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Don’t overlook literature greats for Lent: Consider these 8

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Joseph Pearce - published on 02/27/24

From "Beowulf" to "The Man Who was Thursday," many of the greatest literary works are awash with themes that are at the heart of our Lenten journey.

The great works of literature might not be what first spring to mind when we think of spiritual reading for Lent. And yet many of the greatest literary works are awash with themes that are at the heart of our Lenten journey. Let’s take a lightning tour through some of these great works to explore the Lenten themes to be found in their pages.

Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, probably written by a Benedictine monk, shows the spiritual warrior battling with demonic power. We discover that even the most powerful warrior is powerless against evil without the help of the supernatural assistance which theologians call grace. This is symbolized by the miraculous gift of a supernaturally empowered sword. Later in the epic, when Beowulf faces the dragon in mortal combat, numerical signifiers indicate parallels between the warrior’s fight to the death and Christ’s fight to the death in His Passion.

Dante finds himself trapped in the dark wood of sin on Holy Thursday and descends into hell on Good Friday. He emerges into the light of the sun (and Son) at the foot of Mount Purgatory on Easter Sunday morning.

The great Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, offers a deeply mystical meditation on the mystery of suffering in his poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” The poem relates the tragedy of a ship that is wrecked in a blizzard off the coast of England and focuses on the witness of five Franciscan sisters who perish. Meditating on each of the thirty-five stanzas of the poem, one per day, constitutes a Lenten retreat in itself.

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde goes to the heart of suffering by contemplating the broken heart itself: “But God’s eternal laws are kind and break the heart of stone … for how else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in.”

Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who was Thursday, delves and dives deep into the Christian mystery of suffering by showing that the peace of God can only ultimately be found in the suffering of Christ.

T. S. Eliot’s groundbreaking poems, “The Waste Land” and “Ash Wednesday”, takes us on a purgatorial journey through the desert of modernity, showing us heaps of broken images on a pilgrimage towards the peace that comes with spiritual conversion.

Evelyn Waugh’s classic Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, takes us on a spiritual journey from sin to crucifixion to resurrection, symbolized by the first part of the novel ending allegorically on Good Friday and the novel itself climaxing allegorically on Easter Sunday.

Far from literature being a distraction during Lent, it can take us by the hand and be our guide through the desert. It is the voice of beauty singing in the wilderness.

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BooksLentSpiritual Life
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