Friday, February 10, 2012

A Must-Read for Those at Mid-Faith or Other Stages

Some time back in December I found out that Lauren Winner had a new book coming out the end of January.  I spent the next weeks wishing it was already out.  I got it a day or two after it was released, and it did not disappoint.

Winner's new book Still:  Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis explores the life of a woman who has made her living as a professional Christian of sorts who has a bit of a mid-faith crisis.  You may remember Winner from her past books, most famously Girl Meets God, the story of her conversion to Judaism and then her conversion to Christianity, all before the age of 23, if my memory serves.  Winner went on to write more books, to be a contributor to many Christian magazines, and to get a Ph.D. in History.

She also got married at the same time that her mother died and quickly felt unsettled in the marriage.  She wrestled with Christian teachings on divorce.  Perhaps more important, she began to feel a shift in her relationship with God.  She had been a Christian who had a running discussion with God, and now she didn't feel like doing it anymore.  This book chronicles her passage through this post-divorce, mid-faith time.

She includes many a musing on middles and what they mean.  As a culture, we tend to focus on beginnings and endings.  She talks about the middle voice that some languages have (English doesn't).  She talks about continuing with practices, like going to church, even though she doesn't quite believe in their usefulness in a way that she once did.  She progresses through the liturgical year and lingers in Lent, which is appropriate for the subject matter of this book.

I especially love her meditations on giving up something for Lent and her experiment with giving up anxiety.  She tries ignoring her anxiety in 15 minute increments.  She decides to pray when she feels anxious, sometimes praying the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), sometimes a prayer she finds in the back of a prayer book.  She tries repeating the word "One" until the anxiety ebbs.

She's clear on why it's important to let go of the anxiety, bringing in Francis de Sales:  "The anxious heart, in its flailings, loses its hold on whatever graces God has bestowed upon it, and is sapped of the strength 'to resist the temptations of the Evil One, who is all the more ready to fish . . . in troubled waters'" (page 90).

Her book is full of wonderful quotes like these, quotes from great Christian thinkers and quote-worthy thoughts of her own and from her friends.  Along the way, we get prayers, we get history, and we get to see her find some comfort in the ways that Christians have always felt comfort:  through prayer, through community, and through service to others.

In the end, she doesn't recover the breathless passion of her early conversion, which is no surprise to me.  Like marriage, the middle passage of a faith journey is long and often boring and sometimes colored with a tinge of terror (what if I have just been deluding myself?).  Winner has done a great job of depicting that landscape.

She does this without being too maudlin, too depressing. In fact I found it comforting.  We're not a culture that talks easily about our uncomfortable emotions, at least not in an authentic, deep way.  Winner does.  I imagine there are many readers out there who will say, "Wow!  The doubts that I feel occasionally, the boredom, the laziness--you mean those are normal?  What a relief."

Her book is an easy read, with stand-alone chapters that a reader can dip in and out of.  I zoomed right through it, but I imagine that even if I had had to put the book down for a period of time, I would have had no trouble when I returned to it.  For those of you who like the writing style of Anne Lamott or Kathleen Norris, you should be sure to check out this book.

There's an interview in the back of the book where we find out that Winner is pursuing the Episcopal priesthood, and her book doesn't really tell us how she got from her mid-faith crisis to deciding to become a priest.  Maybe she'll talk about that in a different book.

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