Light and beauty – book reviews and contest!

Saved by Beauty and This Little Light – the November book review and book giveaway series continues!

I’ll begin this review of two books with the end in mind… If you are making a list so that someone may check it twice, I suggest that you ask for both books. Seriously – ask for both books! You will not regret this, even if it feels a bit over the top. Let me tell you why…

There will be pure joy upon giving and receiving such things, there will be no standing in long lines to return things that you don’t want, and no suffering the potential shame of re-gifting the wrong gift to the wrong person. Go ahead, attach this review to your wish list! And if you are looking for gifts for someone else, try using this as your shopping list. (Book giveway contest info at the end of the post, along with info about upcoming appearances by Brother Mickey!)

Today I find myself with two truly wonderful books, both by one author. So please, ask for both books, or use just a bookstore gift card (if you get any) to get them. It is that simple, you really can’t easily choose between these two gems.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let me say a few things to you about these books. Author, Michael O’Neill McGrath (see his full website at this link), known primarily as an artist who creates images, but who also “paints” beautifully with words. Using the same kinds of vibrant images and colors that animate his paintings, with his words added, his books become delights to behold.

Recently I was able to read two of his works, This Little Light, Lessons in Living from Sister Thea Bowman,” (Orbis Books, $20.00, 95 pp.) and Saved By Beauty, A Spiritual Journey with Dorothy Day,” (WLP, $39.95, 105 pp.). Each volume possesses its own set of spiritual and esthetic gifts, with no shortage of wisdom coming from both of the women, and from McGrath himself.

McGrath’s Image of Thea Bowman with the US Catholic Bishops entitled, “Rise Up Shepherds.”

My first encounter with Sister Thea Bowman was when she was on 60 Minutes in 1987. Not a practicing Catholic at the time, I was captivated with her vitality and spirit, and I wanted to know more about her – but I never followed up at the time. McGrath did not “meet” her until after her death, and he did not lose the thread as I did. At the time that they became “acquainted,” he had lost his father and was floundering around with his pursuit of being an artist. Learning about Sister Thea seemed to pull him up from his despair, and set his creative path in another direction entirely. I am reminded that there is nothing like sadness and loss followed by encountering grace to create a divine chemistry that results in transformation! This happened to McGrath in a very big way via Thea Bowman.

Using the kinds of brightly colored images that are his hallmark, along with stories of Bowman’s life and legacy, a remarkable story unfurls in This Little Light. The thing that struck me most, was the truly unlikely nature of Bowman’s life, (and of McGrath’s as well), but that with God’s light shining from within each of us, all of our paths are illuminated. Sometimes it just takes a Thea Bowman or a Mickey McGrath – or both of them – to give the rest of us a boost!

The reminder that we should live joyfully that comes from Sister Thea’s heart has infused McGrath’s words and his art in manifold ways. This book shares that “little light” with all of us.

In Saved by Beauty, we meet another iconic Catholic woman, Dorothy Day. This is a big coffee table book, filled with beauty, as the title says. This beauty, which will indeed save us, is of course at the heart of Christ and expressed by the saints so well. Dorothy Day may not yet be canonized (not yet anyway), but she is part of that great cloud of witnesses and her desire to serve and heal lives on in many ways.

Telling her story, with images of her life liberally spread around the pages, McGrath takes us on an adventure. He invites his own saint and spiritual friend, St. Francis de Sales along for the ride. That saint prepare us for Dorothy Day, along with McGrath’s words and art. Describing elements of Day’s “giant-yet-small” life, the author transports us to that place, with the reminder that we all have that within us, as a gift from God.

This is Brother Mickey with a painting of Dorothy Day. I believe that is Chris Haw, whose work I reviewed earlier in the month, with him! Haw made the frame.

In the midst of writing the book, the author does something not unlike his heroine, who sought out real poverty, and set up a place of hospitality and hope in that very spot. McGrath finds himself doing this same thing by moving to Camden, NJ. Don’t think beaches or golf clubs, this part of New Jersey is notorious for its poverty – and its danger. Living with three other Oblates of St. Francis de Sales near the Sacred Heart Church, they are, like Dorothy Day, beacons of hope. McGrath makes it clear that he could not do this without God, and the company of saints he loves so well. Especially Dorothy!

We learn so much about Day and her cohort, and how they tried in their “great-yet-small” way to change their corner of the world. By using a previously unknown concept of vibrant lay communities, they offered the works of mercy to those in need around them. There is one image from the book that personifies this for me; Dorothy Day is holding a cup of hot coffee in her hand, the spirals and swirls of steam rising above the cup are like the Holy Spirit. Around her, people of every age, color, shape and size gather in close, drinking coffee with her. I can’t help but think of this “caffeine ministry” as a small s sacrament changing the world and infusing it with grace.

The volume is resplendent with treasures of art and language, with Scripture mixed in. I want to cut out and frame a particular image of Dorothy on her knees beside her bed at night, with the words of Psalm 91 reminding her – and us – that “night holds no terror for me sleeping under God’s wings.” What a great reminder for us all.

These two remarkable books, about two remarkable women, cry out to be read. Scripture, essay, art and so much grace abounds in each one. As I said at the beginning, ask for, buy or give both of them – the result will be gratitude and joy all around!

LOCAL APPEARANCES BY BROTHER MICKEY: Brother Mickey will be at The Church of the Immaculate Conception, on Route 50 in Glenville, on Thursday, November 29 at 7pm, and will repeat his program on Friday November 30 at 9am. All are welcome. Admission is free, but free will offerings will be graciously accepted.

Brother Mickey will then offer a weekend long retreat at the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center, on Route 7 in Niskayuna. Saints and Stories of Advent, begins Friday evening and runs to Sunday afternoon. What better way to prepare for Advent? Details about pricing and more are at the link.

BOOK GIVEWAY: Anyone who enters a comment on this post between the time of this posting and 7am eastern on Monday, November 19 will have their name entered in a drawing to win a copy of “This Little Light.” You may comment as often as you would like, which may increase your chances of winning.



Filed under Albany Times Union, Book Reviews, Brother Mickey McGrath, Catholicism, Dominican Retreat and Conference Center, Dorothy Day, Thea Bowman

5 responses to “Light and beauty – book reviews and contest!

  1. Marie Woodward

    These books look wonderful and I will do just as you say: purchase them for Christmas gifts, thanks for the enthusiastic reviews, Marie

  2. Dolores Nann, Pastoral Associate, The Catholic Community of St. Matthias, Somerset, NJ November 15 5:17PM
    Interestingly, Brother Mickey is coming to our parish this Sunday, November 18 to speak on Sr. Thea…what a coincidence…as I was spending some time this afternoon better updating myself on Sr. Thea, I came across your blog…very well done! Though I personally had heard Sr. Thea in the mid-1980’s at the East Coast Conference of Religious Education, I just today watched the online video of her address to the Bishop’s in June of 1989. I trust that hearing Brother Mickey speak of Sr. Thea, it will help heal many wounds even the most recent one’s caused by hurricane Sandy. Thank you and I will purchase some books for Christmas this Sunday!!

    • Thanks for coming by Dolores! I know where Somerset is, I have been down your way many times in nearby towns. Please know that we have been praying for the people of NJ, so harmed by the storm. I hope that you have a great experience with Mickey and please tell him that you “met” me via this blog.

      Sister Thea’s address to the bishops was a remarkable moment. Mickey talks about it, not that he was there, but what he has come to know.

      God bless you!

  3. I can’t wait to hear Brother Mickey– what an inspiration! May I add these events to the Community calendar for the Capital Region Theological Center?