Log in
    
Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester

Kay Winchester lives and works in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York. Website URL:

Book review: 'Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depended on It'

“Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depended on It.” By Heather King.  Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017. 224 pages. Paperback: $10.84; Kindle: $9.99; Nook:  $10.49.
 
Like Heather King’s previous books, the most accurate word to describe this one is “honest” – sometimes brutally so. However, it is that very quality that makes “Holy Desperation: Praying As If Your Life Depended on It” so powerful. It is the honesty of a soul who has gone about as far down into the abyss as one can go, only to be overwhelmed and lifted out of those depths by the unconditional love of a forgiving God. Such an experience leaves a person changed forever.
 
As I read through the 13 chapters of this book, I thought how much the tone of King’s words echoed those of St. Paul, for it is obvious that she too is on fire with the love of God. By telling her story – without pulling any punches -- “Holy Desperation” ultimately becomes a book of hope for those who thought they had none left.
 
Although it is a reverent book, it is not a pious one, at least not in the ordinary sense of that word. The author makes no attempt to cover up the grittiness and messiness of life that brings people to God, nor does she say that, in order to approach the Almighty, one has to have on, as it were, one’s “Sunday best.” God, who knows us as we truly are, simply asks us to show up. “Come, all you who have missed the mark, who are dying for lack of meaning, all you who are sick and anxious and lonely and afraid unto death,” she says.  “Come…you who are caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s while your siblings play golf. … Come, you who live in chronic physical pain, you who are perpetually broke…you who live a life of hidden, silent martyrdom that not one other person sees or cares about.”
 
“Come close. Come as close as you can.”
 
It was just for these that Christ came into the world, she continues, for the sick, the wounded and the rejected. “Christ, with his special heart for the mentally and emotionally ill, constantly cast out demons from the people who came to him,” she writes. All that God requires of us is to acknowledge our own neediness and admit to our own demons.
 
That, however, is the hard part, and one that most of us do not come to easily. For King, who was battling her own demon of alcoholism, it came at the end of a very dark road. Then, what seemed like despair became instead the most sincere prayer of all. “The essence of prayer consists in doing what most of us have never done before and that no human being does unless we are utterly, completely out of ideas,” she admits, “and that is to acknowledge defeat and ask for help. Kneeling, our heads are close to our hearts. Kneeling, we feel our exhaustion. Kneeling, we’re the height of children.”
 
 
 
The balance of the book consists of lessons learned, experiences shared and encouragement to continue no matter where in our journey of life we happen to be. There is a chapter devoted to the traditional prayers of the Church, which the author loves and prays on a daily basis, but we are also invited to join King’s own prayers, which are as honest and sincere as everything else in the book. “Heavenly Father, help me believe that I am loved in spite of my ongoing incompetence, littleness and brokenness,” she prays near the beginning. “Help me remember that our brokenness is why you came. Help me not be afraid to come close to you, in any way, at any minute of the day or night.”
 
This book is highly recommended.
 
Author biography
 
Heather King is an essayist, memoirist, blogger and former lawyer. She struggled with alcoholism for many years, got sober in 1987 and converted to Catholicism in 1996.
 
She has written several books including “Stripped,” “Parched,” “Redeemed,” “Shirt of Flame,” “Poor Baby” and “Stumble.” A contributor to the Catholic magazine Magnificat, her column "The Crux" appears in Angelus, the publication of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
 
She currently lives in Los Angeles.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Book review: "Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem'

“Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem.” By Wetta, J. Augustine, OSB. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017. 188 pages. Paperback: $17.95; Kindle: $9.15; Nook: $10.99.

If your spiritual goal for Lent is, in part, to break bad habits and attitudes and replace them with better ones, then Father Wetta’s book may be just the guide you are looking for. Unlike giving up chocolate or a favorite television program (although either of these things is good if it leads you closer to God) Wetta, a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Louis, proposes something dramatically counter-cultural instead – giving up the pursuit of our own self-esteem in order to embrace a life of self-abandonment. In other words, as the title of his new book says, it may be time to let humility rule.

The virtue of humility has gotten a bad rap in the last few decades because it is largely misunderstood. It is often confused with the destructive notion of “putting oneself down” when, in reality, it is a genuine raising up of the true self. “[St. Benedict]”, Father Wetta notes, “is not focused on self-love, self-praise, self-aggrandizement, or self-promotion—not focused on the self at all, but on how to relate to one another and to God in light of our strengths and weaknesses. But such clarity of vision begins to develop only when you take the focus off yourself and devote yourself body and soul to a higher purpose.”

St. Benedict’s “Rule” calls this ascent to a higher purpose “The Ladder of Humility," and Father Wetta’s book is structured around each rung. Reading through his description of each – “Don’t be true to yourself, don’t follow your dreams, put your worst foot forward” for instance -- may inspire some to run rapidly in the opposite direction. Don’t be deceived, however; this is no dour monk writing to ruin your life or drag you down into a “slough of despond." Rather, it is a call to reality, to genuineness and to what really matters in life – both here and hereafter. As a bonus, it is written in such a way that a 21st century reader can understand and appreciate the truth of what the author is saying, even when those truths are as old as Creation itself.  As Wetta puts it, “…my goal here is to make St. Benedict’s handbook a bit more accessible—and perhaps a little less medieval.”

Another bonus is Father Wetta himself; although he takes what he is saying seriously, he does not take himself so. (A mark of humility?  Perhaps….) For example, the illustrations that he includes throughout the book, though drawn from medieval sources, have been given a decidedly modern – and humorous – spin. He also draws upon his own often quirky life experiences to illustrate his points (he is, for instance, also known as “the surfing monk” who was once almost eaten by a shark off a beach in New Jersey. He invites the reader to look it up – I did, and it’s true.)  In keeping with his other vocation as an educator – he teaches English, classics and theology at the Priory School, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he also coaches rugby and serves as director of chaplaincy – each chapter ends with a homework assignment. Don’t worry though; these exercises are designed to deepen and extend for yourself what Wetta has explained on the page.  I got to the point that I actually looked forward to doing them.

So why bother with humility? Because it brings us closer to God.  “…humility should never be confused with mediocrity,” Father Wetta concludes.  “Perfect holiness is the purpose for which we were created, so we can’t allow ourselves to be comfortable with the status quo. The minimum is not enough. ... Does this scare you? It should. But it should also thrill you, because it means you are infinitely important and always loved. ... So get to it. You know the steps, now climb the ladder.”

Author bio:

Augustine Wetta is a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri.  In addition to earning two degrees in theology from Oxford University, Father Wetta also has a bachelor's degree in Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations from Rice University and a master's in English from Middlebury College in Vermont.

Before entering religious life, Wetta learned to surf and was a lifeguard on the Galveston, Texas, Sheriff Department Beach Patrol. He has also worked as a professional juggler (“The Flying Fettuccinne Brothers”) and as an archeologist.
 
  • Published in Reviews

Book review: 'God’s Guide for Grandparents'

“God’s Guide for Grandparents.”  By Susan M. Erschen.  Indiana:  Our Sunday Visitor, October 2017.  144 pages.  Paperback:  $14.95; Kindle:  $9.99; Nook:  $10.49.
 
Becoming a grandparent is a blessing from God; as author Susan Erschen reminds us in her new book, “God’s Guide for Grandparents,” it is “the fulfillment of Scripture’s beautiful prayer, “May you …live to see your children’s children” (Ps 128:5–6). For grandparents, the arrival of these little ones is not only a wonder and a joy, it is a sacred opportunity — a call to deepen one’s own faith in order to be able to share that faith more fully with the next generation.
 
Indeed, that is perhaps the most important thing this book does; it helps grandparents look closely at both what they believe and how they act on those beliefs. Talking about faith is one thing, Erschen notes, but a lived example of that faith shouts more loudly than any words we might say. “If we set our faith up on a shelf, point to it, and tell our grandchildren, ‘This is what you must believe,’ it will inspire them little more than a toy with a dead battery,” she says. “But if they see us living those beliefs, then we are giving them something of value.”
 
Over the course of 16 chapters, Erschen touches on the various ways our faith informs and inspires our spirituality, which is, she says, another word for “what we do with what we believe.” If the chapter titles look very much like the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, that’s because basically, that’s what they are. As grandparents, we received these gifts at our Confirmation; now we are given a graced opportunity to see whether we have fully opened them and used them as well as we can.
 
The author also makes the point that, not only do grandparents share their faith with their grandchildren, they can and should be on the alert for all the ways those same grandchildren teach them. “One virtue I admire in my young grandchildren is acceptance,” Erschen notes in chapter two. “It seems to me they are very accepting of people and situations that we adults may have learned to judge in negative ways.” 
 
She uses as an example her three-year-old granddaughter who had to move to a new preschool right after the Christmas holidays. Worried about how the little girl would handle the transition, she was delighted when the child came home, “bubbling” enthusiastically about the new friend she had made, the one who was so kind and helpful to her. She was so taken with his goodness that she apparently never noticed that this little boy was both mildly handicapped and of a different race. “None of this registered with her,” Erschen continued.  “She accepted him and liked him completely for the person he was inside. I thought how wonderful our world would be if we all were as accepting as this three-year-old.”
 
Ultimately, this is a book about becoming the people we want to inspire our grandchildren to be and, according to the Pew Research Center, there is ample opportunity for that to happen. In 2015 “94 percent of grandparents helped provide some care for their grandchildren — 22 percent provided regular care; 72 percent provided occasional care.” If we succeed in spending that time well, Erschen notes, the pay-off for everyone is rich in many ways.
 
“Wouldn’t it be the greatest blessing if each of us could have grandchildren … who love us, care for us and feel we have helped make them better people?” Erschen concludes. “By living and sharing the virtues discussed in this book, we just might be able to make that happen. May God bless each and all of us on that journey.”
 
Author bio:
 
Susan Erschen, a freelance writer from St. Louis, Mo., frequently addresses such topics as the spirituality of giving, gratitude, living simply and spending time with God. Her articles have appeared in America, (“Next to Godliness: Prayers over The Washing Machine”), The Priest magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, St. Anthony Messenger, and Today’s Catholic Teacher. She is the former director of stewardship education for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Erschen enjoys spending time with family and volunteering in her parish community.
           
 
 
  • Published in Reviews

St. Polycarp

Although not as well known in modern times as some other saints who have come after him, Polycarp was nonetheless a major figure in the Church of the second century A.D. Born just 36 years after the death of Jesus, Polycarp’s leadership as the Bishop of Smyrna and his courage under persecution proved both inspiring and vital to the fledgling faith communities of Asia Minor.
 
What little information we have on his early life seems to indicate that he was a friend of St. John the Apostle, who it is believed converted Polycarp to the Christian faith; thus he was only one step removed from having known Christ Himself. He is also closely connected to at least two other influential saints of the period — St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was an early bishop and martyr, and St. Irenaeus of Lyon, a theologian who successfully refuted the Gnostic heresy, which Polycarp also fought against.
 
Like St. John, Polycarp lived a long and fruitful life. A prolific letter writer, only one of his epistles, written to the Church at Philippi, has survived. In it he emphasized both adherence to the true doctrines of the Church and an exhortation to holiness by “word and example.” The letter is also interesting to scholars in as much as it contains quotes from the New Testament, indicating that many of its passages were already in existence and that Polycarp was familiar with them.
 
As Bishop of Smyrna, he was chosen by the Church in Asia Minor to represent them in discussions with Pope Anicetus concerning the proper date of the Easter celebration; this was a serious ecclesiastical dispute at the time and the date observed in Asia differed from that observed in Rome. Though the two men did not settle definitively on a single date, they did agree to honor each other’s and parted in peace.
 
The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom in 155 is the earliest, fully preserved and reliable account of the death of an early Christian martyr in existence. At the age of 86, during the reign of the Emperor Aurelius Caesar, Polycarp was rounded up by Roman soldiers and brought to the stadium at Smyrna to be burned alive. Due to his advanced age, the official in charge tried to get Polycarp to deny his faith and thus save his life. This the saint refused to do; instead, he declared, “Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me any wrong. How can I now blaspheme my king and God?”
 
Eyewitnesses then reported that, although a fire was lit at the feet of the saint, it miraculously arced up around him; the flames did him no harm. Ultimately, he was killed with a dagger and his body was ordered to be burned so that there would be nothing left for the Christian faithful to revere.
 
Acknowledged as a saint due to his holiness and his martyrdom, St. Polycarp’s feast day is Feb. 23. He is the patron saint of those suffering from earaches.
 
Subscribe to this RSS feed
Bishop's Fund Annual Appeal