On the Right to Life

When one hears that term, one immediately assumes the speaker is referring to the issue of abortion. And indeed the issue of abortion is an important one for all spiritual people to address. However, I believe strongly that discussions of the right to life need to go far beyond the issue of abortion.

The right to life is a belief that should indeed address the unborn but it needs to address all of life!

A Right to Life dialogue should first of all speak to the entire life span. It should address the rights of the poor. The rights of the immigrant for a better life. The needs of the veteran for something as basic as a home as well as an opportunity to heal. The rights of the elderly to not be forgotten. The rights of the dying to do so with dignity and care.

A Right to Life dialogue should not stop with addressing human life. We humans have not done a good job of taking care of our fellow creatures and our environment. We have allowed and continue to allow greed to give us permission to kill off species of animals and to decimate our forests. Do wildlife not have a right to life too? Are we not called to respect the lives of the trees and the streams?

The Right to Life movement needs to address other politically “hot” issues such as gun control, the death penalty, and, most especially, war. If there is any pervasive human activity that threatens life, it is war, no matter how justified we might feel a given war to be. War affects people. With the many veterans I’ve worked with over the years, those who came to see the so-called enemy as a person have had deep struggles justifying their behavior and that of their government. The bottom line of a war is to kill as many people as possible. Is that not an affront to one’s right to life?

Jesus challenged us to consider who has a Right to Life. He focused on the poor and the displaced. He noted that the Jews of His day had a right to life but so did the Samaritans. His most powerful invitation to honor the rights of others to life was His command to love our enemy.

Loving my enemy may be a key to my embracing an attitude that life — all of life — is sacred. Yes, my loved ones have a right to life but so does the mean old man down the street. The veteran on the street corner. And, yes, even the murderer sitting in a jail cell.

I have no easy answers to the many complex issues addressed by considering a comprehensive right to life. All that I know is that my exploration of the issues needs to be guided by compassion, not judgment.

So I invite you to consider your own understanding of the term Right to Life and perhaps to expand it to embrace all of God’s creation.

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Your Spiritual Geneology

Ever since Alex Haley’s Roots appeared in the 1970s there has been increasing interested in geneology even to the point of television shows where a researcher studies the geneologies of current celebreties.

At a personal level, I have found nothing exciting or dramatic in my own geneology. My ancestors appear to manifest what Marcus Borg refers to as “the obscurity of humble lives”. However, when I stood on the dock in Cobh, Ireland and when I saw a replica of the ships that brought my ancestors here, it gave me a deeper appreciation for how much they suffered to get here and how much I owe to them.

I have also found that it can be interesting to create one’s own spiritual geneology, articulating not only ancestors’ religious affiliations but also any relevant beliefs. Sadly, all my grandparents were dead by the time I was 7 so I did not have the benefit of learning any of their spiritual journeys. But I have been able to fill in a few blanks.

My paternal grandfather was a convert to Catholicism, having been Presbyterian prior to that. I believe he converted so that he could marry my grandmother, a woman with deep Irish Catholic roots. As best I can tell, he remained a practicing Catholic all his life to include sending my father to Catholic schools.

I know a little more about my maternal grandfather. He raised 7 children by himself, having lost my grandmother to the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But, unlike many guilt-ridden Catholics, he went to confession only once a year on the Saturday before Holy Week. He would bathe, put on a suit, then go to the church. He obviously approached that sacrament in a way that was meaningful to him but not necessarily traditionally Catholic. Perhaps I inherited the gene to question from him. How he dealt with the death of my grandmother I don’t know but I suspect it was similar to how my mother dealt with the deaths of my sisters: “Some of us carry crosses heavier than others.”

I have written much about my mother’s faith. It was steel tested in the fires of tragic loss. I did and do not adhere to all her beliefs but have grown increasingly respectful of them.

My father, on the other hand, appears to have been affected by all that I dislike about religion . His journey appears to have been greatly shaped by guilt and fear such that, late in his life, he would comment that his series of strokes were “punishment for my sins.” I suspect he may have viewed the deaths of my sisters in the same way.

Our spiritual beliefs are shaped in many ways. The Linn brothers and Sheila Fabricant have suggested that in fact our image of the God of our understanding is very much shaped by our parents. Thus, if I had abusive parents, I might see God as punishing. If my parents were benevolent but uninvolved, I might see God in a similar way. This too is an important part of one’s spiritual geneology.

I am grateful for the confluence of beliefs that have played a role in my faith journey.

Reflection: What insights into your own journey come from your spiritual geneology?

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Excerpt from “Catholics and Gun Control”

My latest article is titled “Catholics and Gun Control” and appears in the current issue of St. Anthony Messenger. Here is an excerpt:

Some would argue that the issue of gun control is a political issue, not a moral one. And indeed politicians are everywhere visible these days. either arguing for the rights of gun owners or for the right to be safe. Much of it is rhetoric with no significant change.

Perhaps the morality exists at a larger level. Perhaps the issue isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about trying to live a life that is consistent with Jesus’ message.

I believe that, to fully grasp the impact of Jesus’ revolutionary message, we have to read the entire Bible. What one sees working through the Old Testament is violence! Lots of it! And much of that violence is not only condoned by but caused by God! God is referred to among other things as “Lord of Heaven’s Armies”. God intervenes time and again to tilt the scales of battle on behalf of His Jewish nation. God leads Jews to victory time and again (except when they doubt or reject him). We cheer David’s killing of Goliath. We rejoice when Ester saves her Jewish people from genocide and the bad guy Haman is executed. But in the Old Testament there are also hints of what is coming. Isaiah, for example, calls to reflect on days to come when shields will be hammered into plowshares and swords into pruning hooks. Ecclesiastes notes that not only is there a time for war but a time for peace. At several points in the Old Testament. there is the hint of a future new order.

It is only within the context of the violence of the Old Testament that we can fully appreciate the remarkable power of Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. The focus is no longer on payback to our enemies. Jesus suggests something different.

If you would like to read the entire article, it is available at If you https://blog.franciscanmedia.org/sam/catholics-and-gun-control If you read the entire article, please come back here and share your reaction.

If you would be interested in your own copy, send me your address at <richp45198@aol.com> and I’ll send you a copy.

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The Bible as Invitation

I continue to read the Bible on a regular basis. Some ask me “Why?” Hard question. I don’t feel obliged. Some parts of the Bible are crushingly boring (Do I really want to know about the dimensions of the Temple?) Other parts are disturbing with stories of violence, even genocide. Yet I keep reading it.

Do I take the Bible literally. No. Do I find value in historical analyses of the Bible? Absolutely. Do I believe the Bible is the Word of God? Yes, but not in the way many may think about it. For me, the Bible has become an invitation to interact with God, even to wrestle with the angel.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that the Bible was not a book about God but a book about Man and men’s and women’s search for God. Thus we read many different images of God in the Bible — a warrior, a comforter, a judge, a parent among many others. No one image is offered as definitive. After all, God said “I am Who am.” That leaves a fair amount of room for interpretation, doesn’t it?

Invitation to what? The Bible first of all invites me to find myself amidst various stories of the Bible. I can see myself in Cain’s jealousy, in the frustrations of the wandering Jews, in Job’s anger. I can relate to the prodigal son but also to his brother. I can relate to the Good Samaritan but also to those who walked on from the wounded man. I can relate to Peter’s fear and to Dismas’ hope.

I can also enjoy a good story. The Bible, after all, is replete with marvelous stories. Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. Ester saving her people with creative guile. The talking mule.

Some of those stories become anchor points on the journey. Jacob wrestling with the angel has been a key image for the spiritual journey. We have to be persistent in seeking answers yet also be aware that the journey is painful and not without a price.

The story of Dismas has been a focal point of hope for me, as it is for many in recovery. To be at rock bottom and to be told “Today you will be with my in paradise”. I know of no better definition of hope.

The Bible also challenges me to question my own Church. Women are far more central to Jewish and Christian faiths than I was led to believe. From Ester to the women beneath the cross, women have played a central role. Paul’s epistles make it clear that women held positions of leadership in the early church. Somehow that clarity got lost along the way.

The Bible also makes it clear how evil anti-semitism is! We Christians share Jewish heritage and Jewish history. Most obviously, Jesus was a Jew and never stopped being a Jew. And it wasn’t the Jews who crucified Jesus. Crucifixion, after all, was Roman form of torture and execution.

I am not a Biblical scholar or even a theologian. And so I can be open to what others might teach me about the Bible. But, for me, the Bible is fluid. Rachel Held Evans says it best: “..the Bible by its very nature invites us to wrestle, doubt, imagine, and debate.” It is an invitation.

Reflection: 1. Do you have any favorite stories from the Bible? Which parts of the Bible do you struggle with? What in the Bible do you question?

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The Presence of My Enemy: Spiritual Challenges of a Mass Shooting

I wanted to repost this blog in honor of the victims of the Walmart shootings. Sadly, I wonder if the culture of violence in our country will ever heal

Psyche and Spirit/Richard B. Patterson PhD

People of faith typically react with sorrow and outrage with the news of shootings such as those at Sandy Hook and El Paso. But the after effects of such tragedies, especially when they happen in one’s hometown can include spiritual challenges and struggles.

The most obvious challenge is the question “Why? Why does God allow such things?” I have struggled with this question most of my life. These shootings intensify the question. Why did God permit the death of a young mother, shot as she shielded her infant, much less the deaths of other innocents. Why did God permit others to survive? Or perhaps God had nothing to do with it? Where if anywhere was God at Sandy Hook, in Odessa TX, or at a Walmart one Saturday morning?

Like Job, I and others would like for God to show up and explain Himself/Herself.

And yet in the face of…

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In Praise of the Negro Leagues

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, established in 1920 by Rube Foster. The Negro Leagues endured until the late 1950s, dying out after Major League Baseball began integration with Jackie Robinson in the National League and Larry Doby in the American League.

The Negro League developed in response to African American athletes being excluded from professional baseball starting in 1887. At that time, baseball team owners agreed to exclude African American ballplayers from signing contracts.

Foster’s league was a success for many years and became a training ground for some of the greatest athletes to grace a ball field. In addition to Hall of Famers Robinson and Doby, the Negro Leagues were also a starting point for other Hall-of-Famers such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and my personal candidate for Greatest Baseball Player Willie Mays.

The history of the Negro Leagues is replete with evidence of great ballplayers excluded form the wihites-only Major Leagues. If you take the time to learn about the Negro Leagues, you will learn of ballplayers such as Josh Gibson (called the black Babe Ruth) and Buck Leonard (known as the black Lou Gehrig).

Josh Gibson is a particular tragic figure. Integration came to late for him. As his remarkble career wound down, he developed a brian tumor and died at the age of 35 just months before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The main figure in August Wilson’s great play Fences is suggestive of Gibson.

The Negro Leagues provide us with other remarkable ballplayers — the five tool great Oscar Charleston (the black Honus Wagner), the ageless great pitcher Satchel Paige, Ray Dandridge, Judy Johnson, and my personal favorite James “Cool Papa” Bell.

These and countless other men were subjected to unimaginable discrimination and harassment. There is no doubt that many would have been quite successful in the white Major Leagues if given the opportunity And yet they showed up to play ball.

The history of the Negro Leagues certainly speaks to inexcusable racism. But it also speaks to heroic perseverence and, most especially, to the love of the game.

There are increasing numbers of books on the history of the Negro Leagues as well as books on specific men to include Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige. (I am greatly looking forward to a new biography of Cool Papa Bell).

As a final note, I consider myself privileged to have spent some time with a man who played in the Negro Leagues and shared stories with me of his teammate Roy Campanella as well as other greats to include — you guessed it — Cool Papa Bell (“He was as fast as everyone has said”)

So take the time to learn about the Negro Leagues. Should you find yourself in Kansas City MO make sure to visit the Negro League Museum.

As with the many seen below, I too tip my Boston Redsox hat to the Negro Leagues. Thank you!

Further Viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeQ5aHhkyVI

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On Funerals

“Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship”

This may seem to be a gruesome topic for these pandemic days. One of the many impacts of COVID, however, is the extreme limitations placed on funerals. Once COVID has passed, we may need to find creative ways to say goodbye to those who passed during the times when funerals could not held

     I’d grown up with death. I had two sisters, both of whom had died of spina bifida.

They were present in one way or another for most of my life. They taught me a lot. In each of their passings, my parents taught me a lot as well.

      Each parent’s death was a very different experience. From diagnosis of cancer to her death was only three weeks in my mother’s case. My father’s walk, on the other hand was long and slow, marked by strokes and dementia. I lost mother all at once and quickly. I lost my father in inches over a long period of time

     I was 46 at the time my mother died and so had attended more than a few funerals by then. Most of the early funerals were for relatives, to include my maternal grandfather. Many of these early funerals were held at O’Donnell’s Funeral Home in Dunmore. Typically, there would be a day or two for “visitation”. The early funerals at least would have elements of Irish wakes. The women would be seated in the room with the deceased. The men would be in a room in the back which also just happened to have some bottles of whiskey. The women would weep. The men would drink. That was my first learning about dealing with death.

     When I went back home to see my mother at the end, I offered to help my dad set up funeral arrangements. I’d told my mother I was going to go to O’Donnell’s and she said “Oh yes. Talk to Annette.” Families in Dunmore knew one another and indeed when I spoke to Mrs. O’Donnell I reminded her that my Mom was one of the McDonalds from up on Drinker Street. A look came to her face and she said “Gena is your Mom?” She knew her.

     I learned a lot about the politics of funerals. Her son Al was talking me through preparations. On the day of the funeral, he said, he would call names of those present to walk up to the casket and say their farewells. “In what order would you like them to be?” I must have looked puzzled because he said “The order is important. I’ve seen some families get into arguments because someone didn’t like their place!”

     I learned another important lesson during the days of the wake. With one or two exceptions, I don’t remember much of what was said but I remember clearly who was there. In times of grief, I learned, words didn’t matter that much. Presence did. I remember who was there. Friends I hadn’t seen in years. A distant cousin I didn’t know I had. Friends of my parents. It was good to see how much she was loved. As my cousin Linda would later say to me “We all lost your Mom.”

     My mother also taught me another important lesson about dying. By then I’d had one experience of being present at someone’s death. It had been a potent spiritual experience so I went back hoping that I would be present when my Mom let go. But she hung on. One night after I left the hospital I raged at God. “She’s one of yours, Lord Take her!” But then the next evening I was sitting with my Mom and had a flash from, of all things, a Western Titled Ride the High Country. At the end of the film after a gun battle, Joel McCrea is lying on the ground speaking to his friend Randolph Scott. The two young people who were also there start walking to them. Joel McRae asks Randolph Scott to wave them off, saying “I’ll go it alone.” So said to my Mom, “You want to go it alone, don’t you?” She said quietly “Yes.”

     I realized then that she was the one doing the dying and therefore she was the one who got to set the terms, which is what she did. She died three days after Christmas shortly after a visit from my Dad. She was alone.

     My Dad’s leave-taking extended over 6 years. It began with a stroke 6 months before my mother died and ended in El Paso TX one week after he had fallen. He had moved to El Paso 3 years before and, for a time, lived comfortably at a nearby assisted living facility. Dementia began to set in, however, to the point that he was asked to leave that facility. My Dad for years had feared ending up in a nursing home. Fortunately, another assisted living facility was willing to take him. Wirth some adjustments in medication, his agitation left him and he was content. He had only two requests – that I not let him linger and that he be buried next to my Mom.

     That request not to linger would teach me an important lesson. When he fell, he’d suffered a hematoma which was causing pressure in his head and, untreated, would kill him. A neurologist contacted me to explain treatment options. He described relieving the pressure by boring a hole in my Dad’s head. I hesitated and, in a move uncommon for physician’s he asked “What kind of quality of life has your Dad had?” I said simply “None. He’s lost his past.” The doctor hesitated then said “Well if it were my father, I’d let him go.” To this day, I greatly appreciate that doctor sharing from his heart. So that’s what we did. Nothing.

     It’s the kind of decision I don’t wish on anyone yet we all need a person in our lives willing to make that call for us. I am grateful that my dad trusted me with that decision. His regular doctor, also a very kind and compassionate man, kept him comfortable as we waited. Thankfully it didn’t take long.

     I’d made preparations with (again!) the O’Donnell’s. From long distance it was easier. I asked Tom if he still had records from my mother’s funeral. He did and so I said ‘Please do the same for my Dad.”

     It was a smaller funeral in part because, as my Dad would say, “All my friends are dead!” which was only partially true. In any case, he’s back there in Pennsylvania, next to my mother.    

Funerals are for the living. It is a ritual that exists in many forms but in part for the purpose of helping us acknowledge the cycle of life and death.

As Robert Anderson writes at the beginning and end of his play I Never Sang for My Father: “Death ends a life but it does not end a relationship.” Funerals help us take that relationship to the next stage.

Reflection: 1. How have funerals impacted your spiritual journey?

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Spiritual Mentors: Vincent Van Gogh

File:Vincent van Gogh - Self-Portrait - Google Art Project (454045).jpg

In the early 1970s, I purchased a record album by singer Don McLean, mainly for the song “American Pie”. However, there also was a song titled “Vincent” which was my introduction to artist Vincent Van Gogh. Thus began a journey which most recently included a book titled “Vincent Van Gogh: His Spiritual Vision in Life and Art” by Carol Berry.

As I came to know Vincent and his prolific works of art, I found myself somehow intrigued by him. What drove Vincent? What did he see that he articulated so profoundly? Through Berry’s book, I came to see that part of what has drawn me to Vincent was fundamentally spiritual. He saw something. In the wheat fields. In a sunflower. In impoverished workers around a dinner table. And when he looked up he saw something profound in a starry night. Vincent himself told us what that something was when he wrote “At night when the sounds cease, God’s voice is heard under the stars.”

I have long believed that art can be a gateway to spiritual experience. At the very least, we can have the experience of awe or wonder when in the presence of a painting, a poem, a symphony. Van Gogh appears to have had a strong sense of that reality and manifested it through his paintings.

Vincent grew up in a religious home with a minister father. Although the God of his understanding may have changed over time (as it should for all of us), he never strayed from a belief in God and a strong sense of God’s presence in the world, whether in the worn face of a coal miner or the gentle beauty of a sunflower’

Vincent tried to become a minister but, when that didn’t happen, he became a missionary in an area of south Belgium known as the Borinage. There he lived in solidarity with the miners he tried to help. During this trying time, Vincent also began to draw. This opened the door that eventually led him to articulate spiritual truths where words failed. He committed to try to make God’s presence visible. He tried to articulate mystical truth.

Vincent’s paintings aren’t simply recreations. In them he tried to articulate the divine power of color. He tried to express a divine energy that permeates everything. Eventually he even suggested that God might be better manifested in a wheat field than in the Bible.

Vincent battled depression and despair but consistently found hope in his painting. As he took up palette and brush, was he not in some way praying a prayer of wonder? The wise doctor who treated him in the asylum at Saint-Remy recognized this when he made an extra room available to Vincent for his paints, essentially providing Vincent with a studio within the asylum

Other books I have read have focused on trying to unravel Vincent’s psyche. If one focuses on trying to diagnose Vincent, something quite important is missed — the consistent spiritual foundation not only of his work but of his life.

And, no, I don’t believe Vincent killed himself. I believe, as recent research suggests, that he was shot by some village yahoos. Vincent, after all, was not finished painting.

Perhaps more than any other artist (to include poets, playwrights, composers, etc.), Vincent speaks to me of the divinity that surrounds us if we only take the time to look.

Reflection: Have any artists (painters, composers, playwrights, authors, etc.) enriched your spiritual journey?

Here is Don McLean’s song with lyrics as well as some of Vincent’s work. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxHnRfhDmrk

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On Planks and Motes

Once again our country is torn apart by the actions of a racist. Once again pent-up rage is unleashed and images of stores and fire and of looting fill the news screen. Our country appears more polarized than ever as we approach an election. This amidst a pandemic.

Most so-called common citizens can feel quite overwhelmed and it becomes tempting to lapse into a certain detachment that can arise out of a sense of powerlessness.

Violence is never acceptable as a solution but anger has its place as do demonstrations. Individually one’s voice doesn’t amount to much but collectively we can make a difference.

Here is a clip from the great film Network in which a deranged news caster challenges us to “get mad”:

We all need to have a part within that can say on our behalf “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” We need to be able to say this on behalf of ourselves as well as our brothers and sisters.

But that’s only half the task. We need to balance this righteous anger. We need to face the planks in our own eyes. We have seen and are seeing the results of leaders who point fingers yet do not keep their inner houses in order. Televangelists who warn us of the fires of hell but then spend an evening with a prostitute. Law enforcement professionals who become so enamored of power that they can’t even recognize when that power becomes abusive. Politicians who selectively quote from the Bible while ignoring most of that Book, using the Bible to justify decidedly un-Biblical policies.

We are no different if we do not also look within and uncover and heal that which festers inside. I am in danger of being part of the divisiveness if I do not acknowledge the racist within me, the abuser of power within, the looter. These Shadow elements are never easy to face but, unless we heal them, we become part of the problem.

Many of the spiritual mentors I value have tried to point us in that direction. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who courageously confronted the evil of Nazism, also said “All change must begin with me myself.” Thomas Merton wrote “…when one is firmly convinced of his own rightness and goodness, he can without qualm perpetrate the most appalling evil.” Jesus said “First get rid of the plank in your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the mote if your friend’s eye.” And then there is the poem “Call Me by My True Names” by Thich Naht Hahn. This excerpt speaks to the challenge:

“I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.”

The easiest spiritual path is either to not care or to point fingers. The real challenge is to courageously speak out against injustice, be it police violence, rampant looting, border fences, political corruption, ecclesiastic dishonesty while at the same time also pointing my finger within to uncover that within me which, like my beloved country, is in need of healing.

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A Novel Approach to Spirituality

Yesterday I was watching a feature about someone’s opinion on great novels. I have mentioned elsewhere that my own spiritual journey has been enriched by art. Here then are 5 novels that have graced my journey. Where possible I’ve included a film clip from a movie based on that novel

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is the only novel which, upon finishing it, I immediately turned back to page 1 and read it again. It gave me a role model for parenting as well as a good example of the Shadow in the memorable character of Boo Radley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRmIef02Ajk

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This story of the Depression is also a story about courage in the face of unimaginable hardship, a theme relevant to these days of unemployment and forced relocation. Ma Joad is perhaps one of the greatest female figures in fiction. Here she is teaching a lesson relevant today https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPNBynJ11kY

3. Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. A gentle story about the agony of adolescence and the aching desire to belong. Through the powerful characater of Bernice, we also touch on the pain of loving and losing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elIgGbx4j3U

4. Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos This deeply spiritual book shares the efforts of a simple priest as he balances ministry with his own spiritual struggles as he faces illness. In this brief excerpt from the film, he faces the cynicism of an older priest as he seeks guidance for his ministry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elIgGbx4j3U

5. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien Yes, I know this is actually 3 books but it is one story with strong themes of temptation, redemption, and spiritual quest as well as a strong image of resurrection. In this scene Frodo struggles with that which we all face spiritually — having to take the difficult path. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RemBy5yeW8g

There are other great novels that have enriched and challenged me. These 5 and those others remind me that God speaks in many ways and that art is one of the most powerful manifestations of His/Her voice.

Reflection; Are there any novels that have enriched your journey?

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