Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryJoyce’s debut as a novelist tells the story of Harold Fry, a pensioner who, leaving the house one morning in order to post a letter to an old friend, ends up travelling all across England from Kingsbridge in the Southwest to Berwick in the Northeast. This is a book about an old man beginning to come to terms with his life, with mistakes made in the past and the ruins of a marriage that had been dead and loveless for a long time:

… for years they had been in a place where language had no significance.

There was no bridging the gap that lies between two human beings.

However, all this is slowly changing, for Harold’s pilgrimage leads to an awakening, as he becomes more fully aware of the world around him and develops a deep sense of compassion for the people he meets:

It was hard to understand a little and then walk away.

This is a gentle book with deep, yet unobtrusively expressed spiritual truths.

There were times, he saw, when not knowing was the biggest truth, and you had to stay with that.

Not knowing, or better yet, not understanding, indeed so often is the biggest truth and one that we need to learn to stay with, difficult though that can be.

Best Reads 2013. III: Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain SpiritualityThe Solace of Fierce Landscapes, says Frances Young in Brokenness and Blessing, is the kind of book she would have liked to have written herself. Published by Oxford University Press, this is a well-informed exploration of desert spirituality. But it offers more than that. Talking about ‘the permeable boundaries between critical scholarship and lived experience’, Belden Lane also reflects on his own experience of spending time in wilderness places; and he gives a very personal account of his journey alongside his dying mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer as well as his attempt to come to terms with his father’s somewhat mysterious death earlier on in his life.

The book is in three parts, which reflect the traditional three stages of the spiritual life: Purgation: Emptiness in a Geography of Abandonment; Illumination: Waiting in a Silence Beyond Language; and Union: Love as the Fruit of Indifference. These three stages, notes Lane, are symbolised by the desert, the mountain and the cloud.

There are chapters on:

  • spirituality and the environment,
  • wild terrain and the spiritual life,
  • prayer without language in the mystical tradition,
  • the symbolism of Mounts Sinai and Tabor in the Christian tradition,
  • the landscape and theology of early Christian monasticism,
  • the desert Christians’ counter-cultural spirituality of attentiveness, indifference and love.

And, to give you another list, which is the only way I can even begin to do justice to the book’s richness without giving an extensively long account, Lane offers insightful thoughts on:

  • abandonment of control (and the desert as teacher of renunciation and abandonment),
  • letting go and the emptying of self,
  • loving that which cannot be understood,
  • the power of compassion as the fruit of indifference (the notion of indifference might require some explanation, but you have to read Lane for that),
  • a new harmony with the land,
  • learning to pay attention,
  • the transformation of desire into love,
  • meeting love in the most unlikely places,
  • the power of silence to connect and heal,
  • liturgy and the reaffirmation of ordinariness.

Woven into the fabric of the book are interludes, called ‘mythic landscapes’, in which Lane takes his personal account of the journey with his dying mother as well as his repeated experiences of wilderness places as the starting point for further reflections on issues such as a spirituality of brokenness, the gift of nothingness in a desert landscape, the unexpected gifts of grief, and a spirituality of desire.

Having had some recent desert experiences myself, I have found this a rich and rewarding read.

Brief but insightful spiritual reflections on the book of Jonah

Paul Murray, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of BewildermentPaul Murray’s book on the prophet Jonah, A Journey with Jonah: The Spirituality of Bewilderment, is a short one. Actually, it’s a very short one. Discounting the text of the book of Jonah itself and the illustrations, it runs to no more than 49 small pages. A pretty lightweight book then? Short, yes, but no, lightweight it isn’t. Although Murray, an Irish Dominican, obviously cannot give us an in-depth explanation of the text in those 49 pages, he has nonetheless written some quite remarkable reflections on this fascinating Old Testament text.

Murray is well-informed, and he manages, again rather surprisingly, given the limited space, to engage with an astonishing variety of perspectives, including modern scholarly treatments (Phyllis Trible, A. R. Ceresko, James Limburg, Yvonne Sherwood, André LaCocque, Jack Sasson, Hans Walter Wolff), works from the long history of Christian and Jewish engagement with this text (Jerome, Augustine, Methodius, Columban, Martin Luther, Rabbi Eliezer, the Zoar), poets, novelists and dramatists (Herman Melville, Francis Quarles, Wolf Mankowitz, Hart Crane, Robert Frost), philosophers and psychologists (George Steiner, Erich Fromm, Carl Gustav Jung, Martin Buber), mystics (John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton), the list goes on ….

More importantly, in his brief comments on the lesson of the wild storm, the lesson of the great whale (before anyone objects, Murray is well aware that the Hebrew text doesn’t mention a whale) and the lesson of the wondrous plant, Murray has given us some equally brief but nonetheless insightful spiritual reflections on fear, terror and courage; compassion, love and responsibility; suffering and bewilderment; failure and breakdown; death and resurrection; anger, resentment and bigotry ….

The following quotes may give a flavour of Murray’s writing:

… the moment of actual failure and breakdown – the experience of bewilderment in our lives – can be the moment of breakthrough, the moment when God’s grace finally shakes down all our defences. And then, to our amazement, from out of the belly of failure, from out of the death of false dreams and false ideals, and even from the jaws of a living hell, we can begin to experience the grace of resurrection.

… sometimes, it is only in the midst of the ‘tempest’, in the heart of a storm of circumstances which we can’t control, that we come finally to realise something of the wonderful mystery of God, and realise also how far beyond anything we can imagine or hope for are his plans both for ourselves and for the entire world.

Here’s something else that Murray has done for me. Having come across numerous references to John of the Cross’s reflections on the ‘dark night of the soul’ in recent months, Murray’s quotes from this text have finally persuaded me that I must go and read it!

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