Sensing the Spirit

 

Sounding Heaven and Earth: new voices in prayer, edited by David Grubb

186pp, £12.99, Canterbury Press/The Spire Trust

Vespers: contemporary American poems of religion and spirituality,

edited by Virgil Suarez and Ryan G. Van Cleave

160pp, $19.95, University of Iowa Press

 

 

The Canterbury Press book has a handsome, pleasing format, which is good to live with; a feature of all the anthologies with this imprint. Sounding Heaven and Earth seeks to be an aid to spiritual insight and exploring faith at secondary school level, but its richness will have appeal in many other spheres, both corporate and personal. This richness is varied in genre; liberal and hospitable in character. For me, the heart of the book is the section of anonymous comments on prayer and spirituality made by contributors to the anthology per se in answer to a set of editorial questions. These honest, perceptive comments constitute an extremely appealing and accessible introduction to human response to the Divine; one which is formative and immensely encouraging. By and large what we have here is lived-out experience in the received Christian tradition by diverse, thoroughly contemporary minds.

 

Two other main sections in the book are ‘Prayers’ and ‘Poetry’. The latter category includes Tony Lucas’ ‘Stations of the Cross’ poems written in response to paintings by E. Charlotte Wright, which are illustrated at the centre of the book. Both sections have been very carefully selected and do not overspill. Discussion is also stimulated by the section of stories or ‘situations’ entitled ‘Points of Light’. They include an essay on the ‘Quiet Garden’ movement by Mollie Robinson which adds considerably to the book’s value and scope. By and large, performance genres such as dance, theatre and music are given limited attention, though their existence is acknowledged. For an overview of the arts, in a Christian context, there is still a lot to commend Arts, Artists and Thinkers, a basically Catholic symposium edited by John M. Todd [Longmans, Green] in 1958, though this is neither aimed at the education sector nor contains creative material. Probably wisely, Sounding Heaven and Earth is concerned solely with Christianity; other faiths could merit another book.

 

 

 

I like the initial epigraph to the Vespers anthology, a quotation from Proust: ‘It is always an invisible belief that sustains the edifice of our sensory world and deprived of which it totters.’

 

The excellent Editor’s Note describes the intention as ‘a meditation on who, what, and why we are.’ ‘At the root of every religion’, it says, ‘is the premise that an individual can connect profoundly with a reality that is somehow beyond the personal, limited self and yet part of it as well.’ But the aim is not purely pietistic or theoretical. It concerns ‘the meaning of life’ and ‘the existence of evil, suffering and death’. It stems from poets’ experience of the here and now tangible world and the interconnection of the spiritual consciousness with everyday, challenging, busy, very often urban, life. The poet with his inner life and links with the natural world can be a mediator of wholeness. ‘This book’, the editors say, ‘can save your life ... In echoing the thoughts, concerns and fears that linger in our souls, we realize that we’re ... never truly alone, that even in the face of darkness the world is unsilent, beautiful and joyous.’ Of this rich collection I will mention only the lean, austerely inscribed phrases of R.T. Smith’s poem ‘Illumination’, in which ‘two tendrils / of wisteria // have scrolled / their green fervour / into the weave of a wicker // deck chair // ...Brother ... come home’; and Martha Serpas’ ‘As If There Were Only One’:

 

     Augustine said, God loves each one of us as if

     there were only one of us, but I hadn’t believed him.

 

     And God put me down on the steps with my coffee

     and my cigarettes. And although I still

 

     could not eat or sleep, that evening

     and that morning were my first day back.

 

Serpas’ poem was initially published in Image: a journal of the arts and religion [http://www.imagejournal.org/], a magazine likely to appeal to Vespers readers and contributors in general.

 

Both books reviewed here can be commended highly, and might be set alongside Journey to the Light, edited by Linda Jones and Sophie Stanes [Darton, Longman & Todd], an outstanding compilation of poems and essays on the loss of faith and working through it, including contributions by well known figures in public life.

 

          © Brian Louis Pearce 2004