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Lent books for 2022: a round-up of devotional reading

21 January 2022

Philip Welsh reviews this year’s special offerings for Lent

THIS year’s most challenging Lent book is Isabelle Hamley’s Embracing Justice, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. It offers a serious-minded exploration of the different stories of justice in the Bible, with a good deal of attention to the Old Testament — “original justice” in Genesis, liberation in Exodus, community justice in the laws — before coming to the incarnation, the cross, and the eucharist. “Either justice is swept aside in the cross or justice is not primarily about ‘just deserts’, but needs to be rethought.”

“Using stories matters”, she writes, because “they remind us that justice is always rooted in specific contexts,” and “justice begins with a profound transformation of our imagination.”

Hamley is Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops, and her approach to scripture — not raiding it for proof-texts or insisting on unanimity, but allowing its narratives to reshape our imagination — is a model of theological method. Alongside this, she introduces contemporary stories that have engaged her as a social activist and former probation officer.

Embracing Justice is not closely linked to Lent, although it follows the season in moving towards the Passion, and could well be used for individual reading or in group discussion. It is attractively written and non-technical, though its handling of ideas make it most suitable for those wanting to stretch their minds around new ways of seeing familiar material.

Support is offered through author’s videos as part of the Big Church Read, and Hamley has also written this year’s related Live Lent leaflets.

Two years ago, the Lent wild card was a book about Mary Poppins, and last year it was Elton John. That leaves just Shakespeare, and this year’s liveliest Lent book is All’s Well That Ends Well. For each day, Peter Graystone gives us a passage from one of the plays or sonnets, using these as a springboard for wide-ranging reflections on our lives as Christians. His touch is light and suggestive, never moralising Shakespeare, a writer who explored “the great unknowable issues of life”.

Before doing this, Graystone takes care to look closely at Shakespeare’s words, and to set them in the context of the plays and of their author’s life and world, and he certainly knows his Shakespeare (only the pedant Holofernes would bother about his misnaming of the diarist Henslowe).

The connections he makes are ingenious — it takes a brave man to segue from Cleopatra to the “virtuous woman” of Proverbs. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare is immense, though not uncritical (“ye gods! the length!”), and he writes with elegance and good humour, even if occasionally (“Wow!”) he might have kept his elbows in a bit.

This is not a devotional reading. But if you want to spend a few minutes each day in Lent rediscovering slow reading in the company of Shakespeare and a very congenial cicerone, as they open up areas of human experience for Christian consideration, you could not do better. The book comes unencumbered by introduction, acknowledgements, notes, questions, or prayers, but you will find out more than you may wish to know about Ezekiel 23.20.

alamyA photo inspired by the gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet. Peter Graystone has written a Shakespeare Lent book

For an alternative literary Lent, Richard Harries has put together an imaginative anthology of a poem a day for Lent and Easter. These range widely over most periods, both well-known and lesser-known poems, and behind the book’s flowery cover include some quite tough (but not difficult) material. Poems are roughly grouped around themes appropriate to the season, but “Although a devotional book, this is not a book of devotional poetry.”

Harries briefly clarifies and draws out the theme of each poem, but with proper reticence rarely asserts a moral or theological point — “the point about poems is that they speak for themselves.” Unlike Janet Morley’s seasonal anthologies, Harries does not go in for much verbal analysis, preferring in most cases to set the scene with a biographical note (occasionally borrowing from his earlier Haunted by Christ), at times with a slightly Establishment inflexion, as he notes the poet’s education, awards, and recognition by “discriminating critics”.

Black poets and Welsh poets are notably represented. Middle English poems are thought in need of silent paraphrasing; but the Latin lines in Piers Plowman are left optimistically untranslated.

Hearing God in Poetry is an excellent resource for reading well-chosen poetry during Lent, with Harries as a seasoned scribe trained for the Kingdom, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Hope and the Nearness of God is a straightforward meditation on Christian hope. “Knowing that we belong to God, that God is near, even in a violent, destructive and unjust world, enables us to live in hope.” Teresa White explores this in relation to God’s providence, the power of good, courage, symbols of hope, the gift of discernment, and what she calls “bridges of hope”, such as music, love and laughter.

The author is an Ignatian Sister, and her prevailing tone is one of gentle exhortation, imaginative sympathy, and frequent anecdote. There is a devout, uncontroversial wisdom in much that she says — “if we are to change, we need to feel both the push of discomfort and the pull of hope” — though at times it tips into the bland: “when to our disappointment things do not turn out as we desire and expect, we have to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our ways.”

She pulls in magnificent support from Augustine — “Hope has two beautiful daughters, their names are Anger and Courage” — and from Vaclav Havel — “Hope . . . is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Unhelpfully, on several occasions, she discusses a poem or song without providing the text. Conversely, in two instances where she does quote at length for our approval, there is no recognition that her examples might be problematic. One is the popular story of the young boy who posted a letter to his dead father, which was intercepted by a postal worker, who replied that the letter had been delivered into his father’s hands, “beyond the stars and other galactic objects”. There is surely a real question about comforting a bereaved child with well-meaning lies from a stranger.

The other is Scott Holland’s ubiquitous “Death is nothing at all” passage, quoted without apparently awareness that in the sermon that it is taken from it is held together as one of the two “moods” that death brings, the other reality being that “death is a dreadful thing. It is blind. It is dumb. It is stupid.”

The Dean of Southwark is known to many through his daily Twitter prayers and weekly blog. His affinity for capturing the moment and for the conversational inform his innovative approach to the Passion story in The Hour is Come.

He starts by recognising that the Gospel story has very few “fixings in time”, until we reach the Passion, which is anchored in chronological reference. Andrew Nunn’s originality is to enable us to follow the story “in real time”, from mid-Lent to Pentecost, by allocating sections of the scriptural account, together with a short meditation and prayer, to their specific times on the days in question, and particularly during Holy Week.

In this way, the weight of our observance rises and falls with the shape of the story — for example, four stations on Palm Sunday, 20 on Good Friday, and just two on Holy Saturday, one of them just one line. Thus, the pace of the Passion story is replicated in our own real time. “God still works in real time — that is partly what the incarnation is about.”

The author cheerfully admits to taking a few liberties in view of the impossibility of reconciling Gospel chronologies. He is also determined that the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were Jesus’s uncle and aunt, in advance of much scholarly opinion.

His reflections do not aim at originality or profundity, but at dramatising the story, and helping us feel our way into the situation. This is an excellent book for individual use, even when it is not possible to keep fully to time. Some of the Maundy Thursday stations could well be used to punctuate the vigil.

© ally barrett 2022Ally Barrett’s illustration for “Salome’s story” in Women of Holy Week by Paula Gooder, reviewed here

Paula Gooder brings her trademark popular appeal underwritten by solid scholarship to Women of Holy Week, nine monologues in the voices of those often on the margin of the story of Holy Week, Easter, and the Ascension, with illustrations by Ally Barrett.

The stories are gently linked and imaginatively elaborated: the widow putting her two coins into the Temple treasury is portrayed as the niece of Anna, who spent all her time in the Temple at the beginning of the Gospel; and we are given a poignant back story to the costly alabaster jar of ointment.

The narration itself contains a good deal of unobtrusive background information, extended by helpful notes, Bible references and questions to draw out the stories’ significance. The emphasis throughout is on entering imaginatively into the story of Holy Week and Easter through the eyes of those whose crucial presence is easily overlooked.

There are no directions for using this book, which was originally given as a series of cathedral meditations. It would work as a short book to ponder during Holy Week, or as graphic pieces to narrate in a church or group setting, with the opportunity to compare reactions after.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Guli Francis-Dehqani, has produced a slim but profound book of addresses linked to the sayings of Jesus from the cross. But this is also a very personal book, as she explores Good Friday in dialogue with the painful story of her own family — her upbringing in Iran, where her father was the first indigenous Anglican bishop; the attacks on the Church at the time of the Islamic Revolution, with the assassination attempt on her father and the murder of her brother; and the family’s escape to England, where her father served as Bishop-in-exile.

The extraordinary story has already been told in her father’s The Unfolding Design of My World, and now the daughter who was forced from her homeland at 14 preaches the Passion with the authority of her own experience: “Forgiveness is less a point of arrival at some clearly defined destination and more of a messy voyage.” These are addresses that are not afraid to face the darkness of Good Friday and of human capability.

In other hands, it might have been unwise to talk so much about oneself on Good Friday. But this preacher turns it into the challenge of a paradoxical faith “without the luxury of simplistic black-and-white answers”. Her unique story becomes a way into universal biblical themes of exile and homecoming, and might recall the great description of Christians in the Epistle to Diognetus: “For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.” Or, as Francis-Dehqani concludes: “Faith is at once both a journey into exile and a joyful homecoming — and it begins at the foot of the cross.”

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


Embracing Justice (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2022)
Isabelle Hamley
SPCK £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99


All’s Well That Ends Well: From dust to resurrection: 40 days with Shakespeare
Peter Graystone
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.99


Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter
Richard Harries
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


Hope and the Nearness of God: The 2022 Lent book
Teresa White
Bloomsbury £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.99


The Hour is Come: Passion in real time
Andrew Nunn
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.99


Women of Holy Week: An Easter journey in nine stories
Paula Gooder
Ally Barrett, illustrator
CHP £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99


Cries for a Lost Homeland: Reflections on Jesus’ sayings from the cross
Guli Francis-Dehqani
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.99

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