Lauren Winner's 'Still' continues her winding journey of religious quest

Still
Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
By Lauren Winner
HarperOne. 272 pp. $24


I-120409989
From the book jacket

In the last 10 years, Lauren Winner has taken her growing readership on a twisty-turny journey: that of her own religious quest.

Raised in Reform Judaism, she converted to Orthodox Judaism during her first year in college, and she converted again to Episcopalianism in grad school. She earned her master's in divinity in 2007 at the Duke University Divinity School, where she is now an assistant professor of Christian spirituality. Remarkably, she was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Diocese in Virginia only in December.

All along the way, she wrote. She became a committed, insistent commentator on the religious scene, writing for high-profile venues such as Christianity Today and Beliefnet. And she wrote books. Memoir, written directly and candidly, with a touch of the poetic, has become her trademark. Girl Meets God of 2002, her best-known book, narrated her attempt to apply her former Judaism to her present Christianity. Real Sex of 2006 challenged the world on the importance of chastity; while not primarily a memoir, its arguments pulse with reference to her own life.

Still adds another chapter to the ongoing book of herself. It's a puzzling book at first, even disturbing, but in the end it earns our trust, in itself and in Lauren Winner.

To read the subtitle, you might think it's yet another loss-of-faith book, but it's not. It's more a triage-of-faith book. One might think it's yet another book about losing God and finding God again, but it's not. It's a story of losing yourself and being found by God, who, come to find out, never lost you. After the shattering failure of her marriage, she realizes that "the enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. â ¦ My belief has faltered, my sense of God's closeness has grown strained."

It's not a self-help book, although Winner does try certain things, such as taking up cooking again, to break out of her despond and reconnect to what's important. And it's not an inspirational book. Thoughtful, yes, muted, yes, deeply repentant, but in the end hardly shining or triumphant. Its three sections are "Wall" (the blank obstacle into which Winner runs); "Movement" (in which she seeks solace from her community); and "Presence," in which she intuits a qualified awareness of the invisible, elusive God. Winner is in a hard-won better place, but all is far from solved. It was a good book to read for Lent. With only a week to go before Easter, there's still time.

The book is a series of short essays on her depression and crisis after the failure in 2009 of her marriage of six years. After a few oblique remarks, her husband is seldom mentioned (although always respectfully), and Winner goes into no detail about the marriage itself. We must take her word for it: She discovered she was in the marriage out of vanity, not love or commitment. She didn't belong there, and she had to leave.

A great deal about that - the situation, the analysis, and the refusal to explain further - is unsettling. And there's much that is unsettled about Lauren Winner. Some have suggested (unfairly) that, after all, she's just too all-over-the-place, all these changes before 40, hardly anyone to trust with wisdom on love, life, or God. And as a young woman who'd read Still recently asked me, "What do you think she's saying about marriage?" That's a very good question. The divorce obviously shook her (as it has shaken many readers who look to her), shook her self-image as a woman, wife, writer, and Christian. I even know of some people who think she should not have gone through with the ordination.

Still situates us in the blast after the collapse, life having lost its savor, the spiritual life (Winner never leaves it, but it doesn't affect her as it once did) its arc and energy. She tries to understand. She looks for metaphors, for reasons, for patience. I am grateful for the lack of melodrama, the light touch with her emotions, the frequent self-deprecation. She acknowledges that she is a sinner, a messer-up, a person who likes to have all eyes on her, who likes to be the smartest girl in the room, who doesn't always avoid smugness or preciousness. She chooses rather to present daily emptiness as empty.

That's why we should trust Still and its author. Essay by essay, we see her trying out new ways to see her situation. A theme emerges: that of middles. We are not good at being in the middle of time, no direction, no head of sail. The title, Still, captures not only the sense of stranded stasis that afflicts people in the middle, but also the stubborn will to persevere and remain. Some of her best essays are about middles. "Middle Voice" is the best, in which she sees her predicament in terms of a verb form; it concludes with a blizzard of brilliant points about spirituality. "Middle Tint," scarcely less good, carries this tenor to a painterly vehicle. Winner is in the middle and she cannot see a way in or out. "Pie Social" follows her to an embarrassing church function at which she nevertheless learns about the spirituality of others. And in "Prayer, Lively" and "A Sunday Morning in Massachusetts" we see ordinary moments of illumination.

Perhaps, in a book that tries hard to avoid big morals in favor of small moments, Winner must learn, in terms of her faith and her relation to God, two lessons all depression-stricken people must learn. They mean the most for the believer in the middle (that word again) of the dark night, but they are beginnings for all those mired in the maroon of hopelessness. The first is that her depression is a mistake, a way of seeing the world that begins with an error and turns in on itself. Repeatedly, she realizes that she has an important idea wrong (for example, thinking you've lost God when in fact you're the one who is lost, or thinking you can't find God when you've forgotten how or where to look).

After reading Still, I feel like adapting something Samuel Jonson once said of a fellow poet: I'd just as soon pray with Lauren Winner as with anyone else. As all of us must learn, she realizes that, in the end, this story is not hers, and not about her. She plays a small role in a small chapter, much like the ones in Still, in a story that always, already, is about Another.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.