Book Review: Place everything in God’s hands
Place everything in God’s hands
Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World by Sally Read, Gracewing, 150pp, £12.99 reviewed by Pia Matthews
Sally Read wrote her book Annunciation: A Call to Faith in a Broken World as a guide for her daughter Flo, initially to give reason for holding to faith in God and the Church in the face of an overwhelmingly secular world. The book is structured around the Annunciation, and the chapters follow the gospel passage: as the angel came to Mary and how God comes to us; ‘Do not be afraid’ and how faith conquers anxieties; ‘The handmaid of the Lord’ and the identity and vocation of each person; ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ and the need to be still to listen to God; finally, the angel left, and a life sometimes of suffering but always of prayer.
The choices offered to Mary
Such a structural description of this little book does not do it justice. The book is not simply a mother’s guide or a work of good advice, though it does include these elements. Near the end of the book Read says that her writing is a way of praying. The book is a deep meditation on God, on Read’s relationship with God and her daughter, and also handing her daughter to God. She reflects on the Annunciation because, she says, every moment is like the choices offered to Mary: to be open to God’s coming and be still in his presence; to get to know him; to trust in him and to enter into a deeper relationship with him. Read may write as a mother to her daughter, but the reflections in the book are for everyone since everything that Mary went through is echoed in the life of every believer.
Read uses her own experience not only as an expatriate mother in Italy with a young child, but also as a former psychiatric nurse. Her experience as a convert demonstrates a relationship with faith and the Church that may seem unfamiliar to cradle Catholics. All is put together through her experience as a poet, and the style of this book is very lyrical.
Difficulties in the world today
Read identifies some of the major difficulties in the world today: from perhaps her experience as a convert she notes that people are so familiar with the concept of God that they forget to love, honour and worship him or even believe in him. This, she says, is the downfall of the modern world, and indeed she speaks about the hopelessness of those who have no faith to fall back on. She comments on the tragedy of fractured families, of the abandonment of virtues like chastity, of the problems of depression, anxiety and worry, of modern society’s overwhelming aim to avoid suffering and pain.
A cathedral of the heart
Read reminds people that there is a seed of love and hope in every person simply by virtue of being human. As she explains
with vivid imagery, each person has a ‘cathedral of the heart’ that is designed for God and cries out with a yearning to be filled with love. The immensity of the heart can only be filled by God, however fulfilling we think are human relationships. Certainly the gift of faith and to whom it is given is complex, and Read does not have an easy answer. Read says that she and her friends have prayed for the conversion of people they know. She also observes with some sadness the lack of faith in the lives of some of her own relatives who were unable to place their cares and trust in God. However, Read is also convinced that her own conversion story is a story for everyone, that Christ is always with us on our journey.
Like gentle rain
Perhaps here the beginning of the Annunciation account is relevant: the angel comes to an unsuspecting Mary, yet Mary was already prepared through her own faith in the promises of God to Israel. Read explains that, in the opposite way of the ‘sledgehammer proclamations’ of social media, God comes to people in a way that is best for them, like gentle rain. She also notes that God chooses to speak to a person through others in order to reach us, and she gives the example of Julian of Norwich as well as more modern examples of a Sardinian priest she knew, and a mother who lost her infant children and died of cancer. Perhaps a reminder of the vocation of every person to evangelisation. Read’s significant point, for a world that tends to focus on individualism and individual faith and spirituality, is that we are not alone in our relationship with God. We are connected to others and to the past, notably to Mary.
For those who already have faith, Read’s motherly advice comes to the fore: faith keeps us in touch with what is real; faith helps us accept who we are and who God wants us to be. Faith does not erase suffering, but faith leads us through it get to know God. We can grow in faith through Adoration, being with him, praying the scriptures, taking advantage of the sacraments that are lampposts on our way. All of these will help to build the city of God within us.
A double heart
Unlike the secular world, Read recognises that there will always be pain and suffering, yet this is not a threat to faith. She refers here to Paul VI’s saying that we each have a double heart, one natural and one supernatural that is essential for sanctity, thus suffering here does not cancel out the bliss in us that God is with us. And further advice from one who clearly has a rich prayer life: when it seems God is distant, remember his gaze; ‘prayer is practising the knowledge of God’s eyes upon you’; this gaze needs to take root in us and we must gently share it in a world that ‘denies his eyes’.
The powerful depth of faith that Read clearly has may prove an obstacle for some: as Read reports her daughter saying, ‘But I don’t love Christ like you do’. Indeed it may take a poet to recognise those moments of prayer or points in life when ‘the veil between us and God is at its thinnest’. Nevertheless the message of this beautifully reflective book is also clear: place everything in God’s hands and never think that there is not enough grace.
Dr. Pia Matthews lectures at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and St John’s Seminary, Wonersh.