Divine Comedy: A Review of "Grace (Eventually)"


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Anne Lamott should have been born Adventist. If she had chosen her parents more carefully, she could have had a lot more material for her comic gift. As it is, she has to try to find humor in being raised by earnest, left-leaning, humanist liberals. Don’t get me wrong. It’s funny. Anne can’t not be funny. But imagine if she had vegefood, grand marches, weird jewelry rules, founding fathers with mustacheless beards, and boarding academies to write about! Ah, the possibilities…

Still, Adventists can enjoy Lamott’s latest book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, since she touches on many subjects we both share.

Teaching children’s Sabbath/Sunday school, for example. If you’ve ever done it, you will be intrigued by the description of her curriculum, beginning with an activity called "Soft Body," which includes scrunching the shoulders to the ears "like Nixon" and then relaxing—an effort to minimize wiggling and bouncing.

Then there’s "Loved and Chosen," during which she informs each child individually, with a hug, "You are so loved, and so chosen." She does this because "in truth, everyone is loved and chosen, even Dick Cheney…" (You may have noted the political subtext, never far from the surface.)

Next comes a story about Solomon building the Temple (which of course Adventists tell their children) and then the story of Nebuchadnezzar destroying it (we also tell this). But she goes on to inform the children of something I certainly never learned in church: "One great wall remains to this day." And she shows them a photograph of the Wailing Wall, and of a boy and his father leaving a slip of paper with a prayer written on it, between the stones. Then Anne and the children make their own wall, using scissors, glue sticks, and gray and brown paper for the stone and green paper to represent grass "breaking through the cracks." Finally they write on the stones "the names of people we loved who were suffering…and of pets who had died. While we worked we had wailing and muttering practice."

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t experience a lot of wailing and muttering practice built into the lessons in Kindergarten Sabbath School when I was growing up in the Pomona church. A sky blue boat that rocked on the Sea of Galilee—yes. And for sure lots of felt lambs. But a Wailing Wall? Conversations about death and dying? I don’t think so.

But if you’ve read Lamott, you know that this is her subject: suffering, death, pain. The messiness of human life. And grace—eventually.

The real topic of this Sunday School lesson on the Wailing Wall turns out to be "letting go." Lamott is trying to teach the children to turn things over to God, to empty their hands so that God can give them good gifts: a juice box in the time of need, "because you’re thirsty," as one child puts it. And that’s it, basically—the secret to teaching children in church, or coping with a difficult neighbor, or getting over the death of your best beloved: "You get out of the way, because you’re not the one who does the work."

Lamott has given herself a difficult assignment: writing about the Christian life with complete honesty. No pious overlay, no pretending everything is perfect, no lying about how difficult it really is. She begins by admitting her own deep fallenness: She describes herself as "devout, with a sometimes bad attitude, a black sense of humor, and tendencies toward gossip and character assassination." And because she admits "the mess of my life," we are willing to listen as she tries to point the way forward.

I personally find that she is more successful in her non-fiction (especially this book and the first two of this "trilogy," Traveling Mercies (1999) and Plan B (2005)) than in her fiction. I’m not sure I’ve read any realistic fiction yet that successfully portrayed the Christian life, or at least not since Middlemarch (1872). Maybe I’m forgetting. But what’s truly central to such a subject is the character’s relationship with Christ. And how do you portray that? With long internal monologues? Descriptions of thoughts and feelings? Praying aloud? Conversations between two Christians? Not much action here. And it’s all too easy to get preachy. Or to be so subtle that no one notices.

I think that’s one reason Lewis and Tolkien turned to fantasy genres of various types. Here, external action becomes a figure for the internal, and outer journeys represent the inner. And as a metaphor for the spiritual realm, you can’t beat magic.

Lamott manages this, oddly enough, through non-fiction. In Grace, Eventually, we frequently find her comparing life’s experiences to a fairy tale. This may seem surprising if you think of fairy tales in the broadly popular sense of silly tales with happy endings. But Lamott knows that is not what fairy tales are about. Indeed, like Lewis and Tolkein she understands that fairy tales are often brutally honest about life. They feature "dark forests," and "the helper always appears in a form that doesn’t look very helpful, yet that’s who’s going to get you out of the wood. In fairy tales you have to stay open to the search, and to goodness and generosity."

In a chapter entitled "Near the Lagoon, 2004," Lamott returns to Bolinas, on a journey that turns out to be "mythical." It begins with "a Twilight Zone feeling" and "a hobgoblin of a man" who shows the path, and soon she finds herself in a "scene from Bruehel, with that mazing shifting light," and surrounded by people from her past whom she hurt or was hurt by twenty-two years earlier. And yet "in each case, everyone wanted to hug and kiss me" and she finds that the wounds are beginning to heal. "That is what happens in fairy tales: the wound or the danger guides you straight into the heart of itself, and you end up finding you."

Lamott knows that the central plot of the central story (Dante’s Divine Comedy and Adventists’ Great Controversy) ends with what Tolkien called a "eucatastrophe," "the joy of the happy ending…the sudden joyous turn…sudden and miraculous grace."

Eventually.

Nancy Lecourt is currently the Academic Dean at Pacific Union College, where she taught in the English department for 25 years.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1507