Books

Spiritual books by Francis Phillips

A detail from The Conversion of St Paul (1610-12), by Peter Paul Rubens

Fr Donald Haggerty, a New York priest, has written a profound meditation on the meaning of conversion that should be read by all who are serious in deepening their relationship to God, whether cradle Catholics or converts.

In Conversion: Spiritual Insights Into an Essential Encounter with God (Ignatius Press, 270pp, £13), he points out that “a personal encounter with the real mystery of a personal God is at the heart of every great conversion”. This is as true for each one of us as it was for St Paul or St Augustine of Hippo. Indeed, unless we are continually renewing “the choice for God” we are in danger of faltering in our commitment and falling into a habit of perfunctory, respectable piety.

Underpinning his reflections is the challenge of sanctity in the lives of those we call saints: “They never forgot that a gratuitous intervention from Our Lord saved their lives,” the author remarks – with its implication that we, too, should never forget the transformative power of Christ in our own lives. It is only when we recognise God’s mercy towards us, despite our sins, that we grow in true charity – “the effort of seeking the conversion of other souls in need”.

Haggerty comments that today we often misunderstand the meaning of divine mercy: a sincere cry for mercy can only come “from a heart repentant for sins”, which has recognised the gulf between good and evil and glimpsed “what love on God’s part means”. This book is a modern classic. It merits reading and re-reading.

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Raymond Friel, the author of Prayers for Schools (Redemptorist Publications, 168pp, £8.99), is a former teacher and headteacher. He has made a thoughtful contribution to the question of how to help young people to learn to pray in a society where they no longer grow up within a Catholic culture buttressed by home, school and parish.

In some dioceses, he reminds readers, 50 per cent or more of the children in Catholic schools are not Catholic. There are also more than 20,000 Muslims in Catholic schools. This does not mean that Catholic schools should compromise on what they teach, but it has to be done more by “invitation” than by inculcation.

Learning to make the Sign of the Cross is fundamental, as is learning the Our Father and helping pupils to see God as a friend rather than an abstraction. The prayers in the book reflect the liturgical year, alongside other national events such as Holocaust Memorial Day, Remembrance Day and Martin Luther King Day (in America).

The book also provides resources for teachers and chaplains as well as case studies of particular schools and their imaginative ways of introducing the divine life to their students, when it might be the only time they are brought face to face with the world of eternal beliefs and values. Whether traditional or modern prayers are used, Friel’s focus is always on prayer as adoration, intercession, thanksgiving, petition and praise.

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Angelo Stagnaro, the author of Pursuing Holiness in Today’s World (Hope and Life Press, 114pp, £14), is an Oblate of St Francis and a prolific writer on Catholic subjects as well as a professional stage mentalist in America. Here he has written a lively and personal account of what it means to be a Catholic.

Underneath the conversational tone lies an idiosyncratic but orthodox reflection on the nature of sin, the need for regular sacramental confession and the reality of purgatory and hell. “We all have the choice between altruism and narcissism,” he reminds the reader, before providing a brief analysis of why the influential American writer Ayn Rand and her theory of Objectivism are merely the promotion of naked selfishness which will lead finally to spiritual despair.

Stagnaro is disarming about his failings and sins, relating his own dramatic conversion experience which was to change his life. A lapsed Catholic – “I considered myself too intelligent to believe in God” – he was pursuing his career when one evening he encountered a tramp on his doorstep who begged him for help. This seemingly random meeting brought about an emotional and spiritual collapse. “In that man I saw the suffering face of Christ,” he writes, adding, “I became Catholic that night … because I had no choice”.

Stagnaro found it impossible to turn his back on what the tramp represented: the call to live for others rather than for himself alone. He confesses that his expertise in writing this book “is that I have been – and still am – a spectacular sinner”.

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Vincent McNabb OP, a renowned Dominican preacher, wrote Resurrection (CTS Heritage Series, 41pp, £1.50) in 1922. He provides a helpful summary of what the Resurrection means, why the many Gospel references make it reasonable to believe in it, and how this central dogma transformed the lives of the Apostles and the early Christians, especially the martyrs.

He also quotes St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: “We must not attempt to prove what is of faith except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.”