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Book Review: writer records 'mid-faith crisis'

Book Review: writer records 'mid-faith crisis'

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
Lauren F. Winner
HarperOne, 2012
256 pages, hardcover

With the spiritual aplomb of Anne Lamott (minus the swearing and catastrophic lifestyle, and with more theological proficiency), Lauren Winner takes us to the heart of her struggles with God.

“This is a book,” Ms. Winner writes, “about God moving away at the same time that God took away the ground. . . . Then a small light dots the dark hills. And then two.”

Ms. Winner reveals her schismatic spiritual life without coyness. Though occasionally didactic, Still is invigorating and well worth the read. Her casual style plays a counterpoint with her gift for word choices. She is an intellectual who speaks with honesty about theological issues most of us would prefer not to air. This is her strength: to bring doubts and anxieties into the collective sphere, all the time massaging them with her intelligence, wit and engaging form.

In the book’s title, Ms. Winner gives us a gentle double entendre. First she acknowledges that while she at one time was connected to God, she no longer feels that vivification. Still she realizes, even now, that she is connected, but in a re-ordered way. Secondly, she hints at her need to be still (“. . . and know that I am God”). Quoting Thomas Merton, she writes, “. . . there is a movement towards stillness, and in the stillness we find God, and in God, our true identity.”

Ms. Winner, perhaps unwittingly, shows us part of her true identity in what Father Richard Rohr labels the “first half of life,” when, almost by instinct, we are bound to our egos, compelled to creating a professional persona. Ms. Winner is in her 30s. Yet even at her age, she is progressing into the middle of life (note the book’s subtitle pun, “mid-faith crisis”).

Ms. Winner is a winsome writer. I predict that as she matures she will provide even wiser reflections that our culture needs to help assess spiritual journeys, to take courage, to connect to God.

This book testifies to the importance of being present in the mystery. Wondering how the practice of prayer can ever mean anything to her again after her mother’s death, her divorce and her boredom with all things Christian, she tells of an incident: “. . . in a moment I can only call mystery, I am standing there in chapel reciting Psalm 25, ‘Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted,’ and the words still me—there at Morning Prayer, those words are my words; they are the most straightforward expression of anything I might ever have to say to God, or to myself. For the space of 18 syllables, I have, it seems, prayed.

And yet, Ms. Winner writes, “. . . prayer sounds like a barefoot hike from Asheville to Paris: it would be nice if you get there, you are sure there is a nice glass of wine and a nice slice of brie waiting for you at some café somewhere, but there is really no way you can imagine actually making the walk.”

Certain stories captured my heart:

After her divorce, Ms. Winner spends time on the porch. “. . . a friend gave me a copy of a bestselling memoir, which I’ll call Masticate, Meditate, Masturbate. It tells the story of a woman, just recently divorced, who spends a year traveling the world, eating life-changingly delectable pizza in Naples, sitting in an ashram in India, and so forth. I read the memoir in two sittings, and then the next week, I read it again. But after leaving my husband, I didn’t go to Italy. I just went, again, to church.”

One Sunday, Ms. Winner drags herself to church. She sits on the back row, ready to make a speedy exit if she is overcome with suffocation. One by one, other claustrophobic people enter her pew. A woman who has her suitcase with her and keeps hat and sunglasses on throughout the service “smells like rotten apples and like streets. . . . She seems, oddly, entirely comfortable. But I wish she had sat elsewhere; she makes me feel trapped.

“Then, in the middle of the sermon, the rotten-apple woman begins to tap her right index finger, rapidly, on her knee. It is the tapping of a crazy person, of one of the people from whom Jesus would have cast a demon. . . . Tap, tap, tap tap tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. Then unaccountably (perhaps mine is actually the body possessed by a demon?) my left hand shoots out and I close my fingers over her hand, squeezing her fingers together to stop the tapping, as a mother would still a child. In an instant, I am horrified. I can’t believe I have actually done what I did. My mother is surely turning over in her urn; and she is not sending me any otherworldly advice on how I might make amends.

“And then, as I am blushing the color of my sweater . . . I realize that the woman does not seem offended, or confounded, or even surprised, and she has not shrugged off or let go of my hand. In fact, she seems to be holding my hand.

“We hold hands for the rest of the service.

“And that is part of what I mean when I say it is life inside this Christian story that has begun to tell me who I really am.”

Dr. Holbert is a retired United Methodist pastor in Dallas.

Review courtesy of UMR.