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city-of-god2As Ash Wednesday approaches (it will fall on February 10th this year), I am re-reading City of God: Faith in the Streets by Sara Miles, and I expect this will become a pre-Lent tradition for me. Somehow, Sara Miles wrote the words that were on my heart and helped me to better understand why I love Ash Wednesday so very much. Even in years when I had decided adamantly that I was done with church, I felt drawn to attend Ash Wednesday services. In the past few years, when church has become important to me, the litany of confession has brought me happy tears. Why? What happens in this observance?

Ash Wednesday is about repentance. Not about  guilt, or about saying sorry, but about changing. “Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own.” It is about changing in a way that brings us closer to other human beings, and closer to God, and leaving behind—fasting from—that which separates us from others and from God. This kind of change affirms that life is short and the time to love is now. This, for me, is powerful and energizing.

We spend a lot of time and effort trying to get things figured out (or, at least, trying to appear that we have everything figured out). And then on Ash Wednesday there is this slap of truth: ashes to ashes. Some people might think receiving ashes, hearing “you are dust and to dust you shall return” is a morbid ritual. Yet my experience has been that it is absolutely liberating. We are mortal. Somehow the ceremonial acknowledgement of this reality is refreshing. Where I live, in the U.S., so much of the culture is focused on a false sense of immortality: buy this and everything will be fine; you will be happy and you’ll live forever! (Not in those exact words, perhaps, but that really is the gist of all marketing.)

And it’s not true. Our time is limited and precious and, too often, we squander it. Ash Wednesday is a precious gift of reminder. In the words of Will Hocker, friend of Sara Miles and chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital, Ash Wednesday is a chance “to bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” We are not in charge of life and death, and that is ok. The truth can be scary, but the truth also can be a blessing. It can be freeing to lay down the burden of impossible control.

Throughout City of God, as Sara Miles walks her neighborhood and shares ashes, readers can see the importance of community, of gathering, of collective acts that demonstrate we all are sharing this journey. We must support one another with any small mercy we can offer.

Last year I posted a review of City of God, which highlights some other elements of this energizing, reflective book.

Disclaimer: This review is freely given, based on my own copy of the book. No fee was received.

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Pope's HomiliesImagine being invited to join Pope Francis at his home in St. Martha’s guest house at the Vatican. In the morning you would have the opportunity to be inspired by his homily, grounding your day in a foundation of faith. With Morning Homilies, Orbis Books gives readers a glimpse of the vision of Pope Francis, shared over the course of the first five months of his papacy. The homilies originally appeared in L’Osservatore Romano and are translated from Italian into English by Dinah Livingstone. These brief readings open a window to receive the teachings of Pope Francis, and provide an excellent resource for meditation and reflection.

Pope Francis has inspired many, both inside and outside the Catholic tradition, with his visible commitment to living the message of the Gospel. He does not merely preach, but sets a public example in alignment with his words. Within these pages readers will encounter themes that Pope Francis has raised on many occasions: the call for the church to serve the marginalized; the need for being a people of hospitality and forgiveness; the importance of humility and courage. The words of Pope Francis often deliver a necessary challenge, as he calls the church away from hypocrisy and idolatry and toward the teachings of Jesus.

A second volume, Morning Homilies II, includes the homilies presented from September 2013 to January 2014. With this additional publication readers can continue to benefit from the Pope’s intimate morning lessons, following along from home throughout the liturgical year.

Readers will be glad to have these volumes on hand, to turn to the Pope’s inspiring words whenever uplift or encouragement is needed.

Disclaimer: A review copy of Morning Homilies was provided by the publisher. No fee was received.

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The latest release from Joan Chittister, OSB, is Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the contradictions of life. In this book Sister Joan gives an experienced, philosophical voice to the hurdles facing spiritual seekers, and helps “to take the sense of aloneness out of life.”

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania, Sister Joan is a prolific writer and a vocal advocate of peace and social justice. She has written extensively on the topic of equality for women and the role of women in religious life. Sister Joan, with sharp intellect and deep faith in human goodness, questions all assumptions. She seems to learn from every encounter with life, and with teachers of wisdom from all traditions. In her writings, she confidently asserts our common humanity and shared conditions of pain and grace. In Between the Dark and the Daylight, readers benefit from her honesty and boldness, as when, for example, Sister Joan writes about the ways we protect our hearts with a smile, until night comes and we have to face our inner turmoil. Her voice encourages readers to listen inward and grow, for “without that, we are not yet fully alive.”

In an interview with Maureen Fiedler of Interfaith Voices, Sister Joan spoke about her intentions in writing this book. She said, “We have to focus on the attitudes we bring to every challenge in life. We have to ask whether or not we have examined each of them thoroughly or only with prejudice….By admitting our fears and prejudices to ourselves we make room for other ways of thinking. Then we no longer get up in the morning geared for battle.”

In one moving chapter, Sister Joan writes about loss and the ways in which loss can open the way for new life. “Loss frees us to begin again, to be seen differently, to tap into something inside of ourselves that even we were never really sure was there.” Examining one’s perspective on loss can be liberating, as a fresh view gives wounds permission to heal.

Sister Joan lifts up a Benedictine teaching, that we are “to come to see the beauty and glory of God everywhere,” and shares plentiful ways in which to do this. I recommend Between the Dark and the Daylight, and all of Sister Joan’s writings, as companions for the journey.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by Blogging for Books for this review. No fee was received.

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“Even when one sees something ugly in another person, one should give heart to the fact that there, too, dwells the name of the Blessed One, for there is no place empty of God.” —Rabbi Jacob Joseph Katz
I strongly recommend From Enemy to Friend: Jewish wisdom and the pursuit of peace to all readers interested in interreligious dialogue and peacemaking. In this book Rabbi Amy Eilberg has done a compelling job presenting personal stories, classical Jewish texts, and peace and conflict theory to bring readers a powerful vision to guide our everyday lives as peacebuilders. There is inspiration for all who feel that “peace is not a utopian ideal, but a daily need.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the rich peace tradition in Jewish texts, Rabbi Eilberg shares that “the command repeated more frequently than any other in the Torah — 36 times, in fact — is the command to love, to reach out to, and do justice to the stranger.” She offers rigorous yet accessible engagement with Jewish texts, highlighting the many ways that peacemaking forms a central component of Jewish teachings.

Rabbi Eilberg illustrates that peacemaking is not merely a set of tools or techniques, but a way of being in daily life. As peacemakers, we must begin with transforming our own hearts, and extend our efforts into the world of our neighbors. With regular practice, we can learn to “unclench our fists, minds, and hearts when we feel wounded,” and live into the truth that “all human beings, even those who have hurt and threatened us, are human creatures like ourselves, worthy of the same respect and dignity we demand for ourselves.”

When the fear and hate that are revealed in the news become overwhelming, we can remember that many ordinary people hold peacemaking as the central value. For example, I learned of the exciting work of Clergy Beyond Borders, essential for building understanding in a pluralistic society. In another example of peacemaking lived, Rabbi Eilberg writes about the intentional community Oasis of Peace/Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, where Jewish and Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel live together. Across our religious traditions we need guidance and inspiration, to learn to lay aside our fears and suspicions of difference that often get in the way of building relationships.

Readers will find that From Enemy to Friend offers inspiration, deepened understanding, and rich material for reflection. In a world that is hungry for peace, Rabbi Eilberg’s inspiring and helpful work deserves a wide audience.

Disclaimer: A copy of his book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.

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Part of the Modern Spiritual Masters series, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings is a collection of work from the prolific Benedictine author, scholar, and activist. Whether you are familiar with Sister Joan’s writings or are meeting her for the first time, this is a book that will inspire you.

Sister Joan has a voice that is both practical and philosophical, uplifting and challenging. I have re-read “Why I Stay” no fewer than a dozen times, engaging in dialogue with Sister Joan’s words as I reflect on my own experience of frustration with the church. Like much of Sister Joan’s prophetic writing, this piece is a rousing call to work for justice and equality for women. Other favorite pieces examine elements of Benedictine life, such as hospitality, mercy, and forgiveness.

The collection is edited by Mary Lou Kownacki, who serves with Sister Joan and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Mary Hembrow Snyder, director of the Center for Mercy and Catholic Studies at Mercyhurst University. With more than sixty short selections, as well as a biographical introduction, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings provides much food for reflection.

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Sister Joan on Super Soul Sunday. You can watch the complete interview through Oprah’s website here.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.

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We move through our days, many of us, with eyes on to-do lists, blissfully unaware that this moment, this very moment, could be our last. Yet, through the eyes of author Sara Miles, I have been reminded that it is profound and precious gift to remember our mortality. In City of God: Faith in the streets, we follow the author on Ash Wednesday, as she distributes ashes in a busy neighborhood of the Mission in San Francisco. For many Christians, Ash Wednesday gives us a chance, in the words of Episcopal priest Will Hocker, “to bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” This can be a freeing gift, and it reminds us of the most basic thing we have in common with one another: regardless of where you are from, what you look like, who you love, which religion you practice, you were born into a mortal body, and one day you will die. We all will. To acknowledge this is to notice the preciousness of our being here, now, together.

For the church, Ash Wednesday presents an opportunity to focus on repentance. In the words of Sara Miles, “Repentance requires paying attention to others, and learning to love, even a little bit, what God loves so much: the whole screwed-up world, this holy city, the people God created to be his own.” The city here means the author’s home in particular, but also every place any of us calls home; the people God created means all of us. We have an opportunity to leave indifference behind, and instead to turn to one another with love and compassion.

The day in the Mission is about being with other people and witnessing what God already is doing in the lives of others, through the bodies of others. As Sara Miles and her companions set out to meet others where they are, they experience God alive in everyone. There is an opportunity to connect with strangers, to share in the truth of our mortality as the words are whispered: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We can go and do likewise. We can bless the places we live by paying attention to one another, by turning the excessive love that God has shown us into excessive love for our neighbors. The blessing is not merely within churches, but “has been set loose.” It is where we are, where we meet one another in love and tenderness.

The pages of this book are full of fierce joy and honest questioning. I particularly recommend City of God as a beautiful read prior to Lent. However, the book has a very special perspective that will be appreciated readers who are not religious as well.

This year Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, will be observed on February 18 in many denominations.

Disclaimer: No fee was received for this review. Review is written based on a personal copy of the book.

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