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Lenten reading: daily reflections and courses

by
20 January 2023

Peter McGeary samples this year’s specially published courses and daily reflections

“SOME preachers, perhaps the majority, work by inducting you into a special world, the world of the Bible story and of Christian affirmations drawn from that, and then saying “What does that mean for us today?” They take you first to another, unfamiliar place and then bring you back — or try to.

“Such was not Sydney’s method. Sydney starts in the world where you are, and tries to help you to see it differently, to see it in fact as it really is, not as custom or apathy or even conventional religion colour it to be.”

Those words were written a long time ago by Bishop John Austin Baker, about a man whose influence on countless vocations — mine included — is incalculable. Sydney Evans, who died in 1988, was Dean of King’s College, London, for many years, before becoming Dean of Salisbury in 1977.

Sydney’s methodology was fiercely sacramental (in a gentle, English, way): he wanted his listeners to look at things — people, situations, world affairs — properly, through the lens of Christian faith and hope. But all of this was grounded in the scriptures and the history of the Church.

Where to begin? The Bible, or the world around us? This is a challenge for any preacher, and also for the author of any Lent course. I suppose that one of the main purposes of Lent is for Christians to check out their spiritual eyesight, to make sure that they are looking at things — people, situations, world affairs — properly. Do we start with the Bible? Or do we start somewhere else? The books under review here offer a broad selection of starting points.

I suppose Reflections for Lent offers the most obvious starting point: the daily worship of the Church. A short order for Morning Prayer from Common Worship is accompanied by a page per day containing references for the readings appointed, the collect, and a short reflection by one of a stellar line-up of contributors. The book begins with short essays on prayer and Lent, and ends with an order for compline.

This compact book is a perfect way to give structure to some kind of prayer life in Lent. My only gripe is my usual one for Church House Publishing: why is the paper quality so poor? And it is frustrating not to have the Bible readings actually printed out. For a prayer book to be portable and usable it needs to be all in one volume.

AlamyThe Lent course A Place for Us envisages watching the 2021 film West Side Story (20th Century Studios)

From Church House to Hollywood. A Place for Us is a Lent course based on the musical West Side Story — specifically, Stephen Spielberg’s 2021 film version of it. I’m not really a fan of musicals, but can see why this might be an interesting starting point for some. Belonging, difference, love, betrayal: it’s all there. A substantial portion of the content is visual (each session deals with a portion of the film), and the written material is straightforward and succinct. Each of the five sessions has scripture references and notes for discussion to accompany the suggested film clips.

A much more serious film is the inspiration for Thoughts of God, a study of the working relationship between the (Hindu) mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and the (atheist) academic G. H. Hardy in the early years of the 20th century. The author, a priest and scientist, is rightly keen to argue that science and faith need not be enemies. His book deals with themes of faith and exile, longing, and the nature of truth, among other things. Again, clips of the film are used in each session.

This course gives away its origins during the Covid lockdown: it does not rely on the physical proximity of the participants to be effective, which may useful to some. Also, it would be good as a free-standing course outside of Lent.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage was all the rage. For those unable to undertake a long journey, however, there were labyrinths: maze-like patterns of church floors that the faithful would negotiate while saying their prayers, the physical movement of the body informing the spirit. A labyrinth was meant to be a parable for the Christian journey: the way to God is indirect and sometimes confusing, but the destination is always certain for the faithful.

AlamyJeremy Irons and Dev Patel in The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015), the basis of the Lent course Thoughts of God

The book 40 days with Labyrinths is a modern take on this spiritual practice. Each day’s worth of reflections (Bible readings are printed in full, thankfully) is preceded by a diagram of a labyrinth, for which a variety of uses are suggested. This is very much a book for individual use, and would especially suit those who are bedridden or immobile. Again, not a book that is necessarily tied to use in Lent.

Much the same could be said of God Inspired Life: again, a volume very much for individual use, this is basically an extended exegesis of the Lord’s Prayer. Daily portions of text are rounded off with questions for the reader. On one level, this is a good example of basic apologetics. As in any such exercise, readers are bound to find omissions or a different perspective: I was uneasy with perhaps a little too much of the language of self-actualisation and a slightly too Deuteronomic view of things (do well and you will prosper, that sort of thing).

Images of Grace comes from the BRF. Attractively printed, it has Bible readings printed out in full, and, again, is most suitable for individual use. The format is traditional, a section for each day in Lent (including Sunday). The overarching structure is the journey from darkness to light, and the method involves the interrogation of an abstract noun each week.

Christians rely on such nouns to say what they want to say: sin, repentance, forgiveness, atonement, reconciliation, and so on. Each week one of these is taken as an overarching theme, and the many aspects of what it means are examined by a daily pattern of scripture, a contemporary parallel, and prayer.

Six books for Lent. Which is the best? This is the wrong question, of course: context and temperament always come into play here. Whatever method or book we choose, it should have the same objective. As Mark Oakley puts so well in one of these books, “We follow [Jesus]. Where he goes, so do we. A wilderness Lent is needed more than ever to do some heart-repair and start becoming Christians again.”


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

 

Reflections for Lent: 22 February-8 April 2023
Kate Bruce, Graham James, Mark Oakley, and Paula Gooder
CHP £4.99
(978-1-78140-304-4)
Church Times Bookshop £4.49

 

A Place for Us: A Lent course based on “West Side Story”
Lavinia Byrne and Jane McBride
(includes poetry by Phil Lane)
DLT £6.99
(978-1-915412-17-1)
Church Times Bookshop £6.29

 

Thoughts of God: A Lent course based on the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity”
Andy Colebrooke
Circle Books £9.99
(978-1-78535-971-2)
Church Times Bookshop £8.99

 

40 Days with Labyrinths: Spiritual reflections with labyrinths to “walk”, colour or decorate
Fay Rowland
DLT £9.99
(978-1-915412-10-2)
Church Times Bookshop £8.99

 

God-Inspired Life: Living differently through the six challenges of life
Godfrey Kesari
Circle Books £15.99
(978-1-78535-943-9)
Church Times Bookshop £14.39

 

Images of Grace: A journey from darkness to light to Easter (The BRF Lent Book for 2023)
Amy Scott Robinson
BRF £9.99
(978-1-80039-117-8)
Church Times Bookshop £8.99

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