“Flashes of Grace: 33 Encounters with God” by Patrick Henry. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2021). 298 pp., $19.99.
“Belonging: One Catholic’s Journey” by Frank J. Butler. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York, 2020). 187 pp., $25.
“Awaken My Heart: 52 Weeks of Giving Thanks and Loving Abundantly” by Emily Wilson Hussem. Ave Maria Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, 2020). 268 pp., $17.95.
The best spiritual memoirs are both particular and universal — rooted in the author’s experience and yet expansive enough to allow the reader to gain new insights into their own journey with God.
Patrick Henry’s “Flashes of Grace” is a wonderful contribution to the genre. It is marked by restraint, humility, gratitude, intellectual and spiritual honesty, humor and delight. The book is a model of ecumenical sensitivity and reflects his 20 years as executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (1984-2004) at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
“I am incurably curious,” Henry writes in “Grace in Christian Autobiography.” “Autobiography intrigues me because it lets me in on other people’s lives. But more, the autobiographer, despite superficial appearances of self-indulgence and self-regard, is engaged in an essentially communal activity.”
“Flashes of Grace” is not a straightforward autobiography — it is more like the best kind of rambling conversation with a new acquaintance who quickly becomes a friend.
Henry writes in a ruminative, accessible way and each thematic chapter concludes with “In a Word,” concise summaries of where he encounters different aspects of God’s grace. Each narrative elicits one of 33 characteristics of grace — from intimidating, therapeutic and daring to bighearted, enduring and demanding.
Henry’s compelling anecdotes reference contemporary culture, theologians and scientists, movies and television shows, war and the environment, diversity and feminism. By paying attention to the specificity of his experience he has given us a profoundly incarnational book.
Frank J. Butler narrates his extraordinary Catholic life in “Belonging,” an autobiography that was prompted by revelations about Theodore McCarrick, the now-disgraced former cardinal. The scandal was an “earthquake” that led him to wonder if he had been naive or overly idealistic about the church.
He shares his story to give reason for his “hope and trust and a bone-deep conviction that Catholicism is doing more than any other institution to advance human dignity and freedom and to bring mercy and love where it is most needed.”
Butler was 13 when he left his family in Florida to travel to St. John’s Seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas. Although he made the decision not to pursue ordination, the eight years he spent at the seminary offered significant formation in theology and pastoral skills. Mentored by a number of activist priests, he became sensitized to issues of racism, poverty and systemic injustice.
Butler received a doctorate in systemic theology from The Catholic University of America — he wrote his dissertation on St. John Henry Newman — and was married and a young father when he was offered a job with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, precursor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to assist with the 1976 bicentennial Call to Action.
It is clear, in an otherwise irenic book, that Butler still harbors resentments about the way he was treated by some bishops, and he seems to use this chapter as unpleasant score settling. He concludes that those years were “a privileged gift and a necessary stage in my understanding of the church’s leadership.”
What followed was an extraordinarily creative 33-year period as president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, FADICA. Butler offers vivid portraits of funders, details the creation of SOAR! — Support Our Aging Religious — and describes assisting the church in Eastern Europe and introducing transparency into Vatican finances.
He writes incisively about Catholic education, the abuse crisis, the changes wrought by Pope Francis and church governance. He has wonderful narrative skills and writes with affection and nuance.
The book ends with a loving description of his sixth granddaughter’s baptism. “It was an experience of Catholicism that captured for me the church’s glorious power to connect people with Christ and to feel his love, joined as one community, the body of Christ.” It is a gift Butler extends to the readers of this book.
“Awaken My Heart” is a yearly devotional that introduces readers to a different kind of meditation, the invitation to pay attention to the thoughts, words and deeds that make up the texture of a woman’s life.
It is simply structured: each weekly theme has a two- to three-page reflection, recommended soul exercises and a heartfelt prayer that can lead to a deeper relationship with Jesus.
Weekly themes range from healing of memories, problematic relationships and social concerns, and her reflections gently lead the reader to a conscious sense of gratitude. This book will appeal to women like its author — relatively younger, economically comfortable, married mothers who are involved with organized religion.
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Linner, a spiritual director, freelance writer and reviewer, has a master’s degree in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.