A year and a half ago, my 4 and 5-year-old children attended preschool and kindergarten, and my husband and I worked full-time teaching college classes on campus. I only zoomed to the grocery store, and my family attended Mass together inside an actual church. Since March 2020, we’ve been working, schooling, and practicing our faith together inside the confines of our home. Collectively, the pandemic has altered our global lives in different ways.
I want to grow, reflect, and hopefully remain changed after this experience. If you, like me, are also planning a summer of contemplative reflection, the following books have all helped me.
“The Awakening of Miss Prim” by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera is a 2014 international bestseller that follows the journey of intellectual Prudencia Prim who travels to a small French village to become a librarian. Books by Catholic women authors are set to a certain microscopic lens, and I think the online descriptions and blurbs of this beautifully written, complex novel rarely (if ever) give it justice. Fenollera invites her readers to consider the joys of the everyday and to branch out from what they might already know and expect about life.
I was gifted this book about a year before the pandemic began and finally read it last September. It was balm to my soul. Fenollera reminded me to take time out of my busy schedule to appreciate beauty in art, music, and literature. She reminded me that pausing is worth it, as is seeking the mysticism that can be found behind that pause. I passed the book forward as soon as I finished it, hoping it might help another busy soul — my son’s first grade teacher. C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, and G.K. Chesterton are all given nods, and this read is certainly worth a few summer afternoons.
“The Age of Phillis” by Honorée Fannone Jeffers is a 2020 book of poetry in which Jeffers imagines the life and times of Phillis Wheatley Peters. In 1773, Wheatley Peters published the first book of poetry by a person of African descent in British North America. Jeffers brings alive a legacy of African American poetry for a contemporary audience, including poems with titles like “(Original) Black Lives Matter: Irony” about the American Revolution. My favorites are Jeffers’ series of numbered poems, “Mothering” and “An Issue of Mercy” because they speak directly to my Christian, family-oriented heart and totally disrupt it upon each reading.
Wheatley Peters was only around 7 or 8 when she was sold into slavery and stolen from her parents. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, remembering the reality of Wheatley Peters’ young life and attending to the fullness of her legacy that begins in Africa is significant. Beyond that, seeing her as a woman who freely married, had her own views about ethics and religion, and was able to create despite being enslaved, helps put in relief other contemporary single-story narratives about young Black women and men brutalized in America today.
“Real Presence: What Does it Mean and Why Does It Matter” by Timothy P. O’Malley is a new, short, and readable primer on the doctrine of Eucharistic presence, or the belief that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. A 2019 Pew research study showed that approximately 70% of Catholics believe the Eucharist is symbolic only. If you’re anything like me, your attendance at Mass may have recently been confined to your couch and laptop, making the entire Mass feel symbolic on a whole different level. While watching mass via Zoom, I’ve been nearly brought to tears when seeing other families receiving the Eucharist now while mine just watches. I realized finally that I’ve been missing something more than simply being in attendance at Mass; I’ve truly missed the Eucharist and how it transforms me each week.
Discovering O’Malley’s book answered questions that I’ve felt in my heart but could not adequately express, and he uses some of my favorite writers to make his case, including Flannery O’Connor, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Dorothy Day. The Eucharist is a necessity for spiritual life, and as we reintegrate into a post-pandemic world as Catholics, knowing how to express, understand, and articulate this doctrine to ourselves and others is going to be foundational to the future of what happens next in the Church and our own spiritual lives.
“Tracks” by Louise Erdrich was published in 1988 and it is the third in a four-book series about four Anishinaabe families living on a reservation in North Dakota. Erdrich went to Catholic school, and she talks often about the theme of grace in her novels. What resonates about all of her fiction is that they speak to a modern sense of Catholicism, in which many of us struggle with myriad identities and seek to figure out who we are in the midst of a world in flux. I and many of my friends and family have similarly dealt with issues of faith and identity recently because of the toll the pandemic has taken on all of us. Erdrich’s characters’ consideration of how best to enact their faith during a fraught period feels authentic. One converted character in the novel suffers from scrupulosity, becoming obsessed with her faith and evangelizing in extremely errant ways. Yet there is also a priest who shows extreme love; one cannot help but admire him. “Tracks” is set in the early 20th century, so you learn about the history of Catholicism, and importantly, in this book, how Catholicism fits into a Native lens. This shift I appreciate when reading because it is often how I find myself interacting in this current, diverse world, and it pushes back against other Western-centric narratives while still giving depth to Catholic characters.
“Strength in Simplicity: The Busy Catholic’s Guide to Growing Closer to God” by French bishop Emmanuel de Gibergues was originally published in 1914 and reprinted in 2014. During the pandemic, I came to realize that the smallest joys in life — the laughter of my children in the house, for instance — really were what drew me closer to God. So, too, were the inner struggles I had with the suffering the pandemic brought to the world around me. Reading and contemplating the messages and scriptural passages throughout this book helped me sort through and find meaning in the simplicity that pandemic life foisted onto my family. It’s a book I often return to over coffee in the morning before starting my day, looking for highlighted passages. It’s like a scriptural appendage to Fenollera’s novel. Throughout, you’ll be able to find sentences and phrases that you return to in the future when seeking spiritual guidance.