Books

Francis Phillips: Spiritual books

A Catholic church destroyed by ISIS in Karamdes, Iraq (CNS)

Doves in Crimson Fields by Robert Ewan, Gracewing, £11.99
Subtitled “Iraqi Christian Martyrs”, this book reminds us that the former Mesopotamia has been fought over by rival civilisations for almost 2,000 years and that over this time huge numbers of Christians in the region have suffered and died for following Christ.

Sadly, Iraqi martyrdom is not a modern phenomenon. That said, the aftermath of the Iraq War in 2003 had particularly appalling consequences for Christians. Thousands have been killed and more than a million have fled the country. This is not to deny the slaughter of Muslims on the “wrong side” of those in power, but to learn, as the author writes, from the example of Christian martyrs so that “we can find ourselves strengthened in the trials that we face”.

Ancient tradition tells us that the Magi, when they returned home after bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus, preached the coming of the Messiah in the land of the Persians from whence they had come. After Pentecost, the Christian faith was again taken east to Mesopotamia. Later, the “tent priests” and monks of the 3rd and 4th centuries spread Christianity across the Iraqi desert.

The conversion of the Emperor Constantine following the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD was not an unalloyed blessing for Christians in Mesopotamia. They were seen as “potential traitors” for their adherence to the faith of a western emperor. During the first half of the 7th century, Muslim rule in southern Mesopotamia became firmly established. The empire of Tamerlane brought further persecution for Christians. Thousands were slaughtered, “bringing about the de facto destruction of the Church of the East in Central Asia”.

Given this history, it is ironic to think that under the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s “almost secular state” the followers of all faiths “were able to coexist in relative peace” and that “even under his philosophy of terror and his despicable rule, Christians felt safe”. The faithful would admit to the same sense of protection under President Assad of Syria.

After ISIS conquered Mosul in 2014, Christians were given the choice of converting to Islam, paying a punitive tax (the Jizya) or leaving. Thousands did so.

The Chaldean Patriarch, Louis Sako, has said that Christians in this war-torn region “feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?” Ewan, an expert on this troubled region, was born in Baghdad and lived there until 1977. He reminds us of a forgotten and heroic people, often facing martyrdom or exile rather than forego their faith.

Marian Veneration by Francis Cardinal Arinze, Ignatius Press, £12
The former prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship has written a clear and concise guide to our right attitude towards Our Lady. Such a book matters because Catholics are sometimes challenged by other Christians for “excessive” devotion to her, and thus need to have a response to hand. The cardinal also reminds readers how important Mary is in the devotional lives of priests: “They learn from her how to live for Christ … Their effort to live lives of faith, hope, charity, self-denial, chastity and obedience will gain from a robust Marian devotion.”

Quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar and St Louis de Montfort, whose True Devotion to Mary was so influential in the spiritual development of St John Paul II, Cardinal Arinze reminds us that the late pope’s motto, Totus Tuus (“completely yours”), comes from St Louis. More surprising is his inclusion of a sermon of Fr Ranieri Cantalamessa, preacher to the Pontifical Household, who quoted Mother Basilea Schlink, founder of a community of Lutheran Sisters called the “Sisters of Mary”. She lamented that “Church festivals in honour of Mary and everything reminiscent of her were done away with in the Protestant Church … and we are still suffering from this heritage.”

Praying the Angelus by Jared Dees, Ave Maria Press /Alban Books, £11.99
Dees, an American Catholic teacher and author, explains why this ancient devotion, recited at 6am, noon and 6pm, is his preferred prayer – though he admits that he wishes he could also testify that “praying the Angelus was immediately a profound and life-changing experience. It wasn’t.”

Nevertheless, as anyone who has struggled with the rosary and grown to love it would agree, “When you recite these same holy words again and again, they sink into your psyche …They point your inner compass towards a hidden goal that you will find yourself striving to reach.”

As one would expect in a book on the Angelus prayer, Dees refers to the famous painting of The Angelus by Millet, describing how the couple, despite the work in the fields still ahead of them, “stop everything, set aside their work and pray to God”. This powerful image reminds us that we too should see our own work “as a purposeful gift of service to God and to others”.