Book Reviews – December 2022

Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them. By Cheri Blomquist. Reviewed by Kathryn Sadakierski. (skip to review)

Through the Heart of St. Joseph. By Fr. Boniface Hicks. Reviewed by Joseph Tuttle. (skip to review)

Jesus of Nazareth: Archeologists Retracing the Footsteps of Christ. By Michael Hesemann. Reviewed by Fr. Andrew Walsh. (skip to review)

365 Days of Catholic Wisdom: A Treasury of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. By Deal W. Hudson. Reviewed by Lawrence Montz. (skip to review)

Beginning Well: Seven Spiritual Practices for the First Year of Almost Anything. By Joel Stepanek. Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak. (skip to review)

Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. By Fr. Edward Looney. Reviewed by Lawrence Montz. (skip to review)

Before Austen Comes Aesop – Cheri Blomquist

Blomquist, Cheri. Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2021. 272 pages.

Reviewed by Kathryn Sadakierski.

In her new book Before Austen Comes Aesop: The Children’s Great Books and How to Experience Them, author Cheri Blomquist makes a compelling case for strengthening the reading experiences of children, since these will shape how they read and process information as adults.

Reflecting on her own educational background, Blomquist contends that rather than requiring students to read adult literary classics, they should be assigned more developmentally appropriate literature: the children’s Great Books, which include both books written specifically for young audiences and those that, while originally intended for adults, became beloved among children over time, attaining classic status. When students master the children’s Great Books, Blomquist argues, they will be better prepared to navigate the complex themes and techniques of adult classic literature once they are transitioning into college, having had the opportunity to practice applying critical thinking skills while reading accessible children’s classics.

Amid today’s technology-driven world, children are exposed to more, being faced with views that conflict with the beliefs they are being raised with. It is more important than ever that they receive a solid education that will positively mold their minds and hearts. As Blomquist acknowledges, there is an array of different curriculum models that parents could choose from to educate their children, but the classical model “is the most meaningful, the most valuable, the most fundamental, and the most beautiful” (p. 11).

Drawing upon her experience as an educator, Blomquist proposes a classical education program built around the children’s Great Books that may be implemented by homeschooling parents or used by non-homeschooling students to supplement their existing literary program. While it will likely be most helpful to parents new to homeschooling, Before Austen Comes Aesop is a useful guide for anyone who is seeking to promote the intellectual and spiritual development of children through the literary arts. Those searching for an alternative to secular curricula will discover a wealth of creative ideas to inspire them in this book, which includes lists of classic children’s books to select from, suggestions for learning activities, rubrics for grading, assignment templates, and links to additional resources.

Arranged chronologically, Before Austen Comes Aesop begins with titles from “Ancient Times through the Early Middle Ages,” ending with contemporary children’s literature published up to the year 2000, grouping these children’s Great Books according to four categories: “foundational,” “important,” “other noteworthy books,” and “parents cautioned.” Offering insight into the shifting landscape of children’s publishing, Blomquist describes how the industry has deviated away from “sheltering” children, instead moving towards more explicit portrayals of life. While there are no full content guides for each book, Blomquist has ascribed warnings to certain titles listed, with the goal of empowering parents to choose books that best align with their faith-based moral values (also making non-homeschooling parents aware of the content in books their child’s class may be reading at school).

Meanwhile, for “foundational” and “important” books, regarded as most essential to a well-rounded literary education, Blomquist has written brief commentaries summarizing overarching themes and “virtues,” or the redeeming qualities and messages being taught. Though some books listed in Before Austen Comes Aesop were themselves culled from secular lists of best children’s books, with consideration to the universal popularity of such books (not only their literary merit) influencing the final selection of titles, the variety of options across genres, ranging from poems to fiction novels, can allow for parents and teachers to customize their program to the needs and interests of students.

Following the lists of children’s Great Books is Part 2, comprised of in-depth guides to using the books in a program with three possible tracks, or “adventures,” for either elementary or secondary school students, each of which has a step-by-step checklist of tasks: “leisurely,” “book club-ish,” and “scholarly.” Students may choose titles, namely, from lists of “other noteworthy books,” to read at their leisure. If they are interested in discussion, but are not planning to read a certain title for academic purposes, they may elect the “book club-ish” track. Finally, the scholarly adventure involves students in academic assignments based on the books being read, likely, classics deemed “foundational.”

For every track, Blomquist suggests students record their books read in a log, along with journaling their impressions. Blomquist’s proposed program is appropriately challenging and engaging, emphasizing both academic and creative writing in response to literature. Self-directed students preferring independent study might benefit most from the program, but Blomquist encourages experiential components, such as live course sessions online, and capstone project field trips, as well. To optimize students’ experiences reading the children’s Great Books, Blomquist outlines effective note-taking approaches and study habits to use, integrating reference points for writing literary explications and personal responses into both Part 2 and the appendices.

Ultimately, Before Austen Comes Aesop celebrates childhood wonder in books that spark the imagination and impart an appreciation for God’s creation in young readers, from children’s adaptations of the Bible to The Chronicles of Narnia. Thoughtfully compiled, Before Austen Comes Aesop is a worthy addition to the shelves of educators striving to teach students about beauty and truth, honor tradition, and instill a lifelong passion for learning through edifying literature well-suited for young people. Blomquist categorizes the children’s Great Books according to measures such as reading levels for each grade, but “great art transcends such limitations” (p. 16). Excellent literature is timeless, appealing to all who are children at heart.

Kathryn Sadakierski is a Catholic writer whose poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in anthologies, magazines, and literary journals around the world, including Christian Courier (Canada), Critical Read, Ekstasis Magazine, New Jersey English Journal, Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts, and Today’s American Catholic. She holds a B.A. and M.S. from Bay Path University.

Through the Heart of St. Joseph – Fr. Boniface Hicks

Hicks, Fr. Boniface. Through the Heart of St. Joseph. Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Publishing, 2021. 209 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph Tuttle.

In Through the Heart of St. Joseph, Fr. Boniface Hicks seeks to help the reader have and build their personal relationship with St. Joseph. Throughout the book, Fr. Hicks interprets the Scriptures containing the mention of St. Joseph and offers important insights into the field of Josephology. Fr. Hicks often likens a virtue or aspect of St. Joseph to the Rule of St. Benedict or a Benedictine charism. Each chapter ends with a prayer that pertains to a certain facet of St. Joseph’s life, seeking to help the reader grow closer to him by it.

One of the major motifs of the book is becoming vulnerable and little in order to approach St. Joseph. “When we are willing to come before him as a child, we will discover the heart of a father” (4). We must become little because this is the way that God came into the world, specifically to St. Joseph and Mary. God became a little and helpless child and entrusted Himself to the paternal care of St. Joseph. Fr. Hicks suggests that we should do the same in our own lives in order to attain St. Joseph’s paternal care for us.

Another aspect of St. Joseph and having a relationship with him is that of silence. Sacred Scripture does not record any spoken word of St. Joseph, even though as Fr. Hicks points out, “. . . we know he was the first to speak the greatest word ever spoken — the Name of Jesus” (47). Since Joseph was a man of silence, those who cultivate silence in their lives more readily find him. Using the Magi as examples, Fr. Hicks describes how we are to find St. Joseph in silence: “With our eyes raised to the heavens, let the noise of the world fall away and let the advice of worldly power slip into the background. Then proceed in silence, led by the passion of the heart toward the most unlikely place, a little house where we find a humble man guarding his little family” (47).

In an interesting section of the book, Fr. Hicks likens Boaz from the book of Ruth to St. Joseph. “As Boaz hid Ruth under his wing and ultimately brought her into his own family, so St. Joseph likewise does that for us when we draw close to him and ask him for this favor” (133). Ruth asks Boaz to spread his garment over her, which was a ritual for betrothal. Fr. Hicks says that St. Joseph does something similar with his cloak: “St. Joseph’s cloak is also an image of chaste betrothal, and we are reminded of the way that St. Joseph protected Mary, his betrothed, in her time of need, and also always remained chaste with her” (134). In the end, Fr. Hicks directs the reader to place himself under the cloak of St. Joseph to be comforted in times of hopelessness and anxiety.

One may ask why we should turn to St. Joseph and seek his intercession and help. In response, Fr. Hicks says that human mediation is part of God’s plan: “Although God could accomplish everything directly, He chooses to work through fragile human vessels (see 2 Cor 4:7). Thus, even if a monastery or a family were to be filled with saints, there would still be a role for order and authority under a leader” (169). If Jesus and Mary entrusted themselves to St. Joseph, what better leader could one entrust himself to?

In the final chapter, Fr. Hicks proposes the “Joseph Option.” This “Joseph Option” is a way of life that seeks to replicate that of the life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at Nazareth. Fr. Hicks even suggests that St. Benedict’s Rule and lifestyle is merely a living out of the Joseph Option. St. Benedict called his Rule a “school for the Lord’s service.” Nazareth is a school as well. It is where Jesus imitated Joseph and Mary and also where Mary and Joseph imitated Jesus. Nazareth is a school of prayer, virtue, knowledge, patience, authority, obedience, and perseverance. Fr. Hicks points out that a major aspect of the Joseph Option “. . . involves cultivating an environment that helps others become sensitive to God’s abiding presence” (173). The Joseph Option is not only for monasteries, but for families as well.

In conclusion, Through the Heart of St. Joseph offers many spiritually enriching reflections on St. Joseph. It helps the reader to personally grow closer to St. Joseph, not as some historical and obscure figure, but as a human person.

Joseph Tuttle is a freelance writer and author holding a B.A. in Theology from Benedictine College. He is currently pursuing an MA in Catholic Philosophical Studies at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.

Jesus of Nazareth – Michael Hesemann

Hesemann, Michael. Jesus of Nazareth: Archaeologists Retracing the Footsteps of Christ. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2021. 356 pages.

Reviewed by Father Andrew Walsh.

Historian Michael Hesemann has produced a fascinating and unique contribution to our understanding of Jesus Christ. The book, entitled Jesus of Nazareth: Archaeologists Retracing the Footsteps of Christ, is an intriguing walk through two thousand years of history. It was originally conceived as a companion book to Pope Benedict XVI’s similarly titled work and as a historical contribution to the same Pontiff’s 2009 journey to the Holy Land. This edition is the second and includes archaeological studies through 2019.

The structure of the book, as the subtitle indicates, carefully works its way from the Annunciation to the Ascension. Along the way Hesemann skillfully weaves historical insights and archaeological findings with his own personal narrative. At one moment he is re-telling the story of Constantine’s mother Helena and at the next he is sharing what the sacred sites look like today. Combined with the photographs included in the publication, Hesemann makes the reader feel like he is there. Likewise included within the pages are personal recommendations for local tour guides and personal criticism of other scholars. All told, this is a unique combination of fields and genres.

The thesis of the book seems to be the following, “Archaeology shows us how precise the Gospels are when it is a matter of documenting the sites of Jesus’ ministry. It is practically as if they were inviting us to examine their statements: Come here, make inquiries; it really happened this way!” Hesemann adds a historian’s expertise to the statement of Pope Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth (vol. 1), “Jesus is no myth. He is a man made of flesh and blood and he stands as a fully real part of history. We can go to the very places where he himself went. We can hear his words through his witnesses. He died and is risen.” The connection is made clear as Hesemann quotes the words of the Holy Father. Armed with present scholarly findings, he is able to say, for example, that St. John the Evangelist had “he excellent memory of an eyewitness” and was “almost touchingly eager to pass on even the minutest detail, including the days of the week and exact times.” The up-to-date studies seemingly demolish much of the fanciful writings of “demythologizers” such as Rudolf Bultmann. It’s a pity that he didn’t have access to this historical and scientific data.

To be sure, there are parts of the book that one could take issue with or draw differing conclusions. For me this would include Hesemann’s insistence that Jesus was born in March instead of December. The arguments for a spring birth don’t seem to outweigh the tradition of the Church. Another area of possible disagreement is the Holy House of Loreto. Hesemann concludes that the house presently in Italy was once located in Nazareth and was the house of the Holy Family. Recent studies remove all doubt about this. How it got from one place to another is the most mystifying question. Hesemann holds to the theory that the Angeloi family moved the stones in 1291. He doesn’t bother to explain how the stones and the grout together made the lengthy journey, or why the house was placed on a road in Italy without a foundation, or the other stops the house apparently made before its final resting place. One more quibble is Hesemann’s espousal of the supposed Q document that, at this point, remains scholarly conjecture.

Who would want to read this book? Those who have traveled to the Holy Land or those who, like myself, plan to travel there soon would benefit from the insights of a believing scholar. General readers who are captivated by Jesus Christ and want to learn more about His historical place would also appreciate this work. By the end I found myself hoping that Michael Hesemann will follow up his book with another one as archaeologists continue to unearth important contributions to our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.

Father Andrew Walsh is a parish priest in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas.

365 Days of Catholic Wisdom – Deal W. Hudson

Hudson, Deal W. 365 Days of Catholic Wisdom: A Treasury of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. TAN Books, 2020. 624 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Montz.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines worldly wisdom as “the ability to make sensible decisions and give good advice,” but the meaning to Christians is much more powerful. In 1 Corinthians 24, Christ is called “the wisdom of God.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2500, quoting the Book of Wisdom 7:25, “Wisdom is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty.” In the Gospel of John, “spirit of truth” is a name for the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. Written wisdom and truth carry joy and can also evoke that which is beyond words from the center of the human heart even to the “mystery of God.” God reveals himself thorough the work of his Word, his wisdom. 365 Days of Catholic Wisdom: A Treasury of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness presents the advice and admonitions of hundreds of Christians on a daily basis for reflection, along with a brief biography of the selected author and a very short reflection by Dr. Hudson.

Dr. Deal Hudson was formerly the publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine and He now serves as the president of the Morley Institute for Church and Culture. Deal Hudson hosts the radio show called “Church and Culture” on Ave Maria Radio and serves as publisher and editor of The Christian Review. He is a noted author and has frequently been a guest on such venues as EWTN and the O’Reilly Factor. President George W. Bush appointed Dr. Hudson to the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation in appreciation of his standing among lay Catholics.

Dr. Hudson does not pose his book as a beacon of wisdom, even though the pages are filled with deep thoughts. His hope was not to be too abstract because he wanted to appeal to a wider audience than theologians. 365 Days of Catholic of Wisdom seeks to present the ponderings of great Saints and other wise Catholics, be they poets, psychologists, actors, or directors, who are not always recognized today for their insights into truth. He has purposely avoided including our recent great popes, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, not because their thoughts were not meaningful, but because they were already well presented to the world.

Dr. Hudson, a Catholic convert who confesses that he was led to the Church through reading, has exposed himself to a wide range of works over the years and from this large selection he has chosen a sampling of poignant writings that he trusts will help the modern reader “experience the joy of truth.” The Lord’s truth and wisdom is often exhibited in the thoughts of the men and women in his flock. Dr. Hudson quipped that “often wisdom is found in laughter and poetic utterances.” The reader will experience this in the daily readings presented for an entire year. This is not simply another daily prayer book but a thought-provoking guidebook that can lead us into a deeper relationship with our God as we consider the profound insights presented. Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote that truth is the foundation of philosophy and theology. The godly truths expressed in the pages of this book can help us become holier as our hearts become more responsive to the Divine Truth.

Lawrence Montz is a Benedictine Oblate of St. Gregory Abbey, past Serran District Governor of Dallas, and serves as his Knights of Columbus council’s Vocations Program Director. He resides in the Dallas Diocese.

Beginning Well – Joel Stepanek

Stepanek, Joel. Beginning Well: Seven Spiritual Practices for the First Year of Almost Anything. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2021. 138 pages.

Reviewed by Christopher Siuzdak.

Transitions can be tough to navigate, yet these liminal moments can serve as grace-filled opportunities for growth. In a series of seven easily readable chapters, the author offers sage advice about how to embrace the adventure of new beginnings. Each lesson incorporates relatable anecdotes and a biblical passage “to help ground each concept in our faith” (xvi). The golden nuggets of wisdom contained in this book lay a strong foundation for resilience and flourishing.

The first chapter draws upon the story of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:17, 26) to demonstrate the danger of failing to let go of what is being left behind. Looking at the past longingly and constantly comparing the present with the past can prove to be paralyzing (7). “When we lay what has passed to rest,” the author explains, “we free our hands to take hold of what is coming into being” (13). The recommendation to maintain a forward-looking orientation is reminiscent of Saint Junípero Serra’s motto “¡Siempre adelante!” (best translated as “Ever onward!” or “Keep moving forward!”).

The second chapter discusses identifying and harnessing skills already in one’s repertoire. The author astutely observes: “We fail to leverage what we’ve worked hard to learn because we rationalize it as not fitting, but that isn’t true. Reclaim what you’ve learned and apply it” (35). An honest assessment of existing gifts and how they are applicable in novel ways can pave the path to success. The third chapter treats inquisitiveness and the humility of asking for help. Many people are plagued by the so-called imposter syndrome, a nagging self-doubt that inhibits engaging fully and asking questions that would promote success. The author pithily reminds readers of God’s omniscience and the need to accept the more limited reality of human creatures: “We need to accept that God is God and we are not” (47). Ultimately, genuine humility will yield confidence rather than self-doubt.

The fourth chapter recommends creating routines and rituals to help bridge the old and the new. It is important to find a proverbial anchor for staying grounded. The fifth chapter discusses the need for evaluation and reflection. Both the spiritual life and life in general require a motivating vision and actionable goals. In this regard, the author recommends the Examen, “a daily prayer exercise that reviews parts of our day and where we progressed or backslid in our journey toward holiness” (83–84). Several thought-provoking formulations of the Examen are provided.

The sixth chapter discusses mentorship — both workplace mentors and spiritual mentors. The author sketches some helpful criteria when looking for a mentor, namely: “Find a mentor who has walked where you are about to walk” and “Find a mentor who can challenge you because they care about you” (112). The importance of finding a good mentor cannot be overstated.

The seventh chapter centers on finding joy through gratitude. The author poignantly reflects: “Without joy, we will find ourselves succumbing to adversity. Joy elevates us beyond the moment because it allows us to embrace what is good in each moment. This isn’t just a best practice, it is a spiritual superpower” (122). The author recommends a gratitude journal as a means of cultivating joy.

In sum, Joel Stepanek, vice president of parish services at Life Teen International, exuberantly imparts some valuable life lessons about navigating transitions. What makes this book stand out from others in the personal development genre is that faith is integrated organically throughout the entire work. The simple yet profound guidance contained in this book is applicable to all; however, the style and allusions are likely to resonate most with emerging adults (that is, individuals in their late teens to mid-twenties).

Christopher Siuzdak is a canonist in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Portland.

Behold the Handmaid of the Lord – Edward Looney

Looney, Edward. Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2021. 87 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Montz.

True devotion requires our consecrating to Mary all the “satisfactory, impetratory and meritorious value of our actions” or more clearly, all our good works and merits, trusting that with this surrendering she will only magnify the benefits to her devotees because of this offering of self. Fr. Looney points out that this is “heavy stuff” and many have struggled with the concept. It must be recognized that this is a surrender to Jesus through Mary and not a tribute paid to a human.

The ten-day Marian pilgrimage begins with the importance, acknowledged since early times, of the role of the Blessed Virgin in salvation history, and an admonishment that when we offer her praise, it is as the Mother of God and not a form of worship. Considerations on the second day dwell on her relationship with the Holy Trinity and the honor they gave her. St. Louis pointed out that Jesus honored the Father more in his 30 years as Mary’s dutiful son than by working many great miracles.

Subsequent days reflect on her role as Mother, as she defends and protects her devotees as a benevolent mother. St. Louis de Montfort strongly believed she was the Mediatrix of Grace, a position that many Catholics and Protestants find hard to accept or understand; however, many saints such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Alphonsus Liguori also promoted devotion to the Queen of Heaven as Mediatrix. Fr. Looney emphasizes that this mediation is accomplished because of God’s will, not Mary’s merits.

True Devotion draws us closer to Mary and the Holy Trinity. St. Bernard counseled, “Whatever you are proposing to offer, remember to entrust to Mary.” The exploration of Mary’s role as our spiritual mother ends with a challenge to accept Mary as queen of our lives. Consecration to Mary is a long-time Catholic tradition and retreatants are challenged to accept her in this God appointed role.

Without some familiarity with St. Louis de Montfort and his concept of true devotion, the daily retreat topics may be more challenging to understand; but our intellectual self-certainty is not as important as our desire to draw closer to the Mother of God. Fr. Looney endeavors to help us discover more about Mary from the entirety of the Catholic tradition, not just the thoughts of the Saint. However, the theme of each daily meditation is a title ascribed to Mary or inspired by True Devotion to Mary. To reap the full benefits, we must be open to God’s inspiration to lead us to a closer relationship to the Theotokos.

Lawrence Montz is a Benedictine Oblate of St. Gregory Abbey, past Serran District Governor of Dallas, and serves as his Knights of Columbus council’s Vocations Program Director. He resides in the Dallas Diocese.

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