The Casserole-Toting Church Ladies Hold the Secret To Happiness
I don’t want to be married anymore.
This refrain propelled Elizabeth Gilbert from her prone position on the bathroom floor into the wondering and wandering that became her 2006 bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love. In its pages, she travels the world, gets a divorce, tries everything, rethinks everything, and ends up on the deck of an Indonesian fishing boat in the arms of her future husband, whom she calls Felipe.
And now, she doesn’t want to be married anymore again. On July 1, Gilbert announced her separation from Felipe in a Facebook post noting that the reasons for the divorce are “very personal.” In the resulting flurry, public commentators can barely conceal their eagerness at the thought of another Gilbert adventure. The New York Times reported the divorce as a fresh manifestation of Gilbert’s “trademark wanderlust.” Elle enthusiastically congratulated her on “embarking on the next journey.”
Apparently, everyone preferred the free-wheeling of Eat, Pray, Love to the plodding of her subsequent book about marriage, Committed.
Gilbert’s divorce-hedonism-remarriage-divorce saga is obviously distasteful to many Christians, but we can be equally fascinated (and misguided) by a very similar narrative. Gilbert wrote a memoir about questioning expectations and leaving her husband; Christian authors are writing about questioning God and leaving the church (for awhile, anyway).
These spiritual wanderings are propelled by the refrain: I don’t want to be a Christian anymore. Or, at least: I don’t want to be that kind of Christian anymore. And thousands of us quickly turn the page, eager to read what comes next.
Perhaps we’re intrigued by the spiritual adventurer’s premise that there might be something new to find out there, out beyond the ordinary spiritual graces of Word and prayer and sacrament. Perhaps, as one writer suggested about Gilbert’s book, we are looking for permission to pursue our own wanderings. Or perhaps we see the writers’ frank confessions of sin and doubt as uniquely authentic expressions of spiritual experience.
The memoirs of spiritual wondering and wandering are diverse—there are at least 50 ways to leave your church. But the dazzling quality of the maverick spiritual quest can cause us to overlook the quiet, ordinary, Sunday-by-Sunday faithfulness of the women in our own church’s pews.
And maybe it’s time to find new heroes.
Several years ago, a small, aging congregation in our town shut its doors for the last time, and its members drove a few miles down the road to join our church. In a single Sunday, our congregation grew by half a dozen older women—we called them “the senior sisters”—who immediately proceeded to attend prayer meeting and assemble casseroles with unfailing regularity.
When I first encountered these women, I was like a character in one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels: I was charmed by the sweet, sweater-knitting exterior and failed to adequately appreciate the sharp mind and depth of discernment that lay beneath. Because these women showed up to church week after week wearing pearls and carrying peppermints in their purses, I assumed they had equally shiny spiritual experiences.
But, dear reader, it was I who was naïve.
Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the famous statement: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The church ladies seemed just alike to me. They formed a repeated image in a church hall of mirrors—every hand holding a Bible, every face wearing a smile. But they were alike not because they were fake but because they were real. Their sameness (and deeper happiness) came not from sidestepping adversity or denying its existence but from meeting all kinds of adversity and persisting in the faith.
Over the years of worshipping alongside these women, I learned their stories. One woman had survived a car accident that killed her husband and left her the disabled single mother of two. Another had lost a child to cancer. One woman had suffered domestic abuse. Another spent her days caring for a husband with dementia. Altogether they had suffered illness, mistreatment, and the death of loved ones. They had experienced trials that, for others, might have been the first page in a story of spiritual wandering.
In the church, too, they persevered. Over a lifetime of churchgoing in various places, they had at times been frustrated by the worship, offended by the members, and disappointed in the elders. And yet, here they still stood. They had worked and worshipped, suffered and yet rejoiced, asked God hard questions and searched diligently for his answer. They had stuck around. And out of their experiences emerged a single story: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4–6).
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.
Likewise, we must never assume that someone who is happy is naïve, someone who is content must also be ignorant, and someone who is faithful just comes by it naturally. Do we want to overcome doubt and persist in the faith? We can learn how from the church ladies.
Perhaps the ordinary, faithful women in our churches also seem alike because they are so like someone else who is very familiar. They have been made like the one who was continually acquainted with grief, who was tempted in every way without sin, who joyfully did the will of the Father, and who—having loved his own—loved them to the end (Isa. 53:3, Heb. 4:15, John 4:34, John 13:1) In their week-by-week faithfulness, these church ladies have been conformed to the image of Jesus.
I want my story to be just like theirs.
Megan Hill is the author of Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches.