Still finds Winner (a historian who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and writes for a wide array of publications) “in the middle of the spiritual life,” an awkward place where “The enthusiasms of my conversion [from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, recounted in the memoir Girl Meets God] have worn off….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.” She describes having been “carried” to this “middle” by two events: her mother’s death, and an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce.
Had you asked me before—before my mother got sick, before I found myself to be a person thinking about divorce—I would have told you that these were precisely the circumstances in which one would be glad for religious faith. Faith, after all, is supposed to sustain you through hard times—and I’m sure for many people faith does just that. But it wasn’t so for me. In my case, as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die, too. God had been there. God had been alive to me. And then, it seemed, nothing was alive—not even God.
While she insists right from the start that Still “is not a manual for ‘getting through’ the middle'” nor an intellectual defense of Christianity (“or, if it is an apologetics, it is an apologetics only for continuing to abide in faith amid uncertainties, in the interstices of belief”), it’s hard not to look for the reasons that Winner, “in those same moments of strained belief,” nevertheless concluded “that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know.” What are the “glimmers of holy” that “keep interrupting [her] gaze”?
In a recent issue of Relevant magazine, Winner addressed head-on the question, “Why I Am (Still) a Christian.” Among other answers, she pointed to the Eucharist (a major theme in Still), the power of hymnody, the way that Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 compel her “to do something other than advance my own interests,” and (what she calls “a less-than-sexy, less-than-po-mo response”) the Christian doctrines of creation, sin, and redemption that teach her “to see reality for what it is.”
But she started with something else:
I am a Christian because a group of faithful people—some known to me and some, I suspect, still unknown—prayed for me, consistently and constantly, during a year when I could not pray.
In earlier posts, I’ve focused more on the “unknown” (or lesser known) people who come into Winner’s life, especially those that help her understand the significance of Church as the Body of Christ: the elderly couple “who are Communion“; the bakers of varying abilities and tastes who bring pies to a potluck where “you eat beyond the point of necessity and hunger, because Annie Johnson made this and she may not be comfortable sitting around a circular table talking about Jesus, but this is her offering, and you will taste her pie and in that moment, God is not lost.”
But then there are the people “known to” Winner. And, boy, are there are a lot of them!
A sampling of the seemingly endless parade of friends (I’ll wager that “my friend ____ said/asked” appears as often as any other phrase) who periodically encourage, chastise, or simply feed or house our conflicted author:
• Her priest Ellie, who can “whip up an Alfredo sauce while also carrying on a conversation with me,” has a way with liturgical words (recounted in the chapter entitled, “things ellie says in church”), and puts Winner up in her guest room as the marriage unravels.
• Samuel the chess-player, who isn’t moved when Winner complains that sleeping in that guest room leaves her feeling pathetic: “Lauren, perhaps you should hold off for a moment feeling pathetic. Perhaps you should recognize that you are vulnerable and someone is showing you hospitality.”
• Dina, who — when not baking ginger cakes using Emily Dickinson’s recipe — spontaneously throws together a liturgy to bless the house that Winner keeps in the divorce settlement and later takes her along on a series of visits to three women who had recently lost children, explaining, “I thought it was appropriate to the day” (Easter Saturday, that is).
• A certain senior colleague from Duke who goes by “My friend S.” (read the endnotes if your curiosity gets the best of you) and advises Winner that “one of God’s gifts to some of us is just not to be immediate, so that we have to undergo the kind of discipline necessary to have what others seem to have effortlessly.”
• And Ruth, who helps Winner understand what she misses about her mother, urges Winner “to stay in the loneliness, just for five minutes, just for ten minutes” when she is desperate to “do anything to avoid feeling” that sensation (“Sometimes I think Ruth is a desert father reincarnated”), and shares with Winner an “annual pilgrimage” to a town on Cape Ann, Massachusetts where they look for John Updike books.
It’s not a theme she dwells on in Still, but I hope that Winner one day writes a book about Christian friendship, about which I’ve read precious little apart from C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves, where Friendship joins Affection, Charity, and Eros. I wonder how Winner would respond to Lewis’ contentions that friendship was “the least natural of the loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary,” but also “free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free of jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed” and so “eminently spiritual… the sort of love one can imagine between angels.”
For Lewis, friendship was also an instrument of grace, “by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.” And though he admits that Scripture rarely casts the God-human relationship in “friendly” terms, friendships “are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.” Would Winner take a similar view, and number friendships among the “glimmers of holy… interrupting [her] gaze”?
It might be too grand a vision of friendship. At least for the season of her life documented in Still, friendship seems to join pie socials, liturgical rituals, and books of poetry as the routine, earthy moorings that ground a person struggling with spiritual matters as enormous as the fading of faith and the seeming absence of God.
But the mere fact that Winner has friends close enough to her to recognize her struggling and respond to it suggests a kind of grace that enabled her to practice the hospitality that she professed to find difficult in an earlier book on spiritual disciplines:
I don’t find inviting people into my life much easier than inviting them into my apartment. At its core, I think, cultivating an intimacy in which people can know and be known requires being honest—practicing that other Christian discipline of telling the truth about where we live and how we go there. Often, I’d rather dissemble. Often, just as I’d rather welcome guests into a cozy and cute apartment worthy of Southern Living, I’d rather show them a Lauren who is perfect and put-together and serene. Often, telling the truth feels absurd. (Mudhouse Sabbath, p. 51)
For the Lauren Winner of Still is anything but “perfect and put-together and serene,” and she very much needed people like Ellie, Samuel, Dina, S., and Ruth to tell those truths “about where we live and how we go there.” As do we all.
What do you find distinctive about Christian friendship? Do you recommend any books on the topic? Or do you find yourself looking to any particularly compelling examples of it — in Scripture, history, personal experience…?