Lauren F. Winner: Most of our spiritual life is not spent in ecstasy
Church communities do a better job of talking about the beginning of people’s spiritual lives than about moments of spiritual desolation, says the Duke Divinity professor and author of a new memoir.
April 24, 2012 | People often ask Duke Divinity Professor Lauren F. Winner how she can be so self-revealing in her books, which have chronicled the ups and downs of her faith life.
But talking about our lives with God -- good and bad -- shouldn’t seem so daring, she said.
“Not everyone wants to write a memoir or write a book about their anxiety. But should it seem shockingly self-disclosing to talk about how lonely you sometimes feel?” she said. “Not that the church needs to become an ongoing therapy session, but I do yearn for the church to be a place where people are able and encouraged and taught to talk about their relationship with God.”
In her first book, “Girl Meets God,” Winner shares her journey from Judaism to Christianity. Follow-up books include “Mudhouse Sabbath” and “Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity.”
In her latest work, “Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,” she writes about the period following the breakup of her marriage and her mother’s death, during which she experienced doubt and despair.
Now an ordained Episcopal priest, Winner is pondering not just personal issues but institutional ones, as well. She asks how church leaders can effectively reach out to individuals facing spiritual crises and what congregations could be doing to help Christians talk about their relationship with God in all its facets.
Winner completed doctoral work at Columbia and now serves as assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School, where she earned a master of divinity degree.
Ordained as an Episcopal priest in December 2011, Winner spoke with Faith & Leadership about her new book and her new role in the church. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: In some ways your book “Still” is a book about failure -- of your marriage and then your sense of God’s presence. What do you hope people will take from your story?
C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Those of us who are readers find a lot of our companionship, sense of solidarity and not-aloneness through books and through the communion of saints that we can meet in books.
For people who are hitting a wall in their spiritual life or who may feel very isolated, I hope that this book will provide a little companionship at the wall.
If, in addition, there’s an insight here or there that someone underlines and thinks is really helpful, that’s great. But if it offers some company to people when they hit their spiritual wall, that would please me.
Q: Do you feel that the act of writing the book was part of what moved you along spiritually?
There were some episodes or characteristics of what was for me a very spiritually difficult time that I understood more deeply through writing about them.
We don’t talk especially well in the church about people’s moments of spiritual desolation, and maybe there are Christians who don’t have those moments, but I think most of us have them.
It’s actually part of the architecture of the Christian life, not the odd exception.
The communities of which I have been a part are wonderful, nurturing, nourishing Christian communities, yet they do a better job talking about the beginnings of people’s spiritual lives.
We have a long history in North American Christianity of narrating people’s conversions as though that’s the end of the matter, when really that’s the prelude to the matter. And sometimes in our communities we say in response to someone’s spiritual desolation, “It’s fine; it’s understandable; we’ve all been there,” but we expect it to get resolved in about six weeks.
And if it doesn’t get resolved in about six weeks, the person must not be trying hard enough or something, or not doing the right kind of praying or something.
In some mainline communities, we may not talk very well about people’s encounters with God’s hiddenness because we don’t talk very well about people’s encounters with God, period.
Pastors are not the only people who have responsibilities in that area, but I think that it might be part of a pastoral office to think about, “Is your community able to talk about people’s lives with God?” If the pastor is not attending to that, it’s probably not going to happen by accident.
Q: What do you mean by that?
I’m an Episcopalian. It is very characteristic of many Episcopal churches that, for whatever reason, people are not all that comfortable talking about Jesus out in the world.
We might say, “I need to grow in comfort in publicly naming Jesus as part of my life.”
But how much of that are we doing even in our own church community? It’s not only at my job at the bank I’m not talking about Jesus. That’s something that we can keep deepening.
Q: In some ways, your life is integrated to allow you to do that -- maybe in a way that a bank teller doesn’t feel comfortable.
Right. But if the bank teller’s at a Bible study or has a friend over from church, can he or she talk even then about what is actually going on in that person’s spiritual life? If not, might we want to cultivate that practice more?
I am interested in the question of how churches can become places where people can speak about all of the corners and crevices of their spiritual lives.
I also sometimes find it a little alarming when people ask me, “What does it feel like to be so self-revealing? Now everyone who’s read this book knows all about your anxiety attacks and your intense loneliness.”
Not everyone wants to write a memoir or write a book about their anxiety. But should it seem shockingly self-disclosing to talk about how lonely you sometimes feel?
Not that the church needs to become an ongoing therapy session, but I do yearn for the church to be a place where people are able and encouraged and taught to talk about their relationship with God.
To the extent that churches do not encourage, teach and welcome people to do that, we are not fully living into our calling as the church.