Lent books 2019

by
01 February 2019

Philip Welsh surveys Lent books, including the Archbishop of Canterbury’s choice: Reconciliation, by Muthuraj Swamy

See gallery for more book covers

See gallery for more book covers

AT HOME IN LENT takes an everyday household object each day — mobile phone, wardrobe, spectacles — as the starting-point for wider thoughts and a prompt for prayer, and supplies in many cases curious information about the object’s origins. In each case, Gordon Giles makes an ingenious link to a biblical passage — family photos and Jesus’s question, “Who is my mother?”; toothbrushes and compensation for knocking people’s teeth out in Exodus.

His style is easy-going, with a tendency rather to spell out connections than suggest possibilities, and on occasion the author slips from finding God in the commonplace to sounding commonplace — “Perhaps there are short circuits in your faith” (in the item on electricity).

But, overall, Giles has come up with an imaginative framework for a popular Lent book, “an invitation to discover how [the Lord] is already in our homes”. There are questions for discussion, though the book is probably best used by individuals, and its daily sections would fit neatly into a short bus or train ride as an amiable, slightly talkative Lent companion.

 

IN THE WAY OF IGNATIUS, Gemma Simmonds offers an attractive introduction to Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises, inflected for use during Lent, and reflecting Ignatius’s use of the feelings and imagination. She arranges her account around the story of his life, and also that of his follower Mary Ward a century later, daughter of a recusant Yorkshire family, and presented as a woman who was ahead of her time: “She came to realise that the historical categories open to women and the prevailing concepts of female holiness were too narrow.”

The author does a convincing job of transposing late-medieval and Counter-Reformation piety into terms that belong to the modern world, and emphasises the humane, realistic, and world-facing aspect of Ignatius’s spirituality: “For Ignatius it was about finding one’s inner monastery, as it were, and taking that into whatever sector of the world one normally inhabits,” including its “complex social, political and financial networks”.

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And she seems to push the boundaries of Catholic teaching: “if the Spirit is present wherever a bond of true love is present in a way that is creative, self-giving, liberating and faithful, then we should at least be wary of confining that Spirit to categories of our own devising, however hallowed by tradition.”

The book is non-specialist, but it does presume a serious commitment to the way of prayer, and might not be the obvious choice for a miscellaneous parish group, though it would work well for members of a prayer group or for personal use.

 

DAVID ADAM has for many years been known as a writer of prayers in the Celtic tradition. In Love the World, he tells us how, when he was a theological student, his regular meditation drifted from scripture to the Canticle of St Francis, and from there to a collection of natural objects within a series roughly corresponding to Genesis 1. This is the sequence that underlies the 28 short chapters of this book, whose purpose is to evoke our sense of wonder at the natural world and its evolution.

To this end, Adam shares with us a good deal of popular science, from cosmology to palaeontology, that is certainly informative (“The volume of our oceans is around 332.5 million cubic miles and, as a single cubic mile equals more than 1.1 trillion gallons, that is an awful lot of water!”) and occasionally self-evident: “Rain is precious to the earth, for without it the plants would die and the land would become a desert.” Chapters finish with an exercise, a prayer, and sometimes a verse meditation.

The book concludes with the arrival of Homo sapiens, a warning about population explosion and ecological crisis, and an evocation of human love as an outpouring of the self, echoing the love through which God created the world. Its fundamental message is that “We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover a sense of the majesty of creation and adore in the presence of its maker.”

Adam states early on that “The universe is the Word made flesh,” after which Love the World makes almost no other biblical or Christian reference, and essentially offers a Romantic and largely ruralist response to the sublime. It does not engage with the cruelty of the natural world or the tragedy of much human life.

It is not designed as a Lent book, but could well be used during the season as an incentive to open our eyes to the wonder of creation. Much will depend on whether the reader is awakened or anaesthetised by sentiments such as, “Have you ever suddenly been enraptured by creation? . . . Realize what an amazing being you are.”

 

MUTHURAJ SWAMY’s Reconciliation is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year. Its theme is one of the Archbishop’s stated priorities, and Swamy is one of those involved in devising preparatory material for Lambeth 2020. We are offered 40 Bible studies, in which the author draws out from a wide range of passages lessons about reconciliation — its foundation, its impediments, its risks, and its heart as represented in the recurring phrase “radical openness to others”, which, the author holds, summarises “the whole essence of Christianity”.

Swamy has valuable things to say about rival groups’ claiming victimhood; the roots of prejudice and stereotyping in naming and generalisation; the need for someone to take the initiative if reconciliation is to begin; and learning to see God on the other side. But the focus of his attention is the Bible interpreted in relation to his theme, and on occasion co-opted to his purposes — not everyone would agree that “Jesus’ ultimate aim in healing was to aid the marginalised.”

The author’s approach is to spell out the lessons to be learned from the text, then to invite readers, in the questions that follow, to make connections of their own. He does this in a style that is clear, meticulous — “Both of these passages express at least three essential facts” — and rather teacherly.

The introduction quotes St Paul’s words about “making peace through the blood of the cross”, but thereafter there is strangely little reference in this book about reconciliation to the cross of Christ; nor is any use made in a book of Bible studies for Lent of the Passion narratives.

Reconciliation requires quite a lot of daily application, and would reward those used to serious Bible-reading. Its chapters are grouped for possible weekly gatherings, whose members could usefully compare notes on their daily study, but might find themselves challenged by such questions as, “Do you feel that submitting your will would be more difficult than giving up your life? If so, why and how?”

 

GRAHAM GREENE wrote of “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God”. We seem to hear an echo of this when Jane Williams speaks of “the mad logic of the merciful humility of God”, and throughout The Merciful Humility of God she alerts us to “the continuing strangeness of God’s action”, and the implications of this for who we are: “our lives will pass into nothingness unless they are held in the eternal meaning of God,” a meaning that she constantly derives from his loving acceptance.

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Each of the five chapters explores a stage in the Gospel story and pairs it with a short account of a later Christian figure: the temptations in the wilderness and St Augustine; the early hidden years of Jesus and Julian of Norwich (Charles de Foucauld might have been another option); the call of the disciples — “comfortingly and challengingly familiar” — and St Francis; the Passion and St Teresa of Ávila; and on to the resurrection and ascension, with Jean Vanier: “the resurrection confirms the life of Jesus as the way of God in the world. . . We leave behind our own interpretations of power and salvation, of achievement and merit, and step into the space made for us by the humility of God, so strong that death cannot overcome it.”

Williams writes with a subtle simplicity, great insight, and an enviable ability to help us see the familiar in a new light. Each chapter is usefully followed by suggestions for personal or group response and for further reading.

In various ways, the other Lent books sit loosely to Lent itself and to the Passion of Christ. The Merciful Humility of God takes us straight towards it, and for many people will be their obvious choice for the season.
 

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

 

At Home in Lent: An exploration of Lent through 46 objects
Gordon Giles
BRF £8.99
(978-0-85746-589-4)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
 

The Way of Ignatius: A prayer journey through Lent
Gemma Simmonds
SPCK £8.99
(978-0-281-07531-7)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
 

Love the World
David Adam
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-07776-2)
Church Times Bookshop £9
 

Reconciliation (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2019)
Muthuraj Swamy
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-08008-3)
Church Times Bookshop £9
 

The Merciful Humility of God
Jane Williams
Bloomsbury £9.99
(978-1-4729-5481-7)
Church Times Bookshop £9

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