Lent and Well-being: White space

No one can say I don’t pay attention to a good sermon. One of my favourites was delivered several years ago by the Reverend Canon Maureen Ryan–priest, writer, and poet. Her sermon, preached at Trinity College Chapel and now published in the chaplaincy journal Spiorad (Spring 2012 issue), was entitled ‘Lent as Poetry’.

Since just last week we were talking about Lent as an opportunity to slow down and pay attention, and today is the day that the American Episcopal Church commemorates another poet and priest, George Herbert, I thought it a good time for some poetry and some eloquent thoughts about its connection to Lent.

From ‘Lent as Poetry’, by Canon Maureen Ryan:

A poem is divided into stanzas with lots of white space on the page, white space that lets in the light and represents silence so the words are focused by emptiness. One of the ways you know you are reading poetry is that you are forced to pay attention to the light, to the silences between.

. . .

Christian Lent is an opportunity to do just this – to slow down, take stock, to remember that silences exist, that they are essential, for though ‘Grace fills empty spaces,’ Simone Weil reminds us, ‘it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.’

And the temptation is always, always to turn from that emptiness, to fill it feverishly again and again so we don’t have to stare into it and bear it staring into us. But if we hide from it in busyness and noise, then we never wait in the silent emptiness that is our Holy of Holies, put aside for the dwelling place of God.

. . .

It’s about rebirth, about how the reawaking of creation mirrors our own need for new life. We follow the example of Jesus, give ourselves 40 days to wake up and shut up, and be aware of where the temptations are in our own lives, the temptations that lead us away from what really matters – to love the lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls, and our neighbours as ourselves. 

So, in Lent, we court silence and woo simplicity to let clarity light up the page of our lives, to create a line ending, a rhythmic pause, a pregnant pause, a hungry emptiness that waits to be filled. We acknowledge that life, like poetry, is difficult. That the moments of our lives, like words, are what Coleridge called ‘hooked atoms’, twining, meshing around each other to create a web of relationships, a net of interlocking meanings and images, response and unconscious resistance. So we stop.

We focus on what is being communicated and dig for what is being concealed. We remember what it is we love, whom we love, and what we are living for. We discipline ourselves so we do not forget that the sustaining rhythms of our life are nourished when we savour only what we need rather than whoring after everything we want.


Love (III)
by George Herbert (1595-1633)

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.