This week holds Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday. Maundy Thursday. Good Friday. Holy Saturday, then, finally, Easter. Holy Week. I’m reading Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, gathered and edited by Sarah Arthur. It’s Sarah’s third devotional guide. I wrote about another, At the Still Point, on this blog last summer.
On these pages Sarah brings together Scripture, poetry, and literature for the purpose of prayer, for the purpose of Word informing word and visa versa, for the purpose of sparking imagination in service to truth.
I’ve jumped ahead to the readings for Maundy Thursday with its title “Accused,” the day of the last supper and Jesus’s arrest and midnight trial. From Psalm 35: “Ruthless witnesses come forward…” From the prophet Isaiah: “He was opposed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth.” From Mark 14: the narrative of the first hours after Jesus’s arrest. From Revelation: an angel delivers judgment. From a poem by Hannah Faith Notess: the images of the blood sacrifice of Passover startle the soothing comforts of bread and wine and a well laid table. From a poem by Jill Peláez Paumgartner: Jesus’s silence before Pilate is “the silence of termites. / It is the silence of the vein of silver / underneath the mountain’s / grimace….” From a poem by Luci Show: “fallen knees / under a whole world’s weight….” From the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: an excerpt from the epic and genius scene of the Grand Inquisitor, a fictitious story of Jesus being brought to trial again during the Spanish Inquisition and challenged for his responses to the three temptations of Satan.
Recently I asked Sarah some questions about the book and her process.
What do you say to readers who have never before considered listening to God through literature, such as fiction or poetry, or who have never thought of integrating literature into their devotional practice?
SA: Well, if they’ve read scripture as a devotional practice, then they’ve already been in the habit of listening to God through literature. The psalms are ancient Hebrew poetry, after all; and meanwhile Jesus’ parables are stories he invented, brilliant little fictions that point to truths about the nature of human beings in relation to God. I sometimes picture Jesus lying on his mat at night gazing at constellations, the campfire burning low, the sounds of the disciples slumbering nearby; and his imagination is playing around with metaphors—seeds and birds, a luminous pearl, a banquet. Or he’s inventing characters: a father with some sons; make it two sons; and make the father loving and gracious, because that’s what our Father is; and the youngest son says…. So that by the time Jesus’ friends are stirring the next morning and have eaten breakfast around the dying fire and set out groggily for the next town, the entire story has unfolded in Jesus’ mind, complete with details like the pigs and the angry older brother and the father running, running hard. All of this to say, that if Jesus could engage in the practice of imaginative storytelling as holy work, then so can we; and so have many, many Christians over the centuries. To ignore that vast spiritual library is to impoverish ourselves as a people.
Within the broader themes of Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, what specific themes will readers encounter? And how did you select the readings, poems and prayers that are compiled in this book?
SA: Lent is rather famously a penitential season, so as I researched poetry and fiction I looked for works that seemed to speak to the human experience of spiritual poverty: simply stated, we need God. Maybe the main character is terrified of death. Or maybe the poet has sinned, and knows it. Or maybe the author has looked inside himself and found nothing: no reserves of strength or virtue, no therapeutically helpful insight, just the bald awareness that apart from Jesus, he can do nothing. After Easter, however, the themes make the turn toward redemption and healing, restoration, recovery—but not cheap grace: I made sure of that. There’s a long road ahead, and our healing has cost God everything.
When writing this book, what pairing of literature and scriptural theme brought you the biggest sense of surprise or excitement, and why?
SA: When I was in 9th grade my English teacher read aloud to us, over the course of several weeks, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens—but right in the middle of the story my family moved to a different state. And for some reason, though I remembered key details and guessed what was probably going to happen (I figured Dickens didn’t create two nearly identical characters for nothing), I never finished it on my own. So when I began my research for this book I thought, “I wonder what ever happened to Darnay? Did that other guy take his place at the guillotine?” It sounded like an appropriately Good Friday-esque sort of theme. But what I didn’t realize was how powerfully Dickens deals with themes of rebellion and sacrifice and resurrection hope throughout the entire book. When the blood-thirsty crowds of the French revolution treat Darnay like a celebrity one day and call for his execution mere days later, I knew I had my fiction excerpt for Palm Sunday. It’s a harrowing insight into the kind of collective madness that could make both Palm Sunday and Good Friday possible. And we’re all in the crowd. All of us.
In what practical ways do you suggest readers use this book during Holy Week?
SA: It’s tricky because for the rest of the season (Lent, Eastertide) there’s a batch of readings for each week, whereas during Holy Week each day of the week has it’s own selections: four or five poems plus a fiction excerpt. Which means each day you’re going to be doing a lot of reading—good reading, I hope, enriching reading, but a lot. It will require some extra discipline, some intentional chunks of time. Maybe read a little in the morning, a bit more on your lunch break, and the rest before bed. In any case, perhaps you can think of yourself like the disciples in the garden on the night of Jesus’ arrest: you’re being prompted to keep awake, to pay attention, to concentrate. Which is good practice for the devotional life all year round, actually.