Many years ago, I came across a list of suggested disciplines to embrace during Lent. One of the things suggested was to refrain from reading novels during the forty days of Lent. It’s a discipline that I’m happy to say I have never engaged in. In fact, novels and fiction have often formed a core of spiritual reflection during this season. Whether meditating upon the darkness found in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, following the via crucis of Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King, oftentimes fiction can hold as much spiritual value as a religious text.
In that spirit, here are some Ignatius Press novels that touch upon Lenten themes such as suffering, self-denial, mercy, and forgiveness. Any or all of them would make excellent reading during this season.
Poor Banished Children by Fiorella De Maria is a riveting, enthralling, and disturbing read. The story of a young Maltese woman living in the seventeenth-century, De Maria creates an always-believable world without a hint of anachronism—a rare accomplishment in historical fiction. The protagonist, Warda, is a strong-willed girl whose rare combination of education and outcast status has marked her as unsuitable for marriage. When she is kidnapped and sold into slavery by pirates, she ends up is Muslim North Africa. As she is broken down by brutality, she begins to despair and finds herself embracing the same vicious hatred shown to her. Can redemption be found? You’ll have to read to find out.
Dayspring by Harry Sylvester is a great and overlooked twentieth-century Catholic novel. It’s one I’ve discussed here before, because it strikes hard at a fault I am prone to: the easy cynicism of judging the motives of others. Similar in many ways to the struggling and wounded semi-believers in Graham Greene’s novels, Spencer Bain is a modern man caught between two powerful attractions: a modern, sophisticated life, and primal, deep-rooted faith. Bain, while trying to maintain academic distance from his subject, joins a penitential Catholic brotherhood to experience their Lenten practices. But as he journeys with these men toward Good Friday, true, actual sorrow for his sins (including the procurement of an abortion for his wife) comes to the surface, sweeping away any attempt to rationalize his lifestyle. An unforgettable book, and one I’ve returned to more than once since first reading it.
Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien has been hailed by many as one of the acclaimed novelist’s very best works. In 2007, Marvin Olasky at WORLD magazine called it “one of the best Christian novels about forgiveness and grace I’ve ever read.”
Iota by T.M. Doran is also a novel featuring a protagonist wrestling with guilt in punishing circumstances. Jan Skala was forced into collaborating with the Nazi occupation, and has now been imprisoned by the Communist “liberators” of his country. What will his fate be?
Everywhere in Chains by James Casper tells the story of a family suppressing the truth about a bygone crime, and how the tendency to hide things like abuse, mental illness, and injustice can explode outwards in violence. Can there truly be forgiveness when unwarranted secrecy is insisted upon?
Do you have a favorite Lenten read? Let me know in the comments!
Note: This is an updated version of a previous post here at Ignatius Press Novels.