If summer is the season for paging through short stacks of “beach books”—lightweight potboilers designed to be devoured with maximum speed and minimum intellectual involvement—then winter is its polar opposite.
During the long, lingering nights of the first months of the year, what’s called for is reading material with some meat on its bones, books that not only are good wintertime company but that make you want to reach for the yellow highlighter—a lot.
Here is a handful of some of the most currently popular books on the subject of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, as gleaned from bookselling sources from amazon.com to Paulist Press. They represent some of the best writing on the subject of the faith this year, in recent years, and for all time. These are books that are lighting up not only their publishers’ profit sheets, but also that little imaginary light bulb over many, many readers’ heads.
“Confessions,” St. Augustine (Oxford University Press, 2009) — The first new English translation in 30 years of the classic spiritual journey that has been acclaimed as one of the great works of Western literature. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest thinker of the early Christian Church, recounts his rise from an Algerian farm to the imperial court of Milan, his struggle with worldly temptation and sin and the final recovery of his faith that was taught to him in his childhood by his mother, Saint Monica.
“The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” Austen Ivereigh (Henry Holt, 2014) — A biography that examines how Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s upbringing and career in the Church in Argentina, the political events of the Perón era and his advocacy for the poor has shaped—and will shape—the arc of his papacy. Based on extensive interviews in Argentina, this book looks not only at how Francis became the man he is, but also why he was chosen to lead the Church in this time.
“The Return of the Prodigal Son,” Henri J.M. Nouwen (Image Books/Doubleday Publishing Group, 1994) — After a chance encounter with a poster depicting a detail of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” the acclaimed spiritual writer brings to life the parable through analysis of each character in the story. In what has been called “a spiritual adventure story,” Nouwen focuses on the father’s challenge to love the son, and the son’s challenge to receive that love.
“The Temperament God Gave You,” Art and Laraine Bennett (Sophia Institute Press, 2005) — In the first Catholic book on the subject in 70 years, veteran Catholic counselors Art Bennett and his wife Laraine examine the four temperaments identified by ancient philosophers and provide a modern Catholic understanding of how we can come to better self-understanding by embracing our particular God-given temperaments. Such knowledge, the authors assert, leads not only to greater self-acceptance, but also to peace, happiness, holiness and a clearer picture of God’s will.
“The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows,” Mother Dolores Hart (Ignatius Press, 2013) — She made her film debut with Elvis in Paramount’s “Loving You” in 1957, she worked in other films with Montgomery Clift, Anthony Quinn and Myrna Loy, was nominated for a Tony award for her performance on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company” and even played Saint Claire in the film “Francis of Assisi.” And then Dolores Hart—young, beautiful, engaged to be married and headed for even greater stardom—left Hollywood forever and entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. In this autobiography (with co-author Richard DeNeut), Mother Dolores traces her life from a complex Chicago childhood to the glamour of show business to life in a contemplative monastery, a calling that she says could not be ignored.
“Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi,” Richard Rohr (Franciscan Media, 2014) — Franciscan spirituality has become a frequent table topic since the current pope chose the name of the beloved saint as his own. Here Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and the director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, examines themes in the ministry of Saint Francis, an outwardly focused spirituality that does not emphasize personal piety but rather community involvement—loving, living simply and being in solidarity with the poor, the suffering and the outcast.