring that all survive, but none accumulates more than the others. Hoarding or selfishness by a few individuals endangers the rest of the group, so it is not tolerated. Neither are slacking or bullying.

One of the modern equivalents of the tribe is the military platoon. Soldiers live together, fight the same enemy, and, at night, sleep under the same roof. They share everything in common and build an intense bond that despite the external dangers and privation gives the band of brothers and sisters a feeling of belonging. They share a common cause, the safety of their platoon and their country.

Unfortunately, when veterans return to their homes and families, they not only miss the comradery of their platoon, but some are made to feel unnecessary. They notice that civilians seem more intent on serving themselves than the society as a whole.

Junger relates the typical veteran’s homecoming experiences to PTSD, disaffection, and violence. He suggests several practical responses to the needs of returning veterans and more generalized recommendations that urge society to embrace stone-age tribal values as a solution to many of our information-age problems.

Although Junger does not mention it, the characteristics and harmony of stone-age tribal life continue to exist in both monasteries and the persecuted church—“See how they love one another.”

Lazarus of Bethany: A Novel, By E. Ann McIntyre

Fictionalized representations of biblical characters often miss the mark. Nevertheless, the Bible serves as a vast treasury of plots and characters, including intriguing hints of narratives read between the lines. One of the most fascinating but little-known characters in the New Testament is Lazarus of Bethany—The Friend of the Lord.

The scriptures do not tell us how Jesus of Nazareth became a friend of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha, and Mary who lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Ann McIntyre’s novel offers an imaginative but scripturally consistent backstory that links Jesus and Lazarus from their teen years through the passion and death of Jesus and beyond. The author builds on the scriptural foundation with material gathered outside of the scriptures that support the notion that Lazarus, although at first reluctant, served as an apostle of Christianity.

The author explains:

Outside the Gospels, there are stories that Lazarus lived in Kiton [now Laranca] Cyprus, and that he was named its first Bishop by St. Paul and St. Barnabas. The Church of St. Lazarus is there and is said to house his second grave. Other stories have the Bethany siblings living their mission in southern France. They miraculously arrived there after a forced journey by boat. There are a number of churches built there in their honor, including another burial site for Lazarus.  The Gospel does not tell us what happened to Lazarus after Jesus brought him back to life. We have no idea how the miracle affected Lazarus. He remains a silent witness to his friend who loved him. This story is a fictional offering about Lazarus of Bethany and his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. It is a story about two boys who lived in an occupied state, in a troubled land, and grew into manhood together.  It is a story of two men, two deaths, two resurrections, and the enemies of the truth who sought to destroy them both. It is a story of doubt, and the journey to faith, of fear, and the journey to courage, of bitterness and the journey to forgiveness.  

The author addresses other poorly explained issues in the Gospels such as the relationship between Jesus and his brothers and sisters, the family connection to Zebedee the fisherman and his sons James and John, and the unusual link between the early Christian community and Pontius Pilate.

Although a compelling work of historical fiction, Lazarus of Bethany offers an inspirational message. It shows Lazarus, Martha, and Mary as close personal friends to Jesus. Lazarus, a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, experiences conflict as Jesus gradually reveals that God is his father. Lazarus, of all people, had an early exposure to Jesus as a dear friend and extraordinary person, but Lazarus resisted Jesus and only reluctantly became a disciple. Martha and Mary knew that Jesus had the power to heal and raise the dead. When Lazarus died, they blamed Jesus. Their reaction resembles that of so many who lose a close relative or friend, especially when prayers had been offered to save that person’s life. Mary’s passionate washing of the feet of Jesus represents the fervent love that many devoted Christians offer to God.

On two counts, the cleverness of the novel and the spiritual benefits of the Lazarus story make Lazarus of Bethany a rewarding read, especially during Lent and the Easter season.

Louis Everly reminds us in Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity, his inspirational book on the Easter season that Catholics dutifully sacrifice throughout the fifty days of Lent but forget to celebrate the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. They pray the Stations of the Cross but neglect the Stations of Joy. There’s no better guide to both the Lenten and Easter events than Lazarus of Bethany, a childhood friend of Jesus.

Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity, by Louis Evely

Tree hydranger September 11, 2013“We can understand Lent…we devote ourselves to penance, compassion and mortification, but how lax we are during the days that follow our sorrow. We do not even know how to rejoice…The day is coming when the Spirit of Truth will breathe upon us, and we do not joyfully await it.”

Louis Evely invites us to prepare for Pentecost by walking The Stations of Joy, meditations on the apparitions of Jesus to his disciples. With great tenderness, patience and affection, Jesus attempted “to awaken his apostles to his joy, to convince them of his resurrection, to transform their sorrows into joy.” The risen Jesus had to “un-set” their minds, open and rekindle their hearts, despite the fact that they barely recognized him.

Mary Magdalene thought that Jesus was the gardener because he had taken on his glorified form. It was only when he called her “Mary” that her heart knew him. He sent her to alert the apostles. “When God revealed himself, he tore every veil…he dazzled, he amazed…” Mary, the patroness of contemplatives was asked to leave her comfort zone and become the apostle to the apostles.

During each station, Jesus had to break through mind-sets and prejudices that prevented the acceptance of his death and eventual ascension, not as losses, but as reasons for hope and joy. The Disciples of Emmaus marveled at his hopeful words, but they couldn’t recognize him until the intimacy of the table and the breaking of the bread. They spontaneously shared the good news with the apostles.

Peter, filled with guilt, was ready to return to fishing, to walk away from his calling. He recognized Jesus preparing breakfast. He jumped into the water to meet Jesus and admitted his love. Forgiven, Peter accepted his vocation as the “fisher of men.”

Thomas doubted, standing in for the skeptics among us, in order to convince us of our reasons for joy. Why do we doubt? Why do we decline the invitation to joy?

Paul never doubted. As Saul, he viewed Jesus as an “absurd imposter,” a heretic. As a Pharisee, he scrupulously observed every aspect of the law, yet upon his conversion, he proved the most innovative and energetic of the apostles. He had seen Jesus and his disciples as an evil, until Jesus personally intervened, sending Paul to embrace the Gentiles, including us.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, mother of the apostles, our mother, mother of sorrows but also mother most joyful, knew that in spite of everything there was, and she was, a cause for our joy.

The Ascension: Jesus disappeared; he did not depart from us. He can be seen through the eyes of faith. Those who see him through faith, receive joy. Joy is a measure of faith. Joy leads us to the apostolate.

Let Louis Evely help you prepare for Pentecost. Each page of this short book will provoke the reader with Evely’s unique perspectives on the Season of Joy. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, your heart may burn within you. Be joyful. Open yourself to the Holy Spirit.

Callista: A Tale of the Third Century, by John Henry Cardinal Newman

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First published in 1855, Newman’s novel remains fresh. Its foundation is a comparison of hereditary Christians to converts and those who seek happiness in the comforts of the material world to those who can be satisfied only by union with God.

Newman warmly and vividly details a story of death and new life in and about the Roman colony of Sicca Veneria in North Africa, circa 250 AD. As tour guide, he portrays the delicate shades of fields ripe with grain, rose gardens, vineyards, olive groves and orchards set against “the fantastic forms of the Numidian Mountains.” He escorts his readers through the hidden door to the wonderfully cool catacombs to share in the liturgy. He and his readers shop the market stalls of the forum. As barrister, he details the legalistic implications of the multiple forms of Roman marriage and then explains the process of the provincial courts along with their dreadful incarceration pits and their means of torture and execution. Mercifully, Newman also offers a peep at the beatific vision. The Cardinal adds a touch of the authenticity with the frequent use of contemporary Latin phrases, such as the infamous: “Christianos ad leones!” (Christians to the lions.)

As the story begins, the Christians had not seen a major persecution in fifty years. Worshipers of the Roman and local gods had come to tolerate, and even marry Christians. Bishops, priests and deacons grew more concerned with their business interests than their flocks. Their sheep strayed as they cooled in spiritual ardor. Christianity drifted toward extinction, as many idol worshippers hoped. Some thought a persecution would finish them off. Others remembered that previous persecutions had actually won converts to Christianity.

Then Rome celebrated its millennium with spectacles and sacrifices to honor the very gods that made Rome the ruler of the world. Decius, the emperor, decreed that the entire world should congratulate Rome through the worship of Jove and swear by the genius of the emperor. Decius promised that atheists (i. e. Christians) who refused to so swear would suffer a painful death. The onset of a persecution drew near.

In Sicca, the avuncular Jucundus, an innovative, prosperous but aging purveyor of idols, lived only for the moment with no thought to the hereafter. Unfortunately, his aspirations for a glorious legacy depended upon his nephews, Agellius and Juba. Agellius, widely known as a baptized Christian, avoided contact with the residents of Sicca, especially during their religious celebrations. Juba, his brother, would bend his knee neither to god nor man. His unpredictable behavior annoyed his uncle as much as did the stubbornness of Agellius.

Jucundus desperately hoped that Agellius might forsake Christianity if he married Callista, an artisan in his employ. Jucundus suggested to Callista’s brother, Aristo, that he urge her to accept Agellius. Aristo advised his sister: “I say he’s a fellow too well off to be despised as a lover.” Agellius needed no urging to approach Callista. Knowing that she admired Christianity he hoped this predisposition would lead her to accept him and that she would convert to the worship of the true God. Instead, Callista responded, “You have stood in the way of Him, ready to speak for yourself, using Him as a means to an end.”

Callista remembered Chione, a slave and a Christian who “spoke as if a Christian’s first thoughts were good will toward others; as if his state were of such blessedness, that his dearest heart’s wish was to bring others into it.” Callista has seen no such blessedness in Agellius. Chione had cared for nothing, Agellius wanted Callista for himself. Shortly before her death, Chione dreamed of a beautiful Lady who pledged to lead Chione to her Son, Jesus. Chione died joyfully, freed of her slavery and the bonds of earth as the Lady welcomed her into the beatific vision. Callista thought Agellius a cold Christian more interested in laws and restrictions. If anything he damaged what faith Callista still had.

On this low note the real troubles begin. Newman spares no detail in his descriptions of a locust plague, famine, riots; the brutal murder of Christians by the mob; the Roman legion’s methods of crowd control, as well as Callista’s arrest as a suspected Christian. She denied that she was a Christian, but refused to offer incense to Jove or swear by the genius of the emperor. Jucundus and Aristo used their influence to postpone Callista’s execution. They claimed that she must be out of her mind. The respite allowed a visit from a mysterious stranger.

Caecilius, a Christian priest had met Callista shortly before her capture. Their conversation stoked the embers of her faith. He trusted her with a scroll: The Gospel According to Saint Luke. Callista paid it no heed until her imprisonment. By the time Caecilius visited Callista in her cell, she was a Christian in all but baptism. Caecilius baptized her, conferred confirmation and fed her with the Eucharist. Before her ordeal, she dreamed of the radiant face of Chione. It gradually morphed into the visage of the Lady that had welcomed Chione and then changed again into that of her Son. Callista had found the love and meaning she sought all her life. She too, would soon enjoy freedom.

As Newman relates through his story, materialism twists the ethics of those who see nothing beyond this life. They might otherwise seek Christ but instead, freely reject the foolishness of Christianity because they know too many cold Christians rather than the likes of Chione and the new Callista. I highly recommend this book to all who seek to deepen their faith so that they may more freely articulate the true joy of Christianity to others.

You may find “Callista” at:

 

 http://www.newmanreader.org/works/callista/index.html.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)