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Feb 19, 2020

12 Great Lenten Reads from Dr. Sri to Dante

Dr. James Merrick

Lent is a great time to do some reading and spiritual reflection. But what should we read? Here’s a list of possibilities that I hope and pray will supercharge your Lent. I have tried to provide a list of uncommon recommendations and to give a number of books so there’s something for everyone. The list is divided into brief devotional booklets, studies of themes related to Lent, and classic works. 

Lenten Devotional Booklets

1. Words for the Lent and Easter Season 

Words for the Lent and Easter Season is a little but weighty booklet of fourteen delightful homilies by Bishop Hugh Gilbert, O.S.B. Before being appointed Bishop of Aberdeen, Scotland and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Gilbert was for almost twenty years abbot of Scotland’s only active medieval monastery, Pluscarden Abbey (an absolute MUST visit when you’re in Scotland). He is known for his elegant and elevating preaching, and you will see why in these homilies.

At the outset, Bishop Gilbert reminds us that a holy Lent calls for growth in the virtue of temperance. This means “Lent is for recovering our kingly character” (p. 8), our ability to reign over our passions and live with royal dignity in a world plundered by excessive materialism. These homilies are peppered with poetry and patristic passages and are brimming with bright insights on the liturgy, biblical texts, and the challenge of faith today. This booklet wouldn’t serve as daily Lenten reading but would punctuate your Lenten journey and Holy Week as well as carry you through Eastertide. 

2. The Ascension Lenten Companion

The Ascension Lenten Companion follows upon the much-loved Advent series from Ascension, Rejoice! Advent Meditations with Mary by Fr. Mark Toups. It is a day-by-day guide through Lent, allowing you to begin every day with prayer and Scripture. Fr. Toups has also given us The Way of the Cross: Praying the Psalms with Jesus that can guide us through the Stations of the Cross, a great Lenten devotion. 

Studies of Lenten Themes

3. Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love 

During Lent, we fast from certain comforts or earthly goods in order to create space for and opportunities to recognize God’s presence in our lives. But it’s awfully hard to perceive God’s presence without an active prayer life. Prayer is the foundation of a holy Lent. Thankfully, two seasoned spiritual directors and monks from the oldest Benedictine monastery in the United States, St. Vincent’s Archabbey, Fr. Boniface Hicks, O.S.B. and Fr. Thomas Aklin, O.S.B., have given us the manual on prayer. It’s called Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love.

One of the barriers to growing in prayer is our impatience with our humanity. We wish we could concentrate and not be so distracted. We wish we could desire to pray as intensely as we desire chocolate cake. We wish we could break through to the supernatural and see or hear from God in a pure and obvious way. It’s great that Personal Prayer begins by treating the humanness of prayer. “The actual obstacle to our prayer,” say the authors, “is when we try to be angels by rejecting these aspects of our humanity” (p. xxv). 

Personal Prayer contains both an inspiring explanation of the theory of prayer and practical guidance. Some of the many topics covered are:

  • how prayer draws us into the interpersonal communion of the Trinity
  • how to enter into and be vulnerable in prayer
  • how to persevere in prayer
  • how to press beyond the noise and materialism that keep us spiritually shallow
  • struggling with silence and the hiddenness of God in prayer 
  • wrestling with sin and guilt
  • growing in liturgical prayer
  • lectio divina
  • Eucharistic Adoration
  • Rosary 
  • charismatic prayer

If you want to concentrate on your prayer life this Lent, look no further than this book.

4. What to Do When Jesus Is Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy

A traditional Lent consists of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Too often, we focus on what to give up and forget to add the disciplines of prayer and almsgiving. But as Gary Anderson’s book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition and David Downs’ Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity show, almsgiving was central to the early Church. 

In What to Do When Jesus Is Hungry, Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R. (1942-2017) offers readers a set of meditations on Jesus’ own experience of impoverishment along with practical instructions for how they can perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in their own lives. If you struggle with almsgiving, this book will be a shot in the arm.

5. Eat, Fast, Feast: Heal Your Body While Feeding Your Soul

Jay Richards, a professor of business at Catholic University of America, has written a unique, popular-level Christian guide to fasting. Turning to both medieval monasticism and modern medicine, Richards argues for a recovery of the traditional practice of fasting. He then provides a forty-day plan that combines a healthy diet with spiritual discipline. This could be a helpful resource for deepening and defining your Lenten fast. 

6. No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk through Christ’s Passion

A traditional Lenten topic for reflection is the Passion of Christ. Meditation on the Passion allows us to see our sin in the light of Christ’s love. No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk through Christ’s Passion by Dr. Edward Sri is a provocative and visually stunning study program that will give you a solid understanding of Christ’s Passion and foster your devotional life. Featuring appearances from Fr. Mike Schmitz, Jennifer Fulwiler, Jeff Cavins, Curtis Martin, and Fr. Josh Johnson, it can be used by an individual, family, or small group. If you haven’t spent a Lent studying Christ’s passion, then seize the opportunity of this Lent, gather together family and friends, and pick up this program to get a masterclass in the centerpiece of the Catholic Faith.

No Greater Love is also available as a standalone book.

7. The Mystery of Suffering

Lent can provide an opportunity to consider our own sufferings. Hubert van Zeller, O.S.B. (1905-1984), a Benedictine monk of Downside Abbey in Somerset, England, wrote several works on suffering. His The Mystery of Suffering is simple yet substantive. Van Zeller tells us that the Christian approach to suffering is “shown to us in the garden of Gethsemane: our Lord asking that the suffering might pass from him, while at the same time being ready to bear it if this is the Father’s will” (p. 4). “When we have to suffer, we can safely assume that God has allowed this particular trial for our sanctification” (p. 5). This confident abandonment to God’s providence is the way of the saints, who “flinch as instinctively as others when the cross comes along, but they do not allow their flinching to upset their perspectives” (p. 7). “Holy people know – and know it better than others – that suffering must anyway occupy a fair slice of life … They do not focus their whole attention on the necessity of suffering; they focus their whole attention on the necessity of loving” (p. 7). This short book is chockablock full of gems that can seriously help its readers suffer well.

8. Lord, Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession

Lent and Advent are the two traditional seasons during which the faithful are especially encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is a time to grow in the area of repentance and confession. If you need to breathe new life into your confession or wonder about the sacrament’s roots, Scott Hahn has written a powerful book called Lord, Have Mercy that demonstrates the biblical and covenantal origins of the Sacrament. This book can help you see how you are following in the footsteps of thousands of years of saints who have cried out for divine mercy. 


9. The Spiritual Life and Prayer According to Scripture and Monastic Tradition

Cécile Bruyerè, O.S.B. (1845-1909) was the first abbess of St. Cecilia’s Abbey in Solesmes, France and a disciple of the liturgist and Benedictine Abbot, Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B. (1805-1875). Her work The Spiritual Life and Prayer According to Scripture and Monastic Tradition was originally written to instruct her nuns, but its popularity led to repeated requests for wider availability. 

“All God’s designs over us in this world,” she exhorts, “are intended to bring about our supernatural perfection” (p. 2). And, in fact, the “Lord is so desirous of giving Himself to souls, the expansive force of His love is so great that, far from always waiting till the grace is asked of Him, He sometimes with ineffable sweetness anticipates the soul’s action, even when the soul is far off from Him” (p. 30).

If all is providentially ordered to our wholeness and the Lord is so ready to give us grace, what prohibits or prolongs our spiritual growth? Bruyerè gives us a unique yet classic treatment of a range of topics related to the spiritual life, including different kinds of prayer, spiritual warfare, trials associated with spiritual growth, and the Church’s liturgy.

10. Knowing the Love of God: Lessons from a Spiritual Master

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964) was a towering Thomist in the Church before the Second Vatican Council, a fierce opponent of theological modernism, and Pope St. John Paul II’s (1920-2005) doctoral supervisor at the Angelicum in Rome. He was at once an expert theologian and a master of the spiritual life. People would flock to his spiritual retreats as much as to his renowned academic lectures. 

One of his last spiritual retreats has been republished. Knowing the Love of God is a magnificent yet manageable introduction to the spiritual life. Among other things, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange tells us that due to sin humans …

“live almost exclusively under the tyranny of their senses and passions without managing to rise above the level of animal life. Their judgments and actions are not determined by their own personal conviction; rather, they accept without examination the ideas of their surroundings, their newspaper, their political party. While they refuse, in full conscience, to obey their legitimate superiors, they passively subject themselves to the prejudices of a group and they allow themselves to be enticed by the most fantastic promises. They fail to escape the attraction of the moment and, having lost control of themselves, permit themselves to be urged on like an animal … “

p. 32

The spiritual life, then, is about elevating the human person above this animalism to the supernatural life of God. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange counsels that …

“The mystery of the incarnation teaches us, on the contrary, that the human personality develops in the measure that the soul, elevating itself above the merely sensible world, places itself in … closer dependence on truth and grace.”

p. 33 

There is a lifetime of wisdom in these pages, an absolute must read. 

11. Christ, the Life of the Soul

Another classic work on the spiritual life is Christ, the Life of the Soul by Bl. Columba Marmion, O.S.B. (1858-1923). Marmion was a master of mystagogy, and in these pages he treats the spiritual life as a matter of being able to say with St. Paul, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). You can get a taste of both the profundity of his treatment and the elegance of his prose in this little passage:

“Even when God has forgiven us, there remain in us the remnants of sin, evil roots ever ready to spring up and bring forth evil fruits … If then we wish Divine life to develop greatly in our souls, we must labour unceasingly to diminish these remnants of sin, to weaken these evil roots that disfigure our soul in God’s sight … By these acts, man rises up against himself to avenge God’s rights which he has trampled under foot.”

p. 191

12. The Seven Last Words from the Cross 

Christ died not from his wounds but from asphyxiation. His utterances from the Cross are significant not only because they are his last, but because they are profoundly intentional. Lenten reflection on the seven last words of Christ from the Cross goes back at least to St. Bonaventure (1221-1274). It is a great blessing to have one of the best examples of these reflections available again in English, accompanied by an excellent introduction by Christopher Washburn. In 1618, St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) published The Seven Last Words from the Cross dedicated to the Benedictine Congregation of Celestine. 

The seven words from the Cross are:

  •  “Father, forgive them … ”
  • “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
  • “Woman, behold your son. Behold, your mother.”
  • “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”
  • “I thirst.”
  • “It is finished.”
  • “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” 

Each “word” is explained according to its original historical meaning and referent. On the basis of the literal sense, St. Bellarmine considers the virtues each “word” promotes as well as the various fruits associated with contemplation of the “word.” The advice is often profoundly practical.


The Divine Comedy

If you prefer poetry to prose, a great way to spend Lent is reading through Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy. The trilogy is a literary treasure. But it is also a spiritual classic, abounding in psychological analysis and treatments of virtue and vice. It is a journey from hell through purgatory to heaven. A great guide to this masterpiece is Jason Baxter’s A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  While you are reading the volume on purgatory, you could gain a deeper understanding of the Church’s teaching on such by reading St. Bellarmine’s On Purgatory: The Members of the Church Suffering

Do any other great Lenten reads come to mind? Please mention them in the comments below.

You May Also Like:

3 Essential Practices for the Lenten Season [Dr. Edward Sri podcast]

20 Out-of-the-Box Things to Do for Lent 2020

What’s the Purpose of Lent?

Lenten Companion DVD

Dr. James R. A. Merrick is lecturer at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Merrick is also on the faculty for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown’s Lay Ecclesial and Diaconal Formation program. Previously he was scholar-in-residence at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Before entering the Church with his wife and children, he was an Anglican priest and college theology professor in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.

Featured photo by Mehrad Vosoughi from Pexels

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