The holy season of Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday—40 days, or approximately six weeks, of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Lent is a time to meditate on the frailty of the human condition, on our sin and our need for redemption and on the incredible love God showed in sending his son Jesus to die for us.
Even though Lent begins with the words “dust you are and to dust you shall return,” it is a season of transformation, one in which we contemplate our own death—both the spiritual death of bondage to sin and the physical death awaiting us all—in preparation for the stunning reversal coming on Easter, when the death of Christ becomes the instrument of our eternal salvation.
Here are six readings—ranging from poems to fairy tales to devotional literature—to help guide you through the season. They are organized here to build on each other, but of course, feel free to choose one or two instead of tackling all six.
Week One: Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot
What better reading for this day of fasting and ashes than Ash Wednesday, T.S. Eliot’s enigmatic six-part conversion poem? Almost a hundred years after its publication, the poem remains mysterious, in part because it explores a fundamentally mysterious topic: a soul beginning to turn towards God after a long period of ignoring him. What prompts the turn? What keeps us moving through a lifetime of conversion? Does it matter if we feel like we believe, or does it only matter that we tell ourselves that we believe? Eliot’s poem does not attempt to offer straightforward answers but instead leads us imaginatively through several spiritual states and indicates that Christ is present in each of them.
The poem is rich with biblical and literary symbols, including the Lady (at once Mary and Dante’s Beatrice), the stair (from Dante’s Purgatory and perhaps St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, and the desert (which evokes the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones as well as Our Lord’s 40 days of fasting). The poem is available online in its entirety and can easily be read in a sitting. For an extra treat, listen to a recording of Eliot reading it here.
Week two: The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life, by Father Charles Arminjon
This challenging book was a favorite of St. Therese of Lisieux, who said, “Reading this book was one of the great graces of my life.” The book delivers difficult truths about how much of our present life is bound up with this world, which is passing away. It pushes us to ask ourselves where truly our treasure lies: are we tying our souls to things that will not last, or are we anchoring them on eternal things?
The End of the Present World debunks common misconceptions about the Last Days and urges us to turn our eyes on Jesus instead of focusing on the chaos and anguish of the world around us. These words, doubtless compelling when they were first written in the late 1800s, are doubly important now when it is very easy to become overwhelmed with despair at the state of the world. Father Arminjon reminds us that despair is not of God, and even as he speaks hard truths about the way sin has penetrated and darkened each of our lives, he continually points us to the hope we have in Christ. This sobering read will make your Lenten penances an offering of joy.
Week three: How to Be Holy, by Peter Kreeft
If you are like me, week three of Lent is when things tend to fall apart. The fasts we entered into with such enthusiasm a few weeks ago are no longer new and exciting, but Easter still feels like it is a long way away.
This is a great time to pick up Peter Kreeft’s accessible, wonderful book, How to Be Holy. In his usual charismatic and engaging style, Kreeft takes on the great question of our lives: How does one become a saint? He brings his own insights together with the great treasury of wisdom from saints of old to present a practical, usable manual to begin living a life of holiness. Addressing questions like, “What is holiness?” and “How do I live a life of love?” How to Be Holy is at once accessible and profound, connecting our day-to-day actions and thoughts to the great cosmic journey towards God that we are all on.
Week four: Lilith, by George MacDonald
C.S. Lewis credited the fairy tales of Scottish Presbyterian minister George MacDonald with “baptizing [his] imagination” and preparing him for the Christian life long before he began attending church and pursuing God consciously. MacDonald’s tales, from the famous The Princess and the Goblin to Lewis’ favorite Phantastes and the epic Lilith, explore theological truths through beautiful and mysterious fairy stories. When an unsuspecting human stumbles into a fairyland in conflict, he must choose which side he is on: that of the strange, frightening Raven and his mysterious wife or that of the beautiful but evil Queen Lilith.
Lilith is the most complex—and most magnificent—of MacDonald’s tales. The name refers to the Jewish legend of Adam’s first wife, who rejected him and chose instead to ally with the Devil. MacDonald draws many of his symbols from medieval literature, but his Lilith rises above the source material to become a symbol of fallen human nature. It is a tale of how difficult salvation truly is. While the story has been accused of being universalist (the idea that all shall be saved), MacDonald’s position is more nuanced than this; rather than advancing a straightforward claim of universalism, he invites us to imagine a universe in which salvation is more all-encompassing, and more demanding than we often believe. God demands everything of us, says MacDonald, and he will have it.
Week five: Jesus of Nazareth, by Joseph Ratzinger,
This beautifully written study of the life of Christ by Pope Benedict XVI invites us to consider the nuances of Christ’s time on earth in a fresh way. The book is an excellent preparation for Holy Week; as we walk towards the Cross with Christ, we can sometimes forget that he was fully man as well as fully God. He participated in all the joys and sorrows of human existence and carried those joys and sorrows to the cross with him.
The book was Joseph Ratzinger’s attempt to find “the face of the Lord” in the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church. Jesus of Nazareth is a profound work of theology, but it is also a warm and intimate portrait of Jesus Christ, written by a man who loved him very much. Meditating on this book is a beautiful way to grow in our understanding of the mystery of “fully God and fully man” and just who exactly died on the Cross that day thousands of years ago.
Week six: “The Dream of the Rood,” by Anonymous
There is no better reading at the end of Lent than the beautiful stories in the Gospels of our Lord’s last days. Christians have been reading and meditating on those stories for millennia—and sometimes, through a God-given burst of imagination, they have created magnificent art in response to the Gospel.
“The Dream of the Rood” is one of the finest examples of this devotional art. Composed in England sometime before the 10th century, the poem’s author (who remains unknown) retells the story of the Crucifixion from the perspective of the cross (the Rood).
The poem was originally composed in Old English, the oldest written form of the English language. This is not the high English Renaissance language of Shakespeare or even the somewhat recognizable Middle English of Chaucer; Old English is an ancient, earthy tongue full of words for warriors, battle, enemies, heroes and doom. (J.R.R. Tolkien loved Old English, and its atmosphere permeates Middle-Earth, which is, in fact, a transliteration of the Old English word for our world).
The author of “The Dream of the Rood” tells the story of Christ on the Cross not merely as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah but as the universe’s “Young Hero” who enters into battle with death and emerges triumphant, carrying all his beloved people out of the shadows and into the light of his homeland, Heaven. (Nota Bene: The link above is to a translation I did of the poem with a friend, Tessa Carman, but there are many translations widely available on the internet.)