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As the new church year approaches, with the first Sunday of Advent on November 30, many seek inspiring resources for the coming season. A recommended companion to the lectionary is A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the readings for Year B, published by Orbis Books. The stories from Maryknoll missioners draw upon a way of living in alignment with the teachings of Jesus. Missioners work among those who suffer material poverty and marginalization, learning to love each person as an equal, a potential teacher, and a beloved of God. With this book at hand, readers have many opportunities to remember the call to center our lives on service to others.

The stories remind us to be “open to truth appearing in unlikely places,” and a common theme is that people who are living in material poverty, in ongoing crisis, can open our eyes to the work of God in our midst. We are called to embody God’s love for others, and also to see God in each of our fellow humans.

The poverty and injustice in our world can be very discouraging, and it helps immensely to read witness from people who are working for positive change. Throughout this past year I have received spiritual refreshment and inspiration from Maryknoll’s book for year A, and I look forward to the daily reading of stories in this new volume. As the writer for the first Sunday of Advent asks, “As we pass through our own kind of unending Advent of widespread unemployment and unprecedented economic inequality, are we prepared to see hope and the Spirit’s truth in people and places where we have never looked before?”

Prepare your heart to receive the scripture in newness, and to have your faith refreshed by the testimonies of these Maryknoll missioners.

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

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Reading scripture with Maryknoll is an invitation to engage in the gospel call to peace and justice-making throughout the year. Readers hungry for an inspiring and practical peacemaking message will be glad for the efforts of editors Judy Coode and Kathy McNeely, who have produced an excellent resource, A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the readings for year A.

The Maryknoll Society consists of Catholic sisters, brothers, and lay missioners who feel called to live alongside the poor whom they serve. Through their work and their lifestyle, Maryknoll missioners seek to live out the call of Jesus to serve those in need. This collection of stories and reflections, each three to five pages in length, will be an inspiring guide to opening the scriptures. Each writer extends an invitation to delve into the week’s text (cited briefly at the beginning of the selection) and to make connections to the needs of the world.

One writer, based in Nicaragua, describes the celebration of the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In the midst of poverty, Mary’s story brings great joy. The author asks, how do we respond to God’s call with whole-hearted surrender as Mary responded? Can we envision the joy as well as the struggles of our fellow humans, accompanying one another, at least in spirit?

In this book, we read the stories of community health workers in Brazil alongside the healing narratives of Jesus; stories of Abraham seeking a homeland, alongside the struggling pastoralists of Kenya; the parables of Jesus heard in a farming community of Peru. Amidst this diversity, our shared humanity shines clear, and the need to listen to one another becomes compelling.

For me, the entire book reads as a prayer for a heart open to God’s guidance, and for strength to follow teachings of love, even when—perhaps especially when—those teachings veer from the mainstream. May we see with our hearts that we all are made by the same one creator, that there is no god but God, that any idols that stand as walls between us must be removed.

The new church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, December 1. I encourage you to obtain a copy of this book to bless your new year with inspiration.

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

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Julie L. Paavola, mother and spiritual director, opens her new book with a beautiful description of the work given to mothers: “It is a mother’s work to honor the sacredness of the earth and of each new life given by God, and to keep believing in the goodness of creation for the sake of generations to come.” In The Mother’s Calling: Love in the heart of the world (Paulist Press, 2011), Paavola offers an inspirational discussion of mothering as a spiritual discipline.

Becoming a mother intensely deepened my spiritual life.  I stood before my daughter in amazement, and I felt a connection across time to the generations of mothers who have lived before me, trying to do right by their children. I was startled by the miracle of new life, and awed to have been such an intimate part of bringing new life into the world.

When a mother keeps her connection to this sense of awe, it has the potential to draw her closer to God. A mother knows that only through her Creator did her child come into this world, and that the love of her Creator also is the source of the mother’s love. This awareness can be a powerful aid when the daily tasks of mothering feel heavy. Paavola writes, “Our daily limitations and failures may sometimes make us feel powerless, but by our attention and love for the person right in front of us, we are put in immediate contact with the grace of the kingdom of God.”

I appreciated that Paavola emphasized the countercultural need to emphasize family and nurturing, in contrast to materialism. We strive to imitate God’s love when we offer our loving presence to our children. Acquiring material comforts, attending the latest classes, or pursuing perfect grades–these have nothing to do with it. We have to slow down in order to pay attention to our families and to God.  We must trust that God has equipped us for our  vocation, rather than worrying that we must “try harder” to keep up with an external, materialist standard.

Each of the seven chapters closes with a section called “Encounter and Practice,” which offers exercises for exploring themes from the chapter and applying them to one’s own life.

I found that Paavola’s voice was strongest when she focused on how God equips us for living out our calling, and when she encourages the reader to answer that summons with steadfast faith.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta famously remarked that if we want world peace we should go home and love our families. This is precisely what God has called mothers to do. Paavola reminds us that, by nourishing our spiritual life, we can live out this remarkable calling.

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Karen Armstrong is a gifted and inspiring scholar.  In this volume she details the process by which the editors of the Bible fixed the canon, and the many layers of discussion and debate this required. Armstrong describes the key early developments in the Jewish faith and identifies central figures for Torah study. The book covers an immense amount of history, from recording the books of the prophets to the fundamentalist movements that arose in the modern period. Though she covers a broad scope of history, Armstrong’s focus remains clear throughout.

The book opens in 597 BCE and describes the historical events experienced by the Hebrew people during this time, and the process through which their religious practice was developing. Armstrong describes how reading the scriptures came to be a way to be in the presence of God—an alternative to prayer in the temple. The Jesus movement is set in this historical context, as well as the Pharisaic revival that took place about 50 years after the death of Jesus. Most importantly, Armstrong highlights the many ways that rabbis and the leaders of the early Christian church interpreted and applied religious texts, and the implications of these varied viewpoints.

The first century rabbi Hillel famously observed, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go and study it.” (p. 82) In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo came to a similar conclusion: “Whoever thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.” (p. 124) These examples highlight the centrality of compassion in the practice of religion.

The renaissance brought the development of many religious orders, and within these orders traditions of scriptural interpretation developed. Meanwhile, the kabbalist mystical movement of Judaism flourished. There was lively discussion of whether the allegorical, mystical, literal, or historical sense of scripture offered more richness. Armstrong brings the read through the Protestant reformation, with Martin Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone,” through the rationalist-humanist movements of the 17th century, to the modernist pull between poles of secularists and fundamentalists. Through this discussion, the reader gains a clear sense of the Bible’s roots and of its life in an ever-changing environment. It becomes abundantly clear that for each pull toward the literal, a mystical response will emerge, as an impulse toward balance.

The glossary of key terms provides a helpful reference for Hebrew, Greek, and philosophical vocabulary. The footnotes give the interested reader a map for further study, and the index of biblical citations appears thorough.

Armstrong concludes by noting the critical importance of emphasizing compassion in our religious traditions. Sadly, it is easy for someone to pick up a book of scripture and use the words for ill.  People of faith have a responsibility to educate themselves, and to practice loving our neighbor in an expansive way.

This book is part of the Books That Changed the World Series, published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007. I reviewed a copy from my public library.

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