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James T. KeaneFebruary 21, 2023
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

With Ash Wednesday looming, Catholics have some choices to make. What will I give up for Lent this year? Is this the year I say “it’s O.K. to cheat on Sundays”? Or is it the year I say it’s O.K. to eat a capybara on Fridays? Or is this the year I claim rather than giving something up, I’m doing something kind for others? Nice try.

There’s another question we hope all our readers are asking: What book will I pick up this Lent? America editors have never been shy about making recommendations on this topic. In the 1950s, our formidably prolific literary editor Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., offered an annual list of suggestions for “spiritual reading that can stir up, strengthen and warm the soul” during Lent. In the years since, various other contributors have also given suggestions on everything from Scripture to novels to devotional reading and more.

Cardinal John O’Connor confessed in 1994 that every Lent he read Fish on Friday, a book of comic essays by Leonard Feeney, S.J.

Mind you: Lenten reading doesn’t necessarily have to be all gloom and doom. Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York from 1984 to 2000, confessed in 1994 that every Lent he read Fish on Friday, a book of comic essays by Leonard Feeney, S.J. (Father Feeney, erstwhile literary editor of America, was later excommunicated, but who am I to judge?) I know another priest for whom Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is a Lenten staple—both the book and the 1981 miniseries (but definitely not the 2008 movie, which would have driven Waugh to drink).

In 2019, we asked our readers what they chose for Lenten reading: Richard Rohr, O.F.M., and the Rev. Henri Nouwen were the most popular, with competition from Rev. William Cleary, John Main, O.S.B., and Laurence Freeman, O.S.B. Some perennial America favorites made the list, including Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, S.J., Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber and Jesus: A Pilgrimage by James Martin, S.J. Autobiographical works like Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and St. Augustine’s Confessions were mentioned, as were philosophical works like Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, though those people were obviously lying.

Father Gardiner’s suggestions from the 1950s tended to err on the more somber side (though he loved Waugh), with a strong focus on the stories of converts to Catholicism (including Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness) and on biographies of Christ. In 1952, he recommended François Mauriac’s Life of Jesus. “It has always struck me as the height of foolishness—to put it no stronger—that, though we believe most profoundly that Christ is the greatest Personality in the whole sweep of history, there are thousands upon thousands of us who have never read a life of Him,” Gardiner wrote. “Most people like to read biographies, we are told, and so they collect the life story of Napoleon, let us say, or Lee, or of Joe DiMaggio or Frank Sinatra—but the life story of Christ? It is eminently fitting, then, that this Lenten list start with a life of Christ, and Mauriac's is excellent.”

In 1982, longtime America contributor Emilie Griffin offered her recommendations, including one perhaps not familiar to many Catholics: Rufus Jones. “Is there room in your Lenten kit-bag for one more mystical writer? Rufus Jones (1863-1948), an American of the Society of Friends, is not well known outside of Quaker circles but has real wisdom to offer to those who are keen on the inner life,” she wrote of Rufus Jones: Essential Writings. “Under such headings as ‘Why I Enroll with the Mystics,’ ‘Everyone a Mystic’ and ‘New Eyes,’ the clear vision of Rufus Jones shows us the riches of silence, simplicity and quiet reflection and prayer.”

"Lent is just the right size. Forty days is enough time to get to know the desert and for most of us too little time to be swallowed by it."

In 2000, the theologian Doris Donnelly suggested four “travelers’ tales” for Lenten reading, recommending Paul Wilkes’s Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, Jim Forest’s The Ladder of the Beatitudes, and Elie Wiesel’s And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs 1969, his “account of wanderings, wrong turns, changes of direction, separations and reunions as he struggled with despair and emerged at the other side of his desert with hope.” Her first recommendation was of a personal favorite of mine, Willa Cather’s classic Death Comes for the Archbishop:

Lent is just the right size. Forty days is enough time to get to know the desert and for most of us too little time to be swallowed by it. Guides are always welcome on the sometimes inconvenient, scary and unpredictable journey to resurrection, and I know of no better way to prepare for the human struggle enclosed in the metaphor of the desert than through Willa Cather’s best-known novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

In 2007, America turned to the theologian Lawrence S. Cunningham for his thoughts, and he delivered a list heavy on Scripture and theology, including Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Prayer and Karl Rahner’s Encounters With Silence. “To overlook the work of professional theologians is to limit the field of spiritual reading considerably,” Cunningham wrote. “There are some theologians writing today who exhibit both scholarly sophistication and deep commitment to the historic Christian faith.” Such an author for him is Bishop N.T. Wright, the prolific Anglican scholar. Cunningham singled out Wright’s Following Jesus, “a beautiful meditative work on Christian discipleship and, as such, an apt work for Lenten reading.”

“I think that what we want in our reading is always a companion to make reading joyous,” Father Gardiner wrote in 1957. “We are perhaps all unwittingly searching in the pages for that human quality that will enable the book to speak to our heart. This is why some of the best friends we have, I surmise, are—in a far deeper sense than any flesh-and-blood friend—those we first met in books we treasure.”

"Some of the best friends we have, I surmise, are—in a far deeper sense than any flesh-and-blood friend—those we first met in books we treasure."

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Holy Thursday,” by Jasmine Marshall Armstrong. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Former Jesuit, failed Senate candidate and Nixon speechwriter: the colorful life of John McLaughlin

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

Joan Didion: A chronicler of modern life’s horrors and consolations

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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