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Lent books: Acquiring self-knowledge and humility

by
01 February 2011

These books get back to the basics of Lent, Mark Oakley finds

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Barefoot Disciple: Walking the way of passionate humility
Stephen Cherry
Continuum £9.99
(978-1-4411-8286-9)
Church Times Bookshop £9

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering
Trystan Owain Hughes
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-06249-2)
Church Times Bookshop £9

Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering
Trystan Owain Hughes
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-06249-2)
Church Times Bookshop £9

The Transforming Power of Prayer: From illusion to reality
Michael Marshall

Continuum £9.99
(978-1-4411-1724-3)
Church Times Bookshop £9

The Transforming Power of Prayer: From illusion to reality
Michael Marshall

Continuum £9.99
(978-1-4411-1724-3)
Church Times Bookshop £9

LENT is a heavy snowfall in the soul. We find ourselves quietened, slow-moving, and alert to what really has to be done and what can wait. In their own ways, each of these three Lent books allows the snow to fall, covering familiar sur­faces with a purer depth.

A bishop known to me rather well observes that the clergy fre­quently try to upstage one another with humility. It is certainly true that humility is a difficult concept to sign up to without ruling yourself out immediately. Instead, it tends to be something that happens when we are not looking, spotted in us by others, but, once seen by ourselves, instantly dissolving.

Stephen Cherry, however, knows that humility is too important for Christians to ignore because they fear looking arrogant, and has written Barefoot Disciple, a book that nicely opens up the topic for reflection and absorption by in­dividuals or groups.

The book is written by a preacher. It is accessible, confident, and fertile with personal stories that seek to relate helpfully to his audience. His thesis is wise. “Passionate humility” is the foundation of Christian maturity and, as such, must com­bine “an acceptance of vulnerability and suffering with a deep desire and profound determination for the kingdom of God”. But how do we begin to go beyond the aspiration for the “real” life that will appear when my ego and vanity are even­tually kept in check?

Cherry, I suspect, believes that it will always be an aspiration. That is what keeps the enterprise humble. There are ways, however, by which it can be developed in us, and the author explores them with humour, insight, and a refreshing acceptance of his own earthy mor­tality.

Cherry, I suspect, believes that it will always be an aspiration. That is what keeps the enterprise humble. There are ways, however, by which it can be developed in us, and the author explores them with humour, insight, and a refreshing acceptance of his own earthy mor­tality.

R. C. Roberts has identified a trait in some of us which he calls “spiritual cannibalism”. This refers to the nasty habit of generating our own sense of moral dignity at the expense of others and their repute. There is no such cannibalism in these pages. Cherry remains a gener­ous pastoral theologian with a strong sense of virtue spirituality. His God connects rather than con­trols.

Once, with a tinge of gout, I eased off my shoes as I stood behind the altar one Sunday morning. It was heaven. I also noted how rooted it felt, and I understood for the first time why so many sacred places demand that we remove our foot­wear. Cherry uses “barefoot discipleship” as a metaphor for passionate humility, a re-negotiation with our relationship with the ground on which we walk.

Lent groups will benefit from this book, especially from his reflections on becoming “a stranger to myself”, and concerning those crises when we have to learn something new in order to live.

Trystan Owain Hughes’s book, Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffer­ing, was a relief. I tend to avoid books on “suffering” as they either infuriate or disappoint. Here, though, he starts with that necessary shrug of the shoulders which re­cognises our inability to understand the problem why we suffer, and instead concentrates on how to bear it. If we can get our hearts and minds focused on this, we might be led into an unexpected joy and hope — so his argument runs.

The foundation of such a journey is the necessary daily practice of awareness and acceptance. The “building blocks” layered on this foundation are art, nature, memory, laughter, and love of neighbour — all echoing the transcendent.

Diagnosed a few years ago with a degenerative spinal condition, Hughes speaks of what he knows, and this saves the book from that distance learning that under­mines so many books that dare to explore this territory. If Cherry’s book is a preacher’s book, Hughes’s work is very much that of a univer­sity chaplain — full of references to film, lyrics, television programmes, and internet sources. His imagery is occasionally clichéd, but his con­tinual engagement with Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning quickly makes amends.

Helpfully sliced into manageable short chapters, this book is one that I can easily see as a text for Lent groups and any others who want to shout at God from time to time with those words of Teresa of Avila when her ox-cart overturned: “If this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so few of them.” Some may find the author’s thesis over-optimistic or, maybe, just not angry enough. Others will warm to his belief in a more patient waiting, and to his beachcombing theology in search of meaning. The discussions pro­voked in groups will, no doubt, be interesting.

Michael Marshall’s theme for Lent this year is illusion and the need to move away from it slowly and painfully. His book, The Trans­forming Power of Prayer: From illusion to reality, is new wine from a seasoned cask, and deserves to be taken seriously by any Lenten reader. The prompt for this piece of work was Marshall’s coming across François Lemoyne’s painting Time Saving Truth in the Wallace Collec­tion. In it, Father Time thrusts his scythe towards a man who has torn off the mask of his false self. Other wrappings are falling off him. Father Time stands over him, shield­ing a maiden who symbolises naked Truth.

Marshall invites the Christian to take the risk of stepping out of the shadows of illusion and to pursue self-knowledge. God is as creative as ever, and is still at work in us. It is God who oversees this transforma­tion from falsity, the weight of image, towards a truer way of being human, of being me. Marshall pur­sues this quest with good use of scripture and a non-negotiable emphasis on prayer. He opens up a treasure chest of quotations and in­sights gathered over the years, and so pieces together a book that clarifies the need for a desert dis­cern­ment in our living.

It is written from a middle dis­tance, and relates somewhat at arm’s length, but I sense between the lines that there is autobiography in these pages, if little intimacy, and this translates into resonance for the reader. He has two useful appen­dices on Lectio Divina and the practice of centring prayer.

Richard II commented that “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” These three books, aimed at those who can take the trouble to turn Lent into a choppy crossing, spiritually challenge this state of affairs, reminding us that Christian discipleship is a way of living that orientates itself to a goal, and all things are as yet unfinished. They instil hope by teaching us the transforma­tive truth of Christian faith — that God’s gift to us is being, and that our gift to God is becoming.

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral.

CROSS EXAMINED, by John Cox of St Edmundsbury diocese (Kevin Mayhew, £10.99 (£9.90); 978-1-84867-194-2), devotes eight chapters to the cross, and eight to the resur­rection. Beginning each with a passage of scripture, he reflects on the cross under the headings of Vocation, Expectations, Priorities, Status, Responsibility, Justice, God, and Hope; and on the resurrection under those of Credibility, Evidence, Continuity, Presence, Mission, Power, Sequence, and New creation.

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