by Edward Foley, Capuchin
Robert Ellsberg is particularly gifted spiritual writer. One time editor of The Catholic Worker, and collaborator with Dorothy Day at the end of her life, he has worked with Orbis Books since 1987, which he currently serves as publisher and editor-in-chief. The author of several award winning books, key writings of his have focused on the communion of saints, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for our Time (1997), The Saints Guide to Happiness (2003), and Blessed among all Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (2005). Recently adding to that impressive list, Ellsberg has produced one of his most accessible, wide ranging and expansive works on saints with Blessed Among us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016; $29.95).
At almost 800 pages, this work is a treasury of sanctoral reflections. With a very brief introduction, concise table of contents and index, the great bulk of the work consists of 730 (yes, seven hundred and thirty!) concise, historically accurate and consistently inspiring stories of the “blessed among us.” Two narratives of the blessed are provided for every day of the calendar year. Happily each is approximately 250 words, and the book is designed so that both reflections for a single day face each other on opposite pages throughout the volume. Designed for keeping the book by your bed stand, on your desk, or in your place at chapel, this well bound hardback with a marker ribbon consequently feels and reads more like a book of devotions than a reference work.
True to Ellsberg style, the range of “blessed” held up in this volume is mind boggling. Of course there is Mary the mother of Jesus, great patristic saints from east and west such as Basil the Great and Augustine, beloved medieval figures such as Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi, and celebrated saints of the modern era such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, Maximilian Kolbe, John XXIII and Teresa of Calcutta. What you might not be expecting, however, is a reflection on the one time slave turned abolitionist and itinerant preacher Sojourner Truth, or the 20th century Rabbi and prophet Abraham Heschel. Mix in reflections on Mohandas Gandhi, Florence Nightingale, Simone Weil, Cesar Chavez, Anne Frank and medicine man, survivor of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and reborn catechist Black Elk, and a new polyphonic clarity about the true nature of the “cloud of witnesses” emerges.
While drawn from entries Ellsberg had previously written for Liturgical Press’ monthly resource for daily prayer, Give us this Day, this work in no way feels derivative. Rather the daily double of sanctity that springs from every open page – drawn from a myriad of countries, contexts and centuries – reads like holy mystery in happy juxtaposition, a kind of stereoscopic encounter with an ever expanding universe of blessedness.
If there is one complaint I have about the work, it is that the author chose not to include February 29th as a further opportunity for wisdom, inspiration and grace. In the spirit of St. Augustine, tolle lege: take and read. Your mind will be expanded, and your soul will be fed throughout this and each coming year of blessedness.
Edward Foley, Capuchin, is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and ordinary professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.