Pondering stories in the Church calendar year

Pilgrim Year
Author: Steve Bell
Publisher: Novalis (www.novalis.ca)

Canadian Steve Bell brings the same sensibilities found in his music to his writing: truth, wisdom, beauty, maturity, creativity, empathy, compassion and challenge. He writes like a skillful poet (Psalm 45:1). Speaking of poetry, readers will find more than a little here. In addition to Bell’s song lyrics, his friend Malcolm Guite’s poems and thoughts frequently add to the reflections.

For those who struggle with deciphering modern poetry, don’t hesitate to give this a try. Though there is always a degree of mystery, I find Guite and Bell’s prose on the Christian life more accessible than some of what I have read in Image for example, which covers broader subject matter.

In a recent Twitter post, Ginny Owens, another singer/songwriter wrote, “Each of us has the powerful gift of story. Whether we choose to tell our stories through music or conversation, we must tell them, knowing that, in doing so, the ‘teller’ and the ‘hearer’ will both be changed.” This applies to the stories that have been entrusted to the Church. Bell writes,

The Church tells and retells her sacred stories year after year, much as a mother to her children who ask for the same stories night after night. And like any good child’s tale, they continue to reward well into adulthood. Each time we rehearse and reharrow these stories, we unearth something new precisely because there is so much more to receive, but also because our capacity to receive has deepened (from the Introduction).

It’s not just that the Church needs to tell its stories, it needs to be continually reminded of them. Following the church calendar helps the Church to repeat the gospel and the related stories to itself. Individual members never get beyond the need for the application of the good news in their own lives.

Bell comes from a Baptist background, which would seem to make him an unlikely guide but this in particular enables him to gently lead others into the riches that he has found. For those like myself and Bell who have not been part of traditions that follow the calendar year, this is an excellent introduction.

Bell does not consider himself an expert but a continual learner. Even so, the same depth found in his music, is evident here. There is something for everyone no matter what stage of development they find themselves.

The content consists of seven small easy-to-read books, each one covering a different season beginning with Advent and ending with Ordinary Time. This is not a daily devotional with a reading for each day of the year. There are readings for some days when it coincides with a particular day remembering an important event or person. There is a reading, for example, on February 14th to celebrate The Feast of Saint Valentine.

When researching for the Advent season Bell made a remarkable discovery:

I was surprised at the themes present in the ancient writings. Traditionally, Advent was not the giddy season of festive parties and garish décor we have come to know. The more rooted Advent tradition was a preparation for the return of Christ, not a mere preparation for Christmas celebrations. Indeed, there was an element of festive joy, but it was also a sober season (almost Lent-ish) that began with sustained attention to our deepest longings and the assumptions, valid or vain, which those longings might indicate. It was a time of penitent reflection about the many inordinate attachments and affections we have given ourselves to – those ill-discerned commitments that prevent us from fully attaching to Christ (16-17).

The attention paid through remembering is helpful in recognizing inordinate attachments and affections so that pilgrims like Bell and his readers can trod better paths, becoming more attune to the working of the Spirit. The focus on different aspects of the Christian life is one of the rewards.

I like that the Christmas book celebrates 12 days instead of one. Again, this doesn’t mean there are readings for 12 dates on the calendar. There may be a few more but some have no particular day. The prolonged celebration is an illustration of how following the calendar can make the season more enriching. The readings here and elsewhere are a delight not a burden.

A highlight is the author’s expertise in providing poetry and songs, as well as quotations, to fit the content. The readings end with a poem, often by Guite, and/or song lyrics from Bell with a link for listening to the song. A two-disc companion CD can be purchased along with the boxed set. The seven volumes are also available individually.

As a long time listener of Bell’s music, reading his reflections and how they relate to specific compositions gave me greater insight into what he sings about. If you like Bell’s music, this is worth getting. Those not familiar with his music should find that it complements his prose. These products reward repeated reading and listening.

As I write this is the season of Ordinary Time, the longest part of the calendar. This is where I started, and one of my joys was finding chapters on Clare of Assisi and Saint Francis, who are remembered on August 11th and October 4th respectively. Now is a good time to purchase this series before the onset of Advent, which begins the new calendar year. Readers who start in Ordinary Time as I did will most likely enjoy it as a welcoming introduction to the series.

Michael Dalton