Spiritual books round-up

St Thérese of Lisieux, who died aged 24, experienced ‘the suffering of doubt’ (CNS)

Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering
by Ronda Chervin
Sophia Press, £12.44

Coincidentally, both books in my column for this month come from Sophia Press. There is so much good Catholic writing coming from America, particularly from Ignatius Press and Sophia Press, that this is occasionally inevitable.

Dr Chervin’s book, first published in 1994 under the title The Kiss from the Cross, was prompted by the suicide of her son in 1991. The resulting agony that she and her husband suffered was resolved by recognising that the only way to assuage it was to offer it to God. Each chapter relates the struggles of a particular saint in order to help the reader see that even the worst suffering, joined to the Cross, can lead to joy.

This is a hard message for ordinary Christians, inclined to shrink from pain. But Chervin’s familiarity with and love for the saints’ lives is so infectious that it is hard not to be inspired by her narrative. Every kind of suffering is covered by her book. Readers will discover saints they know and others less familiar. The “suffering of doubt” is exemplified in the lives of St Thérèse and St Ignatius, with good advice on how to respond to spiritual darkness. Praxides, a Spanish wife and mother much put upon by her relatives, demonstrates that what the modern world thinks of as female “exploitation” is no longer servitude when offered up with love.

For how to cope with failure and poverty Chervin looks at the lives of Benedict Joseph Labre, John of the Cross and even our own John Henry Newman. There is also the “suffering of fear”, as shown by the extraordinary life of Venerable Francis Libermann, who suffered from epilepsy and rejection by his father, a rabbi, and whose life had a triumphant outcome even though dogged by adversity.

This adversity is the characteristic that defines the lives of saints. Some of their ordeals – for example, the life of Venerable Cornelia Connolly, founder of the Holy Child order – make one quail, forgetting that the saints quailed too, then carried on with their divinely appointed tasks. Chervin, an academic and convert from secular Judaism, gives the reader occasional glimpses of her own difficulties. Describing what it is like to meet Christ in frustration (the life of St Alphonsus Liguori), she adds wryly: “From the vividness of the description have you guessed that it is a special misery of the author of this book?” As she observes, many times in these lives we see the frustration of the saints’ original dreams, eventually “leading to their true vocations”.

Chervin adds the wise counsel that in cases of depression or despair one should always seek medical and psychological help as well as spiritual aid. And in cases of marital discord – such as with Cornelia Connolly – she comments insightfully: “Whether to choose a path of outward resistance or inward self-offering will depend on the character of the husband, the circumstances, the needs of the children and one’s own emotional survival.”

The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids
by Dr Gregory and Lisa Popcak
Sophia Press, £12.54

This is a subject of urgent interest to Catholic couples, written with wise advice and stimulating ideas by a husband and wife team. Gregory Popcak, a Catholic psychotherapist and counsellor, makes the obvious point that taking children to church, teaching them prayers and sending them to Catholic schools is only part of raising children in faith: “They have to see how your faith has transformed your life.”

As he comments, faith is ultimately a personal relationship with God and children need to feel “that you are able to show them how to live a joyful life”.  An emphasis on simply obeying rules is likely to turn them away when they are old enough to make choices of their own. The key factor that contributes to children’s “catching” the faith of their parents is parental warmth.

A father’s level of religious commitment is also very significant. For those in broken or divided families they offer encouragement: it is possible to help children develop a strong faith, even in fractured circumstances or when one parent is uncooperative. Essentially, “your children simply cannot have an intimate encounter with a God they cannot see if they don’t know how to create intimacy with the people they can see.”

Dr Popcak describes seven stages of faith: primal (infancy); feeling, aged 3-7; story-based, 7-adult; relationship-based, 12-adulthood; personal faith; integrated faith; and universalising faith. Many adults, he suggests, are stuck at stage 4. Along with sensible suggestions about family rituals and celebrations of feast days, as well as how to pray with your children, the authors remind readers that each family has its own “charism” which it needs to discover. This is the unique gift that a particular family offers to others. There is much in this book to reflect on and many ideas that can be adapted or adopted by readers, depending on their own circumstances. Do not be daunted by the title or think that your own family’s failures cannot be transformed.