“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone..."
"And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of hope keep interrupting my gaze.”
- Lauren Winner, Still (xiv)
I get a lot of books in the mail these days, but this one, I am reading slowly, deliberately. I put it down after ten or fifteen minutes just so I won’t finish it too soon. I am savoring every word, every paragraph. And I find myself thinking about those words, those paragraphs, long after I’ve moved on to new ones.
This book is good for the soul.
If, like me, you resonate profoundly with the excerpt above, you will love Lauren Winner’s newest, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.
Winner has long been a favorite of mine. I loved the sparse, colorful prose of Mudhouse Sabbath and Girl Meets God, and I’ve always admired (okay, envied) Winner’s fierce intelligence and ability to speak knowledgeably about such a broad range of subjects. In Still, Winner continues to dazzle with her writing, but this time she shares a different kind of wisdom, for she writes from what she calls “the middle.”
“Whether you feel a wrenching anguish or simply a kind of distracted listlessness, the middle looks unfamiliar when you get there,” writes Winner. “The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding."
Winner speaks frankly about the things that brought her to “the middle”—her divorce and the death of her mother—but she never indulges. Instead, her honesty about the uncomfortable realities of life and faith—the unresolved, the disappointments, the mysterious, the gray, the hopeful, the routine, the failures, the valiant efforts—give this book a more conversational and intimate feel than any of her others. It feels more grounded, more relatable.
Winner does a masterful job of providing images and stories with which to understand “the middle”—a face jug lost in the divorce, a pie social at church, a protest at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, an elderly couple sharing communion, a Purim celebration, a prayer, a poem, a bookstore in Machester-by-the-Sea. She incorporates just the right amount of poetry into her story—from Ann Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and W.S. Merwin, among others—and tempers this with frank and funny stories about with which any person of faith can relate.
But what has surprised me the most about Still—(I still have about a quarter of the book left to read)—is how challenging I’ve found it. The chapter entitled “Busyness During Lent,” Winner writes this:
“Busyness is the new sloth...Busyness, my BlackBerry, the feeling of never being caught up, the fantasies about myself that busyness fosters—this busyness is just as disorienting, just as deadly as the traditional seven....I am too busy to go to church, too busy to pray; there’s not enough time to pray, not enough time to hold body together, let alone soul. I am too lazy to do what’s important, or hard, so I stay busy with everything else.”
That last line has lodged itself in my brain and will not come out. It changed how I made some of my decisions this week, and I’m grateful.
So Still is far from an indulgent glorification of religious doubt. Instead, it challenges the reader to stay connected with the church, committed to the spiritual disciplines, wary of cynicism, and mindful of pride. I noticed that a lot of people who order Evolving in Monkey Town on Amazon go on to order Still, and I could not think of a better companion book. Just please read Monkey Town first...cause no one wants to sing after Joshua Ledet on American Idol. :-)
What have you been reading lately?
Have you had the chance to check out Still? What did you think?