It was on our last day in Mexico when I remembered that I had a slim little volume tucked away in my bag that I hadn't cracked open yet: a copy of Adam Miller's new book, Letters to A Young Mormon that had been sent to me by the publisher, the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. On a balcony overlooking Puerto Vallarta's beautiful bay, with my kids exhausted from the beach and happily engaged by "Nanny McPhee" in Spanish on the television, I delved in, not knowing quite what to expect.
When I returned to my vegging children less than an hour later, they were no longer the constantly hungry/hot/cold/tired/not tired kids I had just shared a cramped hotel room with for a week; the book had utterly transformed them in my eyes to spiritual creatures on an earthly journey. To fellow sisters in Christ. To partakers of God's mysterious grace and coauthors of His glorious story.
This is the effect this 78-page book had on me and, according to other reviews here and here, other readers. It is hard to describe what this book actually is except that it portends in my eyes the emergence of a Mormon C. S. Lewis, whose Mere Christianity or Screwtape Letters force Christians to reexamine all of the worn paradigms and rhetorics of our organized worship and instead inhale the pure essence of God's glory. The author's ability to make concrete the most ephemeral of ideas reminded me of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. Miller at once makes religion unknowable, ungraspable, while at the same time giving me the most concrete way to approach my faith that I have had for quite some time.
That ability to combine the unknowability of God with the concrete lived experience is best captured for me in the opening paragraphs of the letter entitled "Prayer." "When you pray," Miller writes, "the most imporant thing is to stay awake." Here we understand the specific, corporeal directive, directed, presumably, at a young person for whom life has not yet provided the desperate stuff of many adults' pleadings. And yet Miller then follows this startlingly banal advice with a transcendent vision of prayer's potential: "The substance of a prayer is [a] willingness to remember, to heave your wandering mind back, once more, in the direction of God, and then, when it drifts off yet again, to heave it still another time." The letter on prayer closes with Miller disclosing that he once sat in silence for ten days. His "heart broke. And I wept silent tears. And I woke up." Stay awake, indeed.
This ability to speak both of the practical and the transcendent enables Miller to fulfill his professed mission as stated at the beginning of the book: "...to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon either life or Mormonism." It is the goal of my own work in the Mormon Women Project to demonstrate this intersection of life lived fully with faith lived fully. Miller has given me a way to express to my own daughters theory and praxis, word and world, working hand in hand. For that I am grateful. I am confident you will be too.
What I've Been Reading:
A week's vacation allowed me to feast on books after a famine of free reading time. Here's some of what I enjoyed:
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I've followed Lahiri's work since the publication of her short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, in 1999. No one speaks more eloquently about themes of belonging, loneliness, assimilation, and lasting familial bonds. As much as I enjoyed this book, however, I felt it recycled many of the same tropes as her earlier work -- the Indian immigrant teaching at a college in New England, etc. -- and I'm hoping her next work will surprise me with its originality.
The Accidental Marriage, by Annette Haws. The author is a friend of my husband, Elliot's, family and since she told my mother-in-law that the main character of her latest novel -- Elliot -- was patterned after my husband, well, I just had to read it. Not only is her Elliot 6'4" and a Robert Burns reincarnation, but the woman he marries is named Nina (did you catch the N?) and is the daughter of a lawyer and an uppity intellectual who scoffs at housework... So, besides the fact that I was distracted by constantly looking for me and my husband in the main characters, this book is extremely well written for Mormon literature -- or for any literature for that matter -- and I deeply appreciated the very non-Mormony themes the author took on: challenges of young marriage, the women's movement of the 1970s, sexual harrassment in the workplace. It's not a fluffy book, despite its Mormon context. Well worth reading, except please remember my husband and I are happily married and have been from the start!
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. This has been on my list to read for a while, and while it was the perfect book for a beach vacation, I'm glad I didn't dedicate work week hours to it. I love magical realism, this book's genre, and it reminded me of the delightful experience of reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.
A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, by Stephanie Coontz. This is a fantastic, self-contained refresher on the arc of women's political, commercial and domestic worlds of the 20th century. While I lost interest during some of the particularly statistically heavy chapters (how many ways can one say women were happy or unhappy?), I loved the last third of the book in which Coontz breaks down just how drastically life has changed for American middle-class women over the past fifty years.
A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeline L'Engle. I read this out loud to my kids on a bumpy bus ride through the Sierra Madre mountains. Didn't stop one of them from throwing up. But what a joy to share it with my girls.