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Mindful of all sorts and conditions

15 January 2016

Peter McGeary looks at what is on offer for Lenten reading

© painton cowen

Harpist: King David, who by tradition composed the Psalms, in medieval glass in Chartres Cathedral. From Mythology by Christopher Dell. For book details, see next photo caption

Harpist: King David, who by tradition composed the Psalms, in medieval glass in Chartres Cathedral. From Mythology by Christopher Dell. For book detai...

I Am With You (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2016) Kathryn Greene-McCreight
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


Meeting God in Paul
Rowan Williams
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


Life in the Psalms: Contemporary meaning in ancient texts
Patrick Woodhouse
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £10.99


Abraham: A journey through Lent
Meg Warner
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


Sensing God: Learning to meditate during Lent
Laurence Freeman OSB
SPCK £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


WHAT is one to do in Lent? The answer for many Christians is to read a book, specifically a "Lent book". But what sort? Lent books come in all shapes and sizes, which, I suppose, is just as well, as Christians do, too. The selection under review here offers great diversity, different things for different temperaments and conditions, which is no bad thing. Comparison would be foolish and vulgar.

One of the more obvious things to read, of course, is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. This year, Archbishop Welby has chosen I Am With You by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an American Episcopalian priest and scholar. She takes as a recurrent theme that of God’s being among us as light in darkness, a presence that illuminates and clarifies. The chapters are divided up according to the hours of the monastic daily office, examining various ideas in the Bible of God’s presence: in creation, through angels, most clearly in Jesus, and so on.

A systematic rehearsal of the contents would be to miss the point, I think. The author packs a great deal of material into a small space. This is a book to be read slowly and reflectively. The reader must not be afraid to put it down when struck by a particular passage. The idea is not slavishly to plough through the text, but to allow one’s sense of God’s presence to be sharpened and enlightened by what ever speaks with most clarity.

Lord Williams, during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, commissioned Lent books. But he was also given to delivering sets of lectures in Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week. All credit must go to SPCK for transforming these into brief and utterly invaluable books. Already we have had one of the finest introductions to the Christian faith I know (Being Christian), and a brilliant study of St Mark’s Gospel.

Now he turns his attention to St Paul. Meeting God in Paul is a brief work like its predecessors, but also, like them, a volume to be returned to again and again. It stands in total contrast, at least in scale, to Tom Wright’s gigantic study of St Paul, to which Williams rightly pays homage. One of the main ideas here is to attract the reader to look again at a figure who has been misinterpreted and misunderstood in many ways over the centuries.

The book is essentially in three parts: first. Paul is placed in his context, a world that is both strange and familiar to us. Then Williams considers the outrageous notions that Paul has about God’s "universal welcome" in Christ, and, third, what this means for Paul’s view of the created order in the light the death and resurrection of Christ.

More than the baldest of summaries is not possible here. This book is another example of the distillation of the essentials from a lifetime’s thought. Even those who think they know their St Paul will find something here, and those who have done their best to avoid him will find themselves being attracted to this strange, sometimes maddening, but always fascinating figure, a man who, far from distorting the message of Jesus, understood it all too well, and began a process of interpretation that we continue today.

Williams adds questions for group discussion at the end of the book, together with a Lenten reading guide, giving selected passages from Paul’s letters and a reflection for the Sundays of Lent. Whether one intends to use this facility or not, the book should be bought anyway; its usefulness and learning extend far beyond Lent.

From the New Testament to the Old. Patrick Woodhouse has written the Mowbray Lent Book this year, and based it on the Book of Psalms. Life in the Psalms is the fruit of years of reciting the psalter daily as a priest — most particularly, 13 years as a Canon of Wells Cathedral. In that post, he would have heard them sung most days at evensong, seduced as so many of us are by language and music of matchless splendour.

Yet sometimes we need to look at the actual texts in more detail. What are they actually about? Do I like the image of God that they sometimes seem to portray? Are they "Christian"? Are they how I would want to say my prayers if I am left to my own devices?

It is easy to say and sing things in church without giving a second thought to what they mean; so this book is a welcome corrective. Woodhouse does not intend to give a systematic exegesis of every psalm. Rather, this is a devotional commentary on a selection of psalms — five for each of the weeks of Lent, grouped by various themes — which seeks to unlock the richness of the ancient texts, and to help the reader more easily make these prayers his or her own.

Meg Warner wants us to consider some Old Testament texts as well. Abraham: A journey through Lent focuses on selected texts from the book of Genesis, and asks us to look again at that strange, sometimes infuriatingly enigmatic figure who is the father of three of the greatest world religions. As the Christian is taken on a kind of spiritual journey through Lent, so he or she is invited to have Abraham for company. Six chapters, one for each week of Lent, build a double picture of Abraham’s wanderings’ being met by God’s faithfulness. The reflections on the scriptural texts draw the reader into a world that is both utterly strange and hauntingly familiar. Each chapter ends with two sets of questions, one for individual use, the other for groups.

Laurence Freeman is a Benedictine monk, and the Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. As the subtitle of his book Sensing God suggests, he wants us to use Lent to learn how to meditate.

He is not interested in more faddish types of "mindfulness", but in persuading the reader of the benefits of entering deeply in the mysteries of the Christian faith through a twice-daily regimen of silent meditation, focused not on looking into oneself, but on looking out, taking attention away from the self to God. As he observes, "this is the simplest and the hardest thing in the world to do and yet also the most transformative and liberating."

Freeman is good at simplicity: meditation may be a daunting word to some, but it is not meant to be a daunting thing to do.

Although this discipline can and should be practised all the time, Lent is as good a time as any for beginners (or those who need a bit of a refresher course). Freeman’s Sensing God is a very good guide: each day of Lent is given a short passage from the Gospels, and a brief phrase from the passage is then highlighted, both for use as a kind of mantra to settle the mind, and as a basis for a brief reflection. As far as possible, the passages selected are those appointed to be read in the eucharist for each day in Lent.

The readings for Sunday in Year B are printed in the book (although there are references for the other years’ readings in an appendix), and non-Roman Catholic readers may notice a slight divergence from what is now the "common" lectionary, but this should in no way deter the potential reader. This is the very best sort of book on meditation: it has done its job when the reader has put it down and is actually meditating, and noise and language have been transfigured by silence.


The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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