Crispin Harrison CR welcomes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recommendation for Lenten reading


The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2012

Ruth Burrows OCD

Continuum, 159pp, pbk

978 1441103727, £9.99

What kind of book should a Lent Book be? What subjects or themes are appropriate and to whom should it be addressed? What is special about Lent anyway?

The Church’s season of Lent developed from the practice of preparing candidates for baptism at Easter. In the early centuries of the Christian era in the weeks before Easter it was customary for the local bishop to deliver a course of lectures to the candidates and their sponsors and any of the faithful who wished to listen. The subject matter traced the course of God’s dealings with his creation, leading up to salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ. At their baptism the candidates were to proclaim publicly their faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The bishop’s aim was to confirm them in this faith. After the baptisms a second course of teaching was given in Eastertide explaining the meaning of the holy sacraments which the newly-baptised had received.

Now all that is history. Very few candidates are baptised during the Easter Vigil and most are christened as babies, though sadly many born in Britain today are never baptised. Lent has come to mean a period of some kind of fasting. Some churches used to have a mid-week service with a course of sermons attended by the devout. Now that the majority of most congregations are elderly and reluctant to go out at night, it is a good idea to recommend an inexpensive book as a Lenten substitute. It should be primarily intended for committed Christians to use during Lent for reflection in preparation for their celebration of the climax of revelation, the death and resurrection of our Saviour. Love Unknown satisfies these requirements supremely well.

Ruth Burrows writes from within the great Carmelite tradition of its founder, St Teresa of Avila; the theologian and mystic, St John of the Cross, and among the later luminaries St Thérèse of Lisieux and the martyr Sister Teresa de Spiritu Sancto (Edith Stein). Like Teresa of Avila and the Little Flower she addresses her readers directly and honestly. She wants to awaken in our hearts a real love of Jesus and to help us to see the wonder and beauty of the Christian faith.

In the first chapter she gives a brief autobiographical sketch of her attempts to be a disciple of Jesus. She admits that when she began as a sister in the Carmelite order she lacked ‘a natural religious sense’ until she came to realize that we have no natural goodness of our own but if we cleave to Jesus, our servant, our healer and saviour, he is able to do everything for us. Her reading of the New Testament opened up to her the Jesus she found there and this became the rock on which she built her house. She came to realize that our God is a God who loves each of us to the uttermost, who knows our weakness, and yet never ceases to love us. Often our false image of God prevents us from recognizing this. Jesus is our only Saviour.

The entire book is sprinkled with quotations from the Old and New Testaments and from poetry as well. Sometimes her thoughts develop from an apt quotation; at other times some phrase or paragraph reinforces what she is saying. References are provided in the text or in notes at the end of the book.

Burrows reflects on the problem of sin and evil in the chapter entitled ‘The World Knew Him Not’. She reinterprets the Genesis account of the Fall to mean that humanity has exchanged the truth for a lie and contorts the true face of God. The Bible is a monumental drama of good and evil, light and darkness; every human passion is displayed and every human sin. Yet down the centuries there has always been ‘a throng of the poor in spirit, the meek, those who longed for justice and placed their trust in the Lord.’

‘My Word is as Fire’ provides a brief but profound insight into the significance of the great prophets of the Old Testament. How may we understand the Hebrew Scriptures? Not everything in them is God’s Word but only what is consonant with the life and teaching of Christ. As Michael Ramsey said, ‘There is nothing un-Christlike in God’.

Chapter Five begins with a text sung by Carmelites at Morning Prayer as a kind of Respond on Christmas Eve. The cantor sings in turn the number of years of various significant events before the birth of Christ. The creation of the world took place, so we are told, in 5199 BC; Abraham was born in 2015 BC; the Exodus was in 1010 BC, and so on. Dates of such events used to be placed in the margins of some editions of the Authorized Version, although the numbers given in the Respond are different from those in Archbishop Ussher’s Annals of the World, published in 1650. It would have been helpful to include a sentence stating that the Church does not regard these dates as historically true.

The book comes to a speedy end with reflections on Christ’s passion and death as is appropriate in Lent. It could be used at any time in a retreat. If used in a discussion group it would be important to include periods of prayer either voiced or silent. ND