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White China:
Finding the Divine in the Everyday

by Molly Wolf
Jossey-Bass, 2005

review by Heidi Schlumpf

For years now, numerous authors have been “Finding the Divine in the Everyday” to varying degrees of success. Luckily, Molly Wolf is one of the better ones. This, her fourth collection of short essays, is thoughtful and thought-provoking, dealing not only with her observances about the Canadian landscape, home, friends, family and cats, but also with the hard questions of life and of Christianity.

If the subtitle is a bit of a yawn, the cover will grab you. A large white dinner and salad plate dominate, but plopped in the center of the top plate is a small weed, roots and all. Life is messy, the illustration seems to say, and Wolf makes the same point over and over again in the book.

In the title essay, she contrasts her perfect white china nativity set to the real, flesh-and-blood Mary and concludes:

God comes to us not when we’re perfect white china figures, but in all our messy, meaty humanity, our confusion and pain. God didn’t choose Mary because she was a characterless doll; he chose her for her courage, her boldness, her capacity for vibrant love. He loves us for our humanity, not in spite of it.

As someone who has found community and comfort in the Anglican tradition, Wolf also recognizes that religion, too, is messy.

In my middle age, I have decided that virtually everything that is spiritually right is messy, and that virtually everything that is extremely neat and orderly probably hasn’t been kicked hard enough yet to show how messy it really is.

For Wolf, that need to question applies equally to rigid fundamentalists and to those “spiritual but not religious” folks who think they have organized religion all figured out.

In the midst of all this messiness is God’s love, which for Wolf is a constant source of hope. But her faith is not simplistic, and she’s not afraid to tackle head-on the problem of suffering. In essays about prayer, she is clear about her distaste for “magical thinking” in which God heals some cancers but not others. Wolf’s prayer becomes not “Save me from the time of trial” but “save me in the time of trial.”

Her theologizing concludes that, given the reality of suffering, “We can have a loving God, or we can have an all-powerful God, but we can’t have both.” It’s clear from her stories that she believes in the former.

Whether writing about the milkweeds in the woods near her home, a favorite teapot, a crying baby, the pain of her divorce, or the death of a friend, Wolf reaches for a deeper truth than the pat ponderings of some “spirituality of everyday” writers. About suffering, she concludes: “It’s that with God’s grace and the love of our fellow pilgrims—our angels who bear us up—we have the ability to make something out of suffering. We have the power to redeem it and give it meaning, and therefore to triumph over it.”

Wolf is the founder of the website sabbath-blessings.org (the address is incorrect on the book cover) and co-author of the Knitlit series. She has a tendency to tack on one-sentence conclusions to her essays, which I think they would be better without. But her writing is clear and honest, grounded both in the Christian tradition and in the Canadian landscape that is her home. This is one writer whose spiritual essays definitely go beyond the “everyday.”

Read an excerpt from White China

Read Molly Wolf on Hurricane Katrina

©2006 Heidi Schlumpf

White China
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