A Review of
Between Midnight and Dawn:
A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide
Compiled by Sarah Arthur
I can’t be alone in thinking that, when Dorothy discovers that her ruby red slippers have (and always have had) the power to take her home, it is one of the most profound theological insights in American pop culture. Or that the death of Stringer Bell was a moment where the ability of the TV series The Wire to plumb the depths of the human condition was most on display. I like my piety with a little artistic license. “Tell all the truth,” as Emily Dickinson said, “but tell it slant.”
Sarah Arthur, who compiled the great new Lenten and Eastertide literary prayer guide, Between Midnight and Dawn, is a kindred spirit in this. She introduces her collection by comparing the movement from Lent to Easter with night to dawn and winter to spring, but don’t believe her. She’s got far more tender and terrifying territory to cover in this beautiful, bountiful book.
It is too much really, and therefore a relief that the cycle of liturgical seasons will come around again next year so that the riches herein can be explored at more leisure – particularly during Holy Week when there is a selection of poems and prose for each of the eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter. “It is nearly impossible to read a poem both quickly and well,” Arthur warns, and so she advises the reader to go slow, savoring the psalm and scripture passages she offers for each section, extending the readings over several days. Which means, of course, that you will not be able to finish the sections before it’s time to move on. ‘Always leave them wanting more,’ I suppose.
As in her previous collections, At the Still Point, (for Ordinary Time), and Light Upon Light, (for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany), Arthur has drawn upon the old and the new. She stretches back to St. Patrick’s Breastplate and the Anglo-Saxon “Dream of the Rood,” and offers liberal doses of contemporary poets from Scott Cairns to Luci Shaw. She has her favorites (George Herbert, John Donne, and Fyodor Dostoevsky to name a few) but her reach is broad and her selections wise.
What is most jarring is the contrast between Arthur’s introduction and epilogue and the content itself. She hints at the most conventional of understandings of the resurrection: “When it’s our time to physically enter the tomb of our own mortality, we know that if we have been buried with Christ, we will rise with Christ. We’ll ride on his coattails, so to speak.” (11). “As Eastertide turns to Ordinary Time, as spring turns to summer, let us be, to paraphrase novelist Katherine Paterson, ‘spies for hope’” (243).
These summations are too glib for what we encounter in this guide. Arthur collects her sections around themes that hint at genuine struggle and hard-won joy. The readings take us on “The Way of Negation” and “Secret Terrors,” before emerging into “The Place of Consolation” and “Undeserved Deliverance.” On this journey Amit Majmudar compares God’s absence to the tensed silence of a music chamber: “Have your hosannah, I prefer the hush./Check the acoustics in this empty hall./Not the faintest echo when you call.” On Holy Saturday, poet Emily Gibson shares the wonder of a baby born without a brain who gives up her grip “on a world she would never see or hear or feel to behold/something far more glorious, as I gazed/into her emptiness, waiting to be filled” (154). And in Eastertide the Iranian poet Said compares God to the animals “who watch us from afar/with their unadulterated hunger” (213).
Perhaps Arthur knows that we often have to be seduced into seeing the depths of the darkness, and thus she eases the way with a framework that looks like a traditional devotional book – opening prayer, scriptures, readings, personal prayer and reflection, closing prayer. But in those readings are the weight and wonder of the ages. This is explosive stuff Arthur has brought together – again, too much to be absorbed in the sittings of a single Lent and Easter. But for those who see God’s hand in the devastating beauty of art and human word, this guide is a balm and a window to a deeper experience of the season.
Alex Joyner is a United Methodist pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and the author, most recently, of A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine (Englewood Review of Books, 2014).