Books to explore the Lenten journey

Reviews by Christine Havens

Candles to light a Lenten path

The editors of “All Shall Be Well” aptly titled this collection of devotional readings for Lent (which begins March 1) and Easter, drawing on the well-loved words of Julian of Norwich, used as the book’s epigraph: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This is the second collaboration by Michael Leach, James Keane and Doris Goodnough, veteran editors at Orbis Books, the publishing arm of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Their first anthology, “Goodness and Light,” contains readings for Advent and Christmas.

“All Shall Be Well” has 54 entries and it is organized so that you can use it in any given Lent — each meditation is numbered rather than dated. The collection opens quite appropriately with T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” and ends with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” (don’t let the length of the poem’s title deter you). Between these two selections is a wealth of Lenten and Easter readings, drawn largely from Catholic spiritual writers such as popes Francis and John XXIII, Joan Chittister and Henri Nouwen. However, you will also find the voices of Phyllis Tickle, Mary Oliver, Rob Bell and even John Updike.

The great strength of this congregation of stories, essays and poems lies in the difficulty of many of the pieces. These works address the sorrow and suffering in daily life just as they stress the profound love we find in each other as well as the depths we find within ourselves.

The selections ask readers to “move beyond the shadow of our egos,” as the introduction points out. One example, Hob Osterlund’s moving “Bald Places,” is an essay of discomfiting vulnerability contrasting two neighboring hospital patients and chronicling the sense of helplessness surrounding the situations they face. Leonardo Boff’s piece on forgiveness is just as discomfiting, and yet comforting.

Our journey from Ash Wednesday through Lent to Easter and after often can be somber as we reflect on the familiar stories of Jesus Christ’s experiences in the wilderness, his journey to Jerusalem and his relationship with the disciples during this time. “All Shall Be Well” is an excellent companion for the journey, helping us to “the astonishing realization,” as the editors say, “that we are in him, and thus in God and each other, and all is well.”

Lent can be marked by creativity, playfulness

Playfulness is alive and well during Lent. Yes, this is a somber, penitential and reflective season in the liturgical year. We stop on Ash Wednesday to be reminded of our mortality and then begin walking forward, step by step, with Christ on his way to the cross. We journey for 40 days and then we stop again at the foot of the cross, sorrowful and perhaps wishing we could save Jesus from his pain and suffering. Many of the meditations or devotionals used during our travels tend toward a more formal tone.

However, Lent also can be a time of heartfelt creativity and play. An excellent example of this is Roger Hutchison’s book “Under the Fig Tree: Visual Prayers and Poems for Lent.” Hutchison is not only the director of Christian formation and parish life at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, but he is also an artist and author.

Hutchison is no stranger to grief and suffering. His book “The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy” is well-known and loved by chaplains, by schools, churches and many others as a means of helping those who have experienced loss or change in life.

Under the Fig Tree grew out of the author’s desire “to be alone with Jesus,” to get to know him better. Hutchison questioned his own understanding of love, “the bloody, passionate, inspiring, pierced and, challenging face of love.”

This wondering led him to spend time and creativity with a variety of Lenten sources, especially Scripture. Opening himself, he began to draw and paint, playing with the colors and images the stories evoked. The results are in the pages of this book, along with heartfelt poems.

Without a doubt, the images are the strongest part of “Under the Fig Tree.” They are at once vivid, haunting, thought-provoking, comforting and joyful. The book’s namesake piece about Jesus and Nathanael is especially indicative of the playfulness inherent in this work. Another favorite is the painting of the Trinity: provocative yet serene, reminding this reviewer of Magritte’s “The Large Family.” Hutchison’s poems complement the images well, although the bold, colored fonts serving to highlight certain words can feel heavy-handed at times.

This devotional would be an excellent resource, especially for families, whether at home or as a small group; for family-oriented Lenten study for Sunday-morning spiritual-formation programs; or as a complement to Wednesday-evening soup suppers.

Hutchison’s very last painting and poem take us to the other side of the cross and the joy of Easter and the Resurrection — love unbound. We, along with Jesus, are alive and well.


Poetry, like faith, is better when shared

In the foreword to “I pray in poems: Meditations on Poetry and Faith,” Dave Worster makes an apt comparison between the parables in the New Testament and poetry.

People sometimes shy away from parables and definitely shy away from poetry because, as Worster points out, a person might say, “They’re difficult to understand. They never mean what I think they mean. I feel like parables/poems always contain a hidden meaning I don’t quite get. It takes someone with a degree in religion/English to explain them to me. I’m not clever enough to discover it. It’s just not worth the effort.”

Worster, an English teacher for 22 years, has “pushed back against this sentiment” for most of those years, especially when it comes to poetry. His passion for verse, for meter and metaphor, combined with his faith and love of Scripture and led him to develop, at the request of his home parish in Chapel Hill, N.C., a discussion series about poems, with Advent as the theme. That success led to a Lenten poetry series, which in turn led to this book, with both Lent and Advent meditations, complete with a “practice” chapter and a glossary of basic poetic terminology. Each poem is accompanied by a brief exploration of, and spiritual reflection on, the work as well as discussion questions.

The selections are an eclectic mix, including familiar poets, such as Shakespeare, Percy Shelley and Mary Oliver, and less familiar ones, such as Tomas Transtromer. Some of the poems are distinctly spiritual in nature — for example, those of Donne, Herbert and Chesterton — while Shelley’s “Ozymandias” might appear to be more secular. This reviewer finds it an intriguing choice for Ash Wednesday.

While “I pray in poems” is not formatted in the same style as other Lenten devotionals reviewed in this issue, it lends itself well to group Lenten (and in a few months to Advent) adult, or even youth, formational studies. One could use it individually; but poetry, like faith, is better when shared. Worster encourages leaders to take and adapt his work as needed to develop their own poetry studies. His own analyses of the poems is light and fairly knowledgeable without being dryly academic. One can hear Worster’s teacherly tone in this work.

In short, this poetry nerd hopes that, despite the slightly unpolished-ness of the book, “I pray in poems” serves as the trellis that its author compares it to and encourages people not to give up on poetry or parables but to delve into more understanding and appreciation.   n


Christine Havens is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in The Anglican Theological Review and Forward Movement’s Daily Devo e-mails. She works at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, in Austin, Texas.