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Fall and sweaters ought always, it seems to me, to find themselves accompanied by spiral notebooks and new books. Some of the following ought to be included.

Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life (HarperSanFrancisco, 218 pages, $14 paperback) is edited, translated and introduced by Benedictine Fr. Hugh Feiss. It is a guidebook to the literature of monasticism organized around the nonnegotiables of Benedictine life, including prayer, work and hospitality.

Feiss includes biographical notes on the writers, from Anselm of Canterbury to Joan Chittister to Wulfstan of Worcester. Interesting collection. I’ll send my copy off to Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens to add to the collection I’m building in the guest room at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Georgia awaiting my as-yet-unscheduled visit.

Ann Monroe is a reporter. She wrote The Word: Imaging the Gospel in Modern America (Westminster John Knox Press, 216 pages, hardbound) after watching people teach, study, read and wrestle with the Bible, and her book is what she made of all that. She does not agree with the common assertion that America is becoming biblically illiterate, but sees the Bible having huge power in the country today. She reports her conviction that how Americans read the Bible is a more complicated and interesting topic than most media or polls usually suggest.

She visited a number of churches and study groups, but the only Catholics among them were a Pax Christi retreat group in New York. Her study is really about how some of Protestant America reads the Bible, which Monroe confusingly calls the Bible “in its Christian form” as distinguished from “the Jewish scriptures,” which she does not discount but which do not “command the American attention” as does the Christian Bible. The book might more aptly have been subtitled: A Snapshot of Bible Readers at Work. The book does show that many take the Bible seriously, but is more a peek at than a study of fascination with the inspired Word.

Those interested in the Bible itself might more profitably spend some time with Ten Keys for Opening the Bible: An Introduction to the First Testament, by Jacques Vermeylen (Continuum, 182 pages, $16.95 paperback). This text can help Christian readers of the Old Testament look for new interpretations of ancient texts, discovering unforeseen meanings while not forgetting the original scope within the Israelite tradition. Students and the studious, both in and out of classrooms, will profit from attention to this nicely written and informative text.

The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times, edited by Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski (Oxford University Press, 432 pages, $30 hardbound), is a lovely collection that, depending on one’s point of view, is either comprehensive or eclectic, but surely lots of fun. I brought my copy to a friend on her 50th birthday, not to suggest that she stands closer these days to the judgment seat, but because it is a great read.

Catholic Divorce: The Deception of Annulments (Continuum, 230 pages, $22.95 hardbound), edited by Pierre Hegy and Joseph Martos, considers the problem of divorce (the rate has doubled in 20 years), the increasing number of annulments granted (a hundredfold increase in the same time period), and the need for open discussion of the issues at hand (are annulments divorces under a different name?) if Catholicism is to remain morally healthy and intellectually viable.

The book includes essays by the celebrated Dutch theologian, Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx on sexuality and Christian marriage. The editors hope that their work will make a contribution to an important discussion. It should.

In The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Orbis, Faith Meets Faith series, 187 pages, $20 paperback), author Gavin D’Costa warns that “perichoretic relations do not stop at the boundaries of the church.” William F. Buckley, move over.

I couldn’t find that word in my dictionary. When I found nothing in the astonishingly complete Oxford English Dictionary, a reference librarian suggested going to www.google.com for a word search. I didn’t. But The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that perichoresis refers to the mutual indwelling of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. I don’t like it when reading a sentence is so much work.

D’Costa writes about praying with people of other religions to the triune God, asking, “Is interreligious prayer like marital infidelity?” Sharing prayer is certainly better than burning one another’s places of prayer or persecuting one another, but D’Costa shows the risks, considers the problems and possibilities, honors other religions as vehicles of salvation and demonstrates that pluralism does not succeed.

With regard to interreligious prayer, he finds that “there may be grounds for supporting interreligious prayer on the basis that there is at least an inchoate intentionality toward the triune God.” And one does not then violate the covenant. Heady stuff.

I taught a summer course in Lewis University’s master of arts program leading to a degree in leadership. I invited students to choose a book from the NCR box for comment.

Among them, Tony Mravle is a youth minister in the Joliet, Ill., diocese. He chose to look at Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings (Orbis, Modern Spiritual Masters series, 127 pages, $13 paperback), by Marie Dennis, Renny Golden and Scott Wright, and writes that Romero is one of the most compelling and inspiring leaders of the latter half of the 20th century. His dedication and selflessness in working for the justice of the Salvadoran people as he proclaimed the Good News of Christ cost him his life, but ultimately served as a rallying point for thousands of repressed people throughout Latin America.

Those interested in discovering more about this man and his message of hope will want to seek out this volume. The excerpts of his writings and insights of his own personal and spiritual journey demonstrate his lasting effects on those left behind. A refugee said of Romero’s death, “We were very sad because we thought everything had ended. But later we saw that his spirit gave us strength to resist oppression. For that reason we also believe more now in Jesus Christ.”

Pastor Susan P. Gerow, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serves the Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Darien, Ill. A former social worker, she has served three congregations. She is married with a son in high school.

She looked at Passing on the Faith: A Radical New Model for Youth and Family Ministry, by Merton P. Strommen and Richard A. Hardel (Saint Mary’s Press, 368 pages, $22.95). She said that Strommen and Hardel locate responsibility for the faith development of children and youth primarily in the home.

However, they do not ignore the intricate interplay between family life, congregational life, community and culture, making their model for passing on the Christian faith new and innovative. Weighing in with multiple studies and reliable research, supplemented by personal experiences and anecdotes, supported by case studies and examples from real parishes, these Lutheran pastors betray their passion at every turn.

Strommen and Hardel are at their best when they encourage parents and congregations with concrete examples and supporting data as they give primacy to the family unit in shaping the faith life of children.

While their intensity seems to wane when discussing the influence and role of community and culture, they remain committed to a vision where all four components -- family, congregation, community and culture -- work together for the good of youth.

Gerow concludes that this easy-to-read book will be an inspiration to congregations of every denomination and an encouragement to parents as they struggle with the complexity of passing on the faith.

Fr. William C. Graham, a priest of the Duluth, Minn., diocese, is a guest professor for the 2000-01 academic year in the Religious Studies Department at Lewis University, a Christian Brothers university in suburban Chicago. He receives e-mail at NCRBkshelf@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000