Surviving through literature: 10 Catholic books to read during a pandemic

Many of us have now spent about a week largely at home, feeling out a new normal. This whole thing is surreal, and it could be easy to forget that it’s still Lent, that we’re still called to holiness even in these times. It could be easy to exchange the sacrifices we committed to on Ash Wednesday for the trials we’ll bear, like it or not, in the weeks ahead. Those should be enough, right? So forget the social media fast and bring on the ice cream, please!

Not so fast. Now is not a time to grow lax. Now, more than any time in recent memory, we all need to commit to daily reading.

Wait, reading?

Yes, absolutely. Since we are dealing with a situation whose outcome we don’t yet know, something is changing within each one of us. We ought to have an intentional role in how that’s going to turn out. We can’t just let this thing happen to us. We have a responsibility to continue to nourish our minds and souls and to strengthen our communities.

It’s important for us to know what’s going on in the world and in our communities, but we can’t be consumed by the news cycle. Social media’s benefits can shine more brightly now than before, but scrolling for hours isn’t going to get us far enough. We need to tend to our souls first and foremost, if we are to remain disciples of Christ.

In the fourth century, St. Athanasius of Alexandria advised, “You will not see anyone who is truly striving after his spiritual advancement who is not given to spiritual reading.” Sixteen hundred years later, Pope St. John XXIII expressed the same conviction. In his daily decalogue (a simple list of 10 things he did each day) he wrote this: “Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.”

The same is no less true in our age, even when technology — not to mention a global pandemic — has changed so much of our daily living. Spiritual reading in its purest form — that is, engaging with the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, papal documents, and so on — has obvious value in the life of a Catholic. And I would argue that most of us should still do it with as much regularity as possible.

But we can also read things that are not explicitly Catholic and experience a helpful measure of truth, beauty and goodness through them. As Catholics, we are called to care for ourselves, and we are called to a regular periods of rest. Not the Netflix-and-chill, escapist kind of rest, but the kind that renews us so that we can give our best in living through these challenging times.

Stories reach us in a different way when we read them: They help us build empathy, improve focus, reduce stress and provide us with good mental exercise — all things we need right now. Movies and TV just can’t do the same things. Neither can reading articles online, even if the page count is the same. (For what it’s worth, I’d argue that audiobooks are totally acceptable.)

Even if you have a reading list a mile long, it can be hard to find something to settle into when you’re tired and/or stressed and/or grumpy. You want something you’re excited about, something that isn’t a chore. The first option is to ask the Holy Spirit’s guidance and shop your own shelf. If you’re not inspired there, remember that the best recommendations usually come from someone you trust. Revisit a childhood favorite, call a family member (school-aged niece or nephew, your favorite aunt, the cousin you haven’t seen since last Christmas) or message a coworker for suggestions.

But how do you get a book under quarantine without spending too much? First, check your library’s website for eBooks and digital audiobooks to borrow at no cost. If you’re with me on the audiobooks, sites often offer the first title free as a trial, with no obligations to continue. If you can spare some cash, many local bookstores are offering curbside pick-up, which helps your local economy.

The beautiful thing about getting a recommendation from a friend, colleague or family member is that you’ve also won an instant book club. Broaden your club with a group text asking if your kickball team, crocheting group or other parents from your kids’ school want to get together on a conference call to talk about it, too. This way, you can take some of the edge off of your social distancing — and theirs.

Below you’ll find a list of electronic resources for novels, short stories, essay collections, poems and biographies to get you started.

  1. “Babette’s Feast” by Isak Dinesen
  2. “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis
  3. “Be Brave in the Scared” by Mary Lenaburg
  4. “Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart” by Fr. Jacques Philippe
  5. “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl
  6. “Dear Mr. Knightley” by Katherine Reay
  7. “In This House of Brede” by Rumer Godden
  8. “Treasures in Clay” by Ven. Fulton Sheen
  9. “When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People” by Jeannie Gaffigan
  10. “Ever Eden” Literary Journal

We all have time at home that we didn’t expect this Lent, and reading — especially when we bring others along — is one time-tested way to make the most of it.

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