Fr Rob Esdaile, Song of Life and Death

  • Fr Rob Esdaile

The Marian Antiphon of Francis Bernardone, by Sr Ruth Agnes Evans, Tau Publishing, Phoenix (Arizona), 2017

It was agreed this Spring by our local Churches Together grouping that each constituent church would represent three of the Stations of the Cross during Holy Week, thus allowing people to church-crawl their way down the Via Dolorosa without leaving our leafy suburb. To represent the Fourth Station, Jesus Meets His Mother, I created a condemned-cell in our old baptistery (which, appropriately, has barred gates at its entrance). Inside, pilgrims were invited to sit before an icon of the Holy Family (hung beneath a picture of Emperor Tiberius and a list of prison regulations) and to imagine Mary meeting her son for the last time. This is surely how that Station would play out in the 21st century in most Capital Jurisdictions - a hurried farewell behind prison walls before his execution in some aseptic air-conditioned 'death house', leaving Mary still 'pondering all these things' in her broken heart after nearly half-a-century of parenting and following her son.

Sr Ruth Evans is very familiar with the realities of the Death Penalty in the United States and elsewhere, having campaigned and written on the subject for much of her adult life. What is unusual is that she got involved in this work while herself living in a (monastic) cell. A Cambridge graduate in English Literature, she entered a Poor Clare Convent in her mid-20s and remained there until its community had so dwindled that closure became inevitable. This book is the fruit of her Franciscan studies (and, perhaps, of that bereavement, too), taking the form of a commentary and reflection on St Francis' Office of the Passion.

The saint 'composed' fifteen psalms by abstracting verses from the Old Testament, and the first six of these accompany Jesus on his way to Calvary. It is these texts (each of them succeeded by the same simple Marian antiphon) which Sr Ruth uses as the basis for her work. We follow Jesus through the 24 hours leading to his crucifixion, from 'Gethsemane' to 'Sleep', and then, in a seventh psalm, are invited to contemplate his Resurrection. After each canticle the Marian refrain returns, but its meaning changes from one scene to the next as the author ponders Mary's state of heart. And sandwiched between the main text and this final reflection each time there comes a 'Comment' on the realities of contemporary death row - sometimes detailing circumstances every bit as harrowing as any in Christ's Passion.

There is an air of cloistered quiet about this book, even though it is now some years since Sr Ruth left her Franciscan enclosure. That is the work's power: an understated clarity of tone, of faith and of indignation at the indignities and injustices heaped on the condemned. To call it 'unworldly' is not a criticism. Yet it may perplex and even annoy for that very reason. It is a 'slow burn' read, a meditation dependent on tranquillity for its effect. Il Poverello's text is not put under the lit-crit microscope; and the historian's reserve about what can be known (whether about Calvary or about how the principal actors might have felt) is also largely absent. Nor is it a primer on penal reform.

Rather it is a pilgrimage, a seeing through the eyes of Brother Francis of the suffering of his Master; and a grasping with a contemplative heart of Christ mocked, condemned and crucified in the guilty (and the innocent) on death row. Sr. Ruth quotes a written description handed by a warder, as a sickening joke, to Larry Lonchair just before he was to be strapped into 'Ol' Sparky' in the Georgia death house: "When the executioner throws the switch that sends the electric current through the body, the prisoner cringes from torture, his flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking." Not a bone of his body shall be broken in this American Nightmare (or in the medicalised 'lethal injection' version of the ritual), but Christ gets crucified nonetheless.

The Marian Antiphon of Francis Bernardone, by Sr Ruth Agnes Evans, Tau Publishing, Phoenix (Arizona), 2017. £14 (Order in the UK from: [email protected]; elsewhere from or:

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