Blessed Among Us:
Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses
Hardback: Liturgical Press, 2016
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Reviewed by Danny Wright
In His book Blessed Among Us, Robert Ellsberg provides readers with an encyclopedia of introductions to a wide variety of saints. Each day offers a brief biography of two “saints” who have lived a life of example and ends with quotes to aid the reader in reflection. This particular volume can be used as an addendum for praying the hours (and can be found as such in the daily prayer app offered by Liturgical Press, Give Us This Day), as a supplement for personal inspiration and reflection, or as the subject for family devotions, or as encouragement for a church/ministry staff. There is a wealth of information shared in a succinct, accessible style that will spark your creativity and curiosity, inspire more attentive living, and may even cause you to fire up your search engine, or send you to your favorite website or bookstore in search of the actual writings that are being referenced.
Ellsberg does not merely write about saints as defined by the Catholic Church’s canonization process. He emphasizes that the process can take centuries, and then continues by reminding us that everyone is called to holy living, and that the paths to such a life are innumerable. Therefore, he has included Protestants, and even Hindus, as some of those blessed ones whose lives can serve as fuel for the fires of passion for ministry and service. The book is laden with female, as well as male witnesses, who have been willing to sacrifice fame, fortune, friendship and ultimately their lives, if necessary, to make the world a better, holier and more peaceful place for everyone. He references Pope Francis who recognizes that there are people outside the bounds of canonization that help us see and interpret the reality of our time, and points out that they, like the Good Samaritan before them, can help us find the way that leads to life.
It is not always easy to determine our proper course of action in a given set of circumstances. So, we must look to role models that we can follow who have been committed to following Christ in their settings and circumstances. There is no shortage of those lives that have hung in the balance and been sold out to doing everything imaginable, and then some, in order to be counted worthy of suffering for the name of Christ and following in His footsteps. These martyrs (witnesses) help illumine the paths of righteousness that are often difficult to find and traverse, and this book offers us examples from the First Testament to the New Testament and all the way through to the present day. It weaves its way in and out of the traditional and accepted spots, places and locales and offers excellent insight into the wider expanse of how God continues to move and work every day in His world.
We are blessed to learn from the likes of Noah, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, Anna, Peter, Paul, Timothy and Titus, as well as Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Clare, Saint Monica, Julian of Norwich, and Saint Teresa of Avila. We are also taught by Evelyn Underhill, Anne Frank, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Flannery O’Connor, Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day. We take lessons from Michelangelo, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Herbert, John Donne, William Blake, George Fox, Jacques Maritain, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, G. K. Chesterton, Shusaku Endo, Martin Luther King, Jr., Blessed Oscar Romero and Henri Nouwen. We also find opportunities to learn from the likes of The Baal Shem Tov, Oskar Schindler and Mohandas Gandhi, among many others.
It was Soren Kierkegaard that feared for people that believed they were merely born into Christianity as members of a Christian state. He felt that the concept created “Christendom: a species of baptized paganism in which every respectable citizen could pass for a disciple.”
Clarence Jordan was concerned that it was too easy to confine Jesus to history and miss the challenge of the incarnation. When recounting the story of the Kristallnacht Martyrs in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime and the attempted obliteration of the Jews, Ellsberg notes that there was “no general expression of outrage from the churches or public expressions of solidarity.” It is simply too easy to allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep and numbed by the world around us without remembering the examples of the cloud of witnesses that has gone before us.
Frank Sheed, a Catholic publisher and apologist wrote, “we can never attain a maximum love of God with only a minimum knowledge of God,” and we can continue to gain that knowledge in practical ways as the faithful teach us with their words and lives what it means to work out our salvation. C. S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else,” and his words help us see the compass in our existence. Saint Roque Gonzalez once said, “God does not command the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to be preached with the noise of arms and with pillage. What He rather commands is the example of a good life and holy teaching,” and we continue to encounter that in the lives of those that we have heard of, as well as those that we have never had the opportunity to meet until now. Leon Bloy, a French novelist, would want us all to know, ” There is only one sadness–not to be a saint,” and we owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Ellsberg for devoting much of his life to helping us all to continue to live out the words of Scripture that remind us: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16 NIV)