I accepted a review copy of Sam Rocha’s A Primer for Philosophy and Education with trepidation: Academics tend to write horribly, and philosophers are the worst of the lot. Well, I found a jewel. Not only can the man write clearly and well, he can think straight, too. Sam Rocha’s Primer is a treasure trove of measured, thoughtful reflection on what makes education, and how to become educated.
I recommend his book wholeheartedly to anyone who is serious about education – teachers, catechists, parents, principals and directors of religious education, pastors, students. The reading level isn’t babyish — you have to put on your grown-up and think about what you’re reading — but it’s geared toward the intelligent layman who truly cares about the topic. Pour a cup a tea, put up your feet, and get your pencil ready to highlight your favorite lines.
Today I’d like to share a few quotes from the book that I think speak to the state of catechesis today, and share my own reflections on what we educators need to consider.
“Students like these are motivated by a sense of entrapment, a feeling that they must go to school and get good grades in order to get a respectable job, good reviews and promotions, a pay raise for having an advanced degree, so on and so forth – to avoid disappointing family and friends.”
This doesn’t just happen in academia, it happens in the parish. How many teens are cycled through confirmation because it will please Mom & Dad? How many parents baptize their children in order to silence Grandma’s nagging?
When someone walks through the door seeking sacraments the way they seek a diploma or their 1st Aid certification, we should welcome them wholeheartedly. And then show them a better way.
“The problem with grades, credentials, and formal schooling is that it generates a culture and mentality of fear, distrust, and paranoia.”
Our diocese, like most, sets out a few minimum educational requirements for persons requesting the sacraments. These standards are, at their heart, ordered toward a very serious matter: We must ensure that the individual is indeed prepared to receive Our Lord in a worthy manner. But it is important that we communicate – in our words and in our policies – that what matters is not the sitting in a room or checking off of to-do items, but that the soul be prepared. Classes are a tool that can help prepare students for the sacraments, and I am grateful for the excellent volunteers who’ve helped my own children grow in their faith. But education is different than attendance.
“Of course students who attend a school that assigns grades should want to get good grades. They should obviously not want to get bad ones. However, you should not confuse this institutionalized process of grade-getting, school-going, degree-worshipping, and job-seeking with what philosophy and education have to offer you. . . . Formal schooling does not have the monopoly on philosophy or education.”
Our courses should be such that students and parents want to attend them. And in guiding parents and students, we need to direct them not towards the checklist as the measure of spiritual growth, but to the serious questions of heart, soul, and mind.
“Google is full of information, but it has no wisdom of its own. A person who is full of information is not necessarily full of wisdom. . . . To win at games like Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit does not require wisdom, it only requires information.”
In catechesis, information nutures wisdom, and wisdom thirsts for information. If I love God, I’ll want to know more about Him. The more I know about God, the more reasons I’ll have to love Him.
We tend to slip into a false dichotomy, setting up hard facts against feelings, or precision against grace. Not so. The human mind and soul languish when the scales are loaded on one side only. Demanding love without knowledge is an arranged marriage; demanding knowledge without love is a business relationship. In our catechesis, we need to help our students love God in all four ways that He Himself has directed – heart, mind, soul, and strength.
“Read for the truth. Write and speak to show what seems true. Ask questions to get at what might be true. Attend classes to seek the truth. Do not settle for shallow, impoverished grades, and cheap, degrading awards. . . . Philosophy and education require courage.”
Recently a catechist (not from my parish) approached me privately with a difficult situation: Several fellow catechists in her program had shared with her various ways in which they are freely, and with full knowledge, choosing to act, in serious matters, in ways contrary to the Catholic faith. They are committing no crimes, and they are not actively teaching dissent in the classroom. But they clearly do not believe that the Church in her wisdom possesses the fullness of the truth. The catechist wanted to know what she should do? She didn’t want to be a tattle-tale, and she did want to address the problem in a way that would help her colleagues grow in their own faith and embrace the fullness of the Church’s teachings.
She also knew instinctively about the essential relationship between education and truth: You can’t teach something you don’t believe is true.
Read the whole book. Beautifully written, and the whimsical line drawings create delightful moments to pause and reflect. Well worth your time.
Looking for ways to become a better religious educator? You can find 31 days of easy tips and strategies to improve your teaching approach, your classroom management skills, and even your spiritual life in Jared Dees’ new book, 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator. Jared Dees is the creator of the popular website TheReligionTeacher.com. His book’s valuable advice stems from years of experience teaching religion both in parishes and in Catholic schools.
31 Days’ first challenge encourages us to remember why we became catechists in the first place. According to a recent informal poll of faith formation professionals, most people became catechists because of a spiritual awakening, or feeling of being called. This feeling can become lost in the day-to-day struggle to make a difference in students’ lives. Jared urges us to renew our commitment, and to let it inspire us going forward.
The book’s excellent advice is organized into four separate sections on becoming a better disciple, a better servant, a better leader, and a better teacher. “Only as disciples and servants can you become a great leader,” and ultimately a great teacher, the book states. The section on discipleship guides readers though a deeply spiritual and personal journey to reconnect with the workings of grace in our lives. The section on becoming a better servant counsels us to develop one-on-one relationships with our students so we can discover how best to help each one as an individual uniquely loved by God. The last two sections provide nitty-gritty classroom and teaching strategies to aid us in communicating the faith more effectively.
Each short chapter is designed to take only ten to fifteen minutes. First, a Scriptural quote sets the scene. Then, Jared explains the topic and why it’s important, and assigns a task to accomplish that day. Each chapter ends with an invitation to go deeper in prayer or spiritual reading. Jared’s website — www.thereligionteacher.com/31days — provides additional resources, like an online reminder to stay on schedule during the entire 31 days.
As a pre-Cana instructor, I benefited most from the first two sections of the book. The section on becoming a better servant, for example, stresses that identifying our students’ top needs is the key to helping them in ways that matter. Much to my dismay, I have seen that many engaged people don’t understand why God and the Church are relevant to their married life at all. Their deepest need is to realize how God and the Church can help them to fulfill the desire for soul-satisfying, long-lasting love that burns in every human heart. If I forget that, my students’ attention will vanish in an instant.
CCD teachers or Catholic schoolteachers might gain the most from the last two sections of the book. In these sections, Jared covers techniques like streamlining classroom procedures, using textbooks effectively, and assigning long-term projects that require parental participation.
At the end of reading 31 Days, religious educators should feel spiritually renewed and refreshed and better equipped to take on the awesome task of bringing Christ to souls through educating them in the faith. Teachers and students alike can benefit from that!
To purchase this book from Amazon, click here.
For Marc Cardaronella’s interview with the author, click here.
Many thanks to Ave Maria Press for providing a free review copy.
I tend to be rules-based thinker. I am an accountant by training, the kind of person who can read an IRS form and say, “Oh, this makes perfect sense!” So when I think about chastity, simple, practical rules appeal to me. Don’t hold hands unless _______. No kiss until _________. Follow the method and it’ll all work out.
Which would be a great system, if only chastity were an accounting method.
How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating by Leah Perrault and Brett Salkeld is the answer to a thorny question: How do I teach my children to discern the right way to live chastely? I need my kids to develop a mature faith, not just follow a set of simplistic dictates about whether it’s okay to to hold hands 2.3 years into the courtship. But that doesn’t mean we devolve into saying, “Whatever you decide is fine.” Some choices about displays of affection most definitely are not fine.
To ground those decisions, the book includes a primer on the basics of chastity: What is it, and why does the Church teach it? Typical questions, such as, “Can I use birth control pills to treat a medical condition?” are answered with a mind for both theological accuracy and common sense. A whole chapter is devoted to, “What do I do if I’ve already gone too far?” The answer: It’s never too late to start living chastely, and the Church offers us the sacrament of reconciliation to get us started on our renewed life of grace.
For all these basics, I found the friendly, readable, and compact format to be very handy. It’s Theology of the Body, sex-topics version, in a palatable package you can realistically give to a busy parent, parents can give to teens, and harried catechists can use to catch up on the essentials without having to wade through piles of academic literature.
But what’s most radically different about the book is the answer to the “How Far Can We Go?” question. The reader learns how to draw hard lines at essential points: Anything that’s going to lead us into sin is a no-go, and that may mean backing off of what we thought was an acceptable practice. But the reader also learns how to choose an appropriate display of affection that accurately reflects the reality of the couple’s relationship. Couples learn to talk through differences in expectations – perhaps one comes from a very outwardly-affectionate family, and the other tends to be very reserved – and how to use good communication to clarify the meaning of our actions.
What age for this book?
Mature teens and up. This is a resource catechists can recommend to parents of teens, for both the parent and teen to read and discuss together. Young adult groups (18 and up) would find it a good book study choice. The style is readable, and the content suitable for someone with no background in Church teaching on sexuality, but the authors never speak down to the reader. The assumption is that you’re an intelligent person who wants to do the right thing, and you’re interested in learning some approaches for making the right thing happen.
Theology of the Body for Everybody
Also worth a look: A second book by Leah Perrault, Theology of the Body for Everbody, is not a book about Catholic Sex Ed. It’s a great book though — in fact it’s my #2 go-to book as a primer on evangelization and discipleship. My review of that title is at NewEvangelizers.com. (#1 is Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, of course.)
–> For a second opinion on How Far Can We Go?, here is the book review at Darwin Catholic that originally called my attention to this work.
The forward of Kathleen Basi’s new book, This Little Light of Mine says, “No one can teach well what he or she doesn’t know well. The best way to ensure that religious formation “takes” is for parents to live their faith, to be seekers alongside their children. Then, children see that religion is not something you learn about in childhood and consider finished. Rather, it must grow and change throughout life.”
This sums up the mission of this relevant “little” book, which is a terrific resource, not only for parents but also for children. Each chapter begins with quotes from Scripture, followed by a section aimed at Parents (with occasional references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church), a second section for the children and then “Just Live It” suggestions for how to live the virtue (often including an activity or craft.) Interspersed throughout each chapter, the author shares her own relevant life experiences.
There are many pertinent and inspiring quotes in this book…these are just a few:
On humility: “…means accepting what we don’t want to accept…trusting that God has a plan, even if it makes no sense to us,” and the author stresses that regular confession is important in this regard. Mention is made of St. Therese, the Little Flower, who lived the ordinary and did small things to the best of her ability.
On suffering: “As unpleasant as it is, suffering is good for us. It stretches the soul, offers opportunities to grow in ways we couldn’t without it.”
Under Matrimony, Physical Symbols (from the chapter: Sacraments and Private Devotion): “Though we most often think of rings and a white dress as symbols of marriage, neither of those is essential to the sacrament. What is essential is the physical union of the two becoming one (the vows). The marriage act is where the vows, which promise a complete self-gift, become real. This is why the Church teaches that all sexual acts must be open to the possibility of life, for how can couples claim to give and receive each other fully when such a major part of who they are is off-limits to each other and to God? The Church’s least popular teaching simply acknowledges what human beings were created to be. We are most ourselves when we use our bodies in harmony with the way God created them. (My emphasis). Through marriage, we become one; and as one, we look to the future of the possibility of life (openly and honestly.)“ In simple, easy-to-understand language, Basi explains why contraception and same-sex marriage cannot be “in harmony with the way God created” us.
On persecution (chapter 8): “When discipleship leads us to life practices that others find threatening or strange, like using natural family planning or living simply and less luxuriously than the norm, people may roll their eyes and call us out of touch with the real world, or make any number of other belittling, contemptuous remarks.” This is an excellent point: persecution does not necessarily involve martyrdom. If we are living our Catholicity, it will not be popular. I’ve seen my share of eye rolling and criticisms within our own extended circle of family and friends because of our openness to life (and our refusal to get sterilized), our outspoken pro-life beliefs and our stance against same sex marriage.
On faith (chapter 9): “Each of us is called to serve in unique ways; each of us has gifts and contributions to make that no one else can make, purposes for which God put us on the earth.”
It is up to each one of us to discern how we are called to serve. One of the most important ways is to promote and bring the Catholic faith to others. As mentioned in the beginning, we cannot promote or teach a faith we don’t know. This Little Light of Mine is an excellent basic guide to Catholicism and is easy to read for both parent and child. It is a terrific resource that can help each member of the family learn their faith better.
Copyright 2013 Ellen Gable Hrkach
Catholic moms, you are in for a treat!
EWTN host and best-selling author, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, has a new TV series and a book to match, and I am very proud to announce them both!
Catholic Mom’s Café is the title of her terrific new book (available now) and her new television series of the same name, which will premiere on EWTN some time in the near future! (Watch local listings for your area.)
As a busy mother of five, Donna-Marie understands that our hectic lives make it difficult to find time for prayer and reflection; so her new book provides 365 five-minute mini-retreats that highlight faith, hope, and love, in an engaging and flexible format that any woman can adapt to meet her own needs.
Like everything Donna-Marie sets her heart and hands to do, Catholic Mom’s Café is geared toward real women, coping with real-world problems. Her work is clear, Catholic, and always encouraging. Here is some of what you’ll find in her book:
Motherhood is a miraculous vocation – sometimes the miracle is just making it through the day!
Let’s face it: being a mom is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes we just hit the ground running without giving our faith a second thought. This collection of quick “mini-retreats for moms” can change all that.
Consider these your spiritual “daily vitamins” that will energize you and help you find the faith, hope, and love you’ll need to be the mom God wants you to be – today and every day.
• Ponder quotes from the Bible and other spiritual readings
• Offer yourself to the Lord through an easy activity or idea
• Pray suggested prayers that match the daily theme
• Savor a little “sound bite” to carry throughout the day
The first five episodes of the EWTN series were filmed last week in Irondale, Alabama, and I was honored to be one of Donna-Marie’s first guests, talking about modesty and how we can adapt today’s fashions in a way that supports our dignity as children of God.
I was very humbled to be included with her four other, wonderful guests: Lisa Hendey, Karen Edmisten, Marge Fenelon, and Woodene Koenig-Bricker, discussing a wide variety of topics, all near and dear to any mother’s heart. (For more information on the guests and their topics, head over to the blog!)
So join the conversation at Donna-Marie’s Catholic Mom’s Café blog, where you’ll find all the updates and featured links to reviews and news on both the book and the TV series; and stop by and “like” the Catholic Mom’s Café on Facebook, where Donna-Marie will share ideas, book excerpts, reviews, inspiration, news, and recipes!
Here’s a link to Donna-Marie’s recent interview on EWTN Live, with Father Mitch Pacwa, where she shares lots more about the book and the TV series!
Here is today’s installment with a short audio clip from the book, read by me on the theme “This is My Body:”Jesus’ Prayer and Ours:
Tomorrow’s stop on the blog tour: In The Heart of My Home
A schedule for the full blog tour is here.
The approach of spring is an excellent time to think of gardening. One of the projects on my bucket list is to create a beautiful flower garden in my “sacred space” near the statue of Our Lady in the forest adjoining our home. As my children were growing, then as I began writing fiction, this project has been pushed down on my priority list time and again. A very special book has given me a renewed enthusiasm to set aside time this spring to begin to work on my sacred space.
“A Garden of Visible Prayer”, by Margaret Realy, begins with a beautiful St. Teresa of Avila quote, “A beginner must think of herself as one setting out to make a garden in which her Beloved Lord is to take His delight.” Wow.
The author describes this book as a “step-by-step approach to help guide you in creating a meaningful sacred space – a place you can step into, close at hand, matched to what brings you, personally to inner quietness.”
Each chapter begins with an inspiring, relevant quote and instructions and information the beginning gardener would need. Black and white photographs help to illustrate each chapter. Some of the most relevant chapters include: Defining the Garden, Memorial Gardens, Collecting Ideas, Prayer Garden Location, Site Assessment, Our Senses, Basic Building Blocks of Design, Plant Selection, Preparation and Installation. I particularly enjoyed the section on “Seating,” and the story of the older man who kept a chair next to his bed.
I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to create a beautiful sacred space in which our Beloved Lord can “take His delight.”
This book is currently on sale and is the ideal gift for any gardener in your life!
Here are a few other reviewer comments:
“Long time gardener and author, Margaret Rose Realy believes that solace and the gentle voice of God can be heard in a garden. Take a walk with her within the pages of her beautifully crafted unique book, A Garden of Visible Prayer as she descriptively guides you every step of the way to create your own personal retreat space, incorporating a variety of elements, which will lead you to prayer. Even with meager means or a small space, by following the steps in this book, your end result will be a distinctive and beautiful setting in which you can bask in God’s creation and where you may very well hear His voice telling you to, “Be still and know that I am God.” Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is a Catholic speaker and author of numerous books and EWTN TV host.
“Many books can show you how to design a garden that pleases the eye and ensures good plant growth, but few books help you create a garden that promotes your spiritual growth. Margaret begins by giving you tools to determine the spiritual aspects that you want in your garden as well as the sensual and physical characteristics that influence site, plant and accessory selection. She then provides practical design techniques, pointers on plant selection, soils and media, containers and tips on planting trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. This book is useful for anyone designing a new garden but invaluable for those of us looking to create a space for meditation, contemplation and prayer.” Dean M. Krauskopf, Ph.D., Extension Education Emeritus, Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service
When I show up to teach religious ed, there is one book you can be pretty sure I’ll have stuffed in my bag: a Daily Roman Missal. Years ago I invested in a good-quality Missal, and I’ve never regretted it. In terms of dollars-per-hour-of-use, my missal has been one of my best values, despite the hefty up-front cost.
Midwest Theological Forum recently sent me a review copy of the latest edition of their Daily Roman Missal. For those readers who’ve never taught from the Missal, today I’d like to give you a tour of how to use it in the classroom, and why I think it’s such a great tool for catechists. For those who have an older edition and are considering updating in light of the new Mass translation, I’ll share some of the improvements MTF has made with this latest edition.
So What is a Daily Missal Anyway?
A daily Missal contains two key items:
1. The order of the Mass — that is, all the prayers that we say at each Mass, and instructions like, “sit”, “stand”, “kneel”, “touch your toes”, etc. (Just kidding about touch your toes.)
2. All the Bible readings for the Mass, for every day of the year. You may have a Sunday Missal in the pew at your parish that gives the Sunday readings. The Daily Missal covers every day of the week, for the three-year cycle of Sunday readings, the two-year cycle of weekday readings, and the readings for feast days, saints days, and special Masses like a Mass for the Dead.
There can be other items added on — and MTF’s latest edition contains loads of extras – but those are the two basic ingredients.
A Daily Missal Is Not the Liturgy of the Hours
Before I continue, let me clear up something real important: A daily Missal will not contain the prayers and readings of the “Divine Office”. That’s the cycle of psalms, prayers, and spiritual readings that are prayed each day in a monastery (and elsewhere!), above and beyond just the regular Mass for the day. Those prayers are found in a Breviary, which is a different book. To get the hang of the Liturgy of the Hours, visit Coffee and Canticles hosted by Daria Sockey.
Now, back to the Missal.
Why Use a Daily Missal?
Studying the Bible in big chunks is important. But reading through the Scriptures along with the Church — every day, if you can — helps you stay in sync with the liturgical year, and helps you see the connections between the Bible and the practice of our faith. Many of us can’t make it to Mass every single day. But most of us can fit in five to ten minutes of quiet time to read the daily Mass readings and spend a few minutes reflecting on them.
For personal prayer and study, online sources like iBreviary may be the most convenient for some. And it can also be helpful to look up the day’s readings directly in your Bible, so that you can look at the context of each selection. I strongly urge you to use whichever resource best meets your needs. But for teaching religious ed, and for studying the practices of the faith, I find that having a Daily Missal provides a view of the liturgy and the liturgical year that you just can’t get any other way.
Using the Daily Missal in your Religious Ed Class
I pack my Daily Missal when I teach religious ed, because I know that no matter what happens, I can teach the Catholic faith to anybody, anywhere, if I have this one book in bag. The number one thing I use the Missal for is studying the Sunday Gospel with my students. I like to study the next Sunday’s reading. I can use my Missal to look up that reading conveniently, and at times we’ll choose a different feast day coming up — such as in preparation for Holy Week.
With older students, I have the kids look up the reading in their Bibles and read it independently, and then I’ll read the passage aloud to the class before we discuss it. With younger students, you’ll want to just do a read-aloud, and may need to shorten the reading to highlight just one aspect of that week’s Gospel (or other reading). When you read aloud, pause to explain any difficult words, and to make sure students are following the story line. Often in the Gospels, the Scripture will have more than one “he” or “she” in the action. Use proper names, like this:
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother [you clarify: the brother of James], and led them up to a high mountain by themselves. And he [you clarify: Jesus] was transfigured before them . . .” [Stop to make sure students know what "transfigured" means.]
Even adults may be unclear on who is doing what, or what an unusual term really means.
Learning to Pray the Mass
The other feature of a good Daily Missal is the complete text of the Mass, including the “rubrics” — the detailed instructions in red letters that tell priest and congregation what should be happening. MTF’s Missal puts the Latin and English side-by-side on facing pages. For use in the pews, most of us don’t need all four Eucharistic prayers spelled out — it’s enough to listen and join our prayers with the priest. But for teaching the faith, having the complete text of the Mass on hand is invaluable. This both allows you to answer odd questions, and to point out little details about the liturgy that can help students better understand the practice of our faith.
There are a number of publishers of Daily Missals, and I have not reviewed them all. I was very happy with my 1998 4th Edition from MTF in partnership with Our Sunday Visitor. For the 7th Edition, MTF has packed in an impressive array of additional features. I’ll mention a few of my favorites:
The Liturgical Year at a Glance The complete calendar of all the major feasts, numerous tables showing how the cycles readings fit together, and a listing of the Holy Days of Obligation. These make it super easy to look up all those niggling questions about the Church calendar that kids are always asking, and can really test a catechist’s memory.
Short Saint Bios for Each Feast These are just two or three sentences, but they’ll prevent disasters like not being certain whether St. Hilary was a boy or a girl (boy), give you the dates the saint lived, and provide a couple highlights of the saints’ life that will fit right in with catechsim class.
A Vast Collection of Devotional Prayers Find everything from essential liturgical devotions such as The Stations of the Cross or the how-to’s of Eucharistic Adoration, to lesser-known but powerful prayers that might fill an important slot in your class. How about these excerpts from the Prayer of St. Bonaventure:
“Grant that my soul my hunger for you, the Bread of angels and the food of holy souls . . .”
“May my heart always draw near to you, seek you, catch sight of you, be drawn to you, and arrive in your presence.”
Even very young children can be introduced to the rich treasures of our spiritual heritage, in little bite-sized, kid-friendly doses.
Catholic 101 As an all-in-one sourcebook for catechists, MTF’s 7th edition of their Daily Roman Missal hit it into the park by including all the essentials of the faith in a little section called, “How to be a better Catholic.” It got everything from the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes; lists I’m always getting confused like the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” versus the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit”; and the how-to’s of before, during and after receiving the Sacrament of Confession. We all show up to class with little gaps in our formation and lapses of memory; these refreshers are a great resource, so I’m thrilled to see them included in the new Missal.
Bringing Beauty, Reverence, and Seriousness to Our Faith
I didn’t buy my first Missal in order to impress anybody. And as gorgeous and useful and comprehensive as MTF’s Daily Roman Missal is, it’s not a book that many parishes can afford to buy in bulk to hand out to catechists. I bring mine to class because it’s a convenient little package that packs a wallop, and since I use it every day, it’s usually not lost. (Which can’t be said about most things that land on my black hole of a desk). But there’s one other thing I love about this book: It’s beautiful.
I’m a jeans-&-t-shirt catechist. My home could charitably be called “casual”. I want a car I can hose out, and a rosary that can run through the washing machine in my pocket, and be just as good when it comes out the other side. But there’s something lovely, something fitting, in the beauty of MTF’s Missal, and the reverence it evokes. It’s good for students to see it in use. To see sacred things wrapped in a sacred package. And that these beautiful treasures are not museum pieces, but living works of art that animate our lives, day after day.
MTF’s 7th Edition of the Daily Roman Missal is edited by Rev. James Socias. He’s also the author of Introduction to Catholicism for Adults, which I am reviewing chapter-by-chapter at the Happy Catholic Bookshelf. When I’ve completed that book, I’ll post an overall review here as well. I’m just getting under way with that study for the Year of Faith, but here are my notes on Chapter 1.
Mike Aquilina’s Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols is a quick read that provides a comprehensive foundation for further investigation into Christian symbolism. I was given a review copy of the book before a family trip that included many museums full of medieval art, and I found it to be a helpful overview for me and my older children.
Aquilina excels at writing about the early Christians in a way that makes them seem like long-lost relatives. This book is informative without being too academic in tone for a popular audience. As he says in the introduction, “This is not a work of scholarship, but an act of devotion – an act of piety towards our ancestors, so that we might learn to see the world once again with their eyes, and to pray and live as they once prayed and lived.” I enjoyed the mixture of testimony from Church Fathers, detailed illustrations showing replicas of actual Christian art, and citations from other contemporary sources.
Each chapter is a short overview of a symbol, exploring its roots in Jewish or pagan culture and showing how it was given new meaning by the early Christians. It’s a great way to learn more about the diverse groups of early Christians, including the Copts in Egypt and the earliest Jewish converts. I learned about several symbols I wasn’t aware had Christian meaning, like dolphins and peacocks, and Aquilina includes intriguing details like the hidden meaning of the “Sator Arepo” square.
Books like this one are a great way to start breaking open the central ideas of our faith. Christian symbols can be the “hooks” that draw us into a deeper understanding of a particular teaching, or allow us to see new spiritual insights in familiar images. I think this would be a great component of a course on either art history or the Creed – it’s short enough to be read in one sitting but organized in a way that makes it easy to refer to a specific chapter if you happen upon a symbol in a church window or a painting that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the early Church. My middle schooler found it pretty easy to understand, so I would say it’s appropriate for young adolescents on up, although that’s not to say it wouldn’t be perfect for adults as well.
Aquinas and More is the largest on-line Catholic bookstore.
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