Seeking streams in the desert
Posted: 02 Feb 2010 @ 00:00
Alexander Lucie-Smith finds a deep well here
The Sacred Body: Asceticism in religion, literature, art and culture
Baylor University Press £26.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.30
DAVID JASPER is a mighty theologian, and this short book (185 pages of text, not counting notes, bibliography, and index) represents a serious, dense, and powerful contribution to contemporary theo-logy — strong medicine indeed ina world where most things are dumbed down or labelled “lite”.
Jasper remarks in his introduction that he may well be writing for a very small audience, indeed himself alone. The subtitle, Asceticism in religion, literature, art and culture, gives some idea of the range of this book. As for its depth, this can be seen in the way the author is quite happy to tackle, on the one hand, the Isenheim altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald (that terrifying and famous image of suffering now on display in the museum at Colmar, but originally painted for a lazar-house chapel) and, on the other, the 1990 Serbian novel Landscape Painted with Tea by Milorad Pavic. I wonder how many people have read or even heard of the latter. For depth and breadth of erudition, Jasper leaves the competition standing.
But what is this book about? Hard as it is to summarise, I can nevertheless hazard that it is about the way the human body is the place where we will encounter the truth of God. This will not be done by escaping the body, or fleeing to the desert, but rather by entering more deeply into the experience of being in the body, and by finding the inner desert. At least, so it seems to me. The key concepts seem to be kenosis and divinisation, and the philo-sophical guide, if there is one, is Heidegger.
As for the material of the discussion, that, as I have already mentioned, illustrates the author’s omnivorous appetites. But if he has a particular interest, it must be the stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, such as the narratives to do with St Mary of Egypt, the repentant prostitute who became a solitary contemplative and ascetic
in the desert.
None of this, of course, is for
the faint-hearted. Indeed, this is a book that is elliptical, meditative, and unpredictable, as opposed to one that follows a steady path of
exploration leading to firm con-clusions. Perhaps its main purpose is to elicit questions, and to set us off on the path into the desert where we will experience terrifying solitude. It is certainly a book that demands a second reading, and perhaps many more.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest working in parochial ministry in West Sussex.
Order this book through CT Bookshop