Friday, June 15, 2012

What is Your Hunger Games?

When I was in elementary school I was fascinated with WWII genre novels. I especially liked the novels in which someone took a stand against the Nazis to save a Jewish neighbor. As I read the books, I would always think, "That would be me. I would risk my life." One day I mentioned this to my mom and she looked at me for a moment with pride but then became very serious and said, "Theresa, we never know what we would do in those situations until we are in them."

I thought of this life lesson as I read The Hunger Games recently. The book is a wildly popular young adult novel for which a movie adaptation was recently released. It is the tale of a young girl named Katniss Everdeen who takes her younger sister's place in a yearly game in which 24 young kids fight to the death in an arena as everyone else watches - some with disgust, others with enthusiasm and voracious curiosity.

The book is a young adult version of dystopian novels like George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Dystopias are the opposite of utopias, worlds in which injustice, oppression and poverty reign. Dystopian novels point out, through the use of extreme situations, some of the current dangers in modern society. Rather than making us think, "Wow, thank God our world is not like that!" books like The Hunger Games should push us to ask, "How is our society similar?"

It does not take long to think of many ways in which people are killed, literally and figuratively, in our world without much notice. Abortion and starvation are some of our world's hidden Hunger Games. Horrors easily become accepted and even run of the mill. But our society's Hunger Games can also be something as seemingly benign as reality TV shows. Like the Capitol, the privileged minority in the book that eats up the bloody spectacle of the Hunger Games, we become enthralled by the disastrous choices of celebrities and reality TV stars, caring more for entertainment than for the people themselves.

However, when exploring dystopian themes, it is also important to explore questions that are personal: "Who would I be under the worst of circumstances? What kind of person would I be in an arena of bloodthirsty kids gunning for my life?"

Most people tend to swagger when they imagine what they would do under dire circumstances, as I did when I was reading WWII novels. We all want to be one of the "good guys." But it might be more spiritually fruitful to realize that we would probably not fall into line with the heroes and the saints when push came to shove.

We all have hidden Hunger Games. Issues we need to work on in ourselves because if we don't we may end up turning into people who would slit throats at first chance when thrown into an arena. If we assume this to be true, we can move forward accordingly. We can live with focus, working to become the best person we can be under the best and worst circumstances. This requires spiritual focus, pain and sacrifice as well as time spent with our Creator so He can transform us more deeply than we could ever transform ourselves.

Popular culture is not mindless. If something is wildly popular it is likely it is because it touches on deep questions. So, if you go to watch The Hunger Games or read the book, take some time to ponder some of these deeper questions or come up with some of your own. If you ever find yourself in an arena of bloodthirsty adolescents you won't regret it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Two Years of Spiritual Life Lessons ... in Books

Ah, pure bliss.
Some people associate certain memories with smells or particular foods. I associate books with different time periods in my life. High school senior year was Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. The book that rose above all other books when I lived in Miami was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, (incidentally, not the best book to read during hurricane season).

I am currently on vacation from the convent. My first phase of nun training is wrapping up. I have been thinking nostalgically of my time in the convent over the past two years. I have learned a lot in prayer, in community, in life experiences and through my usual method of learning - reading.

I think the best way to sum up the past two years of learning is to list the best books I have read in no particular order. I recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone in any walk of life:

1. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene - This novel is a great introduction to a dark moment in Mexican history - the suppression of the Catholic Church and the violence against clergy that ensued in the 1930s. But more than a history lesson, this book is a probing search into the complicated psyche of a mediocre, alcoholic priest who becomes a surprising lesson for the reader in humility, grace and holiness.

2. Interior Freedom by Jacques Phillipe- Every single book by this French priest is destined to be a spiritual classic. Whenever someone asks me for a book recommendation, I always point to this author. But this particular book is a Hope diamond among diamonds, a gorgeous work of art full of practical advice on the vital role that attaining inner freedom plays in the spiritual life.

3. How to Be an Adult by David Richo - Ok, some might think it would be embarrassing to admit reading this book, let alone really liking it. But I am not embarrassed to say that I have learned a lot about acting more maturely over the past two years through reading this book, living in community and going to a counselor. This book is at times corny and did not always sit right. But most of his advice is sound and extremely helpful. I felt more adult after just reading a few chapters...

4. Mother Teresa's Secret Fire  by Joseph Langford - Best book about Mother Teresa, hands down. This is the book she wanted to be shared with the world. It is written by the man chosen by Mother Teresa to found the male order of the Missionaries of Charity. It is clear that this man has a special insight into the core teaching of Mother Teresa around the words of Jesus on the cross: "I thirst." It is surprising, simple and profound. After reading this book I am convinced that Mother Teresa should be named a Doctor of the Church.

5. Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Pope Benedict XVI - Anything written by Pope Benedict is amazing. I have read a lot written by him this year, including his excellent autobiography Milestones. But this book takes the cake. Pope Benedict is a brilliant Biblical scholar. He looks at Scripture with a perfect blend of faith and reason, a quality that is missing in much of modern Biblical scholarship. Pope Benedict presents a Jesus who is historically reasonable, but also a Jesus who is consistent with our faith. I learned so much about Scripture, and Jesus by reading this book. And I learned to love our brilliant but shockingly humble pope. The Holy Spirit knows what He is doing.

I would love if any readers would like to share their best book from the past couple years in the comments.

Peace to everyone, and happy reading!