Dan Burke, founder and president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, has written Spiritual Warfare and the Discernment of Spirits (Sophia Institute Press, 128pp, £11.48/$14.95) from his personal experience of spiritual warfare – not the kind that requires formal exorcism but the more subtle and pervasive type that afflicts many people, though they do not realise it, with a negative, dispiriting and cynical approach to life. A deeply unhappy childhood, filled with emotional and physical violence, left Burke struggling as an adult with anxiety, frustration, fear and despair. Healing came about through his conversion and the discovery of Scripture, as well as the saints – notably St Teresa of Avila.
This book explains St Ignatius’s method for the discernment of evil spirits. Burke goes through Ignatius’s 14 rules, showing in plain language how they can be used effectively in spiritual combat. Describing himself as “a Hebrew Catholic who was once an unfulfilled Jew”, he reminds readers that healing requires the acceptance of foundational truths: they must have a personal relationship to God; go to regular Mass and Confession; build daily prayer into their lives; recognise the need for self-denial; and examine their conscience daily.
For those already embarking on the battle, these requirements will be self-evident. Burke includes questions at the end of each chapter, requiring the reader to relate the material he has read to his or her own life and circumstances.
In his list of recommended reading at the end of the book, I was glad to see that Burke has included The Sacrament of the Present Moment, that wonderful little classic by Jean-Pierre de Caussade which repays reading and re-reading. My own copy came from an elderly lady who had heavily underlined almost every page.
First published in 1947 and now reissued, Characters of the Passion (by Fulton J. Sheen, Angelico Press/Gracewing, 78pp, £5.00/$8.99) describes the principal actors in Christ’s Passion – notably Peter, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Pilate’s wife, Claudia, and Herodias, the wife of Herod, whose sinful marriage had been condemned by St John the Baptist.
Written with all of Sheen’s psychological insight into human nature and illumined by his deep faith, this book is worth reading during Lent, to remind us that the Gospels are full of dramatic human events with echoes in the 21st century.
Of Judas, Sheen reminds us that “It is not enough to be disgusted with sin. We must also be repentant”. Of Herod, he observes: “Probably the worst punishment God can visit upon a soul is to leave it alone.” Of Pilate’s wife who, defying Roman legal convention, tried to defend Jesus from her husband’s judgment, he comments that “she had a talent for spiritual alertness”.
Comparing Claudia with Herodias, he points out that they were both noblewomen, had both come into contact with “the greatest religious personages of all times”, and both sent messages to their husbands. Yet “one served Christ, the other a totalitarian dictator”. Sheen also reflects that “Everyone in life has at least one great moment to come to God” – a sobering thought for all who read this holy author.
Following the publication some years ago of My Spirit Rejoices: The Secret Journal of Elisabeth Leseur, Jennifer Moorcroft, author of biographies of Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, St Dominic and St Thérèse of Lisieux and her sisters, has written the story of the French mystic. When Silence Speaks: The Life and Spirituality of Elisabeth Leseur (Gracewing, 196pp, £15.99/$22.50) provides details of Élisabeth’s happy childhood and youth leading to her marriage in 1889 to an ambitious young doctor, Félix Leseur, when she was 23.
Though the marriage of this cultured and wealthy couple was always mutually close and loyal, it hid a fundamental conflict. This came about when Elisabeth, whose husband had confessed to her before their marriage that he had lost his faith, experienced a conversion to a deeper understanding and love of the faith. This was in 1898, nine years after they married, and it prompted an inner spiritual crisis, though hidden under an outward cheerfulness of manner. Elisabeth began her journal, recording her secret sorrow at her husband’s mockery of her faith, his increasingly open scepticism and his choice of free-thinking friends among the Parisian intelligentsia.
Apart from the loneliness of not being able to share what gave meaning to her life with the husband she loved, Elisabeth often suffered from ill-health, which obliged her to live at times as a semi-invalid.
Unable to have children of her own (a source of great sadness for both her and her husband), she became a devoted aunt to her several nephews and nieces and a generous friend to many who were drawn to her sympathetic understanding, her charm, her intelligence and her goodness. Unusually, she counted among her friends women of a secular outlook with whom she celebrated what they could share, never imposing her own beliefs on them.
After her death from cancer in 1914, Félix read her journal, was converted to the faith and became a Dominican priest. Elisabeth, whose Cause for beatification is underway, is an inspiration for modern women faced with similar marital difficulties.
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