The joy of (re)reading
Updated: Mar 19
David Cooke, Anna Chaplaincy coordinator in Chichester, begins an occasional series designed to introduce us to some perhaps unfamiliar authors.
Today, he has chosen Frances Ridley Havergal. But first… a few words about the genesis of his series:
Have you ever had an 'Aha!' moment, that instant when a light bulb goes off in your head or heart or both, and you see something clearly for the first time? When the penny drops?
Of course you have!
I have had two such recently, and I think they might be helpful to others.
The first arises from rereading a book. Indeed I think this might be the third time I have read it, the first reading being over 20 years ago, the second some 15 years ago, and here we are today.
On this third reading I wondered, amazed, if I had ever read it before, even though I recalled parts. Had I skipped some chapters?
To use another metaphor, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes. What resistance or blindness had confused me and deflected me from its various messages during my previous readings?
The answer of course is that I was an Ethelred, I was unready. The parable of the sower goes much further than an initial acceptance of salvation. The good news is designed and intended to produce fruit, and our soil can either harden or become more receptive as we continue our earthly pilgrimage.
One of the great temptations of older age is just that – a hardening into unreceptive shells, a seed that refuses to die, with the sad result that we lose fertility and do not give birth to new life, either in ourselves or the kingdom of heaven.
Every spiritual helper knows this – if you introduce people to ideas and practices at the wrong time, what should help them becomes a hindrance, and they may baulk and refuse to try again later. A key (kairos) moment has gone.
This is the risk of introducing writers whose work has proved a pivotal point in one person’s journey, but leaves another cold. All we can advise is that if this happens to you, do not dismiss the writer outright but be prepared to give her/his work another look, later on.
Since many people do not read much these days, this point is moot, except as it forms us as spiritual helpers, and we attempt to be conduits to others, who are not literary learners.
The second insight is more personal, and has relevance to folk who, like me, are not easy with self-disclosure in relationships. I like books because I can engage with the heart and minds of their authors, and learn from them, while at the same time preserve a distance.
I write this with sadness, but I recognise the reality.
I prefer the solitude of these relationships. It feels safer than sharing space with another mortal, so I am more familiar with these writers than I am with many flesh and blood people – and more open to them.
But whom can I learn from, who will save me from going overboard with delight – or deception – as I engage with these authors, many long dead?
In past times, enlightening discussion was effected and balance achieved by letter writing; issues were debated via the post, or in small and select literary societies.
These days, we have book clubs, which are one way to fuse these different learning styles and practices and, also, meetings can be online.
Another option is for you to search out one other book reader who will match you and challenge you – and become your book buddy.
A third option is of course the most natural – a true friend. Blesséd art thou if thou hast one such!
As we launch our series, please bear in mind these comments.
When I was a boy, Frances Ridley Havergal was no more than a name in hymn books.
But the thing is, poems and hymns, as with other writings, are but the tip of an iceberg, a display of a life and character which was a gift of God to the people of her time.
We forget, at our peril, that nothing spiritual is produced from a vacuum.
There was more to her life than her poetry and hymn writing, as you can see if you read the summary in Wikipedia.
But even if that was all she produced, what an amazing and prolific body of work! Her output in her 43 short years of life is astonishing.
But that was not all; she also had artistic talents, and used to them as gifts of beauty to others.
What I find interesting about the Wiki biography is its downplay of her plentiful output for children. We cannot judge, from this distance, how much she helped to positively shape and form the consciences and ethics of little ones, but there is a hint in the longevity of her material and its widespread use.
What a shame that this key element of her ministry is minimised, and what a sad reflection on our priorities when writing biographies!
What also impresses me is how much she was loved and respected. This is not a character who wrote brilliantly but lived less. The biographies and retrospectives of her life are evidence of a great soul, a soul that knew suffering but was not broken by it.
Another shortfall in the Wiki biography is the devotional material she wrote for adults. I inherited one of these from my grandmother, Royal Bounty or Evening Thoughts for the Kings guests (1881).
Each day’s offering is not an easy read, as it is peppered with cross-references and rewards proper study, it is not some twee, sentimental thought designed to enable the reader to slip away into sweet dreams!
Frances continually challenges herself and the reader as to the sincerity of our consecration, and the depth and durability of our devotion, and the discipline of her life shines through.
Yes, she was a Victorian. Yes, she came from a muscular theological stable that had less stalls than I like. But, each of the horses in her stalls is exceedingly well groomed and curried, and they are thoroughbreds, with strength and stamina.
I didn’t know anything of this when I used to lustily sing her lyrics, but now I do. Here is her enduring challenge to our apathy and inertia:
Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King? Who will be his helpers, other lives to bring? Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe?… By Thy call of mercy, by Thy grace divine We are on the Lord’s side – Saviour, we are thine!
And here is her enduring dedication;
Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee . Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Her enduring legacy is one of the hymns she wrote, 'Take my life and let it to be'. Considering how often that has been sung in churches and elsewhere since her death, that is no mean legacy!