I had the privilege to discover that Mother Melania of the Holy Assumption Monastery has two biblical picture books in verse for free today on Kindle. Moses and the Burning Bush and The Three Holy Youths in the Furnace feature the Bible stories and their meaning in church tradition in straightforward, clear verse.
Don’t let the idea of verse put you off reading these. There’s nothing cloying in the rhymes. They’re more like reading Shakespeare than the kids’ books that we all dread with forced meters.
Along with the simple and readable poem stories, the bright watercolors bring the feeling of the bright joy of God’s surprising love to the eyes.
I read these to myself and couldn’t help but read aloud, which drew a flock of children near to listen. They pointed to the photos and asked questions and said, “Oh, wow!” a few times.
I highly recommend these books to anyone curious about the ancient Christian tradition surrounding these pivotal stories, and especially for Orthodox and Catholic Christians and inquirers. They’re perfect Lenten reading for families or for adults who love beauty and want a quick read. They’ll stand many re-reads, with new meaning emerging each time.
To go with these soul-warming books, make this simple Lenten cocoa. This is an older way to drink chocolate, similar in taste to some of the drinking chocolates in Europe but with the consistency of coffee rather than kefir. Add a heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder to a cup along with a tablespoon (or two) of maple syrup. Stir in hot water from the kettle until you have a drink that looks like medium roast coffee. Enjoy hot. The flavor is bright and soothing.
Though I first encountered the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch in my church history classes in college and graduate school, my strongest memory is the summer course I spent painstakingly translating them from the Greek. Alongside the headaches I developed each day from a combination of my dyslexia and unfamiliarity with some verb tenses, I recall the sweet relief of familiar words. When St. Ignatius mentioned the common language of faith, I could put my slow barbarian mouth around the words at last. It’s that experience that made me treasure the continuity between the New Testament scriptures and the prayers of the Church and the ideas in St. Ignatius’ letters.
Perhaps because it was so hard won, my understanding of the letters as representing continuity with tradition is the standard I take into any writings about the letters. In many ways, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s book Bearing God: The Life and Works of St. Ignatius of Antioch the God-Bearer did not disappoint. Especially for Christians unfamiliar with the saint and those trained in thought traditions that value contrasts as teaching points, this book offers a solid grounding in the context and basic meanings of the letters. Fr. Andrew does a great job in pointing out the continuity between the practices in the letters and present day Orthodox Christian worship. Though he does not spend a great deal of time explaining pietas — the religion-drenched culture of the Roman Empire at the time — beyond inviting readers to think of it along the lines of patriotism, he draws a great many helpful connections between the life of St. Ignatius, his letters, and the Christian scriptural language that will be familiar to most of his readers.
The only thing I wish there were more of is an assumption of continuity with St. Ignatius’ own received tradition. In a few places, the teaching method of contrast actually obscures meaning. For instance, early Christian martyrs did not understand themselves in opposition to the earlier Maccabean martyrs, but as inheritors of the same courageous faith in the same God (though the Christians saw themselves as recipients of a fuller revelation of God’s nature). That sort of attention to the details of continuity help the reader of the letters to avoid modern pitfalls, such as that of assuming that cowering fear in the face of public death is a certainty. It wasn’t a certainty to the early martyrs or the Maccabean martyrs. While Fr. Andrew points to the courage and does not at all fall into the modern assumptions about suffering, it might have helped his point along to point out some of these continuous traditions.
“I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” Letter to the Romans, Section 4.
In the most iconic passage of the letters – literally rendered in icons of St. Ignatius between two devouring lions – more attention to the continuity of St. Ignatius’ language with the tradition of typology would have taken Fr. Andrew’s explanation from encouraging to sublime. While I have no objection to the direction that Fr. Andrew takes in his well-versed section on the Eucharist, the corrective lessons he draws out for modern Christians leave out one glorious truth that can only be accessed through a turn to Ignatius’ own received tradition.
The early Christians loved patterns as ways to understand the way God’s revelation for our salvation. This love of patterns, or typology, was already traditional by the time of the Apostle Paul’s letters, where we see, for instance, the reference to Christ as the rock that followed the Hebrews through the desert in their exodus from Egypt. It’s also the key to the summarily beautiful passage in St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans. Here is what his listeners would have heard:
Genesis 1:11 (OSB) Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the herb of grass, bearing seed according to its kind and likeness.”
John 12:24 (OSB) Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.
The feeding of the five thousand from the multiplication of already baked bread.
I Corinthians 5 Christ as the Passover
The Lord’s Supper, where He called the bread His own body.
If we assume – as I believe we should- that St. Ignatius was continuing the line of received typological tradition and adding to it to show us a truth about martyrdom, here’s what he’s saying: Just as God made the plants to bear seed after their kind, and each plant bears many more seeds like the one from which it grew, and just as the Lord said that He would bring forth many more members after His death, and just as the Lord was able to multiple the wheat even after it had been baked into bread, and just as the Lord was even Himself present in the bread, so I will by my martyrdom become the bread of God, strengthening the Church and multiplying the bread of God even after I am eaten.
Martyrdom is the endcap to the seed in Genesis. God creates seeds, grows them, multiplies them even after they are baked, and do not fear! He can even multiply the bread of God after it is eaten.
To go with this sturdy and edifying introduction to St. Ignatius, I have chosen one of the few non-wine drinks available in St. Ignatius’ time and place: chamomile tea. I chose it also because it’s a good tea to drink in the evening with your book group as you study this book. The tea has the fragrance of green apples, and a little tea cupful goes a long way. I like to use whole chamomile flowers in a 2-cup pot. Add one handful of dried flowers to a pot. Steep in almost- boiling water for 5 minutes and serve immediately. It’s also good at room temperature when you notice that you forgot to finish your tea as you were reading.
There’s a type of cozy mystery where one figures out the basic whodunnitandhow pretty quickly, but the interest lies in the unfolding of the histories and characters involved. Katherine Bolger Hyde’s Arsenic With Austen is a delightful book in this genre. Though the setting is well-drawn and beautiful and the protagonist engaging, my favorite parts of the book were the places where the author clearly relishes the English language. Here are two of my favorite passages where the wit seemed in line with the Austen quotes throughout:
He preferred to be alone with his grief–though he wanted all the world to know about it.
Emily pushed open the door and paused to take a deep breath of thoughtful, well-educated air.
That air is, of course, in the beautiful and well-outfitted library that serves as the heart of the book. Besides the library, the house that Emily inherits holds other treasures, including cubbies hidden in woodwork and at least one secret passageway. Fans of the genre will understand how these details give one a little flutter.
Bonus Language Joy: Though it wasn’t low to begin with, my opinion of the story went up the first time the narration used the word “replete.” Most people these days have either forgotten the word entirely, or they imprecisely substitute “complete” in its place.
To go with this high-minded and literate murder mystery, I have chosen Tealyra’s Rosy Earl Grey loose tea. The floral aroma and bitter edge make for an indulgent afternoon pour that pairs well with cream and sugar despite its light liquor. The tea blenders were right to describe this blend as the tea version of rose Turkish Delight, but with a bite to it. I recommend that you brew it with an extra spoon of tea leaves added to the pot and serve with milk or cream and a little sugar in your favorite china cup.
I fell in love with Garden in the East after hearing Angela read an excerpt at a writer’s conference. I bought the book as soon as it came out, but I’m now reviewing it for one reason: This is the kind of book I like to savor.
There are certain books that mend the soul and soothe over the damage of self-criticism and the hostilities of the world: Jane Austen novels, Rilke’s poetry, and this book by Angela Doll Carlson. I keep it on my Kindle at the top of the queue, returning again and again to re-read passages.
Angela’s background as a personal trainer is evident in her deep awareness of the body. She uses her formidable skills as a poet to weave an engaging prose vision of the body’s graces: organic, dynamic, sacred.
This book brought me peace with my body and helped me understand the rich beauty of being created. I highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with their place in the world or who wants to grow deeper into a sense of their sacred selves.
A book like this deserves a custom tea blend that focuses on building up the body. I recommend that you make this blend by the pot.
Angela’s Tea Blend
You’ll need: rosehips, dried ginger, rooibos, and dried elder berries.
For one pot, blend:
2 Tablespoons rooibos
1 Tablespoon dried ginger
1 tablespoon rosehips
1 tablespoon elder berries
Steep in boiling water for 5 or more minutes. The mixture should not get bitter over time like traditional teas.
I was gifted a free copy of The Sweetness of Grace in exchange for an honest review – several months ago. I started reading it right away and even purchased an additional Kindle copy for myself so that I could read more easily right before bed at night.
Why so many months till I reviewed? Because savory books take my speech away for awhile.
You know how you can hardly speak for a bit after eating a good meal? That’s how this book affected me.
It’s a nourishing book, the sort that will recalibrate your taste in stories, setting a new standard for how you believe the world works.
I read and enjoyed The Scent of Holiness a few years ago, and I highly recommend both that and this book that continues Presbytera Constantina Palmer’s collection of and reflection on spiritually upbuilding stories.
Like a modern-day Egeria (a 4th C Christian pilgrim whose writings give us a taste of devotion at her time), Pres. Constantina draws us into the places and lives of holy people well met in monasteries and churches and by God’s grace in all places. I savor her writing because it’s so encouraging and eye-opening. Like rich foods, I want a little at a time, but I want a lot of it!
The Sweetness of Grace is a perfect book for reading along with one’s daily scriptures and saints’ lives. It has much in it that could be read aloud to family members for encouragement. The stories are the sort that arise in awed “Guess what?” tones over coffee and dinner tables. I could see it forming the basis of conversation for a busy parents’ group at church; only a few pages are needed to come away feeling built up in the community of faith.
For seekers and people discerning and healing, this book is a godsend, as it draws attention to the way God is moving amongst His loved ones.
It’s a prophetic work in the sense of building up the people of God and testifying to the great love God has for us — all in accessible, very human stories, engaging real life characters and settings, and well-parsed narration as needed.
Get this book to keep by your knitting or in the kitchen while you wait for your tea. (I recommend that you drink it in calm times with a soothing, healing green tea like the Numi decaf Ginger Lemon blend.) Get it for your friends and family. Read a bit to your family. You’ll start to notice more that God is working in your life, too.
Every new year, Orthodox Christians, especially Greek Orthodox Christians, celebrate the feast of St. Basil the Great on January 1. The traditional cake that is shared that day and throughout the month of January is called a Vasilopita, or Basil Cake.
The recipes for wheat flour vary from a sweet yeast bread to a cakier texture.
I knew that I didn’t want to attempt a gluten free yeast bread, since the flours and gums for that sort of recipe would detract from the earthy warmth of a good Vasilopita. Instead, I heavily adapted a favorite gluten free cake recipe to make a nutty, rich cake that highlights the traditional mahlab and mastika spices.
Notes on the ingredients:
Because I have hazelnut flour on hand for holiday baking, this recipe calls for some, but a mixture of almond meal and coconut flour would also work. I’m allergic to cinnamon, of all things, so I have not included any here. I would not have added it anyhow, as I wanted the mahlab and mastika to stand out.
Before you get started, you’ll need to refrigerate the mastika, which comes in little pellets. It’s a tree resin, and preparation requires pounding it to a powder. It’s much easier to get the right consistency when the resin is cold. If you usually set your eggs out an hour before baking, go ahead and refrigerate the mastika at that time if you’ve forgotten.
Mahlab is made by grinding small seeds that come from a certain type of cherry. I have a special grinder set aside for grinding spices that has a removable, washable grinding chamber. I don’t recommend using a grinder that is also used for coffee, but do what you have to do. Vasilopita goes great with coffee, so it probably won’t hurt if you get coffee oil in your cake. I used more mahlab than you would in a wheat Vasilopita because of the nut flours. Adjust according to taste. It adds a sort of vanilla cherry flavor.
Gluten Free Traditional Vasilopita by Summer Kinard
1 1/3 Cups almond flour (blanched almond meal)
2/3 Cup hazelnut meal
1/3 Cup coconut flour
2/3 Cup lightly packed brown sugar or coconut sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Set out cream or milk and eggs to come to room temperature. Butter an 8 inch round pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
Prepare the mahlab and mastika. Grind the mahlab seeds for around 45 seconds until they are semi fine. Place a couple of teaspoons of mastika pellets in a zipper plastic bag or waxed paper sandwich bag. On a sturdy surface (I used a porch rail), pound several times with the flat side of a meat mallet until the mastika is a fine powder.
In a mixing bowl, add dry ingredients and stir together well with a wooden spoon or a whisk. Set aside.
In a large measuring cup, melt the butter. Add the cream to the melted butter and stir well. Break eggs into the measuring cup and stir to combine.
Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and turn several times until well combined and evenly moist. Add the coin to the batter and stir well to conceal.
Pour or scoop the batter into the prepared pan, using the spoon to evenly distribute and slightly smooth the batter.
Bake in oven for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Top will be golden brown.
Cool in pan till cake pulls a little away from the sides, or at least ten minutes. Run a toothpick or thin knife around the edge, and turn the Vasilopita out onto a plate. Flip it again so that you may decorate the rounded top.
Using almond slivers, make a tiny Greek cross or two, along with the year. (A Greek cross has four equal sides.) If you would like to garnish with a simple icing, combine 2-3 tablespoons liquid (milk, maple syrup, honey water, fruit juice–I like freshly squeezed satsuma juice) with 1/2-1 cup powdered sugar. You may also sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.
This Vasilopita is quite rich and will serve 12 generously or up to 20 smaller pieces.
Cutting the Vasilopita
When you cut the Vasilopita, first make the sign of the Cross on the top while praying aloud, “In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the a Holy Spirit, Amen.”
The first slice goes to our Lord Jesus. (Many people save this slice in foil to dry in their iconostasis for the year. I recommend caution with this practice due to the high moisture level of this cake. If you wish to save it, set it aside on your stove or other well ventilated place for a few days so it can dry out before going in foil.)
The second slice goes to the Holy Theotokos.
The third, to St. Basil and the children.
Next comes the householder, followed by those present from oldest to youngest. If there is a special guest, you may honor them by bumping them in rank to anywhere after St. Basil.
The coin reminds us of a miracle. Once, the people in St. Basil’s area were beseiged by invaders. They each brought their riches to the church to pay a ransom to end the seige, but their generous giving so impressed their opponent that he left without collecting. (An alternative story is that the Emperor collected an exorbitant tax, which St. Basil persuaded him to give back in repentance.) Whatever the precedent, the miracle was the same: St. Basil prayed and was given insight as to how to return the riches to their proper owners. All of the treasures were baked into one giant pita. When it was sliced and distributed after church the next day, each person found that his or her own treasures were in their slice!
Usually the coin is seen as a sign of extra blessing in the new year. If the coin is in one of the pieces dedicated to Jesus, the Theotokos, or Basil, it should be given to the poor or put in the offering at church.
Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Tea & Crumples! (Click title for affiliate link.)
“This uplifting story will warm your heart and renew your faith.” – Texas TEA & TRAVEL magazine (click magazine title for full review).
“Any Christian who enjoys well-written stories about faith, friendship, hardship, and miracles will be drawn into the community created at the tea shop. Tea & Crumples would fit perfectly into any church library or bookstore and would make a beautiful book club book for a women’s group at church.”–The Orthodox Mama (<–Click for full review)
When you drink tea, you come to know the lingo. Teas are usually rated on body, astringency, fragrance, and liquor. I find myself thinking of books the same way, both in reading and writing. Tea & Crumples has daily graces as its body. It’s full-bodied with grace, but not very astringent, like the best-loved tea of the main character Sienna.
I thought of the idea for Tea & Crumples the tea shop and stationery store in college. I went to university in a small town with a vibrant main square around the courthouse. The buildings were elegantly proportioned brick with plate windows and balconies running along the walls inside. There was a building there that put me in mind of the perfect place to meld my love of tea and my love of fine papers. I purchased a notebook and wrote out a business plan and menu. Then I put it away for a Plan B, in case grad school didn’t work out, or in case life failed me somehow.
In the dark, the blanks on the pages filled with story. By my second year of grad school, I was writing letters to friends in the persona of Cleotis Reed. He was the narrator then, telling the world about Sienna and her shop, Tea & Crumples. His aged wisdom always came across in words as Southern as BBQ.
Around the time that Cleotis was turning my backup plan into a novel, I read Kathleen Norris’ essay, “Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work.” I was moving deeper into the Christian tradition, focusing my time and scholarship on the 3rd and 4th century fathers. Norris’ essay opened my eyes to the sacredness of daily rituals. It was through her insight that I saw the history I was reading come alive. I could see how the fathers lived out what they said. I was attracted ever deeper into the living, ancient faith.
Eight years, two children, and two masters degrees later, I found myself on the brink of publishing Can’t Buy Me Love, my debut novel. The process of writing one novel to publication shook loose the story that needed to unfold in Tea & Crumples. I delved in, spinning a story through sadness and joy. The book threw me a surprise early on when I discovered that Sienna had lost a pregnancy at 19 weeks. My outline had not contained that detail originally, but it made sense. I wrote the characters forward through the shadow of grief.
I was about 1/4 through the first full draft of Tea & Crumples when my personal life took an unexpected turn as well. Our third child whom we awaited with great joy and expectation died by miscarriage at around 10 weeks. Anyone who has experienced such a loss knows the horror of it. But I was left with an additional layer of grief. I had to finish the novel I had started, the story of a woman I had loved and imagined for over a decade, who lost her child in stillbirth.
That’s when I began to experience the truth of the words I had already written and the faith I had long held. I believe that God seeks us out wherever we are, in whichever state, and loves us. I believe that we can let ourselves be found. There’s a line in Rilke’s Book of Hours about a thing “ripened until it is real” so that it “can be found when” God “reaches for it.” That was my hope, that by sticking to the habits of faith, tea, and love, I would look up one day and see God reaching out for me.
I wasn’t worried that God couldn’t find me. I was worried that I wouldn’t notice.
That’s where tea comes in again. There’s ritual with tea. It’s a drink of welcome and succor. Even when you drink alone, the ritual of tea makes you pause and assess. It’s the perfect rendezvous point for meeting in the valley of the shadow of death.
Tea & Crumples isn’t my personal story, but it echoes the healing in my life that came through the kindness of friends, through the steadying power of daily rituals, and the wellspring of grace in faithful marriage. Elder Sophrony of Essex advised, “Stand at the brink of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea.” To me, that advice sticks to the heart of Tea & Crumples. God strengthens us not only in our struggles, but in our refreshment, for He is a good God Who loves humankind.
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. If you have experienced loss, you might find a local remembrance day group by searching for October 15 events.
*Affiliate links are embedded above, but I would be pleased as peaches if you’d look up my books at your local independent bookstore. Here’s my local shop: The Regulator Bookshop.