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Posts Tagged ‘faith’

First, I am almost always reading a book related to spiritual formation, and I usually don’t review them here. I guess because I feel spiritual formation is personal, and what I read may not be what other readers need or want, but also because some of what I read may be of limited interest, like a book about the history of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC) or about the Nicene Creed. If I think the book might be of wider interest (like I Told My Soul to Sing, which I recently reviewed) then I make an exception to this.

During Holy Week (for my non-Christian readers, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) this year I read Jesus: the Human Face of God by Jay Parini which I actually got at an SCHC chapter meeting, on a table of books someone was giving away. It’s a short book and I think it would be interesting to people curious about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure as well as to Christians. Parini lets readers know where he stands right in the first sentence of the preface: “This is biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time.”

Parini is a believer and also an academic and a creative writer. He draws on scripture and centuries of scholarship but also notes that “considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas comes from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.” He contextualizes Jesus’s life as a devout Jewish man in ancient Palestine and as the Christ of the gospels (and Parini doesn’t limit himself to the canonical gospels). He takes us through the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, using both scripture and history to shed light on the well known events and to remind readers that for Parini and many others, “the historicity of his life is less important that the meaning of the story itself.”

At the end of the book, Parini takes us on a tour of Jesus scholarship, through the many attempts to determine the veracity of Bible translations, archaeological evidence, and theological soundness. I got the sense he is somewhat amused by these attempts to put God in a box, so to speak. Parini is an Episcopalian (although he notes he grew up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister), and for me, his work is very Anglican, in that he acknowledges the importance of the “three legged stool” (Richard Hooker‘s contention that scripture, tradition and reason inform our faith).

I love Parini’s sense that Jesus “came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways” and that Jesus’s teaching has “visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways.” And I also love his gentle but very sensible reminder that it is unsurprising that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the transformative message of Jesus, and the idea that God came into the world in Jesus “bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Parini says this is “difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence” — and that’s ok.

Because Parini notes Jesus didn’t ask us to get it. He asked very little. Love one another. Follow him. Remember him together around a simple meal of bread and wine. And, “Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart — metanoia — a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone — to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. The kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.”

Parini says at the outset he’s written a biography, and like any good biographer he helps readers know the subject but also know why the subject matters. For Parini, it matters because of what he coins “the gradually realizing kingdom of God — a process of transformation, like that of an underdeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.” A beautiful, illuminating book, even for someone who thinks they already know the story of Jesus.

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I’ve had I told my soul to sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson by Kristin LeMay for some time; I bought it during some kind of special Paraclete Press was running a few years back. For some reason, I had pulled it out and set it on the teetering pile of books on an end table to remind myself that I wanted to read it. I’m on a committee to revise the reading/resource list for discerners in The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and it occurred to me this book would be an interesting addition.

And I was looking for a Lent book. Flipping through it, I thought this seemed like a good choice. I started it, reading here and there from it, around Ash Wednesday, and as you know, read a few other things in that time. Sometimes I keep “spiritual reading” for the weekend, when I have more time and am less apt to be reading myself to sleep. But I’ve found myself dipping into it on weeknights as well.

And then I realized, in the second week of Lent, that Kristin LeMay is also recording conversations with the brothers of SSJE, who she mentions often in I told my soul to sing, this Lent: you can find the videos on the Brothers’ YouTube page (it’s the Come, Pray series). I realized I pulled the book off my shelf for a reason!

LeMay is a warm and intelligent guide to Dickinson’s work, and goes into great detail in analyzing poems. I admit to having no more than a survey course understanding of her work. More recently, I’ve tried to visit her house in Amherst twice and both times arrived when it was closed. Like many people, I’d heard that she was a sort of recluse, seeing only family (not entirely accurate) and that she was not religious. And that her poems were a little mysterious.

LeMay sets readers straight on the popular misconceptions and opens up the poems. And she makes the case, poem by poem, theme by theme, that Emily ( as LeMay calls her), had profound experiences of God in her life and wrote copiously about God.

For example, in the section on prayer, LeMay explains how Emily wrote this poem:

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be —

But how can that stupendous come

Which never went away?

LeMay muses that this poem addresses her own sense that we don’t need to “find” God but rather, become aware that God is present. She writes, “Emily’s poem records precisely such a dawning of awareness. The poem is actually crafted out of two distinct couplets, each one penciled on a separate scrap of paper. The two scraps become a poem only through the presence of a pin, which literally holds the two thoughts together. . . . Emily pinned the poem together when she knew, at last, and for herself, that God cannot come because God never goes away.”

I appreciate LeMay’s own “wrestling” with the Emily’s poems and letters as well as with her own faith. She weaves the story of her own seeking and doubt into the story of Emily. If you’ve found it hard to pray, or felt your faith wax and wane, or wondered about immortality, or felt God’s presence in some beautiful music or even birdsong, there is something here for you.

It’s a lovely book, one to read slowly. And yes, it makes me want to watch Dickinson on Apple TV. And read more of Emily’s writing. And someday, get back to the house when it’s open!

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Over the summer I read Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel about the legacy of slavery that ranges over several generations. Last night I finished her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, which is the story of one family, and focuses mainly on one character, Gifty, and to a lesser extent her older brother Nana and their parents. Much of the story is told through Gifty’s recollections of her childhood, and snippets of the the diary she kept. Because it’s a novel that takes place in Gifty’s thoughts, it isn’t a narrative tale; although Gifty eventually fills in much of her life’s story, her thoughts, like anyone’s, jump around.

As in Homegoing (and in Gyasi’s own life), Gifty’s family story begins in Ghana. But the book opens with Gifty’s childhood visit to Ghana to stay with her aunt. Even though we eventually learn that there is so much more to her mother, Gifty tells us in the first sentence, “Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-size bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student.”

Gifty then recalls what led to the overpowering depression her mother experienced, the losses she faced, the ways America did not live up to the dreams her mother had when she entered a lottery to emigrate, causing her father, embarrassed and unsettled by racism and poverty, to visit Ghana and never return. “For a long time, most of my life, in fact, it had been just me and her, but this pairing was unnatural. She knew it and I knew it, and we both tried to ignore what we knew to be true – there used to be four of us, then three, two.”

Gifty’s athletic brother Nana, several years older than she is, is the next to go, when he gets hooked on OxyContin after an injury and cannot overcome his addiction. His overdose changes Gifty’s life even more tangibly than her father’s abandonment. Always an achiever, a child who yearns to be good by her mother’s and her evangelical church’s standards, she finds solace in math and science because of their certainty. As a graduate student, she has returned to a less certain world. What makes the brain work as it does? How much is science and how much is will? And what can science do to shape that will? Her experiments with mice and pleasure-seeking regions of the brain, she hopes, will prevent other little girls’ brothers from dying of an overdose, but shame and fear of being taken less seriously prevent her from sharing.

Gifty recalls,

“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says,”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Here is separation. Your heart, the part of you that feels. Your mind, the part of you that thinks. Your soul, the part of you that is. I almost never hear neuroscientists speak about the soul. Because of our work, we are often given to thinking about that part of humans that is the vital, inexplicable essence of ourselves, as the workings of our brains . . . . There is no separation. Our brains are our hearts that feel and our minds that think and our souls that are.”

Her work, she sees, is the same thing she was concerned with as a child: how much control we have over ourselves. “I am looking for new names for old feelings,” Gifty thinks. But her heart, in childhood and in adulthood, is the last thing she thinks about; it’s almost as if the trauma of her shattered family, compounded by racism’s psychological and economic tolls, piles up like bricks around Gifty’s heart. But the work she is doing gives her a kind of peace from the tensions of heart and mind, soul peace:

“The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I’m aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we.”

This deep thinking about mind and soul, neuroscience and faith, permeate Gifty’s story and make her who she is. And make this novel so much more than just the story of an immigrant family. It’s also beautiful — Gyasi’s writing is just a pleasure to read.

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I picked up The Life You Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie, at the Five Colleges Book Sale two springs ago. This fall after reading The Seven Storey Mountain,  it struck me as time to dig into it. Elie describes the work of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and and Walker Percy, and their lives as thinkers and writers, as one “narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”  He describes pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in the light of a story . . . . The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.”

It’s taken me a month (in part because I’ve had less time to read) to get through this book but I’m glad to have read it. The slow going is because it’s a dense mix of criticism, biography, and exposition of the literary philosophy and faith of these four writers. The way their lives intersected is fascinating, as is the ways their work addresses belief by inviting readers into their experiences, imagined or real. Elie’s thorough exploration of what each of the four were trying to say about God and about the human capacity to find God is both deeply encouraging and somewhat sad, given the fact that he concludes, “We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places.”

It’s going to take a while to digest this book, and it’s left me with an urge to read more — more Merton, more of O’Connor’s stories and essays, to explore Dorothy Day’s writing which I am not familiar with, to read more than The Moviegoer, which is all I’ve read of Percy’s work, and to revisit some of what these writers read as well, which Elie goes into in depth. But my initial thought is that they are still being discussed and written about and studied and examined (Elie himself just wrote about The Moviegoer again in the New Yorker this year), because they each in their way offer paths for readers to follow, questions to ask, and entry points to engage with the one true faith — faith in man’s potential to encounter belief on man’s terms and in doing so, find God.

If that sounds heretical — obviously the phrase “the one true faith” recalls very deliberately the Roman Catholic faith that Day, Merton, O’Connor, and Percy shared — think about the nature of faith. It’s relational. You can’t have faith if there is no God to seek and you can’t have faith if there are no people to find God. These four writers took an ancient and still in their time very traditional and mediated religious belief, one that required people for the most part of know God through the hierarchy of the church with its patriarchy and its prescriptions for how ordinary people should act and think and relate to God and they blew it wide open. Day said that we could know God through radical love for each other, particularly the poor. Merton said we could know God by using our own minds, through contemplation. Percy and O’Connor both said we could know God by entering another’s story, and viewing it from inside but through the lens of our own understanding as well. Merton and Day felt this as well, and wrote to each other about the fiction they read.

All four of them said we could know God by living, and reflecting on our experiences, seeking and trying to understand. I don’t think that has changed, even if fewer people may put it that way today. Even in a world where “the Church” is worthy of our skepticism — whether the Catholic church for its abuse and coverup, or the Evangelical church which claims to promote life while embracing policies that destroy lives — most people I know are still trying to seek and understand, even if they aren’t necessarily naming what they seek “God.”

Anyway, whether you’re interested in faith or social movements, fiction or history, culture or criticism, this is a thought provoking and substantial read.

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Now you know what has taken me so long to post — The Seven Storey Mountain: an Autobiography of Faith is a dense 462 pages. Thomas Merton is challenging to read, in my experience, but I had only tried to read his later work on nonviolence. He was a brilliant writer and scholar, and I didn’t realize until I read The Seven Storey Mountain that he was also probably good company.

In fact, he led what could be characterized as a “charmed life” when he was young, although he suffered the loss of his mother when he was a boy and his father when he was still a very young man. His family was well off enough that his material wants, education, travel, etc. were well provided for. But I wondered as I read if his lack of stability — his artist father moved him around a good bit — and the early deaths of his parents, especially his mother, might have led both to his endless pursuit of fun as a young man and his endless pursuit of God later on.

That’s an oversimplification, of course. But Merton alludes to a fair bit of carousing, and also to several times in his life when he was struck by what he refers to as “supernatural” sensations that bring him a great sense of peace. When he finally feels called to convert to Catholicism, he finds, that he is being called to be closer to God: “For now I had entered into the everlasting movement of that gravitation which is the very life and spirit of God: God’s own gravitation towards the depth of His own infinite nature, His goodness without end. And God, that center Who is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere, finding me, through incorporation with Christ, incorporated into this immense and tremendous gravitational movement which is love, which is the Holy Spirit, loved me.”

Merton is pulled in, although he continues to carouse and overwork and struggle to find out what he should do, and all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war (WWII). As he struggles to determine his path and discusses the coming war, Merton begins to consider that maybe he should be a priest. When he starts thinking he has a vocation, Merton finds even greater peace: “The life of grace had at last, it seemed, become constant, permanent. Weak and without strength as I was, I was nevertheless walking in the way that was liberty and life.”

In a way it’s comforting reading about his struggles — even as he is circling slowly closer to the life he’s called to, he does silly things (one New Year’s Eve he for some reason, while drunk, throws a can of pineapple juice at a light post, for example), loses his way, feels inadequate, wanders from opportunity to opportunity, and struggles to understand what he will become. And this is Thomas Merton, who we modern readers know will become one of the most prominent and influential writers of the 20th century, a person whose conscience fueled writing about civil rights and war, and whose deeply convicted spiritual writing, has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Seven Storey Mountain is long, and difficult in places (Merton wrote this when it was normal for Catholics to be dismissive of other Christian denominations, for example), and you may find yourself urging Merton along, but it’s packed densely with insights into growing up, becoming an adult, understanding one’s self, learning to be a good friend and family member, finding a vocation, living in a troubling and troubled world, and growing close to God. It’s a book I’m still digesting, and one I’ll probably return to. A deeply intriguing and important read.

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Simon at Stuck in a Book commented here at bookconscious recently and I checked out his blog. When I saw the #1930club post, I looked around at my shelves and realized I had a to-read novel, Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, which was published in 1930.

I think I first heard about it on The Readers and I bought it with a gift card when I left my previous library job. That was about a year and a half ago, but sometimes I think books recede into the shelves until the time is right. I hadn’t read anything else by Hermann Hesse but noticed in the author bio in my ugly little mass market paperback that he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. As the world contemplates the bizarre 2018/2019 announcement, marred first by last year’s prize being delayed by scandal and then by accusations that the 2019 winner is “an apologist for genocide,” I read this strange and beautiful book about two motherless medieval men and their search for meaning.

Narcissus and Goldmund is set in a cloistered monastery in Germany, where Goldmund, a fair haired and sweet natured boy, is left by his father to study and prepare to enter monastic life. His teacher is younger than most, still training to be a priest himself, an intelligent and preternaturally observant man named Narcissus. As Goldmund reaches the end of his formal education, Narcissus tells him plainly that his calling isn’t scholarship or the priesthood. He conjures memories of Goldmund’s loving but faithless mother and brings back the pain of her abandonment.

After this crisis, Goldmund’s leaves the cloister on a years long journey of pleasure, responsible to no one, loving as many women as he can, skirting a possible calling in favor of wandering. I’ll leave the details for you to read but suffice to say he has plenty to confess to years later, when he’s in a real scrape and Narcissus manages to rescue him.

They return to the monastery and have a series of conversations about when people can realize their true selves, the role of ideas versus images, whether thinking and ideas are worth anything on their own or are made worthy when they are applied to life’s challenges, and more. Goldmund tries a more settled life and work, and the book’s final crisis leaves both men more aware of who they are and what they mean to each other.

The story feels less like a novel than an allegory, as many key details point to ideas about love, friendship, caring, faith, sin, bigotry, greed, selfishness. The role of nature and study in developing one’s identity, the purpose of art and ideas, and the benefits of ritual and discipline are also among Hesse’s topics. It’s an old fashioned tale, a little more male-centric than I’m used to reading, with women only playing the roles of temptresses or virgins.

Still it was a good read, and Hesse’s writing is powerful and descriptive. Take this passage where Goldmund has come across a house where all the occupants are dead of plague:

“How sad and ghostlike was this small home, with the remains of the hearthfire still glowing, inhabited by corpses, completely filled with death, penetrated by death. . . . What other people performed in the privacy of their coffins, in the graves, well hidden and invisible, the last and poorest performance, this falling apart and decaying, was performed here at home by five people in their rooms, in broad daylight, behind an unlocked door, thoughtlessly, shamelessly, vulnerably. Goldmund had seen many corpses before but never an example like this of the merciless workings of death. Deeply he studied it.”

Pretty vivid. I’m glad I picked it up and that the #1930club gave me reason to read it.

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This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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As I’ve explained before here at bookconscious, when Books on the Nightstand stopped broadcasting, I started listening to The Readers.  One book that Simon has mentioned several times is The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.  I was at our local Goodwill with the former Teen the Younger (now twenty) a couple of Saturdays ago and there it was, just waiting for me to find it.  Joanna Cannon‘s debut is set in the summer of 1976 in England (serendipitously, I found it while The Computer Scientist was in England, so I got to go there too, this way), and her heroine, Grace, is ten years old. She and her best friend, Tilly, decide to find out what happened to Mrs. Creasey, who has disappeared. Grace, the alpha of the pair, decides that if they can find God — who the vicar says is everywhere — they will find their missing neighbor.

The whole book takes place on the avenue where the girls live, and as you read you get to know all the people and their secrets. What they mostly have in common is that Margaret Creasey, who was easy to talk to, has been quietly helping several of the neighbors in different ways. As Grace and Tilly visit people and ask questions in the way only children can, it becomes clear that Margaret Creasey’s disappearance is only one of the mysteries being unraveled. Is Walter Bishop really a pervert? Did he really steal a baby? What is Sheila Dakin doing in her pantry? Why doesn’t Brian Roper move out of his mother’s house? What was Grace’s Dad doing meeting Mrs. Creasey on a weekend? None of this is overdone — in fact, it’s funny, in a way, not roar-with-laughter funny, just life-is-strange funny.

I really enjoyed the way the secrets are revealed just as a matter of course, the way they would be in real life — no dramatic revelations. I also like that there are no “good” and “bad” characters (no goats and sheep, as the bible verse referenced in the title describes) — everyone is a little of each, like actual people. All the little details about the time and place add up to a really recognizable  neighborhood, even to me, who would have been just a little younger than Grace in 1976, but growing up in America. I could see the houses and yards, the church and the library, and the all the people Grace and Tilly meet.

And for me, one of the other really appealing things is that this book, to me, is a profound examination of good and evil, faith and hypocrisy, community and herd mentality. It’s also about the mindless ways we humans hurt each other, and the healing that happens when we pay attention. Do the girls find God? In my mind they do, but perhaps not where they were looking or where they expected, and it would be fair to say if we could ask them, they might not be sure.

This book fairly cries out to be discussed. I’m dying to chat about it. If you’ve read it, leave me a comment.

 

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I first became familiar with Pádraig Ó Tuama and his work through an episode of On Being. The only word I can think of to describe how I felt listening to him was enchanted, in the sense of delight, not magic. Here was someone whose sense of faith and God and reconciliation and love is thoroughly grounded in the messy realities of this world but is also poetic and hope-filled. I heard him at a time when I needed to. I made a note to read his books.

Fast forward a number of months and he came along again, this time when I viewed the Trinity Institute at my church. I listened to him read during the Friday Eucharist and felt a kinship; we’re siblings alright, if we’re children of God, but here was someone who clearly feels as I feel reading in church. He felt the words, loved them, and shared that, which is how I try to read.

Enough already, I thought. Read his books! I got myself In the Shelter and intended it as my Lent reading; then my church had other offerings so I set it aside for Easter, and here I am. I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks. I finished it this morning and sadly, I accidentally gathered it up with my sheets and washed it. Fortunately it’s a pretty sturdy paperback, and I’m trying to let it dry out. It will want re-reading.

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I’m taking a class called Notes from a Seeker at church, about spiritual writing, and one of our assignments is to read spiritual memoirs. This is that — Pádraig (if he’s my brother, I’m calling him by name) shares in his writing his deep connection to God, a connection he’s had from an early age, one that he hung onto even when he was made to feel  less-than, even to the extreme of undergoing exorcisms and other un-caring treatment by fellow Christians, simply because he is gay.

Yet he also shares his delight in other humans (even when they’re not delightful, even when he’s not delighted with himself) and his love of language. He has a playful way with words (he’s also a poet), and an intellectual way, examining their meaning and exploring their nuances. I love this.

But his meaning is not playful, it’s serious, and he gets to the heart of some of the most challenging things around — otherness, fear, pain, self-loathing, uncertainty. I love this section, where he describes the dilemma of testimony — “the telling of the story of conversion, or re-conversion, of enlightenment or change.” In other words, so much of spiritual writing and talk. People hear this testimony and are impacted, for better or worse, as Pádraig explains:

“Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglad. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shelters some, and it shadows others. It loosens some, and it binds others. Is this the judgement of the message or the messenger, the one praying or the prayer prayed? I don’t know.

Hello to what we do not know.

What I do know is that it can help to find the words to tell the truth of where you are now. If you can find the courage to name ‘here’ — especially in the place where you do not wish to be — it can help you be there. Instead of resenting another’s words of gladness or pain, it may be possible to hear it as simply another location. They are there and I am here.”

That is how I’ve prayed these last couple of weeks, “I am here.” It’s a contemplative practice anyone, or any faith or none at all can try. Name where you are. Even if you do not wish to be in that place. I can’t explain why, but it’s peaceful.

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I often find books to read when I am in the book stacks at work for some other reason — weeding, shelf-reading, or putting a display together. Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is, by Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, is one example; I was looking for books for an Advent display and saw it calling out to me.

The introduction explains, “One of the oldest anthems of the church, alleluia means simply, ‘All hail to the One who is.'” Each chapter examines something to say alleluia for. Some, such as faith, or life, or peace, seem obviously alleluia-worthy. Others are not things that seem at first like they would elicit the word that is “the acme of human joy,” such as doubt, conflict, suffering, or death. But these two erudite and pastoral people manage to make clear and relatable the ways we could, and possibly even should, say alleluia in nearly every situation.

My favorite chapter is on Exodus, in which Rowan Williams describes the Ten Commandments as a guide for creating a “mature human society.” Williams has a way of taking things you may have heard about since you were a child and shedding new light on them that never fails to open my eyes and heart to something new. Even if you’re not particularly religious, you’ve probably heard about the ten commandments. Williams says of them:

“Understandably, they begin by making us think about our relation with God. Don’t let anything get between you and the living God; don’t try to substitute for the living God the object and images you think you can comfortably cope with or control; don’t try to use God for your own purposes, as if he had given you magic words to manipulate the world. Be sure that the each week you spend time with God that is free from the pressures of business, problem- solving, or acquisition. And then we are told to turn to our fellow humans. What is due to those who gave us life? Be grateful and let it show. What is due to others who seek the same liberty as ourselves? Never imagine that anyone is indispensable. Keep the promises you have made and honor the promises of others in the world of human relations. Remember that the security you seek is what all want, and don’t set out to invade. Don’t imagine that what makes someone else secure and happy is exactly what you need to make you secure and happy if only you could get it from them.”

He goes on to say that “This is what responsibility amounts to. It is a deep concern not to lose sight of the radical otherness of God and an equally deep concern that we should both recognise what everyone desires and see the need for respect towards each other as each discovers this in diverse ways.”

I don’t know about you, but for me that is a fresh way of considering things. We lived in the deep South for a few years, and at the time there was a lot of discussion about the public display of the ten commandments and never did I hear anyone arguing that we needed them to be reminded of our “deep concern” and “respect” for one another, or our responsibility to “never imagine that anyone is indispensable.” This all seems brilliantly, bracingly clear to me. The whole book is full of this kind of illuminating, but very accessible, thinking.

In a chapter on faith, Chittister writes, “Faith is belief that God is leading us to become in tune with the universe, however different we see ourselves to be.”  And, if that isn’t enough to ponder, “Faith is trust in the unknown goodness of life without demand for certainty in the science of it.”  Clear and you knew it, but new, right? More challenging, but for me, very beautiful and true, is this: “Faith is confidence in the darkness, for the willingness to trust the deep-down humanity of others as well as in our own may be the deepest act of faith we can possibly devise.” If that seems impossible, I think what Chittister is saying is that we’re created in the image of God, who is love, and if we accept that as our humanity, we can see that in others too, even when we’re in some kind of darkness. This is not only Christian theology, either. Namaste means recognizing god in ourselves, seeing the god in others.

Anyway, thinking about this stuff deserves time and space, so this is a book probably better suited to slow digestion — maybe a chapter every Sunday afternoon, for example — but I read it  over the last week. I highly recommend it.

The Computer Scientist and I are celebrating 28 years of marriage next week, so got away for a couple of days to a lovely spot in Maine. It was cold, windy, and snowy, the perfect weather for reading a book straight through. I read Ali Smith’s Autumn this way. I chose it because my elder son encouraged me to give year-end “best book” lists a try after I scoffed that I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should read. I decided he was right, I was being judgmental. Autumn is on many such lists.

I don’t think I’ve read Smith before. I thoroughly enjoyed Autumn and I think I will seek out her other books. Autumn is about a young woman, Elisabeth, who was profoundly influenced by her next door neighbor, Daniel, as a child. He was older than other adults she knew then, although she insists not old, and is now 101, and “asleep” in a care home. Elisabeth hasn’t seen Daniel for 10 years and is moved to visit him regularly as she remembers the time they spent together. She believes he is not comatose and can hear her, and she reads books to him. Literature is something they shared — he always greeted her by asking, “What you reading?”

The novel switches points of view between Daniel’s dreams, memories, and impressions in his unconscious mind (very much like in Tinkers), and Elisabeth’s thoughts and experiences. She is feeling unmoored after the Brexit vote and goes to stay with her mother. It’s while she’s there she realizes Daniel is in the home, and as she processes what it means to be herself in the new world Britain is facing, she revisits her memories of Daniel and how he opened her eyes to what became a new world for her then, especially by introducing her to art.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that readers learn of how very much Daniel impacted the trajectory of Elisabeth’s life, and how she comes to reconcile what wasn’t a great relationship with her mother. It’s a very funny and also not-so-funny social commentary as well. The sections about Elisabeth trying to get her passport renewed and trying to make an appointment at a health clinic will make you nod and  maybe chuckle. There’s a hilarious and also chilling thread about a fenced off place — possibly an immigrant detainee center — going up near her mother’s village and how she and her mother each in their own way come to interact with the people behind the fences that go up. And a very touching outcome to her mother appearing on a reality TV show about people spotting treasures in junk shops.

All in all Autumn is a lovely, moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Is it one of the best I read this year? There are enough of those lists in the world. But I will tell you it’s a good read.

 

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