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Recovery with Coverdale

by
06 July 2012

Susan Gillingham reads heartfelt meditations

With my Whole Heart: Reflections on the heart of the Psalms
James Jones
SPCK £8.99
(978-0-28106-805-0)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT187)

THE Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, has written a book that comes from the heart - one that has literally been broken and restored. After his major heart surgery at the Heart and Chest Hospital in Liverpool, he turned to Coverdale's Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer as a familiar text to aid his healing. He searched out references to the word "heart" in Coverdale's version, and has now produced a book of short reflections - no more than a page and half - each of which ends with a brief prayer on the verse in question.

This is an utterly unpretentious book, with just the right tone for anyone in grief or despair who has neither the focus nor energy to read or pray for long. It is, in the Bishop's own words, the "quiet transfusion of faith that inspires the believer and seeker".

The "heart", in Coverdale's version, is a rich metaphor. Jones takes us through some 70 psalms, discussing themes such as the communing heart (4.4), the truthful heart (15.2), the comforted heart (27.16), the contrite heart (34.18), the heart that is fixed (57.8), the rejoicing heart (84.2), a heart applied to wisdom (90.12), a ready heart (108.1), the wounded heart (109.21), the desolate heart (143.4), and a heart that is meek (149.4).

It is important to know what this book is not. It is certainly not exegetical, but works as a sort of lectio divina, taking a word or phrase and applying it to a personal experience of suffering, pain, doubt, and heartache. So the book has little regard for whether a psalm might suggest anything more than an intimate and individual setting in the here and now. And it reads the psalms only through the English medium.

Coverdale, despite his enviable ability to communicate with poetic balance of sound and sense, was not constrained by the original Hebrew; he preferred to translate indirectly from the Latin. This can create problems for a study on just one word. For example, the Hebrew word for heart (lëb) adds many other layers of meaning - spiritual and physical, the mind as well as emotion, the will as well as intention - and provides a metaphor not only for the individual person but for the whole (therapeutic) community.

Furthermore, the word "heart" is found in many psalms other than those where it is used in Coverdale's English; conversely, some of Coverdale's psalms that use the word "heart" do not actually have lëb within them; so a somewhat different overall picture emerges.

But this book is about catharsis, and was never intended to be an academic exercise: it is a mirror on to the soul. For those who want to feel the heartbeat of the psalms purely as personal prayers, it has an integrity and directness that are hard to match.

Dr Susan Gillingham is a reader in the Old Testament at Worcester College, Oxford.

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