Lent books: Both eyes open

by
19 January 2018

Peter McGeary surveys new courses and books of daily reflections

I HAVE for the best part of 20 years served an extraordinary parish in the East End of London, a small enclave of deprivation squashed between much “regeneration” and shiny newness. One of the more chilling aspects of my ministry would be occasionally to come out of the vestry at the beginning of mass on a Sunday to see in the congregation the late, and very great, Fr Kenneth Leech.

How could I preach anything in front of such a man? I once bought of book of his (The Sky is Red, still my favourite) on the basis of Rowan Williams’s review of it in this paper in 1997. There he said: “We need, with some urgency, a voice like this — anecdotal and sceptical, insisting on the concrete cost of fine phrases and large policies, speaking with unsubdued feeling about the gospel of the cross and the inescapability of things like sacrifice and adoration, which are so hard to build into mission statements.” He was a terrifyingly good preacher, and I was not fit . . . etc.

Although I scarcely knew him, I miss Ken’s presence very much. Like all authentic prophets, he was really annoying, refusing to fit into other people’s categories, rejecting the false opposites that Christians are expert at constructing: the contemplative and intellectual strivings of the believer are not alternatives to social engagement and passion for justice, but are utterly linked, and one is diminished without the other.

I suppose such thoughts run through my mind when I have to look at a pile of new Lent books. What are they for? Who are they for? Are they just for the gentle nurturing of an individual soul? Or are they just for the building up of a cosy group of the like-minded?

Or are they trying to engage with the hard purposes of Lent? Do they nurture a both repentant and joyful faith and a passion for justice in a scarred world?

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SISTER Wendy Beckett is deservedly an immensely popular spiritual writer, and in The Art of Lent the focus is on her passion and inspiration: painting. Sister Wendy provides a painting for each day of Lent, accompanied by a brief reflection. This is a compact but very well-produced book, which means that the reproductions of the paintings, although small, are clear: crucial for a book that depends on the visual. This would be a very good vade mecum for individual use if a Lent group does not appeal or is not possible.

Another kind of looking is involved in film. Nothing More and Nothing Less is a Lent course inspired by the 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, a devastating critique of contemporary Britain and the way in which it treats the poor through its byzantine benefits system. Those who persist in imagining that Christian faith has nothing to do with social and political engagement had best steer well clear of this book.

Intended for group discussion, the book recommends that participants watch the film first in its entirety. Clips from the film are then recommended for each of the five weekly sessions to prompt discussion, prayer, and thoughts for further action. I can imagine that for communities used to community organising and the like this will be familiar territory: incarnating the gospel by serving him in the needy. For others, this book will be deeply disturbing, and quite rightly so. This is a Lent book about our country now. And the picture it paints is not pretty.

Feast or Famine is a sister publication, and may be used in tandem with Nothing More and Nothing Less. Again, primarily intended for group use, this course looks at practical issues that are raised in our society about austerity and wealth. A Bible reading provides a springboard for reflections and prayers, and, ideally, sessions are intended to end with some kind of sharing of food together (often the most significant part in group work). Produced by Ekklesia, the course provides almost too much rich material — which is not a criticism — and needs a careful and well-prepared leader.

 

I WAIT in vain for a duff York Course. On the Third Day stands in a very impressive tradition. The York Courses are ecumenical and user-friendly, adaptable so as not to be tied to Lent. This one would do just as well after Easter: it examines the resurrection of Christ, and what that means for both the believer and the Church. A CD accompanies the course booklet: an impressive variety of speakers introduce each week’s material, and that alone provides more than enough food for an evening’s discussion.

Krish Kandiah’s focus in Living Faith is not Easter Day, but Good Friday. In fact, his is a modern take on a quite traditional devotion: the “last words” of Christ on the Cross (although, in this instance, six rather than the traditional seven). Each of these phases from the Gospels are seen as invitations to some aspect of faith: forgiveness, service, hope, and so on. After an opening prayer, each session tries to set both a contemporary and a biblical context, and then to interweave the two.

Megan Daffern is an Old Testament scholar and college chaplain, and Songs of the Spirit is a collection of her translations and meditations on the Psalms, arranged as a series of sequences to take the reader through Lent and beyond. Each day ends with a question for the reader, but I suspect that the text alone will give much to ponder.

My frustration with this book is a good one: I would like SPCK to withdraw it after Lent is over, persuade the author (if she has not done so already) to complete her reflections so as to cover the entire Psalter, and then publish all of them in numerical order. Material such as this deserves a longer shelf-life, and I can see such a volume being of much help to those of us who struggle to say the Daily Office on our own, for example.

 

MATTHEW 25, especially the last part, is a particularly annoying chapter of the Gospel for me. I wish it were not there, the bit about recognising and serving Jesus in the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the sick and the naked — and oddest of all, the prisoner. I wish I could be a proper fundamentalist, and airbrush all those difficult bits out of my consciousness.

But, of course, I can’t and I shouldn’t. Even so, my discomfort remains: prisoners are in prison because they are bad. Aren’t they? And the ones who get all religious are all faking it, or else mad: one narcotic in exchange for another. Aren’t they?

All too often that is the stereotype; but 40 Stories of Hope kicks against all of this. Forty stories of prisoners, ex-offenders, and prison chaplains are arranged in a sequence that can be used in Lent or at other times. The scriptural fulcrum is St Mark’s Gospel, and so is particularly useful for those of us using the Common Lectionary in 2018. Prayers and reflections follow, and each week begins and ends with group material for use in discussion. Each chapter of this book is a story of light in or after darkness, of people for whom coming to faith is not a cosmetic exercise, but a real moment of turning, of metanoia.

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LENT is a journey on many levels towards, and the narrative of Holy Week pulls us into, the city of Jerusalem. Steve Brady engages in such a multi-layered journey in Towards Jerusalem. In many ways, this is the most “traditional” Lent book under discussion here. Good! Lent is a serious time, and Brady takes Lent seriously.

Each day involves the discipline of reading a passage of scripture and reflecting on it, against an overarching background of pilgrimage, a journey towards a place of resurrection. This is the Bible Reading Fellowship’s Lent Book. I have long been impressed by the BRF’s ability to produce books of high quality and clarity, and this is no exception. Clear and thoughtful exposition of scripture, fed by pastoral experience and a knowledge of contemporary culture.

And so to the Mowbray Lent Book. Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich, and is no stranger to the genre. In 2015, his Lent book for Mowbrays looked at 40 people who had inspired him. In A Place for God, he considers 40 places. The format is similar in both books: an initial Bible reference is followed by the author’s description of and thoughts about a particular place (the selection is wide, from chapels to a Tube station), and each section concludes with a prayer. This is a book to teach the reader to value place, and to be open to what is around us as a possible source of epiphany. My only frustration is that space has precluded the printing out of the Bible passages quoted.

This Lent is bringing forth a wide, even bewildering, variety of special publications. As always, buyers must see for themselves what suits their individual or communal needs, if possible. The depressing decline in the number of bookshops, and the number of bookshops taking religion seriously, does not help in this, but the effort is worth it.

Is there an overarching theme or shape to all these books under review here? Not really: thankfully, we have moved away from the rather introspective courses on “What is the Church and how can we be the Church better?” which ruled the roost not so long ago.

Maybe I detect a different undertow in all the variety: Lent is a time for Christians to sharpen up their hearing and their seeing, those spiritual faculties that we need if we are to perceive the risen Lord, who, we say we believe, penetrates and animates all things, or in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “Ground of being, and granite of it: past all Grasp God, throned behind Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides.”

 

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

 

The Art of Lent: A painting a day from Ash Wednesday to Easter
Sister Wendy Beckett
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-07855-4)
Church Times Bookshop £9
 

Nothing More and Nothing Less: A Lent course based on the film “I, Daniel Blake”
Virginia Moffatt
DLT £6.99
(978-0-232-53344-6)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
 

Feast or Famine? How the gospel challenges austerity (An Ekklesia Lent course for groups and individuals)
Simon Barrow
DLT £6.99
(978-0-232-53261-6)
Church Times Bookshop £6.30
 

On the Third Day
John Pritchard
York Courses £3.99 (booklet)
(978-1-909107-19-9)
Church Times Bookshop £3.60

(Course pack, including booklet, CD, and transcript, is available from www.yorkcourses.co.uk; phone 01904 466516).
 

Living Faith: Invitations from the cross
Krish Kandiah
CWR £5.99
(978-1-78259-691-2)
Church Times Bookshop £5.40
 

Songs of the Spirit: A psalm a day for Lent and Easter
Megan Daffern
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-07796-0)
Church Times Bookshop £9
 

40 Stories of Hope: How faith has changed prisoners’ lives
Catherine Butcher
CWR £7.99
(978-1-78259-759-9)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

Towards Jerusalem: A pilgrim’s regress and progress to God’s Holy City (The BRF Lent Book 2018)
Steve Brady
BRF £7.99
(978-0-85746-560-3)
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

A Place for God (The Mowbray Lent Book 2018)
Graham James
Bloomsbury £9.99
(978-1-4729-4526-6)
Church Times Bookshop £9

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