Monday, September 29, 2014

Victory on the Walls (Bethlehem Books)

Most of us have heard the name Nehemiah before. Unfortunately, very little of us know anything about him or even where to find his book in the Bible. I can tell you that it appears in the Old Testament; after the book of Ezra, but not much else. That is pretty pitiful considering that I have actually read its contents. Unfortunately, it was when I was reading through the Bible in one year. If you've ever participated in one of those reading plans, you know how overwhelming it can be. The days come quickly, and you always feel like you are reading too many chapters in one day to appreciate what you are reading, let alone understand it. Therefore, when Bethlehem Books offered me the opportunity to review Victory on the Walls, I jumped at the chance.

Victory on the Walls: A Story of Nehemiah, to my surprise, is actually not a "Christian" book. In reality it is part of a series called Covenant Books, which were designed as an "expedition into the realms of Jewish experience," and to "stimulate the young reader's interest in his cultural heritage and prove a rewarding spiritual experience." That's not to say that a Christian audience won't benefit from reading this book, it's just they weren't the original audience. The two main characters in this book are Nehemiah and an author-created fictional nephew named Bani. True to the Bible, Nehemiah is cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes. Bani is Jewish as well, but has lived in Susa (a Persian city) his whole life, so he identifies himself as Persian, not Jewish, which dismays his uncle.

The first 2+ chapters give us background for the main characters; introduce us to other minor fictional characters, such as Jadon and Oebazus; educate us on the city and culture of Susa; and give us a minor tease of the problems afflicting Jerusalem. In Chapter 3, we see passages in this book which are straight out of the Bible itself, including Nehemiah in ashes and beseeching the Lord. We also see Artaxerxes realizing Nehemiah was distraught in his presence and giving him permission to go rebuild Jerusalem. We then see the journey from Susa to Jerusalem, and are treated to an ancient history and geography lesson. Young boys will like some of these chapters because there are military tactics and battles as well. When they finally arrive in Jerusalem, we see politics abound and several people questioning and doubting Nehemiah or trying to persuade him to do things against God's will, as well as more battles. I won't divulge anymore of the book, so I don't completely give away the plot.

I found this book surprisingly enjoyable. I say surprisingly, because I am generally not a fan of Biblical stories that take such creative license. However, this book made the story of Nehemiah come alive. I found myself reading this book and reading the book of Nehemiah simultaneously, just to see what was actually in the Bible and what was not. This was great for building my interest in an important time in Jewish and Biblical history. I wish the Ms. Hyman's other work was in print as well. Be sure to check out Bethlehem Books for other great historical fiction works in their Living History Library series. Also like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter to keep track of their monthly free eStacks book. This month's selection is ending tomorrow and is entitled Wild Cat Ridge!

This book was provided to me for free by Bethlehem Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo

The process to attaining sainthood in the Catholic Church is a fairly lengthy process. For starters, the man/woman must have been dead five years. A bishop is then placed in charge of an initial investigation of this person's life to determine if the candidate is deemed worthy of further consideration. If so, a Nihil Obstat is granted and the deceased is called a Servant of God. After this, documents and testimonies are gathered and presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome to prove a life of heroic virtue. When approved, the deceased is called Venerable. After this one miracle is required to be called Blessed (unless the deceased was martyred). Finally, a second miracle is required after beatification to become a Saint (though a Pope may waive this requirement). September 27, 2014 Bishop Alvaro del Portillo will be beatified, due to his intercession for the miraculous cure of a Chilean boy. If the name Alvaro del Portillo is unfamiliar, then you might want to check out the book Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo, available from Scepter Publishers.

The organization Opus Dei received a lot of negative attention the past decade thanks to the likes of Dan Brown misinformation and flat out lies in The Da Vinci Code. Real Catholics know the truth about this organization and its great founder - St. Josemaria Escriva. Who many Catholics don't know is Alvaro del Portillo. He was the head of Opus Dei after Escriva passed away. Escriva referred to del Portillo as Saxum, which is the Latin for rock. That is where the book gets its title.

The book doesn't start like most biographies, which is to say at the beginning of his life, but instead gives us a glimpse of how Alvaro del Portillo met Josemaria Escriva. It is instead in the second chapter where we get a brief look at his early life. However, unlike most biographies, which spend at least one chapter devoted to a figure's birth and parents, this book only gives a few pages of details. In those few pages, we see that even at an early age, Alvaro is different than other boys. Much focus is then given to his teen years, where we see him discerning schooling and a career. He waffled between law (like his father) and engineering, but ultimately rejected the idea of law, because he didn't like to speak in front of people and thought he'd be better suited to a job he could perform alone. Despite eventually becoming an engineer, little did he know that his ultimate vocation would be quite the opposite.

Chapter Four proved to be one of the most interesting ones to me. It is here that we see del Portillo's beginnings in Opus Dei. We learn that he was a very vocal proponent and recruiter for Opus Dei. We also learn that he chose a life of celibacy as part of his mission with Opus Dei. Most fascinating to me was reading about the pillars of his "plan of life." These pillars included such devotions as daily Mass, mental prayer, and daily recitation of the Rosary. He learned from Josemaria Escriva that we are not to see these as separate activities from work and rest, but to turn every aspect of our lives into prayer. This is the heart of Opus Dei's message.

In addition to the aforementioned chapter, this book teaches us about the social climate and wars which shaped Alvaro del Portillo. We see him become a priest for Opus Dei and later a bishop. We see the members of Opus Dei seek and gain approval from the Vatican, because like present day, the organization was under attack by certain groups. Also covered in this book is del Portillo's work at the Second Vatican Council and what life was like after the council. The reader gets to see some of the inner workings of Opus Dei, what the core teachings are, and the impact Josemaria Escriva had not only on del Portillo's life but on the lives of all those around him.

This was a very interesting and easy to read biography about a Blessed man, so many people don't know about, including myself before this book. Alvaro del Portillo's life was inspiring and made me strive to live a better life. If you want to know more about him, Josemaria Escriva, and Opus Dei, I highly recommend this book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you pick up this book, you should also pick up Like Salt and Like Light, which contains a selection of del Portillo's writings and talks.

This book was provided to me for free by Scepter Publishers in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Brother Francis: The Mass and The Saints (Herald Entertainment)

Today, is a two-for-one review day at Stuart's Study. This one is for the kids and isn't books, but DVDs. I am blessed by Herald Entertainment to review the latest two episodes in their Brother Francis series entitled The Mass and The Saints. These are episodes Six and Eight respectively. Other topics in this wonderful series include Prayer, Eucharist, Rosary, Confession, Baptism, and Christmas. It looks like the next one out will be called "Following in His Footsteps," which I imagine talks about being a disciple of Christ. I'm really hoping they make some for the rest of the Sacraments and Easter as well. But that's a different conversation. So without further ado, it's on to the reviews!

The Mass begins with Brother Francis vigorously ringing the Church bells and explaining that they are used to call people to Church. He then explains how the Mass is like a holiday or celebration and one that you can attend every day. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) sometimes forget how special the Mass is and take for granted how lucky we are to be able to attend it so freely. He also tells us that "The Mass is not just about a ceremony and a celebration. The Mass is about Someone."

He then compares Jesus to a hero, for giving up Heaven and coming down here to die for us and our sins. We are then walked through the Mass from entering the door and crossing ourselves with Holy Water to the priest's Dismissal at the end, and reminding people to stay until the priest leaves, not sneaking out after Holy Communion. I particularly like that they included the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in this DVD when explaining the Penitential Rite. This has always been one of my favorite parables, and is an excellent reminder that only in humility can we find true forgiveness. This is the perfect DVD for teaching your children or school children (8 and under) what happens at Mass, each part of Mass, and how to be respectful during Mass. 5 stars!

The Saints begins with Brother Francis teaching himself to roller-blade and falling down a lot. He asks the children to remember when they were learning to do something like how to ride a bike, swim, or read. I have to admit I wasn't sure where this was going at first, but once he said, "We all do better when we have encouragement and when we have someone to learn from," it clicked! We're going to talk about how the Saints are they to encourage us and serve as examples who have been there before us.

Before he starts talking about the Saints, he shows secular examples that adults and children look up to, such as musicians and athletes. Then, we dive into the Saints! Brother Francis explains that the Saints are like our family, even if we don't have a family. We see examples of children using the Saints in times of discouragement, but what I found fascinating was that we also see Mother Teresa (a future saint) also turned to the Saints, specifically St. Therese of Lisieux. One saint in particular receives special attention in this episode and that is John Bosco. Your children will learn a lot from this little boy, who grew up to become a great saint and led many people to Jesus. Also of great educational value is a step-by-step explanation on how people become Saints.

Both of these DVDs were as high quality as the previous six in the series. Whenever anyone asks me for good Catholic programs that their children can watch and will enjoy, Brother Francis are always the first two words out of my mouth. What's also great about this series is that it is more than DVDs. They have dozens of coloring books that correspond with the DVDs or focus on a particular saint. There are also kid-friendly Holy Cards modeled in the same style as the graphical style as the DVDs. Last, but not least, they have introduced a matching game that your young kids will both enjoy and learn a lot from!

These DVDs were provided to me for free by Herald Entertainment in exchange for an honest review!