First things first: Let's call a moratorium on jabs against people who publish two memoirs before age 36. Yes, our self-absorbed society is glutted with the genre; yes, many 30-somethings lack the wisdom and experience to say much worth sharing. But the spiritual autobiography—a narrative account of God's gracious movement in the believer's life—is central to the church canon. If Christians throughout the centuries have charged Augustine with "narcissistic navel-gazing" for his Confessions—all 13 books—I can't recall it.
Anyone committed to truly examining the shape of personal faith, unfolding over the years in a broken world, should sense a fruitful opportunity, if not a solemn obligation, to expound at length. And Lauren Winner, while not in Augustine's league as a memoirist, probes these depths as deftly and eloquently as anyone writing today. Her latest offering, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (HarperOne), is a sparse, elegant account of slipping away from the Jesus she so eagerly embraced in young adulthood, by way of Shabbat prayer, Jan Karon's Mitford series, and a dream about being kidnapped by "a dark Daniel-Day-Lewis-type man" who, by the way, was the Messiah. Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, Winner's breakout 2002 memoir, was about dating Christ and Christianity, about realizing that "I was falling in love with this carpenter who had died for my sins." It established Winner—now a professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and an ordained minister—as one of those hip, young evangelicals who could write for both Focus on the Family's singles channel and The New York Times Book Review. (It also doubled the sales of cat-eye glasses.)
If Girl Meets God was Winner and the Lord's "story of how we met," then Still is the story of Winner lying awake in bed, realizing she no longer knows the man next to her, the man she wed over 10 years ago. Still is not simply about disappointment after the honeymoon phase of faith, a reality other Christian writers have explored; it probes an existential crisis that whispers the honeymoon never happened. "The kidnapping dream and the prayer book and the baptism made a path; they were my glory road, and I thought that road would carry me forever," writes Winner in the preface. "I didn't anticipate that, some years in, it would carry me to a blank wall." Or, more plainly,
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 …. Once upon a time, I thought I had arrived. Now I have arrived at a middle.
Still is about coming to the end of the glory road. And the step one takes after that.
Divorce and Desolation
The image of the estranged marriage bed is apt here. For her spiritual desolation, Winner points to two events: her mother's death from cancer in 2004, and an unhappy marriage three weeks later to a minister introduced briefly in her 2006 book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Of the nature of Winner's discontent and eventual divorce, the details are blessedly few. Her ex-husband is a shadowy background figure, and his character is never maligned. In fact, Winner blames mostly herself for the divorce, what she calls a "spectacular, grave, costly failure," and the source of her unhappiness seems mysterious even to herself. She seeks counsel from spiritual directors, friends, and priests. She says "God became an abstraction … like math, puzzling and far away" during her six years of marriage, and admits that the root of this alienation may well have been her own sin. But specifics are omitted.
(For some readers, this will not be enough. They will want assurance that Winner was abused or sexually betrayed, or a footnoted theological treatise that casts her divorce as categorically sinful. I share their disappointment over Winner's divorce, but humbly submit that refusing to engage Still because of these omissions means missing a rich and riveting account of grace after sin.)
Still comprises three movements: "Wall," when God seems wholly absent; "Movement," a period of uncertainty when Winner plumbs her discontent and receives comfort from friends, Scripture, and dead authors; and "Presence," during which God is real, though still elusive. Winner's fans will recognize her love of Christian liturgy, which reorients her to the biblical story and "keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know." The liturgy often provides Winner the faith she can't muster. When she recites Psalm 25 at morning chapel ("Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted"), it becomes the truest prayer she's prayed in years. At another service, she watches an elderly woman eat the bread and wine of Communion for her husband, whose stomach disease bars him from taking it. "I have read about this, about a man and a woman becoming, through marriage, one flesh, but now I have seen it," writes Winner. "Perhaps this is the way I come to know such intimacy: as part of the body of Christ, this body that numbers among its cells and sinews an octogenarian husband and wife who are Communion." These anecdotes suggest that liturgical churches may provide a stronger antidote for doubting Christians than praise choruses and video sermon illustrations.
Fans will also note that Winner remains a bibliophile, a fact that sustains her through much loneliness. The poetry of two sad women, Anne Sexton and Emily Dickinson (whom we learn 9-year-old Winner played in a school play—go figure), speaks of knowing God in intuitive, sensory ways, and tells Winner she can too. She stumbles on a scribble in a copy of For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, by the Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann, that belonged to late novelist John Updike. In the margins, Updike had penciled "God gives us many gifts, but God is He Who gives God," a quote from Augustine. Winner receives this as a word "from someone entered into glory, joined up to the communion of saints …. God is here through our longing for God." Next to hearing God's voice—which Winner says she does once, at Easter Vigil—this talisman is enough to carry any member of the literati through.
'A Certain Kind of Closeness'
Still, of course, is a word that can mean quietude ("He leads me beside still waters") and the persistence of something hard-won ("Blessed are those who have not seen me but still have believed"). Both meanings apply well to Winner, who describes this newfound phase in the spiritual life, this "middle," as a place where dramatic conversions are traded for daily, tedious routines of prayer and churchgoing; where you choose the Christian story as much as it once chose you; where the colors are more shades of dark brown and muted red and blue-gray than cheery bright. Ironically, in this drab middle,
there is a certain kind of closeness? … one I did not know when God was still nearby as friend. It is the closeness of invisibility, of abiding presence, of your husband in another room of the house, also reading. Close, you do not have to speak.
Still is an instant spiritual classic, and a balm for disillusioned Christians who don't know or particularly like the God to whom they pledged fidelity years ago, as well as for those who divorced God long ago but are looking into remarriage. The Christ who wooed Lauren Winner away from her lively Judaism so many years ago is the same today and forever, till death do us part.
Katelyn Beaty is CT associate editor.
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Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Previous articles by or about Lauren Winner include:
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
The Dick Staub Interview: Lauren Winner's Faith Still a Bit Jewish | The author of Girl Meets God discusses the Jewish habits that inform her Christianity. January 1, 2004)
Solitary Refinement | Evangelical assumptions about singleness still need rethinking. (June 11, 2001)
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