Lent's mortifications are getting a little, um, much right about now, aren't they? We're in 33 days, by the Western church's count, and those meatless Fridays, those extra prayers, and that seemingly fabulous idea at the time (one too many hurricanes on Mardi Gras, right?) to give up alcohol/sex/cigarettes/Klondike bars/whatever for the duration has lost its spark. Well, buck up. We've got 14 days to go until the Western observance of Easter with its glossy ham, colored eggs and silly bonnets. And while you may not be able to feed the material self in the way you might like, you can use these next two weeks to fortify your soul.
Just pick up a book.
What you want is inspiration, and that doesn't necessarily mean a warm and fuzzy read. It should be, can be, all about using Lent as an agent of change. And change can hurt sometimes.
"Discomfort, at times, isn't a bad thing,'' says the Rev. Susan G. DeGeorge, who came up with a Lenten reading list of 12 books and one website when asked for her picks. "It causes us to rethink. It takes us off automatic pilot."
"All of us need to rethink things daily," adds DeGeorge, who as the stated clerk of the Hudson River Presbytery helps advise 87 Presbyterian congregations in seven New York counties. "It's too easy to fall into the common everyday routine and go sleepwalking through life."
Seeing Lent as a time to literally wake up is a common theme to many of the spirited books recommended to Printers Row Journal by a collection of writers, editors, ministers, artists, academics and counselors. Here's a reading list of their top picks:
Sophia K.R. Agtarap — "The Crowd, the Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators" by Michael Gungor (2012)
"We live in such a connected world that we have blurred the lines of work, life, play until everything's just one big blob," writes Agtarap, minister of online engagement at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn., in an email. "Through personal anecdotes, uncompromising commentary on culture and Christianity, Gungor takes us on his journey as an artist from being the Puerto Rican-Turkish kid growing up in rural Wisconsin to the globetrotting-award-winning musician." The book is a "trail guide of sorts" for "anyone in need of breath," writes Agtarap, who is overseeing a Lenten photo-of-the-day challenge online for Rethink Church (rethinkchurch.org), an initiative of United Methodist Communications.
Susan Campbell — "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith" by Marcus J. Borg (1994)
Why this book? "Maybe it's because I'm a dissatisfied, uncomfortable Christian," replies Campbell. "It's a radical book and it spoke to me." A resident of East Haven, Conn., Campbell is a veteran newspaper columnist, a divinity school graduate, co-author of "Hot Dogma! The Belief Blog" and author of "Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl" (2009). Jesus, she says, was introduced to her in childhood in such a way that he "wasn't a guy you wanted to worship." Borg helped her see Jesus in a new light.
Rev. Susan G. DeGeorge — "Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers" by Anne Lamott (2012)
"Here's what prayer is in everyday language," says DeGeorge, who besides serving as stated clerk is also associate pastor at South Church in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and a religious studies professor at nearby Mercy College. "This is a more accessible way for someone to get into Lent who is not into a liturgical mindset … If someone considers themselves spiritual but not necessarily religious, Anne Lamott is perfect."
Debra Landwehr Engle — "Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow" by Elizabeth Lesser (2004)
"Painful challenges can be our greatest teachers," says Engle of Winterset, Iowa, co-founder of Tending Your Inner Garden, a program of spirituality and personal growth directed toward women. Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, a spiritual center in Rhinebeck, N.Y., focuses on how struggle and pain can open us to growth and "blossoming in a way we may not have thought of before," Engle says. The theme, Engle adds, is perfect for a "reflective time" like Lent.
Diane Glass — "Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred" by Mark Nepo (2012)
"This is a refreshing book,'' says Glass, a spiritual director and writer based in Des Moines, Iowa, who is co-founder of Tending Your Inner Garden. "We can listen more deeply to ourselves and to our bodies and listen more to nature around us." Nepo, she says, gives examples of how to "tune it" to the present moment and gain insight into ourselves and others.
Jim Manney — "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene (1940)
"A novel? It's not for everybody. It's something different," says Manney, a resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., who is senior editor at Loyola Press, a Jesuit-sponsored publishing house based in Chicago. Novels, like "The Power and the Glory," or "The Diary of a Country Priest" by Georges Bernanos or Shusaku Endo's "Silence," portray characters "encountering great suffering and reaching the limits of their own abilities and needing to rely on Christ," Manney says. "Meeting Jesus in that need, in a place of suffering, a place of weakness, is a kind of Lenten experience." Plus, "there's something about the power of a story that can reach a level that narratives can't," he adds.
Lily Parascheva Rowe — "First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew" by Frederica Mathewes-Green (2006)
After a three-week pre-Lenten preparation period, Eastern Orthodox Churches observe Great Lent, which begins March 18 this year ("Pascha," which many Orthodox Christians prefer to use instead of the word "Easter," is May 5 this year). Rowe, founder of St. Stylianos Books, a publisher of Orthodox Christian children's books, recommends Mathewes-Green's work as a guide to the season's theme-setter, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This seventh century penitential work is chanted during services over the first four days of Great Lent. "She goes through every line of the Canon of St. Andrew and the history of the canon so you have a deeper understanding," explains Rowe, a resident of Parkville, Md.
Michael F. Skelley — "Inviting Silence: Universal Principles of Meditation" by Gunilla Norris (2004)
Lent can be a time to develop one's spirituality; meditation can help one get in touch with his or her inner self, says Skelley, who as an associate professor at DePaul University's School for New Learning teaches mindful meditation to students. "She has written several popular books on spirituality,'' he adds. "She's very approachable, very reflective."