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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Still" (Lauren F. Winner)

TITLE: Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
AUTHOR: Lauren F. Winner
PUBLISHER:New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012, (248 pages).

This book is raw honesty littered with sparks of creative wit. It distills the author's search for personal authenticity and divine spirituality by setting oneself in a profound stage called the "middle." Beginning with a painful recollection of events and emotions surrounding her crumbling marriage, she opens herself up with her pen, meandering through rivers of critical thoughts and practical theologies. She experiences the lows of being alone again as well as the highs of being in Church, enjoying the God she loves. She encounters walls of questions that forces her to seek out ways to overcome her despair and doubts. Toward the end, the reader can see a struggling author trying to weld together the broken pieces of her relationships, her religious beliefs, and settles in a resolving-yet-not-resolved "mid-faith" position. Yet, these beginnings and the ends are not the definitive vocabulary of this book. What makes this book especially gripping and enduring is her journey to the middle, around the middle, and from the middle. In a nutshell, this book had me at the middle.

There are three reasons why this book is worth reading. Firstly, it is raw honesty that opens up a can of thoughts that surrounds a person's struggle. Some people use food, fun, and frolic to deal with their breakups. Others venture into new age spirituality to escape from their pain. Not Winner. She lets herself be embraced by the warmth and enduring love of friends. I appreciate her personal struggle through church going.

"Sometimes I cannot say much about why I go to church other than what people who go to the gym say: I always feel better once I'm there; I feel better after; it is always good for me, not good in a take-your vitamins way, in a chidingly moralistic way, but in a palpable way. Perhaps to say this is to turn religion into therapy. But church is therapy, that is one of many things it is, and as my friend Mike once told me, the real problem lies not in recognizing the therapeutic balm in the gospel;the real problem is going through life thinking that the health you need can be found anywhere else." (33-4)

Secondly, she lingers on thoughts of God and her faith, through Church going, through her struggles with anxiety, through literature of John Updike, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Sexton, the Biblical characters, as well as the spiritual masters. She indulges her fondness for spirituality in both her spiritual conversations with her spiritual director, as well as her reflections on the spiritual masters of old. Sprinkled throughout the book, there are snippets of spiritual insights from Frances de Sales, Margaret Funk, the desert fathers, Richard Rohr, Thomas Merton, Augustine, and many more. What I find most fascinating is her weaving of her Jewish upbringing and Christian teaching, culminating in a very nuanced understanding of biblical characters and stories. One example is her description of Purim in the book of Esther. Here are some of her very memorable reflection of how the Book of Esther can also be called the book of the hidden God.

"I wonder: when Jesus comes back, when God consummates God's program, when redemption is complete, will it be possible for God to hide? I wonder if the trick is not drinking until you can't tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman, but until you can't tell the difference between God's hiddenness and God's presence, or perhaps until you can't tell the difference between God's hiddenness and God's absence, for that finally is the question, that is the anguish - to abide in God's hiddenness is one thing, to abide in God's absence is altogether something else." (115)

Finally, my favourite part of the book lies in her gentle and firm squeezing out of the meaning of the middle voice. Such a mood effectively counters the impatience of a culture of immediate gratification, and prepares one to enter into a humble spirit that rises in anticipation of God and what God is about to say to us. Such a voice forces us to go through the discipline of the middle, the journey being taken. It makes us question the way we allow ourselves to be locked in by worldliness through easy boredom and frivolous busyness. It pushes us to appreciate the sacraments, the rituals of Church, surprising revelations of Scripture, and the warmth of friends. For a world that prides itself as the main thing, Winner has reminded us again that all of us are small characters trying to make some sense in our small ways what it actually means to live on earth. Most importantly, from a middle position, we begin to realize that we are only a small person in a world made by God, and just like the Jewish day that begins in sunset and culminates in sunrise, believers in Christ who begins their struggles in darkness will see the light more and more.

"If English had a middle voice, I would use it to speak of prayer: I would let the middle remind me that I am changed by this action, by these words, this supplicant's posture; I would let the middle tell me, too, how there is something about me that allows the action to take place - my desire, my endless need. And I will let the middle bespeak the hidden agent, the One who animates my prayer; though undisclosed, though sometimes even forgotten. If I could make English speak a middle voice, I would use it to tell you what little I know about belief, about worship, about impatience, about love." (157)

This book is Lauren F. Winner at her finest.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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