By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Dr. Suess, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut
Tomorrow is Dr. Suess’ birthday, and for some Christians, Lent begins today. For others it began on Monday, and some of us have already been fasting for a week and a half. A time dedicated to fasting and prayer and in preparation for Holy Week, many of us choose spiritual books to help us along that path. As Dr. Suess wisely points out, “the more that you learn, the more places you’ll go,” and some of those places might lead deeper into the heart where God resides. Here are a few that I have chosen for this year and recommend, including a children’s book, and with each book is a chance to win a giveaway of one copy.
To enter the giveaway, subscribe to my email newsletter and then share below in the comments which book you’d like to be entered for. Current email subscribers need only comment. The giveaway is available to US residents only and ends at 11:59 PM on Monday, March 6, 2017.
What I Am Reading:
Balance of the Heart: Desert Spirituality for Twenty-First Century Christians by Lois Farag. Mother Lois is an Egyptian nun herself who currently teaches Early Church History at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I know her personally (and although we share the same last name, we are not related). I have just started reading this book and have already learned so much. I did not know that the genre of “Wisdom Literature” that the Desert Fathers and Mothers are known for dates all the way back to Ancient Egypt, and that the ancient Egyptian wisdom literature heavily influenced the Hebrew wisdom literature, including the Biblical book of Proverbs. I have read several books about the sayings of the Egyptian monastic Desert Fathers and Mothers, including the classic English translation of the alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives and Stories of Early Christian Women by Laura Swan, and Praying with the Desert Mothers by Mary Foreman, and my favorite daily reader, Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers. This is the first book in English I will read, however, about the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers by a Coptic Orthodox Egyptian monastic herself. I cannot wait to get back to reading it. One lucky reader will receive an ebook copy of Balance of the Heart, and it can be purchased in hard copy or ebook here.
According to Your Mercy: Praying with the Psalms from Ash Wednesday to Easter by Fr. Martin Shannon. Lent started for me a week and a half ago, and so I have already started working through this new and beautiful title. Every day the author chooses one Psalm appropriate to the day of Lent, offers a 2-3 page explanation, a short meditation, and a quote from one of the Early Church Fathers to go with the Psalm. With the Psalms making up an important part of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s daily prayers, daily lectionary, and Holy Week readings, this book has offered fresh understanding and appreciation of some of the Psalms I pray every day. One Psalm I have often had trouble with is Psalm 7, especially Psalm 7:8, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness.” I have found it difficult to identify with this verse because it is hard to imagine myself so righteous that God would judge me and find me faultless. I am aware that many verses like these from the Psalms often point to Jesus Christ, the only one who is truly faultless. Fr. Martin points this out, but he also offers two other ways to pray these words. “A second way is to offer these words on behalf of others who are undeservedly suffering violence at the hands of evil. In any region of the world, at any given time, we know that there are new victims of unspeakable cruelty and brutality.” The third way is to make the prayer our own even if we cannot claim ourselves to be sinless, by considering times when we have been accused of wrongdoing. “Accusations, both true and false, will inevitably be made against us. What, then, do we do with the reactions and emotions they trigger? The psalmist teaches us to bring them to the heart of God rather than try to nurse them within our own hearts.” This book can be purchased here in hard copy, but you can also consider purchasing it as a daily email subscription here, with each day’s Psalm and chapter emailed to you throughout the Lent. Paraclete Press is offering one giveaway hard copy of this book to one of my readers.
What I Have Read and Recommend
The Life of Repentance and Purity by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. I must admit my bias towards this book is because I was one of the editors of this newly revised edition, but having read it at least five times, I cannot recommend it enough. It is universally helpful but especially appropriate during this season of the Lent. It’s a book that speaks to those just starting on their spiritual walk with Christ to those looking to deepen their relationship with God. My favorite aspect of this book is the way His Holiness balances difficulty with grace. Just as soon as you read a chapter that makes you think, “This level of repentance and self-examination is too tough, I can’t do this,” Pope Shenouda reminds us that we cannot do anything without God’s grace – and in fact, repentance itself is an invitation from God and a manifestation of His love: “God’s invitation to repentance,” he writes, “carries His feelings of compassion for His children. He wishes for all who have strayed to return to Him, so that they may share in the kingdom, in the inheritance of the saints, and in the fellowship of the Church.” When this revised edition was first published, my husband sent a copy to a friend. She recently wrote back to him after finishing the book with this: “I want to say thanks again for that book by His Holiness – I finished reading it a few weeks ago, and it’s the most amazing book I think I’ve read, outside the Scriptures and the Fathers. I can’t tell you how helpful it has been to me, and I think I’ll probably re-read it again, a small part a day.” You can purchase the book here, and I have one giveaway copy for one of my readers.
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle. I have always been a fan and avid reader of Madeleine L’Engle’s work, ever since I read her highly acclaimed novel, A Wrinkle in Time. In college, I had the opportunity to take a creative writing course with her, a dream come true for an aspiring writer. So it was with great anticipation that I read the review copy I received of Walking on Water, a book of essays drawn from her journals about faith, art, and being a “Christian” writer. I expected the audience of this book to be quite specific, but I discovered that almost anyone who has faith and who is engaged in any form of creativity (in the broadest sense of the word), whether on the side or as a full time endeavor, will find this book inspiring. This edition also includes a reader’s guide, making it useful as a read for writer’s circles and even book club groups. L’Engle writes not from a lofty place of philosophy and theology (though she does draw on these) but from her life experiences of living a life of faith, of being a wife, mother, and grandmother, of being a writer and of teaching writing, and most of all of being a Christian. I found these words quite powerful, both about writing and about prayer:
To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline … To pray is to listen also, to move through my own chattering to God to that place where I can be silent and listen to what God may have to say. But if I pray only when I feel like it, God may choose not to speak. The greatest moments of prayer come in the midst of fumbling and faltering prayer rather than at the odd moment when on decides to try to turn to God.
Walking on Water can be purchased here, and I have one copy of this book to giveaway to one of my readers. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. In addition, fans of Madeliene L’Engle will be excited to know that today, her first novel, The Small Rain, is on sale as an ebook for $2.99.
What I Read to My Children
Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter by Laura Alary and illustrated by Ann Boyajian. I purchased this book last year and read it to my children several times during the Lenten season. Today I will read it to them again. I love how this book connects Lent to the liturgical season and to the transition from winter to spring, but what I love most about it is the simple way it addresses what we do during the Lent. Fasting is not so much about “giving up” as it is about making room. Alary makes it practical by pointing out not just the food that we don’t eat, but about: making time to be with God through prayers, art, and listening to His word; making space to allow the “Kingdom of God” to grow inside of us spiritually by being kind to others and forgiving others, and physically by clearing away what might be extra (clothes, toys, books) to give to others that might have none; and making room to share our lives with others.
This year in my family, we “make time” when we listen to the Lenten liturgical readings of the day every morning. We will “make space” by choosing clothes, books and toys to give away to some Syrian refugee families that will be resettling in our area, and “making room” by welcoming others to our home and sharing life with them.
You can purchase Make Room here, and Paraclete Press is offering one giveaway copy of this book to one of my readers.
New Martyr Magazine is coming out with its third issue in time for Holy Week and the Feast of the Resurrection. This is a new subscription magazine for children from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. A few months ago I received a review copy of a previous issue of this magazine, and was so pleased with its quality, its large size, its ease of reading with young children, and its beautiful illustrations. This upcoming issue includes a journey through Holy Week, a Palm Sunday card craft, an explanation of the sacrament of the Holy Unction, and submissions from kids. Matushka Bonnie Elizabeth is offering a giveaway of the upcoming issue to one of my readers, and you can pre-order the issue, purchase back issues, or subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.
Both Make Room and New Martyr Magazine are written from the perspective of churches that have different traditions than mine. When I come across those differences while sharing them with my children, I point out that while we don’t dress our church in purple (as the author does in Make Room does, for example), in our church we dress it in black during Holy Week. I help them understand that there are many beautiful traditions around the world for Christians celebrating the same season of Lent, Holy Week, and Resurrection, while also helping them appreciate our own church’s amazing traditions.
What are you reading this Lent season? If you have children, what are you reading with them? Please share in the comments below, and tell me which of the above books you would like to enter for the giveaway!
To enter the giveaway and win one of the above publications, please subscribe to Being in Community via email and then make a comment below on which of the above you would like to be entered to win. If you can’t wait for the giveaway (or you don’t win), most of the links above are affiliate links for purchasing the products. If you choose to make a purchase via those links, I will receive a small commission for referring you at no extra cost to you. You are under no obligation to purchase the items through my links, but if you do, you will be helping support the cost of running this blog and providing you with the writing and reviews you enjoy. Your support is much appreciated!