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Whimsical Portrait of Mary


Our Lady of the Lost and Found: A Novel of Mary, Faith, and Friendship, by Diane Schoemperlen. Viking. 349 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA SONNENBERG, a retired public librarian who currently serves on the advisory board of St. Anthony Messenger Press.

HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED what the Blessed Mother of God would be wearing if she suddenly appeared in your living room? In Canadian author Diane Schoemperlen's novel, she is outfitted in a navy blue trench coat with a white shawl, running shoes and a long black dress, the skirt of which is covered with metal medallions. Each medallion represents a petition directed to Mary and their removal and discussion prior to laundering gives the book its catchy title.

The first-person narrator is not only a non-Catholic but also barely a believer in God. She has had no religious training since Sunday school and her contacts with Catholic girls in college served to confirm her conviction that most prayers and devotions are merely superstitious practices to be utilized when in a tight spot.

Her reaction to one week of living with a very practical, humorous, up-to-date Mary provides the plot for the story—as well as a platform for recounting numerous Marian apparitions, miracles, intercessions and even artistic incarnations. Lives of saints closely associated with Mary are also recalled in detail.

These chapters alternate with the recounting of events in the narrator's life and give her a chance to expound on a favorite theme of history as an occurrence affecting the world, and history as local happenings. Here's her summation of Mary's place in time: "Much as Mary herself exists beyond the usual time/space continuum which all history must inhabit, the thousands of recorded apparitions do not. They did not happen in a vacuum, they happened in the world, the real world, so to speak."

While the narrator amasses Marian facts and lore, we are saved from didacticism by an abundant leavening of humor. For instance, Mary initially introduces herself using some 17 of her titles including "Cloud of Rain That Offers Drink to the Souls of the Saints." She has learned to operate modern washers, wears makeup and perfume (lavender since she's gotten tired of rose), and even has a credit card made out to MARY THEOTOKOS, which she explains is the title given to her by the Council of Ephesus.

She speaks wryly of the affectation of the scallop shell St. James wore like a badge and admits that her astrological sign is, naturally, Virgo. When her hostess asks how she is to explain her presence to other people, Mary says: "There is a Catholic doctrine...called mental reservation. This means that when speaking or writing, a person can add certain modifications to solve the dilemma of how to keep a secret without actually lying." The narrator feels that this is more a human characteristic than a point of theology!

Mary is never portrayed as unkind or unloving and proves to be a very considerate guest. She disappears on one occasion to save some children from drowning but is too embarrassed to explain her absence.

Ms. Schoemperlen wisely does not attempt to address Mary's supernatural relationships or attributes, but the reader who believes the Blessed Virgin to be the summation of all her titles and, most especially, the Mother of God, will feel her position considerably slighted.

Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1954, Ms. Schoemperlen has produced five short-story collections in addition to teaching courses in creative writing. She obviously enjoys language manipulation; her earlier novel entitled In the Language of Love was composed of 100 chapters with titles based on stimulus words derived from a word-association test! Having taken on the challenge of portraying the Virgin Mary as a contemporary character, Ms. Schoemperlen has more fully portrayed the narrator. But is this not to be expected and perhaps intended?

Readers of fiction who enjoy whimsical tales might like this work, although the transition from fancy to fact can be rather disconcerting. One must plow through seven pages of dry, factual listings of 20th-century Marian apparitions to get to the denouement of the story! The abundant humor and striking consideration of time/history are very well presented. This unique novel would provide pleasant winter reading.

You can order this book from St. Francis Bookshop at www.StFrancisOnline.com.


The Madonnas of Europe: Pilgrimages to the Great Marian Shrines of Europe, by Janusz Rosikon´. Ignatius Press. 288 pp $49.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

I HAVE VISITED some of the smaller shrines pictured in this book such as Einseideln in Switzerland, Montserrat in Spain, Knock in Ireland, Altötting in Germany, Mariazell in Austria and Sinj in Croatia. This book makes me see anew and meditate on the images of Mary I have seen. Someday I'll make it to major shrines in Europe like Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal or Jasna Gora (Czestochowa) in Poland.

This is indeed a "deluxe photo/art book," as the publisher claims. More than 200 photos were taken by Janusz Rosikon´, who spent five years making pilgrimages to 70 Marian shrines in Europe. Rosikon´ is a member of the Polish Union of Journalists; his photos have been published in Time and Newsweek. It is obvious that taking these photos of Marian shrines was a labor of love for him.

The book includes Forewords by Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland and Cardinal Andre Maria Deskur, former president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and head of the International Pontifical Marian Academy. Deskur quotes Pope John Paul II's words about Marian sanctuaries: "Sanctuaries are the Church's capital, because they are the focal points from which the Word of God is proclaimed and where the sacraments are celebrated, where prayers are held and the Church congregates on a stage greater than a parish. They are the sites where pilgrims' experiences merge with the life of the Virgin and the experiences of the nation, the country and every region with the unceasing love of the Church and its Mother."

Twelve Polish writers contributed the text and captions on the various shrines, trying to put them in historical and religious context.

But it is the photos that shine. The faces of the madonnas are haunting, well-lit and in detail. Even if you would go to these shrines, you would not see these statues and pictures so clearly. The photos of pilgrims, praying alone, in crowds and in public processions, fingering rosaries, lighting candles and carrying banners, are also inspiring. Even the exteriors of the shrines, like Rocamadour in France, which "clings to a vertical rock, as if suspended between the earth and the sky," are superbly photographed, in this case with clouds in the background to give the picture some depth.

It's wonderful to realize this book covers madonnas from Ireland to Russia, including many Eastern European countries, a living testament to the pope's view of a Europe that is "breathing with both lungs."

If you have been to any of these shrines, or want to take a great armchair trip to visit 70 at once, consider buying this book. As oversize coffee-table books go, even at $49.95 this is a bargain.

You can order this book from St. Francis Bookshop at www.StFrancisOnline.com.


Edith Stein: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, by María Ruiz Scaperlanda. Our Sunday Visitor. 207 pp. $11.95.

Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint, by Susanne M. Batzdorff. Templegate Publisher. 235 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by the REV. CHRISTOPHER R. ARMSTRONG, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds doctorates in theology and canon law, and is a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites.

MARÍA RUIZ SCAPERLANDA has given us a remarkable introduction to the life, thought and times of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, known in the world as Edith Stein, a brilliant professor, intellectual, philosopher, feminist and Jew. But Edith Stein was also a convert to Catholicism, a Carmelite nun and a victim of the Holocaust.

The author divides her book on Stein into five parts. She begins with the end in view and records Stein's journey to sainthood. Next, she reviews her life in a Jewish family, which includes a helpful chapter on the historical setting of the German Jews. In "Edith the Philosopher," the author handles adeptly the philosophical concepts of phenomenology, on which Stein was an expert.

But the crux of the book may lie in a line from the poem "Tante Edith" written by Stein's niece, Susanne M. Batzdorff, "[What] led you to worship/The Jew on the Cross?" That is indeed the key to the whole of Edith Stein's life, she who chose to be known in Carmel as Teresa Benedicta a Cruce—Teresa "blessed by the Cross."

Finally, the author reviews the legacy of Edith Stein, who taught believers so much by her life and work about the science of the Cross.

I highly recommend this book. It is clear, well-written and well-researched. It achieves the author's purpose: to help the reader in "getting to know" Edith Stein, first as a person and then as a scholar. This book shows why Edith Stein has been declared a Doctor of the Church.

Batzdorff's own book on Edith Stein represents the dilemma of Catholics and Jews in regard to her and their respective faiths. For Catholics, Edith Stein is a martyr and a saint. For Jews, Stein is an apostate. Catholics hope that Stein could be a model for Jewish/Catholic dialogue and a bridge between Judaism and Catholicism. But Jews see her as neither, only as someone who left Judaism.

Batzdorff gives us an intimate and vivid picture of Stein's Jewish heritage, the family and friends whom she loved and who had loved her in return. It recalls the chilling terror of the Nazi era and grapples with some thorny issues like Stein's self-image, her love of Germany and the problems her own book, Life in a Jewish Family, caused for her relatives.

In fact, Aunt Edith seems to be a response to Edith Stein's autobiography. Batzdorff claims that her aunt was not quite accurate in her portrayal of the Stein family. When that manuscript was discovered, it seemed to have reopened some wounds within the family. Nevertheless, Batzdorff's mother Erna, Stein's sister, tended the flame of her beloved sister's memory, and especially her Jewish heritage. When Erna died, her daughter Batzdorff, the book's author, took on the task.

The book is an important contribution to the life and times of Edith Stein. I would recommend it, however, only to those who have first read Stein's Life in a Jewish Family, to which Batzdorff mainly refers. Moreover, the splendid Introduction by Dr. Eugene Fisher sets some parameters for Jewish/Catholic dialogue on the significance of Stein for both traditions, and acts as a catalyst for our common humanity.

You can order this book from St. Francis Bookshop at www.StFrancisOnline.com.


That Special Starry Night, by Jeff Carnehl. Concordia Publishing House. 27 pp. $12.95.

Miracle of the Poinsettia, a retelling by Brian Cavanaugh, T.O.R., illustrations by Dennis Rockhill. Paulist Press. 28 pp. $12.95.

Christmas Nativities & Stories, by Elisabeth Van Mullekom-Cserép. Nativity House Publishing. 224 pp. $60.

Reviewed by SUSAN HINES-BRIGGER, an assistant editor of this magazine and the author of the new "Faith-filled Family" column.

MY TWO-YEAR-OLD daughter, Madison, loves being read to before bedtime. From the beginning of That Special Starry Night, Madison was hooked.

The story is the Christmas story with a twist. Author and illustrator Jeff Carnehl presents the tried-and-true story of Jesus' birth, but uses snowmen—or "nomen" as Madison calls them—for the key roles in the story.

On the first page of the book we read, "On a chilly December night the wind swirled around freshly made snowmen. Inside, the home was cozy and warm, filled with the sweet smells and sounds of Christmas. As the children hung their favorite ornaments on the tree, Dad said, 'Let me tell you the story of what happened on a special starry night.'"

The book then continues with the story, but is accompanied on every page with a wonderful split illustration covering the two-page spread—one of the family listening to the story and the other of the snowmen in the scenes being described.

Carnehl's work can be found in Concordia Publishing House's Hey, My Angel! and Creative Clips. His illustrations have also appeared in several prominent children's magazines.

It was nice to see the traditional Christmas story told in a slightly different way.

With the next book, Miracle of the Poinsettia, Madison was immediately drawn to the cover illustration with its vibrant colors.

The story is a retelling of a traditional Mexican folktale of the origin of the poinsettia. Maria, a young girl who lives on a poor family farm in a small village in Mexico, struggles to find a gift to give the baby Jesus as was the custom. After numerous attempts, Christmas Eve arrives and Maria is left without a gift. What Maria eventually discovers—that Jesus will love whatever she gives as long as it comes from her heart—is what makes this book so endearing.

Each page is a two-page spread with the illustration in the middle and the text in Spanish on the left and English on the right.

The book's illustrations are wonderfully done. The colors are bright and vibrant—just the thing to catch a young child's attention.

The end of the book contains a one-page story on the history of the Christmas crèche. And although much of the information was lost on Maddie, I found it very interesting.

The next day I found Maddie reading the book to her baby doll. This is a book that has definitely found a place in her library.

Christmas Nativities & Stories is another Christmas treat, featuring the Christmas story told in a most unusual way with Nativity scenes, poems and stories from all over the world.

The author and publisher of this book, Elisabeth Van Mullekom-Cserép, is also the owner and proprietor of "Nativity House," a Christmas museum in Australia featuring 600 Nativity scenes from 60 countries. Proceeds from the book and the museum go to charities in Australia and the United States.

Cserép's collection of Nativity scenes illustrates this book, accompanied by stories, poems and tales of "how different nations celebrate Christmas generally and religiously." The high-quality paper on which the book is printed only adds to the beauty of the pictures and illustrations.

This book is not meant to be read from beginning to end but enjoyed in snippets. Christmas Nativities & Stories is enjoyable reading when taken in small pieces. If not, it can seem overwhelming and overdone.

You can order this book from St. Francis Bookshop at www.StFrancisOnline.com.


Lives of Service: Stories From Maryknoll, by Jim Daniels. Orbis Books. 128 pp. $25.

Reviewed by ANTHONY ADENU-MENSAH, O.F.M.Conv., who studied Social Communications at the Gregorian University in Rome. He did an internship at St. Anthony Messenger last summer and will be returning to Ghana to edit a Franciscan magazine, Catholic Messenger.

ONE REMARKABLE CHANGE brought about by the Second Vatican Council has been the way the Church understands itself and its activities. This change has had consequences also on how mission and missionary activities are perceived in the Church today. Missionary work is not so much to convert nonbelievers as to share a life of faithful witness to the love of Christ for all God's people. This is a major theme of Jim Daniels's book, Lives of Service: Stories from Maryknoll.

Everything about the book seems so ordinary! But that is deceptive. The book jacket tells the reader immediately that this is a photo story of some missionary group (Maryknoll). Such stories have always been told: "Once upon a time, a group of men and women religious went to a far-off place...." But this daring journalist shows the story of these unique American missionaries. Daniels is a professional photographer who has worked for Associated Press and other publications like National Geographic, and toured the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world to document the Maryknoll story.

Jim Daniels's book is revolutionary. Using gorgeous, four-color photos and well-chosen words, he writes a story about human relationships. This is what makes this book seem so exraordinary. One would expect that a story about missionary activities would seek to tell of the resistances and the persecutions missionaries face in their attempts to "Christianize" the world. I expected to read a story showing how missionaries are overcoming the barriers of disease and treacherous climatic and environmental conditions.

What betrays the revolutionary in the author is his desire to show that, in encountering other people, missionaries themselves are enriched personally and culturally. This is what underlies the experiences of the Maryknollers whose lives of service in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Tanzania, Panama, Sudan and West Papua he recounts with passion. He shares the story of Maryknoll priests, brothers, sisters and lay missionaries.

One lay missionary who returned to his native America testifies, "I miss the easy exchange and relaxed engagement of speaking with Tanzanians....I have regained a profound sense of gratefulness appreciating what has become commonplace in America—clean water to drink, food year-round, dependable jobs. We have so much to thank God for." This sums up the testimonies of all the missionaries who are the focus of this book.

This cultural enrichment is the driving force behind the missionaries' capability to work for justice and peace and to treat people with compassion. Working in the missions helped one lay doctor to learn what she wasn't taught in medical school—kindness, which she considers the most important tool.

To say that the people in the mission lands are also enriched is to state the obvious. Whereas missionaries use words to describe their experiences, the author subtly lets the testimonies of the mission people come through the photos. The colorful, often close-up shots of the people speak loudly of their genuine affection, which is itself a sign of the bond between the missionaries and the people.

This book creates a sense of solidarity among all God's people. The challenge is for all "to witness and participate in another's life, and to lose and find a little of [oneself] along the way."

 

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Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop at www.StFrancisOnline.com or 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45210, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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