Where the Eye Alights: Phrases for the Forty Days of Lent
Occasionally, a book’s design makes it a beautiful thing unto itself, regardless of the content inside. Something special happens, then, when the words inside exceed the beauty of the design. The book becomes a treasure. Marilyn McEntyre’s new collection of Lenten meditations Where the Eye Alights is such a book.
The design is striking in its simplicity. It’s smaller size fits nicely in a hand, it is hard bound, the cover art is spare and lovely, and even the inclusion (and here I am sure I’m using the technical term) of one of those fabric thingies often sewn into the bindings of Bibles that allow you to keep your place, adds up to a beautiful whole.
The design beautifully complements the content. Marilyn McEntyre is a gifted and insightful spiritual writer, and her talents are on full display in this latest collection of devotional meditations. Perhaps best known for her book on the stewardship of language, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, McEntyre is the author of over a dozen books, including previous volumes of meditations Word by Word (winner of the 2015 Christianity Today book award in Spirituality), Adverbs for Advent, What’s in a Phrase, and When Poets Pray.
The phrases in this collection come from varied sources including hymns, poems, scripture, and liturgies. There is a kinship to lectio divina—readers are invited to slow down and contemplate, to pause where word combinations give us pause. “Lent,” McEntyre writes in the preface, “Is a time of permission.” That sounds counterintuitive: isn’t Lent a season of sacrifice and restraint? McEntyre maintains that since we rarely give ourselves time to sit still, meditate, and pray, Lent comes as a gift, an invitation from the liturgical year to a more spacious and leisurely way of being.
McEntyre’s sources of inspiration are varied—she contemplates the phrase “We’ll Pass it on to You,” from the musical Hamilton, “Every Riven Thing,” from the contemporary poet Christian Wiman, and “Love in the Open Hand,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. There are many poetic allusions, from moderns such as Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver to Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, and Christina Rossetti. There are moments of humor: quoting G.K. Chesterton, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” but mostly the book contains wisdom. Being told on Ash Wednesday that the “dust” we come from and return to is stardust and the same material from which diamonds are made lends a new perspective, as does thinking about McEntyre’s answer to a challenge to write a six-word autobiography: “Eat the manna. More will come.”
I heard a quote the other day, from Billy Collins, talking about the difference between novelists and poets. Novelists are like houseguests; they move in for a week or three. In comparison, poets just appear, open a door, pop in, say something about life or death, shut the door, and just as quickly disappear. But what about someone like McEntyre and her book of meditations? Both elements are there. You digest her work in small bites, just a couple of pages a day, but you do it for a season. In this case, you do it for 40 days (46 to be exact, but the book is laid out so the reader skips Sundays. The daily commitment is like reading a poem but the cumulative effect is like a novel. A good devotional, like this one, shapes and forms gently and thoughtfully. It’s a delightful way to journey through Lent.