Why should anyone want to read about doubt or spiritual alienation?
Well — doubt and even anguish are, I think, unavoidable aspects of the spiritual life. They are part of the choreography of the spiritual life.
Indeed, it happens, I think, to almost everyone who pursues a spiritual life: at some point, you hit a wall. The energy that animated your spiritual life seems to have evaporated.
I have come to call this – a little cheekily – a mid-faith crisis.
When I hit my own wall, I read because that is what I always do when I have a problem: I read. I read because I thought I might find in books a solution to, or at least an evasion of, the crisis – a way around, or at least a way of avoiding, the wall. Books did not, on their own, “solve” my mid-faith crisis, but they certainly provided companionship, solace, and inspiration along the way. (In fact, they helped me understand that a mid-faith crisis is not something to be solved, but to be lived into.)
What books might you recommend for the bookworm who has hit a spiritual wall?
One book I’d recommend is Lawrence Kushner’s God Was In This Place and I, I Did Not Know. This long, erudite riff on Genesis 28:16’s rewards many re-readings. My favorite section is the page before the prologue, where Kushner describes giving a tour of his synagogue’s prayer hall to a group of pre-schoolers. Rabbi Kushner runs out of time to show the students the Torah scrolls, which live in the ark, cloaked by a heavy curtain. He promises to introduce the kids to the ark on another visit. The pre-school teacher later reported to Kushner that after leaving the prayer hall, the students had a heated discussion about what they would find in the ark when the rabbi finally showed them. One child said he thought the ark was empty; another said he thought the curtains hid a new car. A third child said “You’re all wrong. When the rabbi opens that curtain next week, there will just be a big mirror.”
Maybe Thich Nhat Hahn, The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation. I am not an expert on Buddhism by any means; my knowledge of it begins and ends with one class I took from Robert Thurman in college. (It was rumored that the previous year, Uma had come in to borrow $5 from her pop, and our class sat all semester hoping she would appear again. She did not.) But I do have one suspicion: Buddhism, which has devoted centuries to learning the habit of mindfulness, has much to teach the rest of us about focus and attention. Thich Nhat Hahn’s beautiful, touching guide has helped me both set aside worry and stay in the present moment, even when the present moment is uncomfortable, or full of pain.
Also, Nicole Mazzarella’s novel, This Heavy Silence. Mazzarella takes readers into the complicated inner life of a farmer named Dottie Connell. It culminates in the most wonderful final image – an “amaryllis [that] had bloomed without soil.” Definitely, Anne Sexton’s last book, The Awful Rowing Toward God. Published after Sexton killed herself, this is the poet’s most overtly spiritual book. It’s come in for criticism from some readers, including Sexton’s biographer Diane Middlebrook, and the reviewer and literary critic Patricia Meyers Spacks (“embarrassments of religious pretension,” wrote Spacks in the New York Times). But I side with Alicia Ostriker, writing in The Women’s Review of Books: Sexton “hits her stride when she stops trying to sound like Robert Lowell.” I find these last, furied poems stirring and profound; they have offered me a way of approaching the sacred I didn’t have before.
Yet you yourself do not write poetry. You write mostly memoir. What makes a good spiritual memoir?
A narrator whose voice is compelling. If I am compelled by her voice, I will follow a narrator anywhere — on the road to Compostela, into the kitchen, to church, to the woods, to the meditation center down the street. Also, I know I’ve read a good spiritual memoir when there are lots of underlines, circles, stars, and exclamation marks in the margins.
So you’ve written several memoir-ish books grounded in your own spiritual journey. Is the only kind of book you yourself read?
Lord, no. At the moment, I’m reading deeply in a completely different genre—books for eleven-year-olds. I am especially hooked on the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. Writers of all genres have a lot to learn from good kids’ prose. Children have such short attention spans that the author cannot waste a single word, a single syllable—if she does, she’ll lose the reader. So there is much to be learned about lean prose from great children’s books.
What have you learned about your own book, Still, since publishing it? What do you wish you could do differently?
Scads of things, actually. Those things range from the small (a colleague of mine at school read the book after it came out and told me that the last sentence of the chapter “sunday morning in massachusetts” didn’t need to be there, and once he said that, I saw that he was right, so now at readings I omit that sentence) to the less small (such as, I have learned more clearly what I think the inquiry of the book is: the core inquiry is—you hit a wall in your spiritual life; what happens if instead of making a sharp right or left turn, or turning around and trying to go back where you came from, you actually just stay at the wall and see what happens there….I wish I could say that more clearly in the book).
Did you go to church this past Sunday? Why or why not?
It was a little hard to get out of bed Sunday morning, actually—I could have happily done with another two hours of sleep. But I was ridiculously happy to be at church. Or, more to the point, I was ridiculously happy when I came home after five hours at church. Celebrating communion is the most fun thing ever. I should have something more spiritual or more elevated or more elevating to say about celebrating the Eucharist, but in fact one thing I have to say is: it’s very fun.
LAUREN F. WINNER is the author of Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, Real Sex, and the recently published Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. She writes regularly for the New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and The Wall Street Journal. With degrees from Duke and Cambridge and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia, Winner teaches at Duke Divinity School and lives in Durham, North Carolina.