Literature as an Invitation to Spiritual Growth
An Online Book Group
Discussion Guide by The Rev. Margaret Gunness
by Anne Lamott
Random House, 1999
This month, the book we will reflect on is Traveling Mercies, written by Anne Lamott and published by Random House, copyright 1999. In it she writes the story of her own life, from childhood into adulthood and on into the birth and early years of the life of her own child, a son. Her writing presents a remarkable blend of her extraordinary sense of humor accompanied by her piercing insight. It is a probingly honest book that reaches into the vagaries of human experience and emotion that are, in part or in whole, familiar to us all. I found myself both laughing out loud and swallowing back my tears of recognition. It is a most enjoyable read that invites us as well into a deeper reflection upon the germinal events of our own lives, past and present.
I bring your attention first to the commentary on the front cover flap which gives us this introduction:
In a narrative spiced with stories and scripture, with diatribes, laughter and tears, Lamott tells how, against all odds, she came to believe in God and then, even more miraculously, in herself.
For me, this immediately called to mind what I consider to be a foundational statement of Teilhard de Chardin in his book, The Divine Milieu: God is acting on you in all things, so in all things respond as if you are responding to God. In reading Traveling Mercies, it seems to me that this is exactly what Anne was doing, probably unknowingly. She was responding to the action, to the movement of God in her life, even before she believed in God or ever paused to think that God might be actively involved in her day-to-day living and concerns.
I recommend that you try this pattern of thinking. Consider this, for example, that it is God who is acting on you actively acting through the very existence of the earth itself, as well as in the daily events in the lives of individuals and of nations, such as we read or hear about in the global events that are shaping the world we now inhabit. For example, what can you learn about the gift of life itself in the beauty of a cool clear morning, as well as in the bone-weary fatigue at the end of a long day? In the angry traffic you might get tangled up in? in the impatient words of a stranger behind you in the post office? in the warmth of a phone conversation with a client or a friend? Or think further, what is God asking you to see or to understand in these events? How might God be shaping you, guiding you, preparing you through these encounters? Or to go further, what can you perceive about the gift of life itself in the news of terrorism, bombing, anthrax and an uncertain future for the peoples of the world? In this book of Anne Lamotts, I think we find a clear example, a good model, of someone who has learned how to look for the way God may be acting in and through the events of her life and the life of the world around her.
Anne was born and grew up in the San Francisco area in the 1960s and 70s. Her parents were alcoholics and atheists, even though they persistently believed that you had a moral obligation to save the world. Relatively early in Annes life, it became evident to her that their marriage was breaking down, and they did eventually go their separate ways. The influence of some of her teachers and the parents of some of her friends, however, gave her the important experience of grown ups she could trust, admire and believe in.
When she reached college, one of her teachers assigned Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling. In it, Kierkegaard re-told the Biblical story of Abraham and his son Issac, whom God instructed Abraham to offer as a sacrifice in place of a sacrificial lamb. This was a story that had always caused Anne serious doubts concerning God and the nature of God. Yet what she perceived in Kierkegaards writing of it she stated in this way: [Abraham] understood that without Gods love and company, this life would be so empty and barbaric that it almost wouldnt matter whether his son was alive or not. And since this side of the grave you could never know for sure if there was a God, you had to make a leap of faith, if you could, leaping across the abyss of doubt with fear and trembling. (p. 27) Anne was beginning to be opened to faith. I was cracking up, she said, and thats how light gets in. (pp.
This autobiography continues with her accounts of her eventually becoming bulimic and addicted to alcohol, of the death of her parents, the birth of her son, and eventually her own tortuous climb into belief, forgiveness and health, both physical and spiritual.
The book is filled with extraordinary insights, gained primarily through very ordinary events in her own life and usually written with her unique sense of humor that somehow manages to express certain truths much better than serious discourse does. For example:
I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, theyre enough.
Or, quoting C.S.Lewis: "If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.
Or, commenting on awful thoughts that you really cant say out loud,
they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the Cat dish.
Or, perhaps reflecting on becoming a religious person herself: Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been there.
Or, finally, quoting a source she cant recall, Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a different past.
I highly recommend this book to you. Read it and create a dialogue with it. See if some of the insights she gained give you new insights into your own life as well. Hold your life and your understanding of it up next to the truths that Anne Lamott discerned, and see how the one sheds some light on the other. Examine your own past, as she did, and uncover all that it might teach you. Ask yourself the hard questions she seemed able to ask. Work intentionally to discern how God may be working in and through all the myriad experiences of your day-to-day life and living.
I believe that one of the great benefits in reading an autobiographical book in general is that, from it, we gain insights into ourselves as well into the authors life. We gain insight into the power of our past and the promise of our future. In another persons story, we can begin to discern and trust such things as the possibility of growth and change, and the possibility even the promise - of the ability given us to disarm the power that the past has over us. In autobiography, we can find a new vision of our human strength and of the dynamic action of God in both the high and the low points of human life.
Anne Lamott is no great systematic theologian. But she is someone who has learned - and continues to learn - about God through her experiences of living and her reflections on those experiences. There were times of love and of fear, times of feeling helpless and of being helped, times of being lost and of being found, times of not believing and times of believing. And every one of these experiences were lessons in life for her.
I recommend reading this book slowly and pausing after every chapter to reflect on your own life, reading it in dialogue with yourself as it were, perhaps even writing some reflections on your life that her reflections awaken in you. Try to find in her words an invitation to you to examine your own life your past and your present with the same piercing honesty as she has done. Pay careful attention to see if you too can gain from such examination a new resolve, a renewed determination to move into the future with resolve and a certain courage despite your fears. Let her sense of humor infect you and serve to lighten those places where your heart is heavy. Let her perceptiveness alert you to the gifts of your own ability to be acutely sensitive and perceptive to encounters and events in the world around you.
This may be, for you, a new approach to gaining theological insights. Yet, whether new or old, try it and enjoy it. Let it encourage you and renew your trust both in God and in yourself. Let it teach you and remind you to look more closely for the action of God in every action in the world around you. Doing this, I believe that you will begin to see ever more clearly that God is indeed very involved in the life and activity of the world, teaching us, reaching out to us and all the while working in and through us to take us more deeply into the blessings of life itself.
Copyright ©2001 Margaret Gunness
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