“My soul is too cramped for you to enter it,” lamented Augustine. Later he would find this cry itself something of an answer from God in the first place—for how could a soul articulate its longing for God if the Spirit had not first shown it what it longs for? Yet how familiar these initial attempts to approach God with a dreaded sense of failure seem to be. Is it God who first approaches? Or we who have to first clear the way? Might God approach even in our restless longing, even as our souls are cramped with baggage and the journey at times seems more a fight with self than a means of meeting the Other?
Author and former atheist Anne Lamott begins her story with borrowed words of W.S. Merwin: “We are saying thank you and waving, dark though it is.”(1) She describes darkness in a broken world and an unpredictable childhood, the dimming affects of self-loathing, addiction, fear, guilt, and grief. And yet she somehow describes the presence of one to thank regardless, one whose light gradually appeared through a world that slowly cracked into a thousand pieces—maybe even cracking mercifully?
Whether the journey of faith is a miracle or it is more like a gift that requires some assembly, I’m not sure. “Man is born broken,” quotes Lamott. “He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” How else would one come to know the Father of Light in the house of a father who despised Christianity. Lamott describes the family codes which solemnly held everyone to unbelief. “It was like we all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on,” she writes, “agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father’s cold Christian childhood.” Mercifully or ironically, there was also a sense of moral obligation preached in her household, a clear (even disheartening) scale of good and bad, acceptable and insufficient. Thus, “I bowed my head in bed and prayed, because I believed—not in Jesus—but in someone listening, someone who heard.” Apparently, the cosmic umpire so many know and fear lurches even in atheist households.
Yet from the beginning, there were clues that this someone was relational—in the differences she saw in the social structures of her and her friends’ houses, in the Catholic family who offered images of God both compelling and odd, in her need to please the one who listened, like one might a foreign, unpredictable, unknown king. “This God could be loving and reassuring one minute, sure that you had potential, and then fiercely disappointed the next, noticing every little mistake and just in general what a fraud you really were.”
And yet maybe even broken images of God somehow matter, as God approaches to shatter and re-form even these. Lamott describes a life of encounters with God in places of desperation—in a drunken haze, in a broken vehicle, on the bathroom floor, in deaths and in birth and in dying, in her own vehement denials of an approaching God. When the English teacher she loved became a born-again Christian, she wept at the betrayal and challenged this teacher on everything—”every assertion, even when she was right.” She willed not to believe, even as her own rebellion held the sneaking suspicion that God might be near.
Perhaps faith is indeed more a gift than a discovery, as John Calvin once insisted. If so, I like Lamott’s image of this gift better than most: like a sloppily wrapped package that repulses with absurdity yet somehow compells you to claim it for its beauty nonetheless. Wholly unable and unwilling to see or to seek God, a reluctant Lamott would eventually claim the gift of faith nonetheless. “I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus,” she said at the one who came so near she eventually stopped denying it. “And I was appalled.”
Dark and difficult, holy and absurd though it is, Lamott is right: It’s funny where we look for salvation, and where we actually find it.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) As quoted in Anne Lamott’s, Traveling Mercies (New York: Random House, 1999).