‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,’ Solomon famously wrote in Ecclesiastes. Well, we are living in a very particular season – having spent all our lives listening to the voices which tell us that it is important to keep busy, suddenly we are all being told not to be so busy after all. What to do?
Two centuries ago the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson offered this guidance: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” We would like to suggest some things which you may like to do with it – in particular, some books that you may like to read. Having spent most of her life engrossed in a book, Alison Morgan has chosen five – a topical one offering a Christian perspective on the coronavirus, a theological one on the life of Jesus, a cheeringly pastoral one on birdwatching in times of crisis, one which suggests twelve modern women writers you may not have discovered yet, and one which is, well, just very funny.
Where is God in a Coronavirus World, by John Lennox
The Good Book Company 2020
We are living through a unique, era-defining period. Many of our old certainties have gone, whatever our view of the world and whatever our beliefs. Whether you are a Christian or not, the coronavirus pandemic is perplexing and unsettling for all of us. How do we begin to think it through and cope with it?
Katy Morgan is an editor with The Good Book Company, and tells us that just this week they have published a short book by John Lennox – the first Christian response to the current pandemic. John is an Oxford mathematics professor and well known writer on topics to do with science and faith. He writes in an easily accessible, conversational style:
‘It is quite surreal. Here I am, in my mid-seventies, sitting at home with my wife, watching a government health minister on television informing us that we may have to remain confined to our home in self-isolation for up to four months in order to try to avoid the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the world. It is hard to grasp that this pandemic has the potential to be the worst ever, and that all our current estimates of its impact are likely to fall far short of the reality. Its scale and scope sound like something out of a dystopian movie. And yet it is really happening…’
Waiting for the Albino Dunnock: How Birds Can Change Your Life, by Rosamond Richardson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2017
The poet RS Thomas said, while waiting to catch a glimpse of a rare albino dunnock, that ‘Waiting for birds is like waiting for God, but I don’t think I’d wait three hours for God.’ When Rosamond Richardson’s life went wrong, she found unexpected solace in birds. In this peaceful, meditative book she shares how she learned how to just sit and watch, making peace with the world, with herself and with God.
At the end of a year she wrote: ‘My year with birds had come full circle. New worlds had opened up to me, I’d learned more than I could ever have imagined about birds as physical and metaphysical beings, their ways and their history and their beauty. The mirror they held up helped me see my own life in new ways, teaching me as much about myself as about them. Waiting for birds and watching birds, I’d picked myself up and realised how interconnected and part of a continuum we all are, and of how beautiful and mysterious life is in its micro-detail and macro-immensity. I came to understand what it means to be human in relationship to nature, how wildness is embedded in the human psyche, and how the consolation of beauty is central to our mental and emotional wellbeing.’ She called it ‘ornitheology.’
I’ve always birdwatched, and birds are an integral part of my faith – indeed, I have one sitting here on my shoulder as I write. If this is a joy you have yet to discover, perhaps now is the time, with Rosamond as your guide.
The Stature of Waiting, by WH Vanstone
Dartman, Longman & Todd, new edition 2004
Vanstone’s classic work looks at the life of Jesus and suggests that it has two distinct phases, active and passive. We live in a world which values the active life, he says; and yet we have much to learn from Jesus, whose passivity in the second half of his short life was as powerful as his activity in the first.
Now is a time for waiting if ever there was one, and Vanstone helps us to understand the value of waiting. By waiting we become aware of our needs, and of powers and qualities in the world which otherwise would go unrecognised. Christian waiting it is a corrective to the public presupposition that human dignity is bound up with human activity, with initiating and creating and achieving and earning. We are creators with God, but also we must learn to wait with God. It’s a book for our times, I think!
For a summary click here.
Twelve Great Spiritual Writers, by Liz Hoare
Liz Hoare is Tutor for Spiritual Formation and Dean for Women at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. If you are looking for something new to read, her recent book may tempt you. Each chapter profiles the work of one woman whose writings have touched Liz’s heart, illuminated her mind and sharpened her spiritual vision – novelists, poets, preachers, philosophers and theologians. Each, she suggests, contributes something special to our understanding of the spiritual life today.
The writers profiled are Sarah Clarkson, Annie Dillard, Margaret Guenther, Ann Lamott, Ann Lewin, Margaret Magdalen, Kathleen Norris, Alison Morgan, Mary Oliver, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Brown Taylor and Benedicta Ward.
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
Faber & Faber 2008
This delighted me when I first read it. The ‘Uncommon Reader’ is of course the Queen, who drifts accidentally into reading when her corgis stray into a mobile library visiting Buckingham Palace. She becomes addicted to reading – ‘Now where’s my book?’ is the leitmotif of the novel. We journey with her through a cornucopia of writers, and watch her values change as she reads – her reading is subversive. She becomes less inclined to accept the advice of those who have been used to giving it, and begins to question the status quo. We emerge full of respect for a Queen who we suspect has very little time for reading, and chuckling to ourselves at the thought of a world turned upside down. Which, of course, it is. The book is very, very funny – and as we know, laughter is good for the bones (Proverbs 17.22).
For more ideas visit Alison’s website, where you will find a synopsis of over 150 books you might like to try!
Posted 8th April 2020