Lent begins with dust
Review: The Wind, the Fountain and the Fire by Mark Barrett
In Lent the tradition of giving up chocolate or alcohol (something I usually fail to do, I admit) is not merely for the good that going without might do for us; it helps us in the Lenten tradition of reflection. Lent is an opportune time to slow down, prioritise and take a slightly different attitude to life, to cultivate scriptural reflection as a discipline (something else I am not very good at).
It is also something of a tradition amongst British publishers to put out a Lent book every year to help us with the Lenten practice of disciplined reflection, and Bloomsbury’s 2020 book focusses on the psalms. Mark Barrett is a monk who points out that monks and nuns spend a lot of time with the psalms, not as some sort of indulgence (though in contemporary society, with our fractured, frenetic reading habits, monastic practice might wrongly seem indulgent), but as a way of investigating how in faith we can live fully. Partly this is because the psalms cover a range of human experience; they are about the messy experience of living out faith, rather than some sort of set of ideals. They also parallel closely the Lenten experience of despair and rescue. And perhaps to illustrate the comprehensiveness of the psalms, in Barrett’s book there is very little reference to other literature outside scripture. It is simply full immersion.
The chapters of Barrett’s book are organised around the themes of dust, mountain, well, light and tomb. Barrett suggests, perhaps oddly, that Lent begins with dust. Usually we think of Lent beginning with ashes, and this year for too many Australians Lent begins with literal ashes, with mourning and hope for the renewal symbolised by green shoots sprouting from blackened wood. But both dust and ashes are mentioned on Ash Wednesday, and Barrett’s point is that dust and ashes symbolise dryness and loss, the point from which God can really get to work on us. We should be cautious of suggesting that bad things always happen for a reason – Jesus speaks against this kind of theorising – but Barrett points out that the Bible is full of references to how God fashions us from dust. When we are down, broken, lost, God acts. Yet dust does not signify our insignificance; rather, we are the elemental stuff from which God forms a kingdom.
And God is not remote. Mountains might symbolise God’s majesty, but Barrett suggests that Mount Zion, the site of God’s Temple, symbolises a God who is present (unlike the somewhat sporadic interference of the gods of Mount Olympus, we might add). Temple and altar are not just places of worship, but God is there, accessible. This is intensified in the incarnation, and Jesus explicitly compares himself to the Temple – the place where God is seen among us. Further, we can say that we see God in the Spirit-filled, caring acts of the members of the Church.
It’s perhaps pointing out the obvious that the Bible frequently references wells as symbolic of the ‘living water’ of God’s word, but it is worth remembering that like a tree by a stream we need water constantly. Praying the psalms is one way of creating a spiritual irrigation system. It is as foolish to move through life without this supply, says Barrett, as it is to attempt to cross a desert without carrying water.
Light, writes Barrett, is the most natural symbol for God, and we might think of Mount Sinai and the story of Moses being dazzled by God, but it is also God’s word that is a light, more torch to guide our way than dazzling vision. But we don’t always recognise its usefulness, and John’s Gospel uses the metaphors of light and blindness to suggest that those who think they can see without God’s light are lost. It’s a reminder that an attention to scripture and an openness to what it might illuminate helps the scales fall from eyes, not confirm our assumptions, prejudices and wayward manner of journeying.
Barrett finishes with the symbol of the tomb, in the psalms referred to as Sheol, the abode of the dead, which reaches into our whole lives as shadowy inevitability, not just the end of life, but another world shadowing ours, like the drained, parallel world in the TV series Stranger Things, infecting ours with trouble. Against this, though, the psalms illuminate heaven also intruding into our world, the rejuvenation in the face of trouble and death’s inevitability that is at the heart of the Easter story.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com