instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, February 29, 2008

Fenelon for today

Winn Collier is a Christian pastor and a devotee of Francois Fenelon, the 17th Century French bishop and writer. He is particularly keen on Fenelon as spiritual guide, a side of the bishop that comes out in letters he wrote to the many young French aristocrats who turned to him for advice.

Collier has selected and paraphrased forty-some of Fenelon's letters in his recent book Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of Francois Fenelon. The letters are arranged in eight "conversations," each of which begins with a brief essay by Collier. The conversations are on these questions:
  • Why is God so peculiar?
  • How do I pursue spiritual maturity?
  • How do I hear God?
  • What do I do when I'm broken down?
  • How do I cultivate a quiet soul?
  • How can I live in community?
  • What do I do when life is dark and bleak?
  • What do I need to change?
These are just the sorts of questions disciples of Christ ask -- although that first one could stand some context. In a letter Collier titles "To a Delightfully Impoverished Friend," Fenelon writes:
God's romance is peculiar, requiring us to go against our instincts. We give everything we are and have to God; we give way to complete poverty. Yet, even as we do what seems foolish, we find God being amazingly generous, filling us back up.
God is "peculiar," then, in the same sort of way it's peculiar to die in order to live.

Fenelon is squarely in the "Abandonment" tradition, best known today, perhaps, from de Caussade's Abandonment to Divine Providence. The letters in Let God constantly sound the theme of dying to self and letting God cut everything sinful out of our lives. "God's stab goes deep," as Fenelon puts it, "and it leaves nothing untouched that needs his knife."

This is good, traditional spiritual direction, expressed in a stern but pastoral tone made more casual and contemporary by Collier's paraphrasing. He occasionally veers away from casual and into trendy -- "Tone down your feverish pace and your uber-activity" may be the worst example -- but most of today's Catholic bishops do, too, I suppose, so those missed notes can be forgiven.

In his framing material, Collier stresses the point that Fenelon is writing, not as a spiritual friend, but as a spiritual guide, and that Christians nowadays greatly need such guidance.

This is true, but I wonder whether, in a sort of subtle irony, Fenelon's guidance itself requires a guide. Consider this, from a letter "To a Weak Christian":
I am asking you to fully abandon yourself to God. I know that we tend to think that humility and weakness somehow interfere with this kind of absolute abandonment to God. We thing of abandonment as a heroic act of epic love that makes stunning, courageous, grand sacrifices to God. It's actually a lot simpler than that. True abandonment just gives itself over, just rests in God's care and love, like a baby in its mothers arms. Here's the tricky thing: true abandonment has to abandon even its abandonment. We have to give up our self-inflated sense of what a big sacrifice we are making. We need to give up on ourselves without even thinking much of it.
As a weak Christian, I think this sounds true and wise. But I can also see all sorts of ways that acting upon this can lead a weak Christian into big trouble. A few sentences later, Fenelon writes:
Abandonment is peaceful. If we are anxious about whatever it is we have abandoned, then we can't really call it abandonment, can we?
Again, true -- but isn't it sure to make people anxious about following the prior advice?

I think the way to read this book -- and I do recommend reading it; I'll probably transcribe some nuggets in a future post -- is as matter for meditation and prayer, rather than as immediate guidance. These are letters, after all, written to specific persons in specific circumstances. Then the fruits of reading can be shared, with a guide if you happen to have one, but at least with friends who can help you integrate Fenelon's wisdom, which is really one stream of the Holy Spirit's wisdom, into your life.

(I don't mean to suggest, by the way, that Collier would disagree with this.)

(I should also mention, by way of full disclosure, that mine is a review copy. So yes, I'm recommending you buy a book that I didn't.)



Saturday, February 23, 2008

Can anything good come from novelizing Nazareth?

It's weird, I think, to see it in black and white:


Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
Interview with the Vampire


When news broke a while back that Anne Rice had re-engaged with the Faith and even written a novel featuring a seven-year-old Jesus as narrator, I thought it was great for Anne Rice but probably not the finest moment for American literature. I'd read some of her vampire books, but The Queen of the Damned was too pagan for my blood. Writing in the voice of the Son of God seemed like a case of trying too hard, and I gave Out of Egypt a miss.

And I would have given the sequel -- Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, to be published on March 4 -- a miss as well, if a review copy hadn't come in the mail during a Lent when I'm only reading books with a religious theme.

It starts on a discouraging note, with the stoning of two young men who spent too much time alone together. Criminy, I thought, is her 1st Century Nazareth going to be just like her 19th Century New Orleans?

And I may have rolled my eyes as Jesus moons over the beautiful young girl who lives across the street. (Not to worry, though; Rice's Jesus knows that the personal problems of a Messiah don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.)

Still, you (by which I mean "I") don't read a novelization of the life of Christ for the plot. You read it to find out what insights, if any, the novelist has into the mystery of the Incarnation.

Rice gives us a thirty-year-old Jesus who knows he's the Son of God, but is somehow able to not know things he knows he could know. He's a bit of a doormat; as he waits for whatever it is that he's waiting for, he's regularly pecked at by those around him who are getting on with their lives. And one old man, one of the scribes who questioned the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, tells him scornfully,
"The world swallowed you.... You left the Temple and the world simply swallowed you. That's what the world does. It swallows everything."
Despite all this, Jesus does at times rouse himself to command those around him. He can speak with authority, but it is vested in the evident wisdom of his words rather than in his own person.

What finally stirs him to action is the news that his cousin John is preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. Jesus announces that he is going to John, and his whole family say they will join him.

From there, we're in familiar territory: the Baptism, the 40-day fast, the temptations, the calling of the first disciples, the miracle at Cana. And here, I think, the book really comes into its own, when Rice can use her Catholic novelist's imagination to flesh out the Gospel stories.

The curing of Simon's mother-in-law is particularly sharp:
I took her hand. She turned and looked at me, annoyed at first that someone would disturb her in this way. Then she sat up.

"Who said that I was sick? Who said that I should be in this bed?" she asked.

And immediately she rose and scurried around the little house, heaping pottage into bowls for us, and clapping her hands for her maidservant to bring us fresh water. "Look at you, how thin you are," she said to me... She glared at her son-in-law. "Did you tell me I was sick?"
Little wonder Simon left everything he had to follow Jesus.

My favorite chapter is the temptation in the desert, in which Satan appears as Jesus would look if he accepted the offer of all the nations on earth in exchange for homage. Jesus quite simply pwns him:
"It is the Lord God who rules," I said, "and He always has. You are nothing, and you have nothing and rule nothing. Not even your minions share with you in your emptiness and in your rage."
That's satisfying, emotionally and theologically, but their whole conversation is well-imagined and believable.

Finally, I have to say Rice does a commendable job with the characters of Mary and Joseph (yes, he's still alive). Call it filial piety, but I'll cut a novelist a lot more slack with what they make of Jesus than of His parents. The Mary and Joseph of The Road to Cana make a good case for devotion to the Mary and Joseph of history.

Which leaves us where?

The Road to Cana is easily the best -- the best written, the most Catholic -- of the handful of novelizations of Jesus's life that I've read. Rice's enthusiasm and talent keep pace with each other, her imagination and her faithfulness to Revelation work together. It may be a little too contemporary to be timeless, but if you can read it, not as an assertion of Gospel truth but as one writer's meditations on the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, you might find it worthwhile.



Friday, February 22, 2008

Felix typo

The Crazy Catholic titles a post "This veil of tears."

God does seem to have veiled some lives with tears. Why, and what will be found beneath the veil, we can't know for sure.



Tuesday, February 19, 2008


In one of his sermons, St. Vincent Ferrer gives what I think is an excellent description of what Lent should be about: that, imitating Christ,
... in the time of the fast we might go to the desert leaving our cities, villages and communities. Understand it this way, that in the holy time we set aside our daily business, problems and conflicts etc.
St. Catherine of Siena spoke of making a cell in your heart, where you are always recollected to the Lord. St. Vincent is sort of getting at the idea of making a desert in your heart.

And he is quite practical about what that means:
The model here is given for all.

First to the religious and clerics. In this holy time it is enough that they are occupied about the hours and the office.

Workers however in this holy time ought to hear Mass and a sermon, if there is preaching in some place, the first thing in the morning and afterwards go about their business, so that they might provide for their children and household.

The wealthy ought to get up in the morning for worship. They should hear a high Mass and a sermon, and afterwards pray the psalms after Mass, praying up to lunchtime. Those rich people who don't know the psalms, after Mass, should visit churches, monasteries and hospitals for praying, where often there are many indulgences. After lunch then they can take a nap. Finally, they should go to Compline, and afterwards say Vespers or the seven penitential psalms or the Our Father, etc.

This is how someone goes out to the desert.
Not too onerous, is it? Make prayer your priority, which means setting aside your daily business while you pray -- but it doesn't mean abandoning your business if that is how you support your family.

"We set aside our daily business, problems and conflicts." Put that way, Lent sounds like a vacation. And if we did what St. Vincent recommends, how much of our business, problems, and conflicts would we feel a need to pick up again?


Monday, February 18, 2008

In commemoration

God of eternal beauty, you inspired Fra Angelico as an artist at the service of your truth.

May we delight in the beauty of his work and rejoice in the glory of your creation.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.



Sunday, February 17, 2008

What we don't know

The Transfiguration is how man would imagine God-made-man if man could imagine such a thing.

"Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
For Jesus' face to shine like the sun, for His clothes to become white as light, isn't to tell anybody anything they don't already know about His Father.

But this is:


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Not if, but when

I like the way St. Vincent Ferrer takes something familiar --
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face....
-- and puts it in a new light simply by paying attention to the words:
In this Christ shows us three necessary things, which we should be busy about at this time [of Lent]....

First is penitential affliction (afflictio penitentialis), where, "When you fast."

Second, spiritual prayer (oratio spiritualis), where "Anoint your head."

Third is sacramental confession (confessio sacramentalis), where, "Wash your face."
Now, you may or may not buy St. Vincent's take that the spiritual sense of "wash you face" is "go to Confession." But it's hard to deny that going to Confession is something we should be busy about at this time. And I'd also say that getting "go to Confession" out of "wash your face" surely beats getting "wash your face" out of it, since most of us wash our faces regardless.

And on the matter of taking that phrase literally, St. Vincent says this:
O who washes the face of his body only once a year? How much dirt and grime would it have!
By playing with the literal sense, he makes ridiculous (maybe even repugnant) the idea of going to Confession only once a year. Without that spiritual sense as a guide, though, who would spend much time thinking about this phrase at all. (Other than the annual wearing-ashes-at-work-on-Ash-Wednesday scrap, I mean.)

But what particularly stands out for me in St. Vincent's slow reading of Matthew 6:17 is the word "when. "When you fast."

St. Vincent lived at a time when the Roman Catholic Church required "eating only once in the day, not meat, but Lenten food," from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, excluding Sundays. That's not "giving something up," that's honest to goodness fasting!

Granted, fasting wasn't required of pregnant or nursing women, the sick, the poor, those journeying on foot, manual laborers, children under 21, or the aged. But the value of fasting, the unique ability of this physical discipline to affect the spiritual life, was recognized and preached to everyone.

The question for the Christian isn't whether you fast, but when.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Three syllables, sounds like...

In a comment elsewhere, I wrote that the question, "Is he sound?", as might be asked of someone invited to speak at a parish event, was "un-Dominican and puffed up with pride" enough to make Dominicans hesitate and qualify in answering it.

A couple of people responded that, it being undeniable that unsound speakers are invited to parish events all the time, it's a perfectly reasonable question. Possibly even necessary.

Let me argue the point this way:

The question, "Is he sound?", touches on a speaker's good name and reputation. You cannot damage someone's good name and reputation without good cause; the graver the damage, the greater the cause needed. (Injuring someone's good name with lies is called "calumny," unjustly injuring it with the truth is called "detraction.")

If, then, you're favorably disposed toward the speaker, you can answer, "Yes," freely and without hesitation, without risk of committing detraction or calumny.

If, though, you're unfavorably disposed toward him, then before you say, "No, he is not sound," you'd better make sure he's not sound. And unless you're perfect, your subjective disposition toward another is not an infallible indicator of his objective soundness. Hence, hesitation -- which need not be taken as a non-vocal cue that the speaker is bad news, and that the one hesitating is merely searching for anodyne words to indicate as much without saying as much.

More fundamentally, I think the question, "Is he sound?" is ill-posed. It implies both that there is a quality, "soundness," which someone either does or does not possess, and that the one answering the question can make an objective determination of the soundness of the speaker. The first implication is un-Dominican; the second implication goes quite well with pride.

The idea of a "sound/unsound" binary state is un-Dominican in two ways. First, it is very Dominican to accept truth wherever it is found ("Every truth by whomsoever spoken is from the Holy Ghost as bestowing the natural light, and moving us to understand and speak the truth....*"), so to the extent that "He is unsound" implies he is completely unsound, that there is no truth in him he does not pervert, it's an extremely strong statement. Second, and sort of contrapositively, it is very Dominican to recognize the limits of each one's own knowledge and the failures of each one's own wisdom, and so to say "He is sound" implying he is completely sound is unlikely to be true of anyone who does any more than read Scripture aloud (and even that could be misleading).

Of course, "Is he sound?" need not be asked in the context of a cautiously argued scholastic dialog. Many people who ask it probably just want to know whether it's
worth the time and effort to go listen to the speaker. I think, though, that it is also asked by people who want to know whether they should be happy or angry that the speaker is coming to their parish, and here is where pride comes in.

I will shock no one by stating that there are groups of people within the Catholic Church that regard other groups as their opponents. (Nothing new here, of course.) For many people in such groups, their opponents don't merely have different opinions. Their opponents are wrong, they are heterodox, they are heretics, they aren't real Catholics, they are far from Christ, the Holy Spirit does not dwell in them.

In this context, "Is he sound?" means, "Is he one of Us?," or at least, "He's not one of Them, right?" Where Us are the noble guardians of the One True Faith (or possibly Us are the singers of the New Church, filled with the Spirit), and Them are Satan's fifth column in the Church (or possibly fearful, close-minded, backward-thinking fundamentalist theocrats). And the answer is sought, not so much to decide what to do Wednesday evening, but to decide whether to start picking up brickbats. To answer such a question is to endorse division in the Church, to claim not only the mantle of True Catholic, but the right to judge whether others are under that same mantle.

*. The sentence continues: "... but not as dwelling in us by sanctifying grace, or as bestowing any habitual gift superadded to nature." St. Thomas is arguing that we can know certain things without special graces, against the objection that we can know a thing only by the Holy Spirit, Who dwells in us by grace.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

The rest of the story

Regrettably, one thing I didn't learn reading The Greatest Gift is what to make of what the subtitle calls Sr. Dorothy Stang's "courageous life and martyrdom."

To know what to make of someone's life and death, I need to know what they lived and died for. When the person is a vowed religious, and especially when they're called a martyr, I want to know to what extent they lived and died for Christ.

Unfortunately, Binka Le Breton isn't really capable of telling me these things. She approaches the Catholic themes of Sr. Dorothy's life as an outsider, and she makes the same sort of howlers I'd commit if I wrote a book about a Navajo shaman.

This may be one reason the chapter on Sr. Dorothy's childhood is the weakest of the book. It comprises stories told by some of her surviving brothers and sisters, with particular emphasis on the odd Catholic customs of the day. (For instance, "The communion wafers are considered to be the bread of angels, and if the consecrated host becomes stuck to the palate, under no circumstances can an unconsecrated finger be used to dislodge it.")

Le Breton goes on to write:
The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII from 1962 to 1965 to enable the Roman Catholic Church to redefine its priorities. Vatican II, as it was known, formalized a movement that had been slowly growing as some members of the church began to reevaluate their whole way of being and living as followers of Christ. [It was k]nown as liberation thelogy....
I'm no Church historian, but this strikes me as a most peculiar reading of Vatican II, possible only to someone who has no real knowledge of the Council.

Things get worse in the chapter on creation spirituality, in which we read of "the rigid teaching of the traditional Roman Catholic hierarchy, with its repression of the female," and of how, "as the hierarchy developed, early churchmen" taught that
women were sinful and must live in subordination to men. Those who had the temerity to cling to old ways -- for example, using their traditional knowledge of healing plants -- were branded as witches and burned at the stake. Any form of dissent was rigidly punished by the Inquisition, and centuries later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the office of the Inquisition (renamed Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith), in the person of Cardinal Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- continued to silence priests who espoused any form of theology that differed from the Vatican party line.
Such guff suffices for Le Breton's purposes, which is to show Sr. Dorothy as a martyr for the poor farmers (and, to some extent, for the environment). In her introduction, she writes, "like Dorothy, I believe that God is good," and that seems to satisfy her curiosity about her subject's spiritual life.

I wonder, though, whether the guff originated in Le Breton's own ignorance, or whether it accurately represents what she was told. Does it accurately represent what Sr. Dorothy thought, and if so how deeply held was it? It's impossible to tell from this book, and of course the author seems altogether unaware of the possibility of such questions.

Me, I'm old fashioned. Land reform and sustainable development are all well and good, but Christ commissioned His Church to make disciples, not responsible landowners. And as part of that commission, we're supposed to make saints of ourselves.

Bishop Erwin Krautzer of Altamira, in whose diocese of Sr. Dorothy lived from 1982 until her death, is quoted as saying:
"It's funny, really -- people talk as if she was a saint. She was no saint. She could be very difficult, you know. Stubborn as a mule."
I thought that was kind of odd, because stubbornness and heroic virtue are not mutually incompatible. But later another priest, Padre Nello, says:
"But of course she could be very trying. As far as Dorothy was concerned, the sun rose and set around her people. Anyone who came anywhere near got roped in to help. It was all Dorothy's people, Dorothy's people. You'd think that nobody else counted."
It's not hard to imagine that heroic sanctity, even if it were present, could pass unsuspected by those whose interests were only partially aligned with someone like that.

What it comes down to, I suppose, is that I first heard of Sr. Dorothy Stang's death, and have just now read a biography of her life, only because she was a religious sister (with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur). None of the nearly eight hundred other murders for land-related reasons in that part of Brazil over the past thirty years has caught my attention. So unless her murder is just being used for publicity, her Christian faith can't be incidental to her story, and Christ can't be incidental to her Christian faith. Yet He is incidental to this biography.

But not altogether absent. I will let Sr. Dorothy have the last word, perhaps the most encouraging and valuable word in the entire book:
Nelda, the Brazilian sister who was with her during her last days, once asked Dorothy how she prayed. Dorothy smiled at her. "Nelda," she said, "I light a candle and I look at Jesus carrying his cross and I ask for the strength to carry the suffering of the people."


In extremis

I did not want to read The Greatest Gift: The Courageous Life and Martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang, by Binka Le Breton. I figured any story about struggles for justice in the Brazilian rainforest was bound to be depressing, and I knew this one culminated with Sr. Dorothy's cold-blooded murder on a muddy road in the Amazon. (She was murdered three years ago this Tuesday, on February 12, 2005.)

But when a review copy showed up in the mail, I somehow felt I owed it to her memory, and to the poor people for whom she lived and died, to listen to her story. Having read the book, I think I've learned a few things.

For one thing, I've learned a little about the history, politics, economics, and ecology of the Brazilian Amazon, and what I've learned confirms my prior impression that they're all badly messed up. Le Breton is herself the director of the Iracambi Research Center, dedicated to conserving the Atlantic Rainforest, and seems more confident in telling the story once Sr. Dorothy arrives in the jungle frontier.

More importantly, I think I've learned a little about the appeal liberation theology in the 1960s, and even Creation Spirituality in the 1990s, had for the North American-born missionaries in Latin America.

In a society with too few priests and religious, what choice is there but to form groups of layfolk -- call them "base communities" -- to confirm their brothers and sisters in the Faith? And if this society is class-based, with the lowest class having essentially no rights or power, how can merely teaching the lowest class that they are each beloved of God not come off sounding, to those in the upper classes, close enough to communism as makes no difference?

My guess is that, when you're trying to preach the Gospel to people who have next to nothing, without drawing the ire of a military dictatorship, the theological distinctions drawn, for example, in the Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation' are not your real concern. Your real concern is getting a stove for the family that came to you this morning in need; whoever helps you do that is your friend, whoever hinders you is your opponent.

Similarly for Creation Spirituality. The sandy soil of the Amazon is great for rainforests, but lousy for slash-and-burn agriculture. If you're in a society that treats nature as something to be consumed without regard for tomorrow, then even someone as nutty as Matthew Fox will say things about man's relationship to creation that sound wise and profound (as happened to Sr. Dorothy when she attended a Creation Spirituality workshop in California in the early 1990s).

If you're in a society in which women are often literally ignored, then even a radical Western feminism will be welcome as a correction. The counter-correction against feminist excesses is a luxury best left to journals and to theologians who can do their jobs without risk of contracting malaria.

Now let me get very speculative: If being a missionary in Latin America over the last forty years is a radicalizing experience, that experience has in turn fed the radicalization of religious life in the United States. The missionary sisters are the ones who go into hiding from death squads, the ones who have to make a handful of beans feed two people for three days, the ones who literally build new churches.

What I think should happen is that their congregational sisters who stay in the U.S., who don't have these extreme experiences, should give balance to their lives, add a conservative tension to the radicalizing pressure of the missionary field.

Instead (due to envy? solidarity? a coincident change in U.S. culture?), the stay-at-home sisters went just as radical as the missionaries. As a result, we have whole religious congregations who speak of the United States in 2008 as though it were Brazil in 1968.

And since, whatever its actual faults, the United States in 2008 doesn't have a military dictatorship that routinely rounds up troublemakers, these congregations are free to continue to become more and more radicalized without interference. This, in turn, drives a wedge between them and other parts of the Church, and we find ourselves (not, of course, only due to what U.S.-based religious sisters did or didn't do since 1960) in a position where some Catholics actually sneer at the idea that "peace and justice" is a concern of Christians, while others actually sneer at the idea that "personal morality" is also a concern.



Thursday, February 07, 2008

Putting the pen back in "penance"

St. Vincent Ferrer, OP, called himself the Angel of the Apocalypse and spent twenty years as a wandering preacher, going everywhere from Ireland to Italy, sometimes visiting areas that hadn't seen a Catholic priest in thirty years. Crowds of thousands would follow him from town to town.

You can get an idea of what those crowds heard here, where Fr. Albert Judy, OP, of the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great -- and, appropriately enough, pastoral vicar of St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in River Forest, Illinois -- is posting English translations of St. Vincent's sermons. To date, there are sermons for Ash Wednesday and the first three Sundays of Lent.

Feel free to print them out and give them to your own pastor, so he knows what you expect of him.


It's the most Pelagian time of the year
There'll be harsh fasting stories
And tales of the glories of
Penances long, long ago
Come to think of it, even asking, "What are you doing for God?" can feed an overemphasis on what you do.

Maybe the question should be, "What are you not doing this Lent, so that God can do something with you?"


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

You are a people sacred to the Lord your God

As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this day holy by our self-denial.
-- Roman Breviary, Ash Wednesday Morning Prayer
Our self-denial doesn't make us holy. It creates room for God, the All-Holy.

Sometimes, maybe, we reverse the means and ends of the discipline of Lent. We ask, "What are you doing for Lent?," when the real question should be, "What are you doing, during Lent, for God?"


Monday, February 04, 2008

On judging a book by its cover

I was excited to receive a review copy of Thomas J. Craughwell's Lent and Easter with Mary. Who better, after all, to walk with in following Jesus through His sorrows and into His glory?

The book, though, was altogether different from the series of meditative essays on the Marian dimensions of the Gospel I was expecting. Instead, it is a collection of ninety-six brief vignettes (two or three pages each) in the life of the Church, in which Mary figures more or less prominently.

On reflection, I shouldn't have been surprised, given Craughwell's earlier and delightful Saints Behaving Badly, which also gives an episodic view of the Church through the lives of the saints.

In Lent and Easter with Mary, Craughwell uses a wide range of source material: lives of the saints (e.g., St. Catherine of Bologna and St. Thomas More), Marian devotions (Ireland's Industrial Rosary Crusade, St. Louis de Montfort's total consecration to Mary), famous non-canonized Catholics with devotions to Mary (Palestrina, Knute Rockne), shrines (Our Lady of Altagracia, Our Lady of Guadalupe of Estremadura), Marian titles (Our Lady of the Thorn, Our Lady of Africa), Marian apparitions (Lourdes, Banneux), miracles attributed to Mary (a rescue of three merchants in 1212, conversion of a bandit in 1040), and more (the wedding at Cana, the revival of Mary Gardens).

What I like best are the brief prayers that accompany each day's sketch. Some are from Scripture, others from the Liturgy or various litanies from East and West or from the writings of the saints. Ash Wednesday, for example, has the Sum Tuum Praesidium, perhaps the oldest known Marian invocation. Holy Saturday has this novena prayer, attributed to Bl. Junipero Serra:
Most holy and immaculate Mary, since Almighty God has preserved you from all stain of sin in order that you might be a worthy Mother for your only Son, who took on human flesh and became man in your womb, I beseech you, most pure and blessed of all women, to obtain for me complete pardon for all my sins so that I may merit in this life the eternity which I seek. This I ask through your Son who lives and reigns through all ages, world without end. Amen.
These prayers, poems, and passages add a meditative depth to Craughwell's light and conversational tone in telling his stories.

Generally speaking, I don't like page-a-day books, laid out to be read bit by bit according to a fixed calendar. I've got enough daily obligations without my reading material adding to the list. Despite its layout, with each selection appearing under a liturgical (e.g., "Third Sunday of Lent") or an ordinal ("Day Nineteen [of Easter]") heading, Lent and Easter with Mary doesn't read like an imposition, for two reasons.

First, the stories are brief and engaging enough to read several at one go, so it's hard to fall behind and easy to catch up. (So don't feel like you have to wait till next year if you don't have a copy in hand by tomorrow.)

Second, for the most part the sketches aren't tied to any particular moment in the liturgical calendar. Yes, a story about Pope St. Sixtus III appears under "Day Six" of Easter, which this year coincides with St. Sixtus's feast. But the story will lose nothing next year, when the Sixth Day of Easter is Pope St. Anicetus Day. (The entries for the Triduum, the Ascension, and Pentecost are exceptions, being more explicitly about what we commemorate on those days.)

The "Lent and Easter" angle, then, is more of a structure upon which to hang these eight dozen vignettes than an underlying and unifying theme of the book. As with Saints Behaving Badly, Craughwell here gives us the building blocks from which we can construct our own take on Christian life. With the former book, the topic was the relationship between fallen human nature and sanctity; with Lent and Easter with Mary, it's the relationship between the Church and her Mother.