This year, for the Lenten season, I decided to read The Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite. Subtitled “A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter,” the book is simultaneously a devotional and a poetry reader.
Some might argue that “devotional” and “poetry reader” are possibly redundant. I might be one of those making that argument. Guite certainly is: “…the poetic imagination does indeed redress an imbalance and is a necessary complement to more rationalistic and analytical ways of knowing. What I would like to do in this book is top put that insight into practice, and turn to poetry for a clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.”
The book is divided into seven sections, each with an introduction followed by daily poetry readings. Many of the poems are by Guite himself, but you will also find Seamus Heaney, Dante, John Donne, Alfred Tennyson, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Czelaw Milosz and others.
This Guite sonnet is the reading for Ash Wednesday:
Receive this cross of ask upon your brow
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands,
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognize in Christ their lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.
He then wonders at the use of ashes – a sign of destruction – as “a sign of repentance and renewal.” And yet there is something profound in that sign being both one of renewal and a signal of our ultimate return to ashes and dust.
Guite is a poet, but he is also an Anglican priest and chaplain of Girton College at the University of Cambridge. He’s published several books, including several poetry collections, such as Sounding the Seasons and The Singing Bowl. He’s a lecturer and speaker. And he’s a rock band musician part of the Cambridge-based group Mystery Train. He received his undergraduate and masters degrees from Cambridge, and a Ph.D from Durham University, where his dissertation, according to his entry in Wikipedia, focused on the poets Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne and their influence on T.S. Eliot.
I’ve now read the first three of the poems and readings in The Word in the Wilderness. Already I know that this is a Lenten journey well worth taking.
Top photograph by Jane Illnerova via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.