Guide offers ways to make life a little bit holier

By Melissa Musick and Anna Keating
Published by Image, 432 pages, $25

Thoughtful Catholics looking to find the holy in each day should reach for The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life. In appearance, it has the heft and whimsy of an old-time church cookbook, one put together by generations of ladies of the parish. In content, it is an exhaustive piece of work, but in tone, it's as serious as it needs to be while still celebrating the rituals of the Catholic faith.

Authors Melissa Musick (Nussbaum, an NCR columnist) and Anna Keating, a mother-daughter team that also maintains the website, have compiled a resource that is meant to be consulted on a need-to-know -- or, better yet, a want-to-know -- basis. They liken the book to a birding guide because Catholics, "like birds, can be identified by habits and habitats, by diet and coloration."

They acknowledge that for many Catholics these practices and traditions have grown strange to them, if they ever knew them to begin with. This book is a gentle corrective, explaining everything you always wanted to know about church traditions. That they do so without judgment (see the chapter on tattoos) and a recipe or two (St. John's wine -- or sangria, more commonly) adds to the book's charm and the sense that these traditions can, and in fact should, be accessible to anyone who is seeking more meaning in the everyday.

The book is divided into three parts: smells and bells (religious signs and symbols), seasons of the church year, and seasons of life.

If readers use this book as the authors intend -- hopscotching around as with a cookbook or actual field guide -- they might not dive right into veneration of relics and early chapters on medals and candles. But then again, this book has something for everyone, so forge ahead. Teachers, especially, might like it as a resource for their classrooms.

I confess that, as a lover of Advent and Christmas, I went directly to those sections, and was more than a little humbled to learn how much more there is to learn about these most familiar of seasons.

As it happens, Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, isn't simply the day you wake up to find oranges in your shoes outside your bedroom door, which is how I recall celebrating it as a child. Musick, who crafted that chapter, tells the story of Nicholas, the bishop of Myra and patron saint of children -- and pawnbrokers, and Greece, and sailors, and young women seeking husbands. "He may be the saint with the most causes associated with his name," she writes. Who knew?

In her family's tradition, the saint left letters for children, with little rhyming clues as to where their treats were hidden and a reminder to behave and eat their vegetables. St. Nicholas, in turn, took up to the Lord the letters the children left for the Child Jesus. Musick suggests that one needn't have children to take advantage of the day, using it as an opportunity to do a good deed for a lonely neighbor or financially strapped friend.

Other chapters walk readers through setting up the crèche and the practice of decorating the tree. Another fun fact: Christmas Eve is the feast day of Adam and Eve, and Germans in the 16th century first put up "paradise trees" to honor them.

Musick suggests placing figures of the two on the tree and treating the trimming as a communal event, inviting single friends and others for the occasion, even suggesting a blessing for the tree: "Then every tree of the forest will clap its hands, and all creation will bless you from these shining branches." What a lovely image.

They also include an Epiphany blessing, and provide instructions for making Epiphany window stars. Crafts!

One thing the authors never do is chastise the reader for getting away from these traditions. Rather, they make them sound so delightfully appealing that one is more likely to start thinking how they can be incorporated into daily life. The pair include so many thoughtful and creative ways to make life just a little bit holier -- like taking a nature walk, or performing an act of service on your namesake saint's day, or planting and maintaining a Mary Garden -- one could just let the book fall open and be assured of finding something wonderful.

Now that the seasons are changing, you have a few weeks to start planning your Martinmas lantern walk for Nov. 11. It's an occasion for spiced wine and sugar cookies, and for "sharing stories about the people who have been the light of Christ in your life." As daylight grows shorter in autumn ordinary time, another kind of light awaits in the lives John the Baptist, Thérèse of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi and many others whose stories are recounted in pages of The Catholic Catalogue.

[Julie Bourbon is editorial director at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.]

This story appeared in the Oct 7-20, 2016 print issue under the headline: Guide offers ways to make life a little bit holier .

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