Book Review: A Lent Sourcebook

Published in 1990 by Liturgy Training Publications, A Lent Sourcebook: The Forty Days is an anthology of hymns, poems, prayers, homilies, and reflections gathered from ancient and modern sources on a variety of Lenten themes, interspersed with scripture passages. The thousand-plus entries were compiled and edited by J. Robert Baker, Evelyn Kaehler, and Peter Mazar, with additional compilation help from James P. Barron, OP; Thomas Cademartrie; Elizabeth Hoffman; Gabe Huck; Mary McGann, RSCJ; G. Michael Thompson; and Elizabeth-Anne Vanek. The introduction is by Peter Mazar.

A Lent Sourcebook

I really love the scope of the selections, which come from church fathers, mystics, novelists, poets, songwriters, activists, theologians, saints and martyrs, the Roman Missal and the Byzantine Rite. There’s Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Elie Wiesel, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ambrose, Bonaventure, Dante, Negro spirituals and Shaker hymns and medieval carols, Jewish and Celtic blessings, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Dag Hammarskjöld, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Sayers, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, Oscar Romero, Desmond Tutu, Robert Farrar Capon, Walter Brueggemann, and many more.

These are some of the better-known names, but there are also names and texts that were new to me, some coming from obscure, out-of-print books or journal articles, and some of the selections that originated in Greek or Polish being translated afresh for this volume. There are a few African and Latin American voices represented, but most voices come from the West—a limitation that is understandable. Several compilation-style Lent devotionals I’ve used in the past feature only British and American writers, and this goes far beyond that, I’m glad to say. Just be aware that because A Lent Sourcebook is now three decades old, it doesn’t include any of the significant Christian voices that have emerged in more recent years.

Also be aware that this book was published by a Catholic institution, and the make-up of the compilation team was (from what I can tell) entirely Catholic, so that theology and tradition is heavily reflected. As a Protestant, that was not a barrier at all to me enjoying the book. There were a few selections that I take issue with on theological or practical grounds—but I never expect to agree with or to gravitate toward everything I read in an anthology! I appreciated learning more about the Catholic liturgies that surround Lent and some of the sources that inform or respond to them, as well as historical practices that developed in different locales. Eastern Orthodox liturgies are also featured, as are Protestant writings (including, in abundance, hymns!). There were several pleasant surprises for me.

I’ve read a handful of volumes from LTP’s Sourcebook series (which includes other liturgical seasons as well as topics like Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, and so on), and they’re all great.

Because of the way I’m constituted, I tend to get more out of devotionals that integrate the arts rather than those that start off with a scripture passage followed by a lengthy prose reflection ending with a moral lesson or present-day application. I do appreciate discursive prose very much, but I like how this anthology also incorporates poetry, song, and fiction to stoke the imagination and showcase the beauty and multifacetedness of the gospel. Repentance, renewal, feasting and fasting, temptation, purity, divine love and mercy, prayer, silence, and eternity are among the themes addressed, and the biblical texts span from the Genesis narratives to the Pauline epistles.

A Lent Sourcebook is available in two different formats: a single, 462-page, perfect-bound volume (ISBN 9780929650364), which appears to be the only option available on the publisher’s website, or two spiral-bound volumes (9780929650203, 9780929650357), which is what came to me through my local library’s interlibrary loan system. The entries are organized by week (Week of Ash Wednesday, First Week of Lent, . . . Sixth Week of Lent), and those “chapters” are broken down further by day (First Sunday of Lent, etc.), extending from Carnival to Holy Thursday. Basic attributions are given in the margins of each page, with fuller citations available in the back of the book. Also, each page spread contains a simple square (woodcut? linocut?) illustration, printed in magenta, by Suzanne M. Novak.

A Lent Sourcebook sample spread

A Lent Sourcebook sample spread

Below is a sampling of passages I encountered here for the first time.

PURCHASE A LENT SOURCEBOOK:

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An effigy of the Carnival is, in a great many places, “condemned to death” and executed (the method of execution varies—sometimes it is burnt, sometimes drowned, sometimes beheaded). The “putting to death of Carnival” is often accompanied by general tussles; nuts are thrown at the grotesque creature itself, or everyone pelts everyone else with flowers or vegetables. In other places (around Tübingen, for instance) the figure of the Carnival is condemned, decapitated and buried in a coffin in the cemetery after a mock ceremony. This is called “Carnival’s funeral.”

The other episode which is of the same sort is the driving out or killing of “Death” in various forms. The most widespread custom in Europe is this: Children make a guy from straw and branches and carry it out of the village saying: “We are carrying Death to the water,” or something of the sort; they then throw it into a lake or well, or else burn it. In Austria, all the audience fight round Death’s funeral pyre to get hold of a bit of the effigy. There we see the fertilizing power of Death—a power attaching to all the symbols of vegetation, and to the ashes of the wood burnt during all the various festivals of the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the New Year. As soon as Death has been driven out or killed, Spring is brought in.

—Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1963)

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Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible.

—Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (1973)

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I was entrusted with a sinless and living land,
but I sowed the ground with sin
and reaped with a sickle the ears of laziness;
in thick sheaves I garnered my actions,
but winnowed them not on the threshing-floor of repentance.
I beg of you, my God, the eternal farmer,
with the wind of your loving-kindness
winnow the chaff of my works,
and grant to my soul the harvest of forgiveness;
shut me in your heavenly storehouse, and save me!

—Byzantine Vespers, from The Lenten Triodion, translated by G. Michael Thompson

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Alas, dear Christ, the snake is here again.
Alas, it is here: terror has seized me, and fear.
Alas that I ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
Alas that its envy led me to envy too.
I did not become like God; I was cast out of paradise.
Temper, sword, awhile, the heat of your flames
and let me go again about the garden,
entering with Christ, a thief from another tree.

—Gregory of Nazianzus, from Poemata Dogmatica (382 AD), translated from the Latin by Walter Mitchell and published in Early Christian Prayers, ed. Adalbert Hammon, OFM (1961)

(In this prayer the speaker likens himself to the thief who was executed on a “tree” beside Jesus on Calvary. I am “a thief from another tree,” Gregory confesses, having given in to temptation and stolen the fruit that was not mine. He apostrophizes the cherubim’s flaming sword that bars entry to Eden, begging it to cool down so that he might, by the merits of Christ, pass [back] into paradise, as did that penitent thief on Good Friday.)

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Even after several years with the reformed liturgy, it still comes as something of a shock to hear Lent described in the first Lenten preface as “this joyful season.” For those of us conditioned to imagine Lent as a grim, unpleasant time, the temptation will be either to shrug it off as poetic license or to associate it with a mother’s attempt to persuade a child to take its medicine.

But there is always C. S. Lewis. In his account of his youth and his journey of faith, Surprised by Joy (1955), Lewis gives us an inveigling definition of joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” Here, perhaps, is something we can latch onto as we confront the notion of Lent as a “joyful season.”

Lent, in this perspective, is a time for eschewing pleasure in order to be surprised by joy, that unsatisfied desire more desirable than any satisfaction. Conversely, it is a time for recognizing the habit we have of seeking satisfactions that dull the deepest longing of the heart; the habit of having to have and not wanting to want. “The very notion of joy,” writes C. S. Lewis, “makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There to have is to want and to want is to have.” Lent would then be a time for discovering what it is we really want, the heart’s desire, the restlessness which for Augustine is a symptom of our being made for something we can never possess. Paradoxically, knowing that longing brings joy.

—Mark Searle, “The Spirit of Lent,” in Assembly 8, no. 3 (1981), published by the University of Notre Dame Press

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Each day may I remember the sources of the mercies thou hast bestowed on me gently and generously;
Each day may I be fuller in love to thyself.

Each thing I have received, from thee it came,
Each thing for which I hope, from thy love it will come,
Each thing I enjoy, it is of thy bounty,
Each thing I ask comes of thy disposing.

Holy God, loving Father, of the word everlasting,
Grant me to have of thee this living prayer:
Lighten my understanding, kindle my will, begin my doing,
Incite my love, strengthen my weakness, enfold my desire.

[. . .]

And grant thou to me, Father beloved,
From whom each thing that is freely flows,
That no tie over-strict, no tie over-dear
May be between myself and this world below.

—Celtic prayer compiled in the Carmina Gadelica, vol. 3, pp. 59–61, translated from the Gaelic by James Carmichael Watson (1940)

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“O Healing River” | Words by Fran Minkoff and music by Fred Hellerman, 1964

O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.

This land is parching; this land is burning;
No seed is growing in the barren ground.
O healing river, send down your waters;
O healing river, send your waters down.

Let the seed of freedom awake and flourish;
Let the deep roots nourish; let the tall stalks rise.
O healing river, send down your waters,
O healing river, from out of the skies.

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“The Cast” by Sharon Olds (1985)

When the doctor cut off my son’s cast the
high scream of the saw filled the room
and the boy’s lap was covered with fluff like the
chaff of a new thing emerging, the
down in the hen-yard. . . . [Read the rest at poetryfoundation.org]

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Enter into the mystery of silence.

Your goal in life is not to hold your tongue but to love, to know yourself and to receive your God. You need to learn how to listen, how to retreat into the depths, how to rise above yourself.

Silence leads you to all this, so seek it lovingly and vigilantly. But beware of false silence: Yours should be neither taciturnity nor glumness, nor should it be systematic or inflexible, or torpid. Authentic silence is the gateway to peace, adoration and love.

Live your silence, don’t merely endure it.

—Pierre-Marie Delfieux, from the preface to A City Not Forsaken: Jerusalem Community Rule of Life (1985)