If you love the spirituality of the English people, a new treat awaits you, courtesy of Paraclete Press (and SLG Press in the UK). A collection of essays by Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, has just been published, called Give Love and Receive the Kingdom: Essential People and Themes of English Spirituality.
Sr. Benedicta Ward teaches the history of Christian Spirituality at Oxford. She is a respected authority on figures as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Venerable Bede, and Anselm of Canterbury.
If you want to get a sense of Sr. Benedicta, here’s an evocative description from the memoir of one of her students, Christian musician/activist Vicky Beeching:
Walking underneath spring’s cloudless skies, I headed to my first tutorial with Sister Benedicta. She was known around the world as the leading translator of the writings of the desert fathers and mothers, a group of Christians who in the third century withdrew to the deserts of Egypt to seek God. When I arrived, my eyes scanned Sister Benedicta’s study. Her shelves were lined with books that looked older than I was. A few simple religious icons hung on the walls. Peace was tangible in the room and I felt my shoulders relax. I sensed she was a person who knew God deeply and welcomed the curious minds of her students; this was a safe place to ask questions.
Bonnie Thurston describes her work as encompassing “the incisive intellect of a scholar and the wise soul of a monastic.”
Give Love and Receive the Kingdom gathers together nine of Sr. Benedicta’s essays, arranged in such a way to allow them to function as an idiosyncratic survey of English Christian spirituality. The book makes no claim to be comprehensive or systematic in the treatment of this topic: it is merely a look at a rich history through the eyes of one scholar-practitioner. So, as might be expected, Sr. Benedicta’s favorite subjects show up repeatedly: with two essays devoted to Bede and another two to Anselm.
But the book also invites the reader to look at English spirituality from a new and perhaps “road less traveled” perspective. Some of the figures one might normally expect to see featured in a book on English spirituality — Walter Hilton, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, C. S. Lewis, Evelyn Underhill — are nowhere to be found in this volume. Instead, Sr. Benedicta invites us to consider some of the more unsung heroes of the English tradition: St. Cuthbert, Lancelot Andrews, Jeremy Taylor. One essay invites us into the world of twelfth century hermits. Julian of Norwich is considered alongside St. Anselm. Perhaps befitting for a book on English spirituality, Sr. Benedicta traces the roots of her topic to the Anglo-Saxons rather than the more trendy Celts.
Sr. Benedicta is a scholar and so her writing is erudite, but always accessible. Her essay on Julian and Anselm, for example, offers insight not only in how each author sought to put their faith into words, but also how — divided by several centuries and my different life circumstances — the twelfth century theologian and the fourteenth century mystic explore surprisingly similar terrain in their writing. In this concise essay, Sr. Benedicta reaffirms one of the most ancient (and important) principles of Christian thought: that a true theologian is a person of prayer, and a true person of prayer is a theologian.
As usual, Paraclete has created a beautiful book that is a delight to behold. If you don’t want to pay for the hardcover, the Kindle edition costs only about half as much.
I know that I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking about English spirituality as dominated by four figures: Julian, The Cloud author, Underhill, and Lewis. This book is a delightful reminder that there is so much more to the story of the English people’s response to God.