POETRY can lead its readers to places other forms of writing rarely reach. Mark Oakley’s My Sour-Sweet Days knows this truth, and then some.
Oakley, one of the Church’s most able readers of poetry, offers 40 poems by George Herbert as a guide through the wilderness and riches of Lent. The book’s modus operandi is simple: do not get in the way of the reader’s encounter with the poem, or — as Oakley wittily puts it — “Lead us not into interpretation.” Oakley, thereby, allows Herbert’s genuinely remarkable poems to shine. What poems they are! Oakley does not run shy from the famous verses (“Love (III)”, “The Collar”, etc.), but it’s the variety that may win a new audience for a poet who too often is dismissed as a “major minor poet” or “minor major poet”.
Poems of the quality of “Decay” and “The Pulley” indicate, in quite contrasting ways, both Herbert’s mastery of form, as well as the seriousness and depth of his spiritual wrestling. Herbert is perfect reading for Lent, because he knows the fragility of the human heart: he understands that the way of rejoicing and glory must travel through what he calls one’s “cunning bosome-sinne”.
Reading poetry, especially after years away, can be intimidating, but Oakley — whose commentaries on poems in A Splash of Words were rich enough to win the Michael Ramsey Prize — is a gentle and generous guide. If his remarks on Herbert are not quite as scintillating as those on, say, R. S. Thomas in A Splash of Words, when he chooses to turn the theological after-burners on, he is a brilliant guide to poetry’s peculiar demands and delights.
GIVEN that we live in a time of quite profound and justified anxiety about the planet’s future, this year’s Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, Saying Yes to Life by Ruth Valerio, is timely and on-point. Valerio’s work as Global Advocacy and Influencing Director for Tearfund is well-known, and it is her global perspective that stands out in this book. Saying Yes to Life weaves together her practical and theological wisdom in ways that will genuinely resource the Church, not simply in the UK, but across the Anglican Communion.
Across six chapters, Saying Yes to Life uses the first Genesis creation narrative as a prism for examining Christian obligations towards the planet. Each chapter takes a line — “Let there be light,” “Let the waters be separated,” and so on — and weaves Valerio’s personal, biblical, and missional wisdom into a fascinating whole. Valerio is clear that this is a book intended for international use, across the Anglican Communion and beyond, and there is fine use of examples from a global perspective. Indeed, I found this destabilisation of a “Eurocentric” perspective especially welcome.
I was also delighted that Valerio is unafraid to step smartly outside her Evangelical background, and dares to place the biblical account of creation alongside the Mesopotamian creation myth the Enuma Elish. It provides a superb conceit, which brings out the imaginative and salvific force of the biblical Living God.
Each chapter ends with discussion points and prayer, and should work well in groups. Many will also welcome Valerio’s practical suggestions, which are pleasingly low-key and accessible. If this book has a drawback, however, it lies in the sometimes overwhelming detail that Valerio provides. If this book were to be used as the basis for a discussion group, those responsible for leadership would need to make careful decisions about what to include and what to leave out.
IN THE preface to The Heart Of It All, Samuel Wells has sufficient self-parody to acknowledge that it might be a little ambitious to summarise the Bible in 96 pages. None the less, he makes a fine attempt to produce what the actor Simon Russell Beale, in a pull quote, calls “the greatest story ever told — in miniature”. Full of Wells’s characteristically punchy prose and his gift for synthesising complex material, this is the kind of book that one might confidently give to a new Christian or someone wishing to re-engage their faith.
Divided into short, easily digestible sections — “Covenant”, “Exile”, “Incarnation”, and so on — Wells’s book presents the Old Testament as a work born of the Babylonian exile, and the New as the product of St Paul’s experience of adversity. They are fine literary conceits, which enable Wells to present the biblical texts as modelling one clear and consistent story.
His confidence in the Bible’s story reaps ample rewards. The Heart Of It All is a breezy pleasure, and Wells keeps an eye on the Lent market by supplying a skeleton six-week study guide at the rear of the book. It provides a structure for an individual or group to go further and deeper than his storytelling permits.
ALONGSIDE its Oakley and Valerio books, SPCK publishes a veritable feast of Lent books this year. Magdalen Smith’s The Grace-filled Wilderness: A journey through Lent will give succour to those negotiating the strange and often bewildering effects of modern life. Smith — a former diocesan director of ordinands and currently the C of E’s National Adviser for Selection for Ordained Ministry — writes as a person caught in the midst of modern-day dilemmas.
The book opens with a touching account of how her work often keeps her far from home, and — despite the riches of her position — how she has to wrestle with late-night anxieties that she calls “the wilderness hour”. This experience of “wilderness” is the prompt for Smith’s investigation into ways in which God often meets us most abundantly in places of doubt, strain, and fear.
Unsurprisingly, Smith’s book is structured around Jesus’s biblical experience of the wilderness, and she supplies material for each day of the six weeks of Lent. This enables her to examine overarching themes, such as “Identity” or “Appetite”, by drilling down into careful detail.
Smith has a gift for engaging with visual art and — a rarity among Christian writers — an ease with TV and cinema, which means that she deploys helpful popular examples, including Call the Midwife and The Children Act. She takes the risk of including some of her own poetry along the way, besides offering suggestions for practical action, and this risk pays off.
Some, I suspect, will be overwhelmed by Smith’s exhaustive and relentless desire to unpick and analyse the nuances of Jesus’s wilderness experiences and Passion. But this is a fine and stimulating guide through the wilderness of modern life.
THE “Less is more” principle is demonstrated admirably in SPCK’s two “Roman Catholic” Lent books.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols’s The Glory of the Cross is a short and deceptively simple meditation on Holy Week and Easter. It is structured across four sections — “Palm Sunday”, “Maundy Thursday”, “Good Friday”, and “Easter Sunday” — and reminds the reader that sometimes the best thing that a Christian can do is simply retell the facts of the Passion with simplicity and tenderness.
Nichols’s presiding image for Holy Week is “pilgrimage towards the promised land”. Nichols suggests that, on Palm Sunday, Christ comes to Jerusalem to “strike the rock” from which “living water” will issue. He reminds us that — ultimately — this “water” takes the form of Christ’s blood shed for all.
Nichols adopts an intimate form of address, calling his readers “brothers and sisters”. Rather than act as a jarring gesture, it invites the reader to treat this book as a series of Holy Week addresses. The only surprise: Nichols makes no reference to Holy Saturday, and the particular power that it holds and invokes.
LAURENTIA JOHNS OSB brings decades of prayer and meditation to bear in her rather wonderful The Way of Benedict: Eight blessings for Lent. It seeks to be an account of the Benedictine Rule which is — in the best sense of the words — accessible and kind. I hope that it will be a hit among weary and time-pressured pilgrims who wish to drink deep from the well of Benedictine wisdom. Johns has a gift from a striking turn of phrase: Lent is “a workout for the heart, and Benedictine spirituality is very much a spirituality of the heart”.
Each of the book’s eight chapters takes an aspect of the Rule of St Benedict and treats is as a blessing. She examines classic Benedictine virtues, such as hospitality and attentiveness, with a refreshing lack of pretension. I especially enjoyed her account of the “blessing of worship”, where she says: “Programme notes are no substitute for the actual performance of any work.”
While such words are likely to appeal to middle-class audiences with a preference for Radio 3, this book is not precious. Like most nuns, she knows how “community” exposes and forms us, and explores its implications with wit, grit, and a grip on the scriptures which invites the reader in rather than instructs.
ONE of the most welcome recent ecumenical developments is the way in which the Stations of the Cross have been embraced across denominational divides. Praying the Stations of the Cross by artist Margaret Adams Parker and the theologian Katherine Sonderegger shows how this devotional practice has been received by US Episcopalians with joy.
Primarily a practical and devotional work, Praying the Stations of the Cross begins with a subtle and intelligent apology for the Stations themselves, alongside an appealing essay that places the Stations in their wider artistic and musical context.
At the heart of this book is a very usable set of Stations. Adams Parker’s woodcut drawings are, by turns, exquisite and challenging, without resorting to vulgarity. The use of woodcut techniques produces images reminiscent of Rembrandt as well as modern artists such as Käthe Kollwitz. The artist provides links, should users wish to reproduce her images in church. The book fulfils the promise of its subtitle.
FINALLY, The Wind, the Fountain and the Fire, by Mark Barrett, is another Benedictine offering, this time from one of the monks of Worth Abbey. Barrett’s path through Lent — structured through five chapters — is to go back to the Psalms. He reminds us that “monastic men and women spend more hours of the day sitting with the psalms than we do in most other activities.” Indeed, he suggests that monks might be called “professional psalm-singers”. In essence, this book invites those of us outside the cloister to join our voices to those of the “professionals”.
The book’s key strength is its honesty. Barrett refuses to shy away from the challenges of being attentive to Psalm 78’s endless account of God’s saving power or Psalm 90’s unsparing toughness. Best of all, he shows how the language of the Bible, the New Testament in particular, is “shot through” with the Psalms.
Barrett’s book is a learned offering without over-egging it. As one might expect from a monk of 40-plus years, he is clear-sighted about the realities of monastic life (“monasteries today probably live no closer to the natural world’s rhythms of light and darkness than any other human group”), but explores how constant prayer can address this question: “Where do we discover the wind of the Spirit, the fountain of living water and the fire from which God speaks?”
If nothing else, Barrett’s book reminds us that Protestants have not cornered the market in “taking the Bible seriously”.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
My Sour-Sweet Days: George Herbert and the journey of the soul
Church Times Bookshop £9
Saying Yes to Life (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2020)
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Heart Of It All: The Bible’s big picture
Canterbury Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Grace-filled Wilderness: A journey through Lent
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Glory of the Cross: A journey through Holy Week and Easter
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Way of St Benedict: Eight blessings for Lent
Laurentia Johns OSB
Church Times Bookshop £9
Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding hope in a weary land
Margaret Adams Parker and Katherine Sonderegger
The Wind, the Fountain and the Fire: Scripture and the renewal of the Christian imagination (The Bloomsbury 2020 Lent Book)
Church Times Bookshop £9.90