Memoir and the Beautiful Sentence: Lenten Season Thoughts

My Lenten season reading this year includes Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s extended meditation on the prayer of St. Patrick. I have written about Marilyn in previous blogs and have read several books of her poetry.  My appreciation continues to grow for her spiritual and literary wisdom as I read more of her work.

Christ, My Companion is not a memoir, though it includes fascinating glimpses of the author’s life story.  Illuminating the prayer, one small piece at a time, Marilyn guides us from beginning to end.

Here is the famous “breastplate prayer” of St. Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, and in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre loves the play of language.  Her gorgeous book of poems about Vincent Van Gogh’s famous last paintings, The Color of Light, celebrates the paintings’ transformation of solid objects into forces of energy–or as she puts it, nouns into into verbs.

In Christ, My Companion, Marilyn employs the same grammatical logic she demonstrates in her poetry to the contemplation of another part of speech–the lowly preposition.  Each section of the 13-part prayer gets its own chapter.  Prepositions–with, within, behind, before, beside, to, beneath, above, in–change in each chapter, even if no other words change.  The result is a prism or finely-cut diamond in each case with Christ at the head of the sentence and the personal pronoun “me” at the end.

What connects Christ and me?  McEntyre shows us the ways by exploring angle, point of view, and position of the all-encompassing spirit of God.  When Christ is above, we catch a memoir glimpse of the author hustled out of doors when she was depressed:  “I went outside and looked up, through the branches of high trees, to the light that suddenly seemed like a constant stream of blessing.  I began to sit in my window seat evenings and watch the stars come out.”  The divine energy from above is not just a tonic to depression, however.  Within this chapter lie reflections on modern physics, hymn texts, the Nicene Creed, and Denise Levertov’s “Ascension.”

Marilyn brings us down to earth like a parachutist, then rises again with these words:  “Relinquishment is the cost of lifting up our hearts.  Only letting go, at least momentarily consenting to leave behind the things that bind us to this sticky, earthy life, will lighten us enough to be lifted up into a new plane of encounter with God, awareness of the life of the Spirit, fellowship with the communion of saints, hope of heaven.”

Even though this book is not a memoir, it offers testimony to a life immersed in spirit and word.  Only someone with the rhythm of King James English in her blood, a prayer book in her hand, and a heap o’ livin’ in her own life could have crafted sentence upon sentence of such shimmering praise-filled prose.

Shirley Showalter

4 Comments

  1. Chelsea on March 15, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Very timely with Saint Patrick. Looking forward to hearing more about your Lenten reading!

  2. shirleyhs on March 16, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I'm afraid the Lenten reading list is limited pretty much to daily meditations from Goshen College (http://blog.goshen.edu/devotions/), the Lenten guide from our church, and the book above.

  3. shirleyhs on March 17, 2009 at 12:20 am

    I'm afraid the Lenten reading list is limited pretty much to daily meditations from Goshen College (http://blog.goshen.edu/devotions/), the Lenten guide from our church, and the book above.

  4. […] few weeks ago, I began to notice something.  One post I wrote about Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s book included the phrase “beautiful sentences” in the title.  That post has risen to near […]

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