Most Catholics know that Lent is a time of fasting, prayer, and alms giving. But for many it is also a time to abstain from some of our more frivolous pastimes.
The idea behind giving up things like television and social media is to make a meaningful sacrifice for God but also to free up more time for prayer and spiritual reading. Lent is a great time to delve deeper into Scripture, the lives of the saints, or an inspirational book.
Still, there may be times during our Lenten journey when we crave some lighter reading. Yes, Lent is a penitential time, but we are not called to deny ourselves every pleasure. During the dreary days of late winter and early spring, sometimes we just want to unwind or cozy up with a cup of coffee and a good book.
Here are a few books to consider when you want to enjoy the pleasure of reading while still retaining the spirit of Lent.
First published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is widely considered the greatest Catholic novel of the Twentieth Century, and Evelyn Waugh, along with Graham Greene, is considered is considered one of the most important Catholic novelists of his day.
The novel begins during WWII when British army officer Charles Ryder finds his company camped at the beautiful and palatial estate, Brideshead Castle. Ryder recounts, through a series of flashbacks, his long and complex relationship with the owners of the estate, the Catholic aristocratic Flyte family.
To be honest, it took me a while to get into Brideshead Revisited and even longer to find the Christian themes of divine grace and redemption that make this novel such a masterpiece. However, my perseverance was eventually rewarded. I have found myself reflecting on the power, beauty, and even the humor of the novel for days after I closed the book, and I find myself returning to it again and again to reread favorite passages.
If you want to go into the desert this Lenten season by coming face to face with the depravity of man, then Flannery O’Connor is for you. However when reading O’Connor, the key is to remember that her stories are ultimately about grace.
As George Weigel puts it in his First Things article entitled Flannery O’Connor and Catholic Realism:
“Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are not everyone’s literary cup of tea; …I tried to explain that Flannery O’Connor was very hard to translate. But the real problem, I suspect, was that my correspondent couldn’t quite grasp how Miss O’Connor’s genius lay in describing the work of grace (and the wickedness that grace seeks to repair) through what seems, at first blush, repellant, even horrifying.”
Set in 14th Century Norway, Sigrid Undset’s, epic trilogy expertly explores themes of love, marriage, motherhood, sin, and above all forgiveness. I was struck by how deeply I was able to relate to the struggles of a medieval Norwegian woman who, as Kristin says, has “longed equally equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path.”
The first book begins when Kristin is a young girl. She is the child of noble and devout parents. They adore her. Yet, despite her father’s love and their close relationship, Kristin does choose her own errant path and quickly learns, “that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.”
It is Kristen’s struggle with sin, guilt, forgiveness, and her own willfulness that drives her story. And, as is true for all of us, her struggles span and shape her entire life. It would be hard to overstate the depth and beauty of these novels, especially without spoilers.
For a more in-depth analysis on the theme of motherhood check on this piece in First Things. Or take a look at Crisis Magazine’s exploration of love and forgiveness in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.
I would be hard pressed to name my favorite Shakespearean play. It would probably be The Tragedy of King Lear, the heartbreaking story of an old and selfish king losing his grip on sanity while his two wicked daughters plot against him and the daughter he cruelly banished seeks to save him. Still, I find A Midsummer Night’s Dream delightful, the Taming of the Shrew hilarious, and Shakespeare’s history plays thrilling. The bard wrote no bad plays.
Recently, however, my love of Shakespeare was enhanced by the book (which I have not yet finished) Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Claire Asquith. Asquith makes a compelling argument that, not only was Shakespeare Catholic, but his works containe, as the title suggests, a coded message about his beliefs and politics. It’s a fascinating book that has me reading Shakespeare in a whole new light.
There are countless reasons to read and watch Shakespeare’s plays. His sense of humor, his insight into the human condition, the beauty of the language, his wit. But perhaps that best way to read Shakespeare during Lent is through the eyes of his Catholic faith.
Joseph Pearce prefaces this anthology with a compelling (and convicting) argument for why Catholics, in fact why everyone, should be reading poetry.
The selections are arranged chronologically and include the works of such greats as Saint Francis of Assisi, John Donne, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Elliot.
As the Tan Books website states, “A conscious attempt was made to meet both the standards of academia and the tastes and sensibilities of the faithful.” Because this anthology is scholarly, spiritual, and most importantly beautiful and edifying, a poem or two a day would make an excellent addition to any Lenten reading list.
However, maybe the idea of adding great literature to your already extensive spiritual reading list sounds a bit overwhelming. In that case, here are a few light reads to help you through your days in the desert.
Professor Michael Foley takes us on a “spirited” journey through the liturgical calendar. In this delightful book, Professor Foley shows us how a good Catholic ought to drink and provides us with some delicious drink recipes to help us celebrate Catholic feast days and toast to our older brothers and sisters in faith, the saints.
7) The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Laugh out loud with A.J. Jacobs as he hilariously, but respectfully, tries to live his modern Manhattan life by the teaching of the ancient scriptures.
8) A Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living: A Loving Look at the Lighter Side of Catholic Faith, with Recipes for Feasts and Fun
Amid John Zmirak’s hilarious look at some Catholic traditions are interweaved some profound insights.