Books for Lenten Reading

I once had a spiritual director who told me that A Lent missed is a year lost from the spiritual life. Every year at this time, those words come winging back. And often my best Lenten devotion flows from reading. Here are a few reflective titles that seem worth mention for these 40 days.

Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church (Doubleday, 324p, hardcover, $21.95; 0385502745). Philip Yancey, who gained national prominence as a columnist for Christianity Today, always seems to write out of a certain anguish or discomfort. He writes about pain, spiritual and otherwise, but he also writes about grace. The first book of his that I read was co-authored with Dr. Paul Brand, a specialist in leprosy. Their book, called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, dealt with the human body and the human spirit. Many years and many books later, having gained a large following among Christian readers, Yancey has written his own story, which begins in disenchantment with the Georgia church where he was raised. There, Yancey feels, racism and religion were intimately joined. In this book Yancey attributes his spiritual survival to a number of religious figures and spiritual mentors, living and dead. Interestingly, most of them are writers. Even when Yancey has met them face to face, his principal encounter with them is through the written word. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Paul Brand, G. K. Chesterton, Annie Dillard, Gandhi, John Donne, Shusaku Endo and Henri Nouwen are among them. In writing his own story of conversion as a series of encounters with other minds and hearts, Yancey is embracing the method used by C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. But he is not writing a boyhood memoir, as Lewis did. Instead, his book more nearly resembles Raymond Schroth’s Dante to Dead Man Walking (the teacher is paramount, ending each chapter with a call to investigate a given writer more deeply). In any event, the message, not unlike Lewis’s, is clear and compelling. God is bigger than the failings of the institutional church, or the fashionable wrongheadedness of one’s own generation.


Next is a marvelous Henri Nouwen collection: Jesus: A Gospel, edited with an introduction by Michael O’Laughlin; illustrations by Rembrandt. (Orbis Books, hardcover, 150p, $20; 1570753849). This beautiful book, with its strongly visual style, reflects Nouwen’s own way of praying, which many people have found epitomized in his books Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons and The Return of the Prodigal Son. Yet this book is a treat for mind and heart as well as for the eye. O’Laughlin has assembled 50 readings from Nouwen’s many works, and these create a kind of gospel, under a variety of headings. God’s Way, the first, introduces us to Nouwen’s approach to Jesus, in short reflections with such titles as God’s Hidden Way and Descending with Jesus. Under The Gospel Begins we find the annunciation, the visitation, childhood, baptism and temptation. Reaching Out takes us into Jesus’ public ministry. Entering the Heart of the Gospel leads us through the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper and Betrayal by One of the Twelve. The last two sections take us through the Passion and Resurrection. Every selection incorporates a Gospel text, from which Nouwen’s commentary flows. Also, this book offers brief Nouwen commentaries and short Gospel texts, handsomely set apart from the main text. These seem ideal for the brief reflection times in our crowded schedules. Most of all, the book consistently offers Henri Nouwen’s unmistakable voice and his distinctive way of helping readers to cope with the waiting, with the dark times, with the silence of God: This morning, during my hour of prayer, I tried to come to some level of abandonment to my heavenly father. It is hard for me to say, I shall gratefully accept everything, Lord, that pleases you. Let your will be done.’ But I know that when I fully believe that my Father is pure love, it will be increasingly possible to say these words from the heart. All sources are carefully noted. This is a fine work for Lenten reflection and shows Henri Nouwen’s distinctive approach in a fresh light. The book also includes an index of all scriptural passages cited.

Poetry as Prayer: Denise Levertov by Murray Bodo, O.F.M. (Pauline Books and Media, Boston, paperback,119p, $9.95; 0819859249). Here’s a book that has really touched my heart. Bodo had a lifelong friendship with this activist poet from the 1970’s until her death in 1997. This book is both a tribute to her life and her way of writing, and a wise instruction in poetry as prayer. Yes, it is a short book, but its brevity reminds me of the way a painter puts the distilled wisdom of his life’s work into a pencil sketch or line drawing. In Chapter 1 Bodo deals briefly with the notion of calling poetry prayer. In Chapter 2 he provides a succinct but revealing biography of the English-born poet and her remarkable religious heritage: Denise’s father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Hasidic Jew. She writes of him, the quiet Talmud scholar in a Russia where the Gospels were forbidden, and how he found a Hebrew scrap of the New Testament, became convinced about the person of Jesus, and thus had to flee his home to Germany, where he formally became a Christian.... While unfolding the remarkable story of Denise’s own religious choices, Bodo also discerns the influence of Hasidic mysticism on Denise Levertov’s poetry. He finds parallels between the Celtic heritage from her mother and the Kabbalistic influences from her father. Both traditions, Bodo suggests, are seeking to attain harmony with these sounds and rhythms as a way of restoring the world’s harmony. Levertov’s political activism, her protest (as an American) against the Vietnam war and its violence, and other aspects of her love of the world are also well explained. With a remarkable light touch, Bodo links politics, poetry and prayer. In Chapter 5, Six Ways to Pray Poems, he writes: There are no easy step-by-step techniques for learning to pray or for prayerful reading. Prayer involves discipline, perseverance, and a humility that comes from knowing that you cannot control God. Then he goes on, after this caution, to suggest six different ways of approaching prayer as poetry. These six ways are rich and instructive, but they are not tidy formulas. In addition to providing a selected bibliography of Levertov’s work, Father Bodo also mentions a number of poems other than hers that might be useful for prayer, from such authors as Wendell Berry, Scott Cairns, Emily Dickinson, Louise Erdrich, Paul Mariani and Czeslaw Milosz.

Another small and very useful book on prayer is Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer by Richard Rohr, O.F.M. (Crossroad/Herder and Herder, paperback, 155p, $16.95; 0824516524). Father Rohr, well known as the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M., is concerned in this book to help us see the difference that contemplation can make in our lives. Still, he never lets us forget that prayer is critically linked to action. Rohr’s title, Everything Belongs, seems to say it all. He celebrates the mending of a broken world, the essential harmonies that are restored and the peaceful visions that are aroused by prayer. I like, enormously, his use of literary sources including the occasional reference to Muslim mystics, along with the more familiar Second Coming of William Butler Yeats and the striking words of such writers as Dostoyevsky and Rilke. Rohr writes not to jolt us into action, but to set our hearts on fire with love of God, and a clear contemplative vision of what is and what could be.

I recently discovered Kate Daniels, whose slender book, Four Testimonies, is published by Louisiana State University Press (paperback, 100p, $16.95; 0807122602). A convert to the Catholic faith, Daniels draws inspiration from many sources: motherhood, marriage, sexuality and mysticism. Her first group of poems is called The Testimony of Simone Weil. Expect flashes of wit, sudden insight and novel ways of expressing faith.

Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe have written and compiled a wonderful book about prayer as a family experience. It is called Circle of Grace: Praying Withand forYour Children (Ballantine, hardcover, 365p, $25; 0345417178). The Wolfes, both editors and writers, are the parents of four. They know whereof they speak. They are also deeply versed in the literature of prayer, and they deal not with children’s prayers, or even children and prayer but the whole notion of establishing prayer as part of a family’s language and practice day by day. Sometimes this book is theoretical. Always it is practical. A special section of prayers from various traditions is included.

One of the most important and popular spiritual books in Catholic history is Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, currently available in a number of English translations. I must confess a certain partiality for the modern rendition recently published by HarperSanFrancisco, which was done by my husband, William Griffin. What on earth possessed him to do it? When Kempis had been inflicted on him at an early age? Slowly, he grappled with the text in Latin (I was at the edges of this) until a very contemporary Englishing of the Latin text began to emerge. There are many ways to read Kempis, and some are more traditional than others. I don’t know them all. I do know that this one speaks very directly to the 21st-century ear (HarperSanFrancisco, hardcover, 300p $20; 0060634006).

Is there room in your Lenten kit-bag for one more mystical writer? Rufus Jones (1863-1948), an American of the Society of Friends, is not well known outside of Quaker circles but has real wisdom to offer to those who are keen on the inner life. Kerry Walters, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, has compiled a fine selection of Jones’s work. Rufus Jones: Essential Writings is part of the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series (paperback, 160p, $16; 1570753806). Under such headings as Why I Enroll with the Mystics, Everyone a Mystic and New Eyes, the clear vision of Rufus Jones shows us the riches of silence, simplicity and quiet reflection and prayer. A good example of the fresh creativeness of his writing is in the last selection, Breaking Through Fog: I have recently been on a sea trip, much of the time enveloped in a thick fog...there was no sky over us, no horizon, no color, no beauty, no proper world. If we were always doomed to live in a fog-bound world we should never know that a sun existed or a moon or the stars. Almost at once, Jones turns this observation into a metaphor of the spiritual climate of our times, and leads us to look for the effects of the cosmic free grace that has been hidden from us by our own moral enthusiasms. What a fresh voice, and how delightful that it has been brought back, like an old Victrola record, without a scratch or a squeak.

So I wish you good Lenten reading. May you read with depth and delight, and with lots of reflection time.

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