26 March 2014

Marked by ashes

Here is a prayer by the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. I meant to post this on Ash Wednesday, but didn’t get around to it. However, it seems equally appropriate this (and every) Wednesday.
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
    halfway back to committees and memos,
    halfway back to calls and appointments,
    halfway on to next Sunday,
    halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
    half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
  but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
    we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
      of failed hope and broken promises,
      of forgotten children and frightened women,
   we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
   we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
  you Easter parade of newness.
  Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
    Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
    Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
  Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
   mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

You can find it and more of his prayers in his Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008).

23 March 2014

Poetry for Lent 3: ‘Mid-Lent’ by Christina Rossetti

Is any grieved or tired? Yea, by God’s Will: 
Surely God’s Will alone is good and best: 
O weary man, in weariness take rest,
O hungry man, by hunger feast thy fill.
Discern thy good beneath a mask of ill, 
Or build of loneliness thy secret nest: 
At noon take heart, being mindful of the west, 
At night wake hope, for dawn advances still. 
At night wake hope. Poor soul, in such sore need 
Of wakening and of girding up anew, 
Hast thou that hope which fainting doth pursue? 
No saint but hath pursued and hath been faint; 
Bid love wake hope, for both thy steps shall speed, 
Still faint yet still pursuing, O thou saint.

16 March 2014

Poetry for Lent 2: ‘Lent’ by George Herbert

Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,
                                                    But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
                                                    To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and layes the burden there,
                                                    When doctrines disagree.
He sayes, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandall to the Church, and not
                                                    The Church is so to me.
                              
True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
                                                    When good is seasonable;
Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it lesse,
                                                    And Power it self disable.

Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
                                                    A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish fumes,
Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes,
                                                    Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
                                                    And goodnesse of the deed.
Neither ought other mens abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
                                                    We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
                                                    Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
                                                    In both let’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
                                                    That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
                                                    May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
                                                    As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
                                             And among those his soul.

09 March 2014

Poetry for Lent 1: To Keep a True Lent

During Lent this year, St Aidan’s, Clarkston will be holding a series of meditations on relevant poems after evening prayer. Our first poem is Robert Herrick’s ‘To Keep a True Lent’:
Is this a Fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg'd to go,
Or show
A down-cast look and sour?
No: 'tis a Fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat
And meat
Unto the hungry soul,
It is to fast from strife
And old debate,
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that's to keep thy Lent.

07 March 2014

Thought for the day: nations without justice

I am slowly reading through Augustine’s City of God and have just reached 4.4, which is entitled ‘Kingdoms without justice are like criminal gangs’. Here’s what he has to say. It seems particularly apposite at a time when Western governments are hypocritically complaining about Russia’s egregious violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.
      If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

01 March 2014

The Prince of Lies

A review of The Prince of Lies, Book III of The Night’s Masque, by Ann Lyle (Angry Robot, 2013)

This is the third of a series of fantasy novels set in Elizabethan England. The earlier volumes whetted my appetite for more, so I jumped at the chance to review it when Angry Robot made advanced reading copies available through NetGalley.

In the previous volumes Lyle has created an alternative Elizabethan England. The main distinguishing feature of this world is the discovery of another sentient species, the Skraylings in the New World. These creatures possess a range of magical powers, which cause them to be suspected of being in league with the devil. The context of the story is an uneasy truce between England and the Skraylings, which affords England trading advantages and leverage against her Continental enemies. However, a band of renegade Skraylings known as the Guisers is working covertly to gain political power in Europe.

In this volume, Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn continues his struggles against the Guisers whose leader, Jathekkil, has recently reincarnated as the young Prince Henry Tudor. To make matters worse, the Guisers are experimenting with ways to transfer their powers to humans in the hope of creating an army of human sorcerors to support their bid for power.

Anne Lyle writes very well. Her characters are well crafted; in particular, having read the first two novels I have come to care about Mal and his wife Coby. Lyle’s world-building skills are also evident. Her alternative Elizabethan world has been carefully constructed and the magical system of the Skraylings has been thought out well. However, some readers may feel that she has been too faithful in trying to re-create an authentic Elizabethan worldview, for example in the attitudes to women displayed by the central characters including Mal.

The tale winds slowly (across a decade or more) to an action-filled ending. Ultimately, good triumphs over evil (at least for the time being). I have read several reviews of this novel that give the impression that this is the satisfying conclusion to a trilogy. Personally, I felt there were sufficient loose ends to warrant another volume (or possibly series), perhaps set a generation later.

To be honest I found this novel hard going. In spite of the quality of the writing and characterization I found it less easy to read than its predecessors. Lots of things happen in the story – too many things – I feel she has succumbed to the temptation to fill in as much of the story between volume 2 and the climax of this one as she could. The result of this attempt to cover too much ground is fragmentation and little sense that the story is going anywhere.

People who have enjoyed the first two volumes will want to read this one as well, but they may well find it something of an anticlimax.