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Celebrating prayer that gives us something to do

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SIGNS OF LIFE: 40 CATHOLIC CUSTOMS AND THEIR BIBLICAL ROOTS
By Scott Hahn
Published by Doubleday, $23

This book is a celebration of all things Catholic and an explanation of the biblical doctrine that placed them in the church’s treasure trove to begin with, relating sacraments, practices and devotions to Catholic faith life.

Hahn begins by explaining the underpinnings of Catholic sacraments, sacramentals and devotions. God created us with bodies built for action and movement, he asserts, and God set us to work in a world full of things to do. And God has always acknowledged this natural tendency and given us things to do.

“God instructed Moses to strike a rock so that water would gush forth. Why did he do that? Not because he needed to. He could have dropped canteens from the clouds, or installed a great lake in the midst of the desert, or even had angels serve up pitchers of margaritas. Yet he knew human nature, and he knew our need to do something. So he gave Moses something to do.”

Hahn extends this through Catholic tradition. “Being Catholic means never having to say we have nothing left to do. Our prayer is enriched by sacred images and incense, votive candles and rosary beads, waters and oils, gestures and postures, blessings and medals, customs and ceremonies.”

The book is divided into phases: birth, life progresses in time, a day in the life of the Christian, disciplines through the entirety of life, significant stages in life, enjoyment of life, the abundant life, devotions to the saints we love, and the end of life.

Each phase is related to devotional elements and practices briefly describing their biblical and historical roots in the church.

The reader wishing special depth will want to look elsewhere for more detail. What Scott Hahn has provided here is not depth but a wide understanding that gives us the big picture view we need in order to see these devotions as not just added on niceties but as living and essential elements in the church.

For example, in his chapter “The Rosary,” Hahn begins with the fourth sentence of the Magnificat in Luke, when Mary says, “For behold, all generations will call me blessed.” (1:48). The practice of the rosary, he says, fulfills that prophecy at least 50 times. The rosary is a time-proven method of contemplative prayer. It works on a human level because it engages the whole person. It involves speech and hearing, occupies our mind and incites our emotions. There’s something for our fingertips to do. The rosary confirms faith in Christ. “It is not enough for us merely to hear him -- never mind only read his words. We want him to fill up our senses ... And he does, thanks to the love of his mother.”

An interesting chapter on “the presence of God” begins with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which, Hahn says, we find all the creedal marks of the church -- one, holy, catholic and apostolic -- spelled out in terms of a temple’s construction. We are dwelling places of God in the Spirit, according to Paul. So living fully in the church, we are temples of God’s presence. Yet the church teaches us to “practice” God’s presence and make “acts of the presence of God” -- simple prayers of invocation. “If God is always present in us, why do we need to make such acts?” Hahn asks. His answer: We do it for our sake, not God’s. “It’s not as if God is a genie who requires a rub of the lamp to be conjured up. No, he’s present. But we need to be reminded of the fact. And the reminder should make a difference for us.”

This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to learn more about Catholic life and practices.

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November 21-December 5, 2014

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