Review: Companions in the Darkness

Companions in the Darkness, Diana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle.

Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, David Brainerd, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. What these and two others in this book have in common is their struggles with depression. Diana Gruver, who has also experienced depression, has studied the lives of seven saints for what may be learned from their experience of depression. She writes:

Their stories bring me comfort, reassuring me that I am not alone. They remind me that I am not the only one to walk this road, that this experience is not an alien one. The lie that “surely no one else has felt this” is cut down by the truth that others, in fact, have, and their presence makes me feel less isolated. These fellow travelers are my companions in the darkness of night.

Diana Gruver, p. 13.

Gruver gracefully narrates the stories of these saints, weaving in insights from her own struggles with depression. One of the striking things I noticed was the differences in these stories and that depression had many faces. Some seemed to have family proclivities toward depression, others like Charles Spurgeon first encountered depression more or less out of the blue, resulting from a tragic event. Some like David Brainerd struggled with concurrent health issues while others faced pressures from tremendously challenging events.

One of the most interesting stories will probably be an unknown to most of us, Hannah Allen. Having struggled with depression during her husband’s absences at sea, she sinks into a deeper depression when he dies at sea. At one point she secrets herself under the floorboards where she is staying, determined to starve herself to death. With the help of relatives, she eventually agreed to medical treatment, improving to the point where she re-married. Gruver discusses how prayer and reasoning from scripture were not enough:

The cure for Hannah Allen wasn’t to drag her to church. It wasn’t to convince her to pray more. It wasn’t to quote Scripture at her until it removed her despair. Her caretakers sought for her the best medical care of the day. They changed her surroundings. They put her on what we would now call suicide watch. They kept showing up with compassion. They attended to her soul, yes, but they also attended to her body.

Diane Gruver, p. 47.

Hannah left a spiritual memoir of her life, which is the primary way we know of her struggle. She represents the many “ordinary Christians” who anonymously struggle, and the hope there is for them.

Gruver not only candidly describes the struggles of each figure she profiles, she shows the efforts employed by each, all but Martin Luther King, Jr., before modern medical treatments. King had been recommended for psychiatric treatment for depression by a doctor but refused because of the efforts to discredit him and the stigma mental illness incurred in his time. Luther fled solitude, married, and enjoyed drink and laughter at the table. William Cowper, who gave us great hymns and struggled through his life with depression, found respite in art and friendship. Mother Teresa, who once experienced a clear call of God lived in spiritual darkness where God was utterly absent and chose continued obedience to Jesus despite her feelings. King drew on reservoirs of humor, song, and prayer, the spirituality of the Black church, to lead resiliently under a continuous cloud of threats on his life, and during the desertion of friends when he stood against the Vietnam War.

Gruver includes an appendix with practical guidelines for helping a friend through depression. She sums up the message of this book, drawn from Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian and Hopeful cross the River of Death, as “the water is deep, but the bottom is good.” Depression is hard but God has not abandoned us, even if it feels that way.

We’re in especially dark times. One public health study reports that the incidence of symptoms associated with depression have more than tripled during the COVID pandemic. It’s likely that we, personally, or someone we care for, are one of these. Reading the stories of these “companions,” while not a substitute for professional care, may offer insight and hope to make it to the other side of these dark months. This book is a gift for our times as well as a glimpse of a side of people we thought we knew, enhancing our understanding of the quality of their faithfulness to God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Vintage Saints and Sinners

Vintage Saints and Sinners

Vintage Saints and SinnersKaren Wright Marsh (foreword by Lauren Winner). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Brief vignettes of the lives of twenty-five “saints” and how reflecting on them may inspire and challenge us.

It is one thing to be a Christian and another to understand how one might live well the Christian life. Certainly reading scripture is indispensable, both for precepts and examples. But throughout the history of the church, reading “the lives of the saints” has been found a valuable aid as we see fleshed out examples of the life of faith. This book is a contemporary contribution to that genre, giving us vignettes on the lives of twenty-five “saints” (not all are canonized as saints in the Roman Catholic Church) and the author’s reflections on what they teach her about the life of faith, and how they challenge her.

The book is organized into two parts around two key ideas in Jeremiah 6:16, asking and walking. Under “Asking” she writes about Soren Kierkegaard, Augustine, Therese of Lisieux, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther, Amanda Berry Smith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A. W. Tozer, Mother Teresa, and Brother Lawrence. Under “Walking” she offers accounts of the lives of Thomas Merton, Benedict and Scholastica, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Wesley, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Howard Thurman, Julian of Norwich, Mary Paik Lee, Aelred of Rievaulx, Ignatius of Loyola, Juana Ines De La Cruz, and Sophie Scholl.

Each account typically runs seven to eight pages, making it ideal for one’s devotional reading. Marsh mixes biography and her own reflections about how learning about this saint speaks to her own experience. I particularly appreciated the lesser known figures she writes about, a number of them women. Reading the account of Sophie Scholl’s faith-inspired resistance to Nazism that resulted in her martyrdom raised the question of when is it right to risk one’s life in a righteous cause. Then there is the sharply contrasting picture of the Mexican Catholic sister Juana Ines De La Cruz who remains in her cloistered cell and writes beautiful poetry and philosophical theology to God’s glory and then renounced it for a life of contemplation and service. I’ve read much of Martin Luther King, but it was a delight to read of Howard Thurman, his mentor.

Lauren Winner, in her foreword, encourages noticing which saints we are drawn toward, and which saints trouble us. I’ll give you one of each from this collection.

I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard as my life has gone on. Wright’s account of his reaction to the comfortable conformity of Danish Christianity appeals to me even as it challenges me. She writes, “Abandon your calculated safety for a reckless, wholehearted life of faith in Christ. Continue to become. Grow. Risk. Take that radical leap of faith right now.” I find myself drawn as one who has lived in that awkward tension of longing for comfort and yet knowing that it is in the risks of faith that life is its most intense and real.

Dorothy Day has been troubling me for the past couple months, as I’ve read a narrative of her life, as well as the shorter account here. At one point she has an abortion. When she converts, she leaves her marriage to follow Christ. She gets herself arrested numerous times, even at seventy-five. She employs her considerable writing talents on a penny newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and pours out her life serving the working poor. Marsh writes of her:

The human, more colorful Dorothy comes through in her confessional writings. Yes, she admits, it really is raving lunacy to give up your own bed, food, and hospitality to any old stranger in need. But that needy person hasn’t arrived to simply remind you of Christ. No, in “plain and simple and stupendous fact,” your guest is, quite literally, Jesus. The Bible shows how ordinary people like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha welcomed Jesus and so can you; there’s no excuse. Christ is all around you, meeting you in friends and outsiders. The glass of water you give to a beggar is given to him.

Dorothy insists that in the end we will be judged by our acts of mercy, so heaven hinges on the way we act toward Jesus in his frail, ordinary human form. So long as families still need bread, clothing, shelter, Dorothy says, “we must keep repeating these things. Eternal life begins now.” So don’t point to some distant dream of glowing redemption—let’s make life today look more like heaven. Get out there and make a difference in Jesus’ name.

Dorothy forces me to ask the uncomfortable question of whether there are times I’ve failed to recognize the Lord Jesus in a needy person seeking help.

One of the things one comes away with in this collection are that there are probably as many ways of “being a saint” as there are human beings. These people are so different from one another. If there is anything they have in common, it is simply to be captivated by the love of God and the person of Christ and what it means to live out this love in the days and years we are given. This is a book that both challenges and offers hope. Each of these people is indeed a saint and a sinner, both one responding to the call of God, and doing so out of the messiness of his or her life. In these pages, they beckon us to join them on the Way.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

For All the Saints

All-SaintsThis weekend, the big deal seems to be Halloween. What seems crazy to me is that people spend as much on decorating for Halloween as for Christmas. For us, a carved pumpkin on the doorstep would do. What gets lost in this is a holiday that actually, at least for me, goes far more to the heart of my life. And this is All Saints Day. And this year, All Saints Day (November 1) falls on a Sunday, a time Christians around the world are gathered for worship.

All Saints Day, in some traditions celebrates those who have attained “the beatific vision” of heaven, and is distinguished from All Souls Day (the next day) remembering the faithful who have died and not yet attained heaven.

I understand that distinction but my read of things is that “saint” comes from the word “sanctus” which can mean “holy” or “set apart”. When Paul wrote letters to various churches, he invariably addressed them all as “saints”. That is because he understood all the faithful as having been “set apart” by God through Christ. It strikes me that those we have called “saints” have singularly lived into their set apart, holy identity, an identity all of us who believe share.

I don’t want to get into a religious argument here, but rather reflect on who I will be thinking of and celebrating this coming All Saints Day. For me, “all saints” includes:

  • my immediate family–my wife, my son and daughter-in-law–who probably earn the designation “saint” just by putting up with me!
  • the people gathered around me at my own place of worship, Smoky Row Brethren Church, a group of people I’ve kept company with for twenty-five years who have taught me as much about a lived faith as any group I know.
  • the amazing group of people I work with in the collegiate ministry I’m a part of including grad students, faculty, volunteers, team members and leadership–funny, intelligent, gifted, and tremendously thoughtful about being faithful to apply the whole of the Bible to the whole of life.
  • the mentors in my life who have passed–my parents, my grandmother Marie, Bob Mulholland, Mrs. King, Dick Kutan, and Sarah Gordon–people who prayed for me and through word and life introduced me to the faith.
  • the mentors in my life yet living–Doug, Sue, Barney, Kent, Terry, and Dave–who were gifts of God at various points in my journey teaching me what a well-lived life as a Christian looked like.
  • the saints who have shaped my life and captured my imagination through their writing, from Augustine to John Calvin to John Stott to Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry.
  • as a lover of music, I think of all the gifted composers from the earliest centuries through Bach to the present who gave us so much glorious music to play and sing that was written “soli Deo gloria” (to God’s glory alone).
  • then there is this universal, flawed and yet incredibly diverse community known as “the Church” that bridges all the fault lines of discord we humans create along lines of gender, ethnicity, class, economic status. Even in all of our differences expressed in denominations and diverse traditions there is this many-splendored Bride of Christ who will be revealed in all her beauty at the Last Day.
  • increasing I am grateful for the Church in the Majority World and Eastern Europe, for all its vitality and distinctive witness.

I could go on, but you might not go with me! In the Apostles Creed, we affirm “the communion of the saints”. The longer I go, the richer this phrase becomes to me as I think of my union with a community visible and invisible, living and at rest, stretching through the centuries and around the world.

Even if you do not share my faith but have read this far, this day reminds us of the basic truth that there is a community of people, living and dead, who have shaped each of our lives, hopefully for good. Beyond the macabre commercialism of Halloween, might there be something far better worth remembering and celebrating on the day we call All Saints Day?

Review: American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton
American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton by Joan Barthel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American citizen to be canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Seton Hall University bears her name, having been founded by a nephew of hers, Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of the Archdiocese of Newark.

Despite some structural problems, I found this a fascinating biography of this passionate, able, assertive, and devoted woman who within four years of her conversion to Roman Catholicism founded and served as the first leader of a women’s religious community.

First the structural problems. The first part of the book moves back and forth between the Setons last ditch attempt to save Will’s life through a trip to Italy, and the early years of Elizabeth Seton’s life leading up to this death. While illustrating her religious devotion and growing appreciation of Catholicism as explained by her Italian hosts (a business partner of Will’s). It ends up to me being a protracted death narrative. I would have favored covering this chronologically rather than the back and forth approach taken. The remainder of the book is chronological.

Aside from this, the biography gives us a good narrative of the formation of this saint–born into a well-to-do New York family, bereft of her mother at age three, daughter of a father who was a distinguished physician who died caring for patients in a yellow fever epidemic, married into a wealthy import-export merchant’s family whose fortunes decline after Will’s father dies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s devotion continues to grow under the Episcopal rector John Henry Hobart’s direction. It is Hobart’s sermons that Elizabeth reads for solace as she desperately tries to care for Will in Italy as he is dying of tuberculosis.

Following Will’s death, she returns to the US and is received into St Peters Roman Catholic Church in New York in March of 1805 and confirmed by the first American Bishop, John Carroll in 1806. As an impoverished widow she struggles to survive and feed her children until invited to open a Catholic school for girls in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809. In July of that year, she forms the first American community of women religious dedicated to caring for the poor and the education of Catholic girls.

In the forming of this religious community what stands out is both what an able leader Seton is and her struggle with men in the Catholic hierarchy. I do think the author is making a point about the tensions between the male hierarchy and women religious in the US Catholic church, that these go back to the beginnings of the church in this country. The author also traces the deep relationships between Seton and other women and the spiritual friendships that she developed.

Barthel portrays the deep spirituality of this woman as she faces the loss of husband and later, two daughters (two of the three to tuberculosis, from which she also ultimately dies). Her devotion is not a highly theological one but rather one centered around the Eucharist and the scriptures and a life of prayer. In this she perhaps serves as a model for most Christians who do not have advanced theological training but can live devoted and significant lives, nonetheless.

Last of all, I’ve been struck with what a scourge tuberculosis was until the advent of antibiotics. “Consumption” turns up in so many stories of this period, whether it is a Tolstoy novel or a saints biography or in operas like La Boheme. It is a blessing that this is treatable, while a concern that recent recurrences have resulted in drug-resistant forms of the disease.

The book concludes with an epilogue discussing Elizabeth Ann Seton’s canonization and the process involved including the “vetting” of miracles and the use of a “devil’s advocate”. She became a saint in 1975 and her feast day is January 4.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

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