Peter B. Price
Darton, Longman and Todd, 2018
The inspiration for this challenging set of reflections by a retired bishop came from Father Alfred Delp SJ’s Advent diary, written in Plötzensee Prison in Nazi Germany in 1944, just two months before he was hanged. Delp (1907-1945) penned a meditation entitled ‘The Shaking Reality of Advent’. In a tiny, three-pace space of a cell, with his hands in irons and an uncertain future ahead of him, Delp came to ‘a new and different understanding of God’s promise of redemption and release’. He described Advent as a time, ‘when we all ought to be shaken and brought to a realisation of ourselves’.
As the author of this book says, most readers will not be constrained by literal chains or pacing in a cell, but rather by living in a post-Christian society, with hands tied by ‘self-limitation, relationships, work, and the expectation of others’. And hands that may feel tied and helpless as they face into the world’s suffering and injustice.
This helpful book provides a daily space to ‘breathe in, breathe out’, to discern afresh the God who comes among us. For our Christian God does not float above history and its trauma, but shares intimately in the suffering of the victims and invites us to do the same. Advent is a time of resistance, reclamation, remembrance, redemption and release.
There are 29 daily reflections, which can be used in any year, from the First Sunday of Advent to Christmas Day. Price uses his own lived experience of Advent, whilst taking the reader into the lives of others or their writings, but centred specially on those of Alfred Delp. As he says: ‘Each day in Advent, like the Little Prince, we are invited to move a little closer to the One who has, is, and will come.’
Price introduces people of faith, from Abraham, Elijah, Micah, Esther, Isaiah and Ruth from the Old Testament to John the Baptist in the New, then moves on to today’s prophets such as Etty Hillesum, the Little Sisters of Jesus and Desmond Tutu. Plus the many nameless prophets of today who cry out from the depth of faith, often in the midst of poverty.
In this Advent time of de-cision, of cutting away, quiet angels who call us to believe enter into the story, as does Mary’s song of Magnificat, and the womb-like compassion of God, where God’s ‘vengeance’ is the antithesis of human vengeance. At this beginning of the Church’s year, when a child is born for us, we see the power of the irruption of God into our human story. And we are invited to be born again, to re-engage with what is authentic and real, to be signs of resurrection.
This insightful and stirring book will certainly move whoever dares to pick it up and pray slowly through these heart-, mind- and soul-shaking daily Advent reflections.
240 + xvi pages
In his introduction to this haunting book, the author states: ‘So much of the language we use is recycled cliché, the linguistic sludge of a lazy culture. This is especially true of religious language, which has for many become tired, stale and lifeless.’ (pp x-xi) Thus his basic desire is to show how poets and novelists bring a freshness and sharpness, hinting at the ‘ultimately elusive mystery of the divine’ (p xi). This he does by considering 19 writers who have touched him deeply over the years.
Eclectic and fascinating in his choice of authors and poets, he reaches in time from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Marilynne Robinson, and lets each artist stretch the reader’s imagination and grasp of theology. And he dares to introduce secular mystics like Samuel Beckett, or even to compare the competing myths of C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. From universal pessimism in William Golding to grace in failure in Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Shūsako Endō and Evelyn Waugh, Harries indicates how each brings bite and insight into the pull of religion, and documents their struggles with faith.
Each reader will have favourites, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden or R.S. Thomas. Or may prefer light from the Orkneys with Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown. Or may be attracted by the four female author-poets covered: Robinson, Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith and Elizabeth Jennings.
Within these tightly written, time-consuming, thought-provoking and often deeply moving pages, there is something for anyone who wishes to broaden their faith horizons. It is a compendium that will merit revisiting often, to squeeze out the rich depths of these wordsmiths of wonder.
The reviewer, Fr Denis Blackledge SJ, is parish priest of St Francis Xavier, Liverpool.