Thursday, February 28, 2013

Orthodox Thursday: Meditations for Great Lent

"What are you giving up for Lent?" It never fails. I hear that question at least half a dozen times in the secular office where I work.  I'm not sure if the people at my work ask because they see me as some kind of sideshow act at a carnival or if they have a hunger to fast. That's an ironic expression when you think about it. However, I would be unfair if I didn't point out that among my circle of friends and Christian acquaintances, that question is on their lips too. As for my Catholic and Christian friends, maybe they ask because they are using other people's fasting as a measuring stick to see how they stack up compared to others. No matter the reason for asking, I'm not a big fan of the question.

For the past few years I have felt that the Orthodox Lent is much better than Catholic Lent. Maybe it is just Catholics in America, but with the minimal amount we American Catholics are required/asked to give up (no meat on Fridays and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), it seems paltry. Reading this book, Meditations for Great Lent, only reinforced my belief. Using the Triodion (the service book Orthodox use during Great Lent), the author (Vassilios Papavassiliou) walks his readers through the season of Great Lent by explaining the significance that the Gospel reading and/or hymn for each Sunday has in preparation for the great feast of Easter.

While reading through this book, I was amazed at how well the Orthodox Church calendar is laid out. Each Sunday in Great Lent builds upon the last Sunday. For example, in the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, one learns about genuine humility. The following Sunday, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we move from humility to repentance. The Sunday of the Last Judgment then makes us reflect on how we are living our life in relation to our neighbor. The greatest message I gained from this book though was on fasting. "There is more to Lent than fasting, and more to fasting than food." Fasting is a tool used during Lent, but we are called to fast from sin, not just food.

If you are Orthodox and want to understand Great Lent better, then this book is for you. If you are Catholic or a Protestant denomination and want to see how the Orthodox celebrate Lent or see a richer version of Lent, this book is for you. It is a short book with short chapters, but each one is full of wisdom. Therefore, I give this book 5 out 5 stars. However, I would like to add that no book, not even this one, can serve as a substitute for attending the services associated with Lent. So pick up this book and let it serve as your guide for this Lenten season of "bright sadness," which prepares us for the greatest feast of the year, Easter!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Catholic Monday: Rebuilding Catholic Culture

Today on Catholic Monday I am reviewing, the book Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life. This book is published by Sophia Institute Press, which is the publishing arm of Thomas More College and Holy Spirit College. "Rebuilding Catholic Culture" is like all their books I've read so far. They are dense and require you to focus and read slowly, which isn't a bad thing.

Using different sections of the Catechism, Dr. Topping divides his chapters into topics such as the Creed, Sacraments, and Prayer. He then explains how these topics shaped the world once, with the hope and possibility that they will again. Each chapter also eloquently and seamlessly serves as a stepping stone to lead you to the next chapter. At first glance in the Table of Contents, one might thinks this book is just a series of essays under a common theme. Instead, it is a carefully woven tapestry that provides a fuller picture the further you read.

The book also references Vatican II heavily, which isn't shocking as the Catechism was a direct result of Vatican II.  As pointed out by the author, one can see the previous influence of Catholic culture in our artwork and architecture, and even in our literature with works such as "The Lord of the Rings." However, the most interesting chapter to me concerned the family. It was both fascinating and depressing to see how far society has fallen. The traditional family is now anything but, as we have modern families with step-parents, two moms or two dads, or families where the parents aren't even married at all. Blessed John Paul II wrote and spoke openly about love and the functions of family life including service to society and, more importantly, service to the Church.

When I received this book, I thought I was getting a book which would go through the Catechism section by section and provide me with step-by step instructions on how to change the culture. Instead, I got a book that shows what the culture was like and how the Catechism and Church could shape it, if we only allow it to do so. I'm therefore having a hard time rating this book and waffled on giving it a 4 or a 5. The book is magnificently written and claims to be accessible. Yet it is a challenging read, which has the possibility to frustrate the average reader. However, I do like that the message is presented in a hopeful light, and not doom and gloom. For that reason, I am deciding upon a 5 with a caveat that the reader pace themselves while reading this book and don't try and chew it up and digest it all at once.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Children's Corner: The Little Lost Lamb

Welcome back to Stuart's Study and my weekly Saturday feature, the Children's Corner. Today, I'm reviewing the book The Little Lost Lamb written and illustrated by Geri Berger Haines and available for purchase at Pauline Books and Media. This book is intended for children ages 0-5 and is one of Pauline Books and Media's bestsellers.

One of the most well-known and well-loved parables of Jesus is The Lost Sheep, which is found in Matthew 18 and Luke 15. In this parable, Jesus explains how one sheep wanders away and the shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep to find and rescue the lost one. It is a story of redemption and forgiveness that so many of us can relate to, which explains the popularity of all the artwork and imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Ms. Haines takes some personal liberties in her re-telling of this parable both in length, detail, and child-friendly language. None of these liberties are bad things, though, as it makes the story easier to understand and relate to for the younger reader. My favorite part of this book is how the lamb refuses to go home despite being in danger. Younger kids might not get this message on their own, but that is just like us in our fallen nature. We sin, try to hide it, and are too ashamed to go home for forgiveness, and it is a good lesson to teach your kids about God's love and your love for them. Even if they screw up, you still love them and will be there for them.

I give this book 5 stars. It's very easy to see why this book is so popular and continues to be one of Pauline Books and Media's top sellers. Pick yourself up a copy. In fact, pick up two. You will probably end up reading this book to your children so many times that the cover will fall off.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Orthodox Thursday: How to Live a Holy Life

It seems lately at Stuart's Study, I've been getting a lot of thick books in the mail. This isn't always a bad thing mind you, but when you have to review two books a week, not counting kids' books, the thick books can start to take their toll. Luckily, Holy Trinity Publications sent me three books in the email, which are tiny but pack a mighty punch! For those of you unfamiliar with Holy Trinity Publications, this is the publishing branch of the monks of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, and they have been printing books in Russian and English for over 65 years.

How to Live a Holy Life is written by Metropolitan Gregory Postnikov of St. Petersburg and translated by Seraphim F. Englehardt. Like many Orthodox works which are translated, this book contains a brief biography on the author in it. I always find biographies both interesting and useful as they help serve as a good framework for the book. With these few pages, the reader learns not only about the author but also the audience to whom the work was written and the culture of the time. By knowing these facts, one can read the book in the proper light.

Looking at the cover and the title, one would get the impression that this book is written for religious and monastics. Each chapter in the table of contents deals with proper conduct for a Christian. I own and have read books of this nature before. Once you start getting into the heart of the book, you quickly realize that this book was written for religious or monastics but the layperson could find some value in the work. Not so for this book! Metropolitan Gregory specifically addresses husbands and wives in this book, so I was pleasantly surprised that this book was written with the laity in mind.

In addition to an explanation on how to conduct ourselves at different moments of the day (morning, afternoon, evening, etc.), the reader is also given instruction on how to conduct themselves in the common situtations of everyday life as well as in relation to God and others. I especially liked the short three page chapter on "How Should We Conduct Ourselves During Sleeplessness at Night?" I don't know about the rest of y'all, but it is an effort for me to fall asleep most nights. Prayer is of course the answer, but more specifically, we should pray for the salvation and repentance of all. It certainly beats watching the clock and stressing each hour I lose to sleeplessness.

I loved this little gem of a book, and it easily gets a 5 star rating from me. This is a book you can pick up and read through it once just to get an overall general idea on Christian conduct. However, if you want to make this book really useful in your life, you can carry it around with you and reference it when in particular situations and you need guidance. The size of this book makes the latter a viable option.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Catholic Monday: Return to Order

Today at Stuart's Study, I am reviewing a book that I was hesitant to review at first. Return to Order by John Horvat II is an attempted case study on the American economy. I will admit that I did not read this book cover to cover. I started out with that very intention, but after getting through several full chapters, I had to start skimming it or I would never be able to write a review on it. Therefore, keep that in mind when reading this review.

Broken into two parts, the author first presents a history of the United States and it's economy. It does however make assumptions that the U.S. and Founding Fathers were all Christian. In reality, many were Deist at best, which assume that God is merely a celestial watchmaker. Don't get me wrong, not all the Founding Fathers were this way, but it bears to remember that these Founding Fathers were politicians and businessmen with their own interest in mind, i.e., Benjamin Franklin.  Another assumption made about the U.S. by many is that we are somehow God's new chosen people and nation.

Building on these assumptions, the author then attempts to provide ways to return to our former glory and prosperity. We are likened to the Prodigal Son, and if we return to the Father, we will be blessed and restored to our proper place in the world. While, I agree that the U.S. is becoming more secular by the minute, I believe it is a global condition and not just localized to where we are. Does this make it right or mean that it doesn't need changing? Of course not! I just feel this book preaches panic and destruction.

Would I recommend this book? It most certainly wasn't my cup of tea. Is the book completely without merit? Not at all. There are truths in this book, but there is also a lot of presumption and misinformation as well. Looking at other reviews of this book, a lot of people love it. Not me though, and the best I can give this book is 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Children's Corner: Thank You, Dear God!

Today in the Children's Corner, I'm reviewing another wonderful product from Pauline Books and Media called Thank You, Dear God! This book is written by Mary Elizabeth, Tebo, FSP and is illustrated by Lorella Flamini. It is intended for children ages 0-5.

Do you find yourself struggling to pray? Do you say the same memorized prayers over and over again, or does spontaneous prayer leave you looking for words? Imagine how your children feel. In this padded hardcover book, your children will learn to give thanks to God for every aspect of their lives. I also personally love that the pages are made of sturdy cardboard so that this book will last for more than one child.

With the assistance of cute illustrations of mice, puppies, kittens, and other cute animals, your children can listen to or pray along with these short sentence prayers. On each page of this great book of gratitude, your children learn to not only be thankful for earthly treasures like good friends, but they also grow in appreciation of God Himself by learning that He is always there and always watching over them. These short prayers will touch your children's hearts as well as yours. We are called to have the faith of a child, and this book reminded me to be thankful to God in both the large things and the small things.

My wife and I adored this book in every way possible, and even Grammy raved about it. You and your child will love this 5 star book, as well as the similar style book Growing in Love. Watch for that review next week, and pick up both of these sturdy books for you and yours!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Orthodox Thursday: The Scent of Holiness

Today at Stuart's Study, I'm reviewing the book The Scent of Holiness by Constantina R. Palmer. This book was provided to me by Conciliar Press in exchange for an honest review. In addition to writing this work, Mrs. Palmer is a also a blogger at Lessons From a Monastery, a deacon's wife, an icon writer, and possessor of a Master's in Theology.

When I first received this work I wondered to myself, "Why does God keep getting me to review books geared toward women?" Like the other books, I tried read this with an open mind. The introduction bothered me a little bit. Mrs. Palmer discusses how she went from Catholicism to Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, because the Orthodox Church had something the Catholic Church was missing. This upset me a little bit, because I love my Catholic faith, but also have a great love for the Orthodox faith as well. Needless to say, I was even more leery reading this work, as I felt it already had two strikes against it for me. 1. It was geared toward women. 2. It felt like an attack on my Catholic faith. I pressed on though, and I am glad that I did!

The book is divided into 33 chapters. This is done intentionally as the Orthodox prayer rope or chotki has 33 knots in it, so Mrs. Palmer demonstrates that this book is a prayer for her and the reader. Each chapter or knot provides valuable insight on what goes on in a women's monastery as well as the lessons Mrs. Palmer learned from the day-to-day happenings. Her insight and attention to detail provided me a mental picture of a place I will never be able to see with the clarity she did. Sure, I could visit a women's monastery, but I would never be able to access it as freely as she had since I am a man, so this was eye-opening.

The best part of the book for me was seeing the personality of all the sisters. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I see someone in the garb of their religious order, I tend to forget that they are human at all. Mrs. Palmer did a nice job of showing these sisters' human sides in their ability to laugh and find joy in silly things as well as their saintly sides in living out their vocation. Each sister had her own gifts and path to holiness, and that too reminded me that even though we are all different, we're all pursuing the same goal, Heaven and union with God.

If I had one gripe to make, it would be that Mrs. Palmer used a glossary as opposed to footnotes. There are a ton of Greek terms in this book, and I was only familiar with a handful of them. Someone in the Orthodox Church might not have trouble with these terms, but I had to take time to flip to the back of the book and look up most of them. It would have been easier if the term was defined in a footnote at the bottom of the page it was on. For this reason, I am deducting a 1/2 star from my rating and giving this work 4.5 out of 5 stars. The glossary inconvenience aside, this is still a great book and worth reading. We have many works of what goes on in men's monasteries, so this was definitely a welcome glimpse into what goes on in women's monasteries.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Catholic Monday: The Mass of the Roman Rite (2-Volume Set)

Today in Stuart's Study, I am reviewing a behemoth of a work by Joseph A. Junbmann, S.J. entitled The Mass of the Roman Rite. This is a two volume set that totals over 1,000 pages, and if that wasn't intimidating enough, it has blocks of Latin in it with a smattering of Greek words. Reprinted by Ave Maria Press, "The Mass of the Roman Rite" offers you a chronological history of how the Mass evolved through the centuries, the different forms of the Mass, and a detailed description of all the parts of the Mass. A chapter was also added that was unavailable in previous editions which discusses the commingling of the Eucharistic species.

This series reads like a textbook, and that is both good and bad. It is good because each chapter offers great detail and research and explains to you the subject in a straightforward manner. It is bad because the text of each page is half  content and half footnotes. This can begin to bog the reader down while reading. Also, as I said above, there is a lot of Latin and Greek in the text, and if you don't read either language, you miss a lot.

 My favorite section in this book was the history of the Mass and how it evolved over time. Some people tend to think that the Liturgy was established by the early Church and hasn't changed since it's origin. However, it has been an evolving creature, for lack of a better word. This is both good and bad. I will not discuss the merits and flaws of such an evolution though. It was just fascinating to me to see what has changed, what has stayed the same, and where the origins of different parts of the Mass came from.

I would give this book 5 stars for content and quality, but I would also include one BIG caveat. This is not light reading by any means. It takes a special mind to read and even halfway appreciate this work. I am not that special, and I don't feel I even scratched the surface of what this treasure has to offer. This book is academic, scholastic, and spiritual meat. Maybe one day I will get some teeth and I can try and chew through this book again.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Children's Corner: My First Book of Saints

Today in the Children's Corner, I am reviewing My First Book of Saints written by Kathleen M. Muldoon and Susan Helen Wallace, FSP with illustrations by Tom Kinarney and Patricia R. Mattozzi. This book is published by Pauline Books and Media and is intended for children ages 5-7. It is also a compilation of the six volume series, "Little Book of Saints."

In this book, you and your child(ren) will discover 60 saints spanning the entire history of the Church. In this book, your child will find saints they recognize, i.e., Sts. Mary, Joseph, Nicholas, Benedict, and Paul. They will also find saints they might never have the chance to hear about i.e., Sts. Sharbel Makhluf, Pedro de San Jose Betancur, Paul Miki. Each saint chapter spans two pages. On the first page, your child gets their biography, when they lived, where they lived, their feast day, and a short one line prayer addressed to the saint. On the second page is a full color picture of them with a key object associated with the saint. For example, St. Peter is shown with the Key to the Kingdom.

I love reading about the lives of saints, and I believe it is very important to not only make sure your children hear and read Scripture, but also about hear and read about the Saints. They are excellent role models for your children to aspire to emmulate, and they are also great intercessors for your children and their prayers. What I like the most about this book is the variety of saints from different centuries and different countries. What I dislike  the most about this book is the organization. There is none. I wish this book would have been organized chronologically either by when the saints lived or by how the specific saint's feast day falls in the Church calendar. For this reason, I am giving this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on My First Book of Saints. The Catholic Company is the best resource for gifts for every Sacrament celebration, such as First Communion gifts and Baptism gifts, as well as a great selection of limited-time Year of Faith gifts and resources.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Orthodox Thursday: Everywhere Present

Today in my segment, Orthodox Thursday, I am reviewing the book Everywhere Present by Fr. Stephen Freeman. Fr. Freeman is a blogger, like me, and a podcaster. His blog and podcast series share the same name, "Glory to God," and from my knowledge of listening and transcribing a few of his podcasts for Ancient Faith Radio, they share the same content as well. You should give one or both a chance.They do not disappoint in timely content as it relates to Orthodoxy and the current culture.

"Everywhere Present" is a short book, which discusses how our secular society has relegated God to a separate realm of His own. The book compares our view of the world to a house with two stories. On the "first story" is where man lives. God used to live on the first floor with us, but man has banished Him to the upstairs. Now, we ignore Him because we see Him as inaccessible, or, even worse, we question His existence altogether. Sadly, these viewpoints don't just belong to non-Christians but "Christians" as well.

There are several good sections in this book, including one on icons. I have a great love for iconography, so Fr. Freeman's explanations of the place and importance of icons in our world spoke to me. Icons truly do with pictures what the Bible does with words. However, the best section came at the end when Fr. Freeman gave seven suggestions on how to "overcome the false sense of distance of God." The most important of the seven is simply giving thanks to God for everything. This isn't easy as there are lots of bad things that happen to us and others, but we must still be thankful to God for everything.

This book definitely does not disappoint. It challenged my view of the world and God in the world. Even though, I believe in God, I fear I can be guilty of not recognizing God's ever-presence in all things. The book was an easy and quick read, but anytime I think that, I believe that I need to re-read the book slower and try to glean more from it. If I had one gripe to make, it would be that you feel that Fr. Freeman repeats himself a bit in his writing. For that reason, I am giving this book 4 stars. However, I would still recommend buying it, reading it, and reading it again.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Catholic Monday: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

Welcome back to Stuart's Study. As my readers know by now, I hope, it's time for another installment of Catholic Monday. I'm sitting here at the computer screen and staring at a wall of blank space, trying to figure out how to review Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, written by none other than Pope Benedict XVI. I feel somehow inadequate and unworthy to review this book, as Pope Benedict is the head of the ENTIRE Catholic Church, not to mention a brilliant mind. However, I will try my best.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is by no means my first attempt to read Pope Benedict XVI. My first attempt came trying to read the first part of the "Jesus of Nazareth" series, at which I tried and failed miserably. I decided to next try and read "Introduction to Christianity," but Pope Benedict's definition of introduction and my definition of introduction are on vastly different planes. I had to put both of those books aside, as I realized I was trying to run before I could even crawl. "The Infancy Narratives," however, are a manageable read both in length and content.

Although many will view this as the 3rd Volume in his "Jesus of Nazareth" series, Pope Benedict makes a point to the reader that this is an antechamber (a small room that leads to larger rooms) to the other two books. For this reason, I am glad to have read this book first as it is a perfect starting point to the other two books, which are wordier and deeper. Spanning approximately 130 pages, the reader is presented with four chapters and a tiny epilogue. In these chapters, one explores the Annunciations of John and Jesus, the birth of Jesus, visit of the Magi, flight into Egypt, and his finding in the Temple.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Annunciations, particularly as it dealt with John the Baptist or John the Forerunner as he is known in the East. St. John was a true prophet like Elijah, but we tend to forget that about him. All most people know about St. John was that he wore a camelhair outfit, ate locusts, and was beheaded. However, Pope Benedict shows us so much more about him. St. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit at the Visitation when Mary greeted Elizabeth and John jumped in Elizabeth's womb. This means St. John the Forerunner was also filled with the Holy Spirit. This is something I never would have come to realize on my own, but Pope Benedict spells this out as well as many other things one misses in the Christmas stories we have heard all our lives.

This is a 5 star book and one that would be beneficial to read. Ideally, one could read this during Advent in preparation for Christmas. However, Advent is a long ways away, and I wouldn't wait ten months to pick up and read this book. After reading this book, I am reminded of something I heard/read from George Weigel. I don't know the exact quote, but he said something to the effect of Pope John Paul II opened our hearts. Pope Benedict XVI filled them up. I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. Some helpful links related to this book are listed below.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Children's Corner: The Three Trees

Today in the Children's Corner at Stuart's Study, I have a treat for you. I am reviewing The Three Trees adapted by Father Gabriel Ringlet and illustrated by Sister Danielle Oh. This product like, past Children's Corner product was sent to me courtesy of Pauline Books and Media. Adapted from a traditional Lebanese folktale, "The 3 Trees" is intended for children ages 3-7, but will delight the parent(s) reading this story as well.

In this tiny hardback book, we meet three little trees who all have big dreams about what they want to be when they grow up. I personally like to think of the trees as three brothers, but that's just me. The first tree has a desire to be a treasure chest, and hold the world's greatest treasure. The second tree wants to be a mighty ship. And the last tree wants to be the tallest tree, so that he can be close to God. I won't tell you how the book ends, but as in life, God answers our requests, just not always like we imagined in our request. He always gives us exactly what we need. We just don't always realize it until we get it. This is the same lesson these three trees learn.

I truly loved this book and the lesson that it teaches readers young and old. The illustrations are beautifully done as well. Each tree's face shows off a little bit of their personality, and the illustrations really help the story come alive for the young reader. Pick up a copy of this 5 star book and teach your child about hopes and dreams and to always trust God's plan for us even when they don't understand it. In fact, it will always be so much better than we could have ever imagined.