How many guides to prayer have been published? How many have been published this year alone? For those individuals searching for books containing plans (and principles) for prayer, there is no lack of resources. For all our abundance of books on prayer, when conversations about prayer begin, people grumble familiar refrains: “My prayer life isn’t what I want it to be,” or “I’m just not motivated.” I’ll admit to my share of uttering the former, and I confess that sometimes prayer (or even the thought of it) does anything but interest me. Rather than be still and listen for God’s voice, much less offer supplications, I would rather read a work of literature.
As we approach Advent, and thereafter Christmastide and Epiphany, here enters Light upon Light (Paraclete Press), which author/editor Sarah Arthur describes as “a literary guide to prayer. Words of meaning, crafted to evoke a vision, or a truth, or both.” Imagine my delight at discovering this volume when these weeks that begin in darkness and move to light present complications: “the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction.” Just as the tension of self-extinction exists, there exists our perception that “The things of this world do not seem to be going according to plan,” so writes Marci Johnson in the first stanza of “O That With Yonder Sacred Throng.” However, the narrative of Scripture, of incarnation, acts as a corrective, and this volume of well-selected poetry and fiction pushes us further toward that beautiful mystery.
Arthur’s introductory essay articulately traces the history of the seasons of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, while also offering various ways one might “use” the book during these thirteen-odd weeks. (There is flexibility in the pilgrim’s journey.) She also offers the structure of lectio divina as a way into the literature she has selected, but she is careful to clarify that the poetry and fiction do not supplant Scripture: “these literary readings are not the words of Scripture.” Still, literature is a vehicle, a conduit, narrative and lyric as ways to draw us closer to God, to usher us into prayer. In fact, each chapter includes beautiful opening and closing prayers (taken from poetry), followed by four scripture passages, the first of which is always a Psalm. Three other readings follow, one from another Old Testament book, and then two New Testament books, at least one of which is a Gospel text. Part of the joy of Light Upon Light, just from a reading perspective (and apart from using it as intended) is discovering the texts Arthur has chosen to be in conversation with one another, and with scripture readings.
Here is one chapter as an example: Week 3 of Advent, “Sojourners in the Land,” contains an opening and closing prayer from John Henry, Cardinal Newman. Scripture readings consist of Psalm 137 (which is a psalm of lament, where the psalmist asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”), and then Jeremiah 31 in which the Lord declares his everlasting love, promising that he will rebuild Israel. In the first New Testament reading, Paul reminds the Ephesian church of how they have been bought by the blood of Christ, and how Christ himself preached peace. Lastly, there is the second chapter of Luke wherein we read of the census to be taken as well as of the Holy Family and the birth of the Christ. We are blessed with poems by G. K. Chesterton and Sir John Suckling, poems by contemporary poets Susanna Childress and Li-Young Lee, and conclude with an excerpt from Gary D. Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars. The speaker of Chesterton’s “The House of Christmas” observes that “This world is wild as an old wives’ tale, / And strange the plain things are,” while Susanna Childress’s “Bethlehem, Indiana” reimagines the Nativity occurring in the Midwest, the Holy Family at a Motel 6.
Another characteristic that makes Light upon Light so compelling is the arrangement of voices in particular sections, with particular foci; some pieces are more overtly “religious” than others, but all of them, nevertheless, offer beauty and truth. Within this gathering of voices are the contemporary and “classic,” from across various cultures and literary approaches. Readers will encounter works by “classic” names such as John Donne, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and George Herbert, but also works by contemporary names such as John Irving, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Paul Willis, among others. Just as there are “new” texts for readers to savor, there are more familiar texts, such as Christina Rosetti’s “A Christmas Carol,” known to some by the first half of the poem’s first line, “In the bleak midwinter,” as well as an excerpt from the Dickens classic of the same title. One potential challenge of the book is that, with one exception, all fictional works are excerpts. Arthur does provide lucid summaries and contextualization of these excerpts which derive from works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, John Bunyan, and Frederick Buechner, among others. Nonetheless, the excerpts wet this reader’s appetite, demanding that I read (or reread) those stories and novels in their entirety, wondering what I will encounter once I experience the complete narratives.
Sometimes readings confront contemporary misunderstandings, misreadings, and glosses. Luci Shaw’s “It is as if infancy were the whole of the incarnation,” for instance, confronts the ubiquitous image of the Christ child: “But Jesus the Man is not to be seen. / We are too wary, these days, / of beards and sandalled feet.” This prevalence of the infant Jesus, the poem suggests, permits individuals to dodge the idea of Jesus as Lord, the poem’s last lines exhorting us, “Oh come, let us adore Him— / Christ—the Lord.” Li-Young Lee, in the Advent Week 4 section (“The Strange Guest”) finds the end of the poem also exhorting us that “each must make a safe place of his heart, / before so strange and wild a guest / as God approaches.” That is at the core of the incarnation, a strange and wild guest coming to earth in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, Emmanuel.
Because these seasons focus on the Holy Family, Arthur includes pieces that explore these family dynamics. Tania Runyan’s “Joseph at the Nativity,” places readers into his world, as we watch him struggle with the distance he feels:
Do I touch him,
this child who is mine
and not mine? Do I enter
the kingdom of blood and stars?
The reference to blood is, of course, a harbinger of future events, and the language of the epiphany takes a somewhat darker turn, admitting the challenges of this life, the challenges of living in a fallen, broken world. Appropriately, the weeks of Epiphany are titled with somber phrases like “The Holy Innocents” (referring to Herod’s edict), “The Soul in Suffering,” and “Among the Fallen.” Yet of all the amazing works in this collection (and there are many), I was most confounded in Epiphany Week 3 (“Costly Gifts”) by Chad Walsh’s poem, “A quintina of crosses.” In a line that addresses the dual nature of Christ, he writes,
He was a mutant on an obscene cross
Outraging decency with naked love.
He stripped the last rags from a proper God.
The life of God must blood this cross for love.
The noun form of “blood,” used here as a verb, is shocking. The poem reminds us of the gravity of the crucifixion, the horror of it, the shock that God, in the flesh, would willingly self-sacrifice, “outraging decency.” For in the first advent is present the purpose for His arrival: the redemption of humanity.
Finally, woven together with the first advent (and the corresponding hope breaking through) is the anticipation of the second advent when all will be made right, at last. Poet Scott Cairns poignantly describes that moment of brightness: “His light, our light, caught at last together / as a single brilliance, extravagant, / compounding awful glories as we burn.” So this Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, I’m going to try the approach Sarah Arthur offers in Light upon Light, the beauty and truth of literature serving as an impetus, nudging or sometimes even shoving me toward prayer. I’m anticipating more meaningful movement toward the Divine. In this season when earthly light decreases but Divine light increases, may we remember that, in the words of John Keble, “in one blaze of charity / care and remorse are lost, like motes in light divine.”
Nathaniel Lee Hansen is the author of the chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian: Poems (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2014). He teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor where he also serves as editor of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and director of the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. His website is plainswriter.com.