THERE are places described in this little book which it would take a lifetime to explore. Benedicta Ward is a provocative and thoughtful guide to those places.
She has undertaken her own exploration of the interior life of the spirit by living as a nun, familiar with the task of rising to pray in the dead of night, aware of the dying and the crime and exploitative violence that happen in those dark hours. And Ward has read a great deal about the exploration of others into a world that she knows well from those inner researches of her own.
In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6.6). That instruction has launched Christians on an exploration of their spiritual life, and these essays read like a travelogue for the spiritual pilgrim. They are, in word form, her photographs of favourite sites and the people she met there.
The dust cover describes Ward as “the greatest living expert on the history of English spirituality”. That is a grand claim, and it warns us that the articles that she has gathered together here come from a serious scholar. She does not do fluffy or sentimental.
Celtic Christianity emerges as altogether more international and sophisticated than some of its contemporary reworking. And the writers of English spirituality in later history still have a donnish quality. Donne would appreciate the pun and sit comfortably with Ward’s three preachers, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and Mark Frank, because they all knew the old families who supplied academics and clergy.
This collection spans our history, beginning with the north-eastern founders of something English, in Cuthbert, Bede, and Hilda, and the complicated dynastic lineage that produced warlords as easily as it produced saints. She then scoops up Anselm, that hero, and Julian of Norwich, his spiritual equal.
She concludes with some imaginative stretches that connect Andrewes with T. S. Eliot, embracing John Bunyan and G. K. Chesterton in a tribute to pilgrimage as a metaphor for the spiritual journey of life.
This is a dazzling collection, and worth working at. It reminds us of what we are in danger of losing, or might have lost already: the art of faith and prayer.
For many, God is a concept, irrelevant and non-existent; “attention to the humanity of Jesus has dissolved into sentimentality”; thought and emotion are cut loose from faith seeking understanding.
Ward offers us words from our own history which show us “devoted tears” of joy, rapture, and penitence that can “bring forth ours”, a healing stream that runs from heart to heart.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
Give Love and Receive the Kingdom: Essential people and themes of English spirituality
Paraclete Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10