Another mid-life revision is my two year project to build up to reading at least a book a week. I used to do this, but being on my laptop so much means I do read a lot—but online newspapers, magazines, blogs, social media stuff, rather than books.
So my goal was to complete a book in 30 days in Jan, in 29 days in Feb, in 28 days in March, 27 days in April, and 26 days in May. So far, I have kept to this, but I can see it getting harder as it gets to a book a week (about 45 pages a day), and perhaps having to cheat by listening to books on my iPhone as I walk.
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Anyway, the book I finished this morning was Lauren Winner’s Still which I read because I was sent a complimentary autographed copy. I both enjoyed it, and was disappointed.
I enjoyed the structure: several very short chapters, many of them not meaty enough to be blog posts even, but the majority of them interesting. It was like observing a subject in a refracting mirror from different angles. Winner’s formidable intelligence probably intimidated her editor, as many of the chapters, while charming enough, were slight. Far from being an instant spiritual classic as some reviews said, the book will probably not be read in five years. The pastiche didn’t quite hold together, in my opinion.
It’s thematically problematic too. The classic arc for a memoir is “I once was lost, but now am found.” We need that, we poor benighted readers. Tell us how you found light, grace, joy, God, so we know there’s hope for us too. But the narrative arc of Winner’s memoir is “I once was lost, and now am a little bit less lost,” but the less-lostness is not convincing. Which makes the book less satisfying. “Yes, oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story,” E.M. Forster famously said. So much a memoir!
Winner says she stopped praying, and her spiritual life shrivelled very early in a six year unhappy marriage from which she desperately wanted out—and did eventually leave. Church suddenly seemed very boring. And so she gives up prayer, so she could give up her marriage.
Interestingly, she continued her career as a professional Christian—writing books on “Christian sex” and spiritual disciplines; teaching in a divinity school; speaking at Christian conferences and training for and receiving ordination—while her own spiritual life was dry, desperate and almost dead.
This disjunction between the public image and persona and the inner spiritual reality probably lengthened and deepened her spiritual crisis. She wrote books on Christian sex, when her marriage was withering; wrote books on spiritual disciplines while church bored her, and she could not pray.
The worst thing about living a lie is that it becomes second nature. The mask, the act, become a reality; the situationally right words come so easily that you forget what the true words are. When you are living a lie, when you are a professional Christian with a dead spiritual life, you can begin to forget what a vital spiritual life looks like, or to even believe there can be one. You almost no longer believe in the truth of joy, and peace and being filled to bursting with the Holy Spirit. Pretending to be what you are not has become second nature–and, for all you know, everyone else is pretending too.
If I were Winner’s spiritual director, I would say: There’s so much more. I would say, “Why not be totally changed into fire?” I would use old-fashioned words: repentance, surrender, humility. But that’s the peril of being formidably intelligent as Winner is. It’s harder to get straight talk, which we all need—for the realm of the spirit is a democracy.
So ultimately, it is a book which outlines a private boredom with, and total breakdown of faith. Towards the end of the book, she is still hanging in there. Still struggling. She has committed to the outward expressions of the Christian faith: it is her job and her writing and speaking career, and she is besides, newly ordained as an Episcopalian minister.
The real gold of the spiritual life—joy, peace, love, the Holy Spirit, surrender, intimacy with God—so far seem to have evaded Lauren, but she is still there, as she tells us. Perhaps she needs a more fiery spiritual director, or perhaps yet another crisis– which tosses old spiritual certainties and truisms aside–to come, perhaps for the first time, to the fire and joy at the heart of the Christian faith.
Writers must write, and Lauren writes well, and so I don’t regret reading her painful narrative of the valley of dead faith and dry bones, but I wish she had waited, figuratively speaking, for a spiritual spring to write it, so that it would have had more nourishment for her readers.
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Other books I’ve read this year: Roy Godwin’s “Grace Outpouring,” about co-operating with God in the remarkable spiritual experiences at Ffald-y-Brenin.
Ann Voskamp’s memoir 1000 Gifts about discovering God through the process of praise and thanksgiving, “Eucharisteo precedes the miracle.”
A. S. Byatt’s wonderful “Victorian” novel, Angels and Insects, set when Darwin was turning people’s religious convictions topsy-turvy.
And Mary Oliver’s elegant poems. I’ve read a few each day with much pleasure.
Some books on the go: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,R. T. Kendall’s The Anointing on the Holy Spirit, and Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.