At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time
by Sarah Arthur
Paraclete Press, 2011
According to the infallible internet, Flannery O’Connor once wrote that,
“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others. I think that for a writer to worry is to take over God’s business.”
She was of course speaking of her own books, but the same could be said about both Sarah Arthur‘s writing, and that of the poets and authors she anthologizes in her new book, At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, published last month by Paraclete Press (and also available here).
In what might be seen as a devotional for Christian English majors, Arthur has skillfully chosen poems and fragments of fiction that “sneak up” on her readers and cause them to drift (or tumble) into meditation, contemplation and prayer. For each of the 29 weeks of Ordinary Time (the season of the church calendar between Pentecost and Advent), Arthur has provided us with a theme, an opening and closing prayer (usually a snippet of verse), a psalm and Scripture readings, and between 3 and 6 selections of literature, mainly from English and American authors (with a couple of predictable Russians, and a Pole). The Scripture readings seem to show some relation to the Revised Common Lectionary, but Arthur states in her introduction that her 29 weekly sections are not arranged according to any lectionary and can theoretically be read in any order. The lack of concrete connection with the lectionary is one of only two things about this book that annoy me, but I’ve been accused of being a liturgy snob before.
Her goal in selecting the readings is not to assault the reader with over-powering thematic overtures that tie neatly into the cut-and-dry, therapeutic Scripture readings. This is no resource for those looking for poems to go along with their tidy, little 3-point sermons. In her introduction she describes her chosen authors as those:
“…who have known the things of God, but speak in metaphor…In not stating out loud what they know, they have left much to our imaginations–which is a way of saying they have trusted the Holy Spirit.”
Arthur has found authors who were willing to give their books up to God to be used in unexpected, and maybe even frightening ways.
Arthur is up-front with the fact that even attentive and astute readers may not always immediately (or ever) understand the relevance that a particular selection has to the Scripture readings, or to the sometimes vague weekly themes. All of this is refreshing for me. If I wanted straight forward and overt, I’d be reading Oswald Chambers. If I wanted pat answers, and black-and-white interpretations, I’d be reading John MacArthur (and subsequently stabbing myself in the eye). I’d take reading Sarah Arthur’s eclectic band of poets and novelists over 99% of what passes for Christian devotional literature these days.
Which leads me to the selections themselves…which then leads me to air the second of my two complaints: Where in the name of peafowl and horn-rimmed glasses is Flannery O’Connor? Hot tar and molasses! Of all the authors to overlook, why did it have to be that foxy Catholic lady from Georgia?
Other than that lacuna, Arthur does a pretty good job. Having a Wheaton background, she can’t resist a healthy dose of C.S. Lewis, but she doesn’t over do it. Perhaps because of her Presbyterian background, she favors George MacDonald. Overall, she seems to be a raging anglophile (the teapot calling the teacup porcelain, I suppose) and consequently George Hebert, John Donne, John Keble, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh, and an entire murmuration of English Romantics dominate.
As I alluded to before, she includes some obligatory Tolstoy and Dostoevsky passages, one of which is that beautiful section of The Brothers Karamozov where Aloyosha has a vision of the recently deceased Zossima. My homeboy, Garrison Keillor, makes a populist/Lutheran offering, and on the Roman Catholic side of things we get G.K. Chesterton, Anne Rice, as well as SS. Francis, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross et al.
In a “Further Reading” section she includes some runners-up that I wish had made the cut (but no Ms. O’Connor, even here!) These include Grahame Greene (RCC), Frederick Buechner (Presbyterian), Charles Williams (Anglican), Wendell Berry (Baptist), and Chaim Potok (Jewish). Oh well. I guess it’s always good to keep back some A-listers, just in case there’s a sequel.
Maybe what I have most to thank Arthur for is the introduction to several contemporary poets of whom I had never heard, and who deeply impressed me; Robert Siegel and Elizabeth B. Rooney, especially. Here’s one of the a latter’s:
I saw the world end yesterday!
A flight of angels tore
Its cover off and Heaven lay
Where earth had been before
I walked about the countryside
And saw a cricket pass
Then, bending closer, I espied
An ecstasy of grass.
All in all, At the Still Point is outstanding; a veritable cornucopia of literary spirituality. Arthur’s introduction is helpful, light, and intimate, and despite the afore-mentioned Flannerylessness, she is an expert at choosing passages that delight and surprise. As I re-read this book throughout Ordinary Time, I trust and pray that the Holy Spirit will use some of these passages to save my soul, and to try it; or–to paraphrase old Clive Staples–I hope the God uses these passages to baptize my imagination, immersing it in the surprising vision of His Kingdom. Lord knows all of us who call ourselves followers of Christ could use a little more of that sacrament.