Lent is nearly upon us, and this is just a note to say that if anyone would like to join me in reading a poem a day for Lent there is still time, to order and have delivered The Word in the Wilderness the book in which I have set out a poem for each day of Lent together with some commentary to open out the poem and some reflections for the day. For those who would rather not use Amazon, the excellent Sarum College Book Shop have them in stock and can get them to you in time for Ash Wednesday when the series starts, just click Here. American readers who would like books sent directly from this shop can send an enquiry/place an order by sending an email to email@example.com
Meanwhile, as a little taster, here is a passage from the Introduction to that book setting out why poetry, as a medium, might be especially helpful for us on the Lenten Journey:
Lent is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that and in particular the poetry I have chosen for this anthology.
Heaney spoke of poetry offering a glimpse and a clarification, here is how an earlier poet Coleridge, put it, when he was writing about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was
awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. II, pp. 6−7)
That wakening and renewing of vision is partly achieved by a change in the very way we read, which poetry asks of us. Poetry asks to be savoured, it asks us to slow down, it carries echoes, hints at music, summons energies that we will miss if we are simply scanning. In this way poetry brings us back to older ways of reading understanding both the Word and the World, and a way of reading, currently being revived in many churches, called Lectio Divina, a slow savouring of the text a rich meditation on meaning that begins with the senses, with taste and sound. The great practitioners and preservers of this art, as of so many other vital arts, were the monks of Europe. They showed it visually in their illuminated manuscripts, and aurally in this practice of Lectio Divina, the prayerful form of reading aloud. The Benedictine historian Jean Leclercq describes it in this way:
To meditate is to attach oneself closely to the sentence being recited and weigh all its words in order to sound the depths of their full meaning. It means assimilating the content of a text by means of a kind of mastication which releases its full flavour. It means, as St Augustine, St Gregory, John of Fecamp and others say in an untranslatable expression, to taste it with the palatum cordis or in ore cordis. All this activity is necessarily a prayer; the lectio divina is a prayerful reading. Thus the Cistercian, Arnoul of Boheriss will give this advice:
When he reads, let him seek for savour, not science. The Holy Scripture is the well of Jacob from which the waters are drawn which will be poured out later in prayer. Thus there will be no need to go to the oratory to begin to pray; but in reading itself, means will be found for prayer and contemplation.
(The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, p. 90)
For the English Church, echoes of this ancient art of reading are preserved in the Prayer Book collect on the scriptures with its petition ‘Help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’ (The Book of Common Prayer Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent).
We should also come to poetry both for that inner nourishment, and, in that beautiful Cistercian image, for waters drawn up from a well, to be poured out fruitfully later in our prayers.
As poetry begins to change the way we read it also starts to change the way we think and see. It becomes possible for us to enter into those moments of vision that are the beacons and turning points of our scripture, among which a moment of transfigured vision in the desert, Moses turning aside to the burning bush, is the archetype of all transfigured vision. In a poem we shall encounter early in this Lenten journey, R. S. Thomas calls us to do just that:
Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you
(‘The Bright Field’, Laboratories of the Spirit)