There are books that seem to appear in one’s life when they are most needed. So it was with Word by Word by Marilyn McEntyre. In the midst of packing up boxes for a move across state lines, my reading McEntyre’s thoughtful devotional served as a little lifeline of peace and profundity in the midst of the chaos that accompanies ending a chapter of life and beginning anew.
In Word by Word, McEntyre reflects on the richness of words—15 words to be exact. She invites the reader on a journey that involves patience and discipline, especially for those of us who like to fly through a book so we can be on to the next great read.
In this book, however, we are asked to “dwell with and savor” these 15 words, spending a week with each one. McEntyre drew on two spiritual practices in the formation of this devotional: lectio divina, where a reader is asked to read, reflect, pray, and contemplate a specific Scriptural passage or text, and centering prayer, where the reader is asked to dwell in silence, letting the word being studied focus the mind so that we “may become newly aware of divine presence” (viii).
As the reader may notice and as McEnytre points out in the introduction, the words chosen are all verbs. She explains that this was not her intention but acknowledges that verbs are a good place to start. “They’re the fulcrum of every sentence, and the keys to many kinds of seeking” (ix). McEntyre’s reason for writing this book, and her invitation to the reader, is as simple as it is beautiful: that we will realize “how words may become little fountains of grace. How a single word may become, for a time, ‘equipment for living.’ How a single word may open wide wakes of meaning and feeling. How a single word may, if you hold it for a while, become a prayer” (x).
The reader begins with the word listen, spending seven days exploring it from different angles, reflecting on its meaning, and dwelling in its purpose and significance in our lives. Each daily reflection on that week’s word is short—a mere one to two pages—but each is packed with enough wisdom and thoughtful discussion to carry readers through the day and leave them ready for the next morning’s morsel.
From listen, the reader moves on to receive, and then there is enjoy, let go, watch, accept, resist, allow, be still, follow, rejoice, ask, dare, leave, and welcome.
I found that I immediately gravitated toward certain words over others. For instance, listen holds great meaning for me as someone who is often quiet, introverted, and generally the last to speak in social situations, if I speak at all. On the other hand, as someone uncomfortable with receiving gifts (or guidance), the word receive was more difficult to connect with. I found great meaning, however, in the words that instantly resonated with me as well as those that gave me pause. Exploring and dwelling on each word a little more each day allowed me to see the reasons behind my initial reactions and form a new appreciation for each of these impactful little verbs.
I also appreciated the care with which McEntyre arranged the words for reflection. It seemed to me that each word subtly built on the one before while forging a path toward the one to come. I especially enjoyed that the last two words for study were leave followed by welcome. Perhaps it was because I was, and am, in the midst of my own life transition, but leaving behind what is known, and welcoming what is unknown, held a special significance for me during this specific time in my life.
Word by Word was an unexpected gift during life’s latest transition, and as McEntyre observes with the word receive, “Every gift changes something—the shape of the day, the balance of a relationship, or just the space available on a shelf or in a drawer. To receive it is to accept that shift, slight or dramatic, and to make an adjustment” (18).
As I make physical adjustments in my new living space, arranging and rearranging furniture to be just so, placing books in their proper order—and adding this newfound treasure—I can feel McEntyre’s 15 mighty verbs making their own adjustments, too. They are settling in, burrowing deep into my mind and heart with their simple truths and gentle guidance.
Alisa Williams is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org. This review originally appeared on the Englewood Review of Books and is reprinted here with permission.
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