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.

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.

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.”

Americanah, by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a tale of two countries, Nigeria and the USA. The protagonist, Ifemelu invites the reader to sit with her at a braiding salon in Newark, New Jersey as she prepares to return to Nigeria after ten years in the USA. She chats candidly with the stylists and other customers—mostly Africans and West Indians. They poke fun at the American accent, argue that public education in Africa is better than in the USA, and bemoan the institution of racism.

At home, Ifemelu is an Igbo, a Nigerian, and an African. It’s only when she visits America that she becomes “Black.” Four hundred years of race-related baggage instantly burdens her. She reveals the subtle racial slights and prejudicial mindsets that she never experienced at home. They shape her interactions with whites and African-Americans. In the US, she could be herself only with a foreign student—national origins didn’t matter as long as they hail from somewhere else—Africa, Asia, Europe, or South America.

Ifemelu speaks her mind, earning rebukes and slaps. Her safest soapbox is her anonymous blog on “race, from the Non-American Black” point of view. As a homage to blogging, the novel appears as a series of blog posts. Between her opinion pieces and narrations, she reveals the secrets of her successful and eventually profitable blog.

With seemingly unconnected essays and short stories, the novel follows a loose plot line. Like a hidden electrical wire connecting a string of lights, the blog bulbs glow, but they derive their power from the story cord hiding in the background.

It’s a love story, but it is not necessarily a romance. Passion and tragedy abound. Denied an American visa, Obinze, Ifemelu’s college crush travels instead, to England where he ekes out an existence with the aid of a “rented identity.” He hopes that a sham marriage will allow him to stay. Meanwhile, Ifemelu’s partial scholarship barely covers her tuition. She desperately struggles to pay rent and feed herself in an America where she cannot legally earn money. Isolated and stressed, both Obinze and Ifemelu explore desperate alleyways to survival. Ifemelu’s shame and desolation lead to depression. The reader wonders if Obinze and Ifemelu have jaded too much to find happiness with each other.

The novel compares Nigeria and America, but focuses on Africa’s most populous and wealthy nation. Nigeria’s wealth, controlled by the few, temps the poor and middle class to cash in. Money becomes a religion to those who read books like Praying Your Way to Prosperity. Both the church-going and secular aspirants to wealth use flattery and other enticements to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and powerful.

Americanah introduces Nigerians and American to each other as Nigeria’s star rises. Readers in both nations benefit from Adichie’s articulate if blunt description of how the values and mindsets in each country affect the understanding and appreciation required for fellowship and cooperation.

The Year of the French, by Thomas Flanagan

“Inequality is the root of social evil.”    4:28 AM – 28 Apr 2014

We reel from the impact of violence, persecution, massive migrations and political divisiveness, yet similar tribulations plague humanity over the millennia. History’s lessons unlearned, like demons, repossess the house from which they were driven. If we find ourselves too close to modern conflicts, a visit to another time and place may allow a dispassionate consideration of the root causes of social evils.

The setting: County Mayo, Ireland, 1798, a century and a half after the enactment of Oliver Cromwell’s Penal Laws against Roman Catholics, depriving them of property and citizenship in their own country. “A system more ingeniously contrived, first for the debasement, and then for the continuance of that debasement, of an entire people cannot easily be imagined.”

Flanagan speaks through the voices of characters such as Anglican vicar Arthur Broome who describes his Irish neighbors, “I have myself seen families huddled in the sides of hills where they had hewn out holes, entire families where the small ones cowering and rooting beside the gaunt form of a woman.” He expresses the Malthusian sentiments of the time, “Thus I have heard it proposed by men, no more inhumane than most, that the recurrent famines are Providential, and will in time bring down the population to a proper size.”

Broome identifies the source of the English Protestant attitude toward the Irish and Catholics: “All their lives, from the first stories told them by mothers or nurses or school-fellows, they had been instructed that the Papists were a dark and mutinous race, wedded to violence as though to a witch.” A people steeped in “idolatry and superstition.”

“What business have Papist peasants learning to read and write?” says Captain Cooper, descendent of one of Cromwell’s troopers, a member of a long line of magistrates, who keep the Papists under control, forbid citizenship, ownership of property, the right to participate in government or study law. Over the centuries, Red coated Protestant yeomen are given a free hand to burn, whip and torture until they extract confessions and arrest anyone they suspect of rebellion.

To boost profits from his farm, Cooper turns his acres to livestock grazing, evicting a tenant family with no concern for their survival. The “Whiteboys of Killala”, a militant organization of aggrieved Catholic peasants, nail a letter to his door with the words, “You count your cows in children’s lives.” They promise retaliation against his cattle, escalating a vicious cycle of mutual reprisals.

The long repressed Catholic peasants want the “triumph of the Gael,” the restoration of the Irish nation. It is said, “They didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they hated.”

The United Irishmen, composed of wealthier, better educated Protestants, Catholics and agnostics, share ambitions with the Whiteboys, but work for the creation of a republic in the image of the French Revolution. They plan to rule Ireland in place of the English. The time is ripe for rebellion, especially when the regicidal Directorate of the French Republic promises soldiers and weapons, aiding the Irish and annoying the English.

Flanagan’s narrators represent both the English and Irish points of view. The English are benevolent but firm. Insurrection is a capital offense: high treason. General Cornwallis, of Yorktown fame, expresses interest in Catholic Emancipation. Meanwhile the principal absentee landlord of County Mayo supports abolition of the African slave trade and attempts to better the life of London chimney sweeps. He funds his charities on the backs of his starving Irish tenants.

The Irish narrators reflect the ideals and then the dreadful reality of the conflict. The Catholic Church is largely ignored, although the bishops and most of the priests preach against rebellion and urge loyalty toward King George. The Orangemen’s rhetoric dwells on the exceptions, such as the famous Fr. Murphy, who rouses the Irish peasants, armed with pikes to attack the Redcoats, despite their muskets, bayonets, cavalry and the cannons with their grape and chain shot.

Owen Ruagh MacCarthy, poet, drunkard, wanderer and teacher gleams as the most brilliant thread in Flanagan’s tapestry. From the first sip of the morning jug to the parting glass, Owen steals the show. Well loved, especially by women from Kerry to Mayo, his friends among the poets recite his works in Irish and English. The reader will not forget MacCarthy.

Flanagan weaves some seventy characters, some historical, some fictional, into the texture of this saga of the pre-diaspora Irish. His account of their suffering and survival over hundreds of years sensitizes us to the plight of racial, religious and ethnic groups that share a parallel history of repression and inequality. When we see them today on their trek to freedom, remember that the Irish made a similar journey.

She’s Leaving Home (The Breen and Tozer Mystery Series) Volume 1, by William Shaw

If “a book is a ship that takes you to distant lands,” then the Breen and Tozer series welds together a tour bus, a “Tube” carriage and a time machine. The Anglophile – with online maps and satellite views – becomes an accidental tourist, following the action, riding from one Underground station to the next and peering down on villages along the M4 and A33 as the detectives make their way across southern England. It’s not just a mystery, but a geography lesson, an anthology of Anglo-slang, and a time capsule.

If you’ve missed the 1960s the first time around, here’s a chance to catch a slice of 1968 just as the “generation gap” ripped open. The “gap” rent families, often with disastrous consequences. In England, it separated the older generation and its notion that “Britannia rules the waves,” from the “hippies” who preached, “Britannia waves the rules.” The moral imperative of the former – “Do what you like, but don’t get caught” – their greatest enemy, “scandal,” their ally was “the discrete wink and nod.” The boomers rejected the rules, did what they liked and resented the imposition of censure by the “establishment.” Homicide detectives Breen and Tozer stood on opposite rims of the gap, each with a family disaster affecting his and her world views.

In London, murder happens even around the corner from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, the Beatles’ headquarters and the setting for Breen and Tozer’s first case together. Metropolitan Police Detective Sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen – the girls say he’s a looker, thirty-two, a contemplative loner who hadn’t a clue when it came to women or the Beatles. Temporary Detective Constable Helen Tozer –twenty-two, a farm girl from Devon, one of the original members of the Beatles Fan Club – had the effrontery, as a woman, to transfer into a detective unit. As you can see, they’re a match made in heaven.

Breen and Tozer blend their strengths as they travel to Devon and Essex in pursuit of the identities of murder victims and murderers. Subplots touch on immigration, popular and unpopular wars, urban development and police corruption.

The author masterfully developed his characters, illuminated the social and family lives of the constabulary, and the police interactions with the citizenry. In an effort at authenticity, his characters used sexist, racist, ethnically inflammatory, vulgar and otherwise “politically incorrect” language. He incorporated contemporary events, persons, news, fashion and attitudes of 1968 – a time of contrasts between cosmopolitan London and rural Devon, low-income housing and posh flats, Commonwealth immigrants and nationalistic Londoners.

Readers who lived through the 1960s may feel a twinge of nostalgia. Those who missed out, may recognize how much the 1960s shaped their own generation. The teens of the 60’s are the parents and grandparents of the majority of today’s readers. Maybe it’s time for a family discussion?

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset

The advantage of coming late to the Hunger Games is that you can have all three books available in case you want to binge through the nearly 1,200 pages at one sitting. Don’t you hate when one book leaves you in suspense and you have to wait years for find out what happened next? No problem if you have all three books in a neat box.

My grand daughters did binge through the first book long before I bought the trilogy. I figured, they’re young and have the stamina to stay up all night. By the time I reached page ten of the first volume of The Hunger Games, I was in for the long haul. I did have to sleep for four hours in the middle, but finished the next day. It took me a little longer to get into Catching Fire, but that hooked me for Mockingjay. It seems you never escape The Hunger Games.

Where should you store your boxed trilogy? I’d put my on the shelf between George Orwell’s 1984 and the original Star Wars Trilogy. The Hunger Games keep you involved with the action and rebellion of Star Wars, but leaves you without hope of ever escaping Big Brother in all his forms. Look around you if you think otherwise. Don’t we send our young off to be killed or brain injured for the bread and games of the Capitol. Boxing, football, hockey and other blood sports aren’t that far from The Hunger Games. Kids train on Grand Theft Auto and then go out and shoot up the neighborhood school.  We have a problem. Suzanne Collins brings it into focus with her wonderful writing. Think about its deeper meaning.