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Book reviews >

Seeking streams in the desert

Alexander Lucie-Smith finds a deep well here

The Sacred Body: Asceticism in religion, literature, art and culture
David Jasper
Baylor University Press £26.99
(978-1-60258-141-8)
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.

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