From Misery to Ministry

Agnesi book coverAfter discovering Tony Agnesi through his book A Storyteller’s Guide to a Grace-Filled Life, I’ve looked forward to his newest project. It’s here: A Storyteller’s Guide to Joyful Service: Turning Your Misery Into Ministry takes a look at dealing with tough times, be they simple disappointments or deep griefs, and using them as opportunities for growing in service to other people.

“Lord, if you had been here…”

In an informal style, Mr. Agnesi shares small stories exploring painful situations and ways of responding to them. He is writing for a Christian audience, assuming that his readers have some familiarity with both faith and disappointment. He knows that Martha’s words to Christ in time of bereavement – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – reflect a deeply human reaction to loss. Where to from there?

Tony Agnesi

Tony Agnesi

One step at a time, responds Mr. Agnesi. He has confidence that in small ways, a day at a time, anyone experiencing major or minor miseries can be equipped for ministry to others. His words might not reach someone in the grip of immediate and profound grief, when looking ahead seems like too much to bear. For anyone capable of reflection, though, Turning Your Misery Into Ministry can be thought-provoking and inspiring.

Small Steps: A Path to Service

The author’s own experience with serious illness makes this a book written for other people, not at them. His descriptions of the ministries in which he’s personally involved enrich the book. His message on every page is I can do this; so can you.

The actions he advises seem obvious, but it’s precisely when challenges are oppressive that solutions are obscured. Pray, even briefly; look a stranger in the eye and say hello; give the gift of listening; do simple things for one’s spouse: page after page is filled with reminders of the little things that draw one’s attention outward, discouraging self-absorption.

That’s not to say he advises forgetting about self-care. He knows that he and his readers need healing and grace and time for themselves.

Grace in the Virtues

Virtues in action are basically habits developed over time. Mr. Agnesi packs his small book with short suggestions for ways to develop those habits. His book concludes with a section called “Grace in the Virtues,” which may seem an odd subject to consider when dealing with miseries large and small. After all that precedes the closing section, though, his reflections on grace and virtue make sense.

Each little step he advises is underpinned with encouragement towards the simple virtues of gratitude and humility. Without them, no one can be equipped for ministry. No formal training or credential can replace them. With them, anyone can begin to offer authentic service to others. Wherever authentic service exists, there is ministry.

Turning Your Misery Into Ministry ends with an exhortation to be passionate, unafraid, and joyful. With the voice of a neighbor, Tony Agnesi invites his readers to join him.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

Book Review: A Storyteller’s Treasury

Tony AgnesiTony Agnesi is a storyteller. He’s built an audience by sharing his Catholic faith using whatever tools are at hand: writing, podcasting, speaking. You need never have heard of him before in order to enjoy his newly-released book, A Storytellers Guide to a Grace-Filled Life. 

This collection of more than 70 brief stories could be read as a guide, as the title suggests. If “guide” implies to you a cover-to-cover formal approach, though, don’t be put off.  Each story stands on its own. A few minutes at a time with one or two or three of the stories is refreshing. This is a book to leave by your favorite seat at home, or to carry when you’re traveling.

Each story includes some questions – challenges, even – inviting the reader to draw from the well of God’s grace. Scripture references aptly complement each story’s theme. Practical steps and reflections wrap up each piece. A story could take only a couple of minutes to read, and the time wouldn’t be wasted. Taking time to reflect, though, brings the real rewards.

Agnesi never forgets Who’s in charge. The grace of which he writes isn’t his to dispense; it comes from God. Agnesi doesn’t talk down to his readers; he assumes he’s dealing with adults who sincerely seek God, even in the middle of struggles that seem overwhelming. He knows he’s not writing for angels.

His tone is a gift to his readers: calm and kind, with just enough edge and challenge to inspire even a temporarily-bewildered believer. He’s a guide walking alongside the reader, not goading from behind.

The Storytellers Guide is divided into five chapters, each with a theme. The section on Holidays has Lent and Advent entries, as one could expect. A surprising one: Father’s Day. Agnesi takes that secular observance and turns it into what it ought to be: a celebration of the God-given gift and responsibility of fatherhood.

The tone and structure of the book make it adaptable for group study.  While it’s written by a Catholic man, it has no figurative “Catholics only” signs. All it needs is a reader in search of a grace-filled life who is willing to listen.

A Storytellers Guide could have been written by your most encouraging friend, who has seen your messy life (and has probably lived one of her own), and is still willing to help point you in the right direction. No false cheer, no nagging. This is a guide worth seeking out.

SPECIAL OFFER: A Storyteller’s Guide to a Grace-Filled Life is for sale at Tony’s web site. He will personally autograph the book, and he’s offering FREE DOMESTIC SHIPPING (Media Rate).  Go to https://tonyagnesi.com/store to take advantage of the offer!

The book is also available at amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

Link shared on #OpenBook linkup at My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

 

#OpenBook: Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim

For September’s Open Book link-up, I offer Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim by Malcolm Muggeridge (Harper & Row, 1988).

This month, it’s back to my personal library to pick up this short treat for the first time in many years. It’s not a full-dress autobiography (see Chronicles of Wasted Time for that). Instead, Confessions is a brief survey of the phases in journalist Malcolm Muggeridge’s life, each a stage on what he recognizes as his pilgrimage. He was late in life, 79 years of age, when he was received into the Catholic Church. In Confessions, he looks back at the uneven route he took to get there.

I have always felt myself to be a stranger here on earth, aware that our home is elsewhere. Now, nearing the end of my pilgrimage, I have found a resting place in the Catholic Church from where I can see the Heavenly Gates built into Jerusalem’s Wall more clearly than from anywhere else, albeit if only through a glass darkly.

Each phase of life gets a chapter – The Boy, The Journalist, The Soldier, and so on, sketched with a lifelong journalist’s deft touch. I knew before I picked up the book how it was going to end; Muggeridge was a celebrity whose conversion made news. The heart of Confessions lies in the way he describes what led to that conversion: the steps and missteps and unlikely occurrences in his life.

He gives credit to Mother Teresa, whom he met in the course of a documentary project that remains his best-known work, at least in the United States (Something Beautiful for God). She gave a nudge, and left the rest to time and God’s grace. In her, Muggeridge’s lifelong skepticism met its match.

The younger Muggeridge would have been astounded to know where that would lead: “It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become Catholic.” That was a countercultural claim, even thirty-odd years ago, particularly from a worldly man.

Despite such blunt declarations, Confessions is full of warmth and humor. I love his insight into what he calls “The Steeple and The Gargoyle.” Since reading this for the first time, I’ve never looked at a photo of an old church in the quite the way I did before.

This assumption that a sense of humour and a Christian faith are incompatible is totally mistaken….

The true function of humour is to express in terms of the grotesque the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance. Mysticism expresses the same disparity in terms of the sublime. Hence the close connection between clowns and mystics; hence, too, the juxtaposition on the great medieval cathedrals of  steeples reaching up into the Cloud of Unknowing, and gargoyles grinning malevolently down at our dear earth and all its foolishness. Laughter and mystical ecstasy, that is to say, both derive from an awareness, in the one case hilarious, in the other ecstatic, of how wide is the chasm between Time and Eternity, between us and our Creator.

Let us then, while, as we should, revering the steeples, remember the gargoyles, also, in their way, purveyors of God’s Word, and be thankful that, when the Gates of Heaven swing open, as they do from time to time, mixed with the celestial music there is the unmistakable sound of celestial laughter.

This #OpenBook linkup is hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

#OpenBook, August 2017: On the Hail Mary

Peter Ingemi, in his blogging persona as Da Tech Guy, is a Massachusetts-based writer and political reporter whose blog is a staple for conservatives in the region. The writers Ingemi welcomes on his blog (a group that includes me) all get fair warning before coming on board that the boss is unapologetically Catholic.

In his new book, Ingemi puts aside political reporting and takes up a labor of love: Hail Mary: the Perfect Protestant (and Catholic) Prayer [Imholt Press, 2017, 80 pages, $6.99 paperback, $2.99 Amazon Kindle e-book]. Ingemi is donating a portion of every sale to his local Catholic radio station in north central Massachusetts.

The book’s title is intriguing and perplexing at the same time. Ingemi is reaching for two audiences, and he’s likely to score with his fellow Catholics. Will the word “Protestant” in the title appeal to anyone? Among my own acquaintances are people who identify themselves as Baptist, Lutheran, or simply Christian – but Protestant, however accurate in a historical sense, is not a label they use. I wonder how many of Ingemi’s intended readers will get past his book’s title.

Book-cover-e1499903750923Those who do will find a brief (80 pages), straightforward examination and celebration of the Hail Mary prayer. Ingemi writes in the hope that all Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, will come to value the prayer’s meaning.

Ingemi takes the reader through the Hail Mary clause by clause. In the early part of the prayer, the words are taken from Scripture, offering common ground for all of Ingemi’s intended readers.

The second part of the prayer, following the invocation of the name of Jesus, also gets a line-by-line breakdown that flows naturally from what has come before.

This book could be one resource for any Catholic’s personal education, because it illuminates a prayer so common to Catholics that it might be taken for granted. It also could equip Catholics to explain the Hail Mary to non-Catholic friends.

Ingemi’s enthusiasm is irreproachable. He is nevertheless frank about the fact that he has no credentials as a theologian. This is a personal labor of love, not a work of scholarship.

If there is ever a second edition, the book would benefit from tighter copyediting and a sharper focus on readers who profess faith in Christ yet don’t understand Catholicism or Marian prayer. The author assumes knowledge of some things which have yet to be proven or explained to non-Catholic readers.

As for his Catholic readers, they’d probably be pleased to see a future edition carry an imprimatur. I know from conversation with the author that he’d be pleased for his work to receive one.

At its best, Ingemi’s book reflects faith that is informed by hope and charity, not by fear. Peter Ingemi sees the Hail Mary as a unifier for Christians. He will make a reasonable case for that to anyone, whether Catholic or not, who approaches his book with curiosity and good will.

Note: I received and reviewed a courtesy copy of the book’s text in proof form. Some typos and grammar detracted from the book’s quality, but they may have been corrected in the final published version. This review contains an affiliate link.

This post is part of the #OpenBook linkup hosted at My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com.

Open Book, May 2017

Open Book is a monthly blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

My book pile reveals a serious lack of attention to best-seller lists. I take note of them, but they seldom prompt me to chase down a newly-published item. I made an exception for The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I couldn’t resist a subtitle like “A strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation.”

Dreher, who is Eastern Orthodox, calls on Christians living in America to evaluate their beliefs, take them seriously, take a hard look at the prevailing culture, and prepare for tougher times ahead. Without resorting to panic or an apocalyptic tone, he offers a chapter-by-chapter accounting of various aspects of culture – education, family life, sexuality, politics, among others – and how they are now in radical opposition to authentic Christian life. He doesn’t write to complain, but to point a way to living in joy and confidence without accepting what he calls “cultural captivity.” “Love is the only way we will make it through what is to come.”

As someone whose professional life involves political engagement, I found Dreher’s assessment of the civic position of Christians compelling and accurate. Unlike some readers of The Benedict Option, I don’t interpret Dreher’s message as an exhortation to withdraw from civic life and into a shell. Instead, I hear him calling on us to reject fear and anxiety, and to keep in mind that our Creator is Lord of all. Civic engagement with that attitude would be a blessed antidote to a “horizon” that extends only as far as the next election.

In practical terms, Dreher calls for a return to the roots of Christian faith, to learn or re-learn what love and service mean, to recognize that there is such a thing as divine order. The formation of Christian communities will be a natural result not of fear, but of recognition of the things that are truly and eternally important.

Read the last chapter first. You’ll then be eager to read the whole book, to learn about the path that led to such a conclusion.

I spent a few recent weeks on Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Far in spirit from The Benedict Option!) Her sonnets leave me in no doubt of her gifts as a writer, and Savage Beauty invites even more exploration of Millay’s workNancy Milford, author of Savage Beauty, relies possibly too much on the reminiscences of Millay’s sister Norma. Millay’s own voice comes through nonetheless.

Found on the New Books shelf at my local library: John LeCarré’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life. LeCarré’s Smiley trilogy occupies a place of honor on my figurative bookshelf (which is actually a series of shelves, rooms, and piles), and I consider his The Honourable Schoolboy his supreme work. Now in his eighties, LeCarré has published a memoir of sorts for me to savor. The Pigeon Tunnel is not an autobiography or a linear narrative, but a series of episodes from LeCarré’s life that inspired some of the stories he’s written. I loved it.

This post contains affiliate links.

Open Book, April 2017: “Gosnell”

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and CatholicMom.com with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately.

Gosnell by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer is not easy to read. The style is smooth and fluent, but the topic’s a tough one: Kermit Gosnell, former abortion doctor, now serving life in prison. He killed children who survived attempts to abort them. He was found responsible for the death of a woman who came to him for an abortion and died under what passed for his “care.”

He committed terrible crimes. He is in prison now. Reporters covered the trial as it happened, once they were shamed into it by people like journalist Kirsten Powers. Three years after Gosnell’s conviction, there is now a book that sets down not only what happened, but tells more about the people who were involved. As McElhinney and McAleer tell their stories, the book becomes less about a court case and more about human beings, capable of good choices and bad ones.

I listened to McIlhinney and McAleer talk about their book at CPAC, a political conference in Washington. An odd venue, but perhaps that was the place to reach readers who might not otherwise hear of the book. McAleer was a quiet man, leaving most of the talking to his co-author (who is also his wife).

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McIlhenney was not at all quiet. She was passionate and angry as she talked about Gosnell. She was indignant. She called Gosnell “America’s biggest serial killer,” and she meant it. She made no bones about it: she had no objectivity left regarding her subject.

Familiar as I was with the Gosnell case, and as impressed as I was by McElhinney’s passion, I wondered what could be new in the book. As I read, I quickly realized that the close attention to the individuals involved in the case, starting with the investigators, set Gosnell apart from anything else I’ve read on the subject.

The authors’ perspective is unique as well, as McElhinney explains in the preface: “I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious.”

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

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#Open Book, March 2017

Alicia von Stamwitz has collected Pope Francis’s reflections on on the Blessed Mother in Mother Mary (Franciscan Media, to be released 3/31/2017), in a format ideal for daily prayer prompts and inspiration. Excerpts from the Pope’s homilies, public addresses, and daily Angelus proclamations are divided into six Marian-themed chapters. Even some of the Pope’s tweets are included (surely you’re following @Pontifex).

The collection could be particularly useful in special liturgical seasons, as an aid to periodic prayer throughout the day. This could appear to be a collection for busy people; each quotation takes only a few moments to read. That’s deceptive, though, because under von Stamwitz’s curation, the Pope’s brief reflections draw the reader away from busy-ness. His words inspire contemplation of Mary and her perfect faith in God, inviting the reader to join Our Lady in confident prayer and praise.

Something completely different is onboard my Kindle at the moment: The Ambulance Drivers by James McGrath Morris (Perseus Books Group, Da Capo Press, to be released 3/28/2017), a nonfiction account of the relationships and common experiences of American writers John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway. The title refers to their service in World War I, which deeply affected each man. I’m not far into the book but it has already grabbed me. Morris is crafting an appealing blend of biography, literature and history.

Review copies provided by NetGalley.com.