A Book of Minutes

I've just finished reading John Reeves' A Book of Hours (Eerdman's, 2001), and I must say that the title is something of a misnomer since I was able to read all of it in about 30 minutes. The title, obviously, is drawn from the Christian devotional tradition of the late medieval period, not the length of time one is expected to take to read the book, but in that sense the title is still something of a misnomer, since the only real similarity to medieval Hour books lies in the fact that there are sections that correspond, very roughly, to the various parts of the liturgical year. But even there the similarity is somewhat loose, since there is no part of the liturgical year that corresponds to "The Ministry", unless it's supposed to be the tempus per annum.

The poems are written in an informal style--free verse with little or no structure other than the occasional line-break coinciding with a sense break. In fact, the book reads very much like prose that's been typeset with very wide margins and no right-justification. I found some of the poems to be moving. One, called "Epiphany", cleverly juxtaposes articulate and well-crafted descriptions alongside the the image of "the as yet inarticulate Word", and the richness of this language is nicely evocative both of the richness of the gifts of the magi and of the promise of the manger. Another, called "Nunc Dimittis", does a marvelous job of capturing some of the mental anguish that must have accompanied the experiences of Mary and Joseph as they came to understand their son's significance.

For me, though, the book is marred by a rather pedestrian device. Many of the poems use the same imagery--the Holocaust--over and over again to indict the failure of Christians to be better witnesses against injustice in their own time. This is, indeed, a serious problem, but of course it is a problem for everyone, not just Christians, and one grows a little weary of being compared to SS men and Gestapo agents. And then there is this little canard, from a poem called "Prophecy":
He was not the first Jew
in history; nor the last,
led away, like a lamb,
to the Gentile slaughterhouse:
but ever since Golgotha,
such killings have multiplied
exponentially, with no end
in sight, and most of them
either perpetrated or instigated
by the Church: pogrom, holocaust,
genocide, all the labels
fit our smug failure
to intervene; we are, by that
measure, accessory to murder.
How is it then,
we ever had the effrontery
to call our era Christian?
Come now, Johnny, tell us how you really feel. This kind of thing, though I dare say sincerely felt, is nevertheless quite preposterous. At any rate, it's getting to be a little old fashioned. But where would poetry be without hyperbole?

Fortunately many of the poems are not marred by this kind of hack sentimentality. The poem called "Postlude" nicely contrasts the beauty of the liturgical season of Christmas with the crass and ugly "holiday season"; "Emergency Admitting" places the question of the miraculous into the context of a modern day emergency ward and the wounds and diseases one is likely to find there; "Maundy Thursday" is a nice meditative reflection on the purely sensory experience of the liturgy and its effects on the soul.

For a book of only 68 pages there is actually a surprising amount to think about here, and to reflect upon. It is a very personal meditation but, in the end, in spite of my qualms, I'm grateful he decided to share it with the rest of us.


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