Lenten Literature: 8 books to read in the desert

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As we prepare for the sacred adventure that is Lent, it is critical that we give Christ access to our imaginations. The glory of Lent is supposed to flood every aspect of our lives, including the books we read.

Below are just a few works of fiction that address sin, repentance, suffering and Christ’s passion. Yes, I know that you already read plenty for your classes. But think about all the time you spend in line at the Cap Bar — maybe one of these books can join you.

Novellas/Short Stories

  1. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is such a master of depicting the human condition that I remember reading this at age sixteen sitting in my living room, chilled by my own mediocrity and selfishness. We will all have the same fate as Ivan Ilyich — spoiler alert, he dies. This powerful work invites us to prepare for death and to remember that the light of the world is always waiting to flood our souls.

  1. “The Song at the Scaffold,” Gertrud von Le Fort

This novella tells the true story of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne who died at the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Le Fort’s simple prose catches you off guard as she asks you to consider fear, anxiety and unfulfilled desires in the light of Christ’s agony in the garden. Through vivid depictions of the Carmelite tradition and the power of the mob,  “The Song at the Scaffold” asks the reader: Are you ready to die? Are you ready to live?

  1. “Leaf by Niggle,” J.R.R. Tolkien

An eccentric but mediocre artist must abandon his painting when he is abruptly called on a strange journey. Tolkien’s unique illustration of Purgatory is a powerful examination of conscience that leaves the reader in awe of the Father’s eagerness to fulfill our desires.

Novels

  1. “Island of the World,” Michael D. O’Brien

Imagine the Core as a novel. Through the life of Josip Lasta, a boy born in the Balkans in the 1930s, O’Brien seeks to depict the entirety of the Western Tradition — and the entirety of human suffering. 

God willing, none of us will ever suffer as much as Josip. But we all have experienced deep pain that Christ longs to enter and transform. This beautiful story has been a catalyst for deeper prayer and an invitation to see my own wounds in a new light.

  1. “Father Elijah,” Michael D. O’Brien

This apocalyptic novel boasts an indie combination of historical, mystery and dystopian genres — all infused with Carmelite and Franciscan spirituality. It sheds light on the evil at work today, but also reveals the Lord’s tender, personal love for each creature. When you finish the part with Count Smokrev, take some time to hear the Lord saying to you, “Shhh, dziecko.” You won’t regret it.

  1. “Perelandra,” C.S. Lewis

This is Lewis’ second novel in his space trilogy, but it can easily be read on its own. Ransom is a philologist, whose mission to Venus allows the reader to experience the story of salvation in a new and vivid way — with a pet dragon, just for funsies.

This book has played a pivotal role in the way I see spiritual warfare, Holy Saturday and my own belovedness. Lewis pierces into the darkness of discernment, the gift of vocation and the beauty of “the Great Dance.”

  1. “Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh

Dripping with elegant, ironic prose, Waugh follows the life of Charles Ryder, from his study at Oxford to the culmination of his relationship with the eccentric, Catholic Marchmain family.

The novel doesn’t just make you want to don long earrings and sip Earl Grey tea — it serves as a powerful examination of conscience as you watch and empathize with characters who seek happiness so desperately and despairingly. The novel reveals that regardless of social status, sin or the facades we hide behind, we have a Father who offers redemption even in our final hour.

  1. “The Way of a Pilgrim,” Anonymous

Eastern Orthodox Christianity holds a treasure trove of spirituality. This simple, convicting story of a homeless pilgrim illustrates the profundity and accessibility of contemplative prayer. The beautiful narrative set in rural Ukraine, Russia and Siberia increased my desire for the joy that flows from prayer, suffering and friendship with Jesus.

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