Wild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and My Quest for an Elusive Saint
Broadleaf Books (August 3, 2021), 217 pages
Kindle edition $13.74, Amazon hardcover $14.10
The Wild Woman of the title is Mary of Egypt, a little-known saint in the Christian church. Amy Frykholm first discovered Mary in a book she stumbled across while verifying the footnotes in a book she was completing. It was only several years later when she heard the name mentioned at a writing conference that she felt drawn to pursue Mary.
Our primary source for Mary of Egypt is a life written in Greek by St. Sophronius, whose life straddled the fourth and fifth centuries AD. He tells the story through the eyes of Zosimas, a monk who encountered her in the Judean desert. As the story goes, Mary left her family in Nubia, in the north of Egypt and traveled to Alexandria, where she lived a life of offering sexual favors. In Alexandria she saw people boarding a ship headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Holy Cross. Without money she again offered her favors to gain passage, an offer the ship’s crew accepted. Once in Jerusalem she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but an invisible force held her back. She encountered the presence of the Virgin Mary, repented of her lifestyle, and was allowed inside the church. From there she crossed the river Jordan where she lived the rest of her life as an ascetic.
Frykholm was so drawn to the life of Mary that she set out on her own journey to visit the places where Mary would have walked. Her mother and her husband sharing different segments of the journey, she visited Nubia, the Monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and the Judean wilderness.
The author describes her visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where she learned that there was supposedly a chapel dedicated to Mary. She was frustrated in her attempts to find the chapel. She was told that it was closed, or that it was only open one day a year. The Copts told her that the Orthodox were responsible for it, and the Orthodox told her that the Copts were responsible. Finally, with the help of a local who had connections with the community around the church, the Orthodox archbishop found the key and let her in. She was disappointed that there was little associated with Mary there.
Frykholm then crossed the Jordan and visited an archaeological site that had an association with Mary, a place that was once a hostel for pilgrims. From there she made a trek into the Judean wilderness to understand the terrain in which Mary supposedly lived. She saw a dragonfly chrysalis in which she felt the essence of Mary.
Interweaved with her own story, Frykholm writes about her best friend Ali, an Episcopal priest, and Ali’s struggle with cancer. Ali parallels her quest with Frykholm’s.
The author was so engaged with the story of Mary that she asked her father, a scholar of the Greek language, to help her learn Greek, which he did via Skype. The two of them then created an English translation of Sophronius’s work, which appears as an appendix to Wild Woman.
Frykholm’s own journey is every bit as engaging as the life of Mary. She continues the sojourn in an eight-episode podcast for The Christian Century called In Search Of. She interviews some of the people she mentions in the book, and others who have helped her with her mission to understand Mary of Egypt.
I had never heard of Mary of Egypt until I learned of Frykholm’s book, but as it happens Mary appears in the 2018 edition of the Episcopal volume Lesser Feasts and Fasts. You’ll find her on April 3, with her name in brackets, meaning that she’s there for trial use.
I am grateful to Frykholm and to Mary of Egypt for enriching my own spiritual journey.
Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World
J. Philip Newell
HarperOne (July 6, 2021), 285 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $21.28
I can’t think of anyone better qualified to write about Celtic spirituality than J. Philip Newell. He was, after all, once the director of the retreat center on Iona, and continued (in pre-pandemic times at least) to lead pilgrimages there. Newell does an impressive job of discussing several individuals who were instrumental in furthering the cause of Celtic Christianity.
The author begins his survey with Pelagius, who was a contemporary of St. Augustine. Pelagius believed that human nature was not inherently sinful. He also believed in teaching women. For this and other (in the church’s eyes) heresies, the Roman church condemned him more than once. Newell then discusses St. Brigid. Brigid, of course, has pagan routes. Once source said that she was a Druidess. The Celtic Church, however, heartily embraced her.
Newell goes on to discuss John Scotus Eriugena, who lived in the ninth century. Eriugena saw the sacred in all the natural world. The author then gives a treatment of the life of Alexander John Scott, a Scottish minister of the nineteenth century. Scott’s teachings got him into trouble and very little of his writing has come down to us. Newell, however, believed that Scott’s teachings were important and chose to write his doctoral dissertation about him. While his advisers were dubious Newell was able to resurrect enough source material from contemporary sources to resurrect his legacy.
The author discusses both John Muir and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Muir, the son of a Calvinist preacher, had a spiritual side we rarely hear about. Teilhard believed the divine existed in the material. I had often seen him referred to as a paleontologist, but Newell states that the church sent him into the field because of his writing. (Other sources, perhaps closer to Teilhard, say his paleontological work influenced his thought.) The Catholic Church banned his writing, but he signed all of his books over to his literary assistant who was able to publish them after his death. Newell also writes about George MacLeod, who was responsible for the modern incarnation of Iona as a retreat center. Clearly Newell has a great fondness for MacLeod. Finally, Newell devotes a chapter to the poet Kenneth White, who had a Celtic mentality and wrote poems about the sacred journey.
Newell devotes a chapter to the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Celtic poems and songs. A man named Alexander Carmichael, who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gets credit for compiling many of these. These pieces were originally written in Gaelic, and Newell writes that the Gaelic spoken in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland is related to Sanskrit. He says that one can find in these works the same sense of the sacred found in Sanskrit poetry.
Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul is an excellent introduction to or review of Celtic Christianity.
Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
HarperOne (November 2, 2021), 229 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.99
I was unsure whether I wanted to read Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans’s final book. Evans died in 2019 at the age of thirty-seven due to complications from a strange infection. She left a body of writing on her computer that she intended to develop into another book. Her husband gave her frequent collaborator, Jeff Chu, access to those writings and Chu formed them into the book that was published as Wholehearted Faith. After listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Chu on her radio program and podcast On Being I knew I needed to read the book.
I knew of Rachel during her lifetime, but I regret that I never read any of her work while she was still alive. In December I listened to the audiobook version of Searching for Sunday, which she read herself. Although we come from very different backgrounds, in reading that book I shared with her the quest to discover what, exactly, my relationship is with the church. It is a complicated and nuanced question.
Evans grew up in an evangelical home. Her father was involved in Christian education and the family attended a conservative evangelical church. As a child she was passionate about her own beliefs and made herself into the best evangelical she could be. She won the Best Christian Attitude award in her parochial school four years running, a streak that was only broken when her family moved and put her in public school. At her baptism by immersion as a teenager her primary concern was that the white baptismal gown clinging to her maturing body might lead a boy in the congregation to have impure thoughts.
As an adult she began to be bothered by the prejudice and intolerance in her evangelical tradition. She was unhappy with the secondary role such churches gave to women and their condemnation of LGBTQ+ individuals and those with other alternative lifestyles. She came to believe that it was all right to doubt and to debate and discuss the Bible.
She starts the first chapter with a series of paragraphs that begin, “On the days when I believe…” For example, “On the days when I believe, I feel enfolded in a story so much greater than my own. It’s a story that knits together a thousand generations of saints.” After those positive and joyful paragraphs she writes, “And then there are the other days.” She goes on to write about how she copes with those other days. Rachel says that when she doesn’t have the words for her own prayers she can return to the ancient prayers in the Christian tradition.
Rachel writes, just as I have experienced, “Early on I sensed a profound disconnect between what I was supposed to believe and what I actually believed.” She admits, as do I that, “My so-called spiritual journey still continues to meander.”
Although she moved in her own direction as an adult she is not bitter or angry about her parents, her pastors, or her childhood churches. Rather, she states they allowed her to become the person she turned into as an adult. In the face of harsh criticism for the content of her blogs posts and her tweets she developed a mantra of “Thick skin, tender heart.” Rachel writes about people with other lifestyles and states, “I thought God wanted to use me to show queer people how to be straight. Instead, God empowered queer people to show me how to be a better Christian.”
Jeff Chu includes a passage in which Rachel writes about how she and her husband were building a new house. She says that like in her old house her study would be in the basement, but that, unlike the old house, the new study wouldn’t have 1970s wood paneling and would have windows out of which she could watch her children playing in the back yard. That she never got to experience that house and her new study brought a tear to my eye.
Near the end of the book Rachel riffs on John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” She provides several iterations starting with that phrase including this one: “For God so loved the world that God empowered us to love even our enemies, even the worst person on Twitter, even those who seem incapable of love themselves.”
Damn. That’s hard. It’s true; I know it is. But I struggle with that more than nearly any other aspect of Christianity. I’m supposed to love the guy with the orange hair who incited the insurrection at the Capitol building? Really? But Rachel does not shirk from laying out the hard stuff for her readers.
It’s a huge loss that we no longer have Rachel Held Evans with us. I am grateful to Jeff Chu for giving us one last book from her.
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
Rachel Held Evans
read by the author
Thomas Nelson, April 21, 2015
$20.96 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
I had long known of Rachel Held Evans when I read of her hospitalization in 2019 with a strange infection, and was, like so many others, saddened by her subsequent death at a time when we needed her wisdom and insight. I had, however, not read any of her work.
I was interested, therefore, to learn of the posthumous publication of a new book entitled Wholehearted Faith. Her husband discovered she left behind extensive notes and unfinished writing on her computer, so he called on her writing collaborator, Jeff Chu, to craft what was there into one final book. When looking at her books, however, I was attracted by an earlier work of hers, Searching for Sunday. She writes about her own spiritual path; it seemed to me to have parallels to my own.
She divides the book into seven sections, corresponding to the seven sacraments: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage. (The Episcopal Church considers communion and marriage to be sacraments, while it calls the remainder sacramental rites.) Within each section she writes both about her spiritual path and her reflections on church and society. A couple of the chapters amount to her own liturgical litanies.
She writes about growing up at the evangelical Grace Bible Church in Tennessee and being baptized there as a teenager. The pastor at Grace later presided Rachel and her husband’s wedding, and they attended the church until leaving when the doctrine there became incompatible with their own beliefs. The members of their church and others in their small town made this a topic of conversation. When someone emailed Rachel telling her she had heard that Rachel had become a Buddhist, Rachel responded, “I’m not disciplined enough to be a Buddhist!”
She and her husband did some halfhearted church seeking, but she admits that on many Sundays they ended up television binge-watching. When the former youth pastor at Grace decided to form a mission church in Dayton Rachel and her husband joined in. The mission didn’t last, and after its closure she and her husband didn’t spend a lot of time in church search. Rachel’s weekends were busy meeting with church groups and attending conferences resulting from the popularity of her first two books. (I’m sorry to say that her California hosts could not convince her of the sacred nature of the In-n-Out burger.) She writes about a stay at a monastic retreat house, where the guestmaster was completely accepting and her lunch table-mate was taken aback that Rachel had doubts (and that she wasn’t Catholic). Ultimately, Rachel and her husband found an Episcopal church a half hour away from their home which they attended semi-regularly.
It was delightful listening to Rachel tell her story in her light Tennessee accent. She makes you think she is the kind of person with whom you would like to have a long after-dinner conversation. Not that everything is upbeat and pleasant about the church for Rachel. She suggests that the church should be a place where a person feels safe but not necessarily comfortable.
It is a tragedy that Rachel Held Evans is no longer with us, but if you have ever had doubts about your own spiritual path get the audiobook and listen to Rachel’s comforting voice. You will feel better about your own struggles.
Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love
Yale University Press (September 22, 2020), 481 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $25.99
I have long felt that my religious inclinations are closer to modern Rabbinic Judaism than to Christianity. That is odd, since I’m a practicing Episcopalian, but it’s true. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around the Trinity and I’ve been told I don’t understand it. I like the idea of a direct relationship with God, and I’m not sure why we need a Son to facilitate that.
In fact, if things had been slightly different I might have converted to Judaism. My first wife, Ruth, was Jewish and the rabbi at the local reform synagogue married us in our backyard. We were members of the synagogue and attended Friday night sabbath services, which I loved. One year I had the privilege of attending the Erev Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, which I found deeply moving. I felt a real resonance with the liturgy.
At one Friday sabbath service, however, the rabbi came down strong and hard against new age practitioners in his sermon. This was a bit of an issue in that Ruth was a new age practitioner. His comments, understandably, seriously ticked her off. I tried to defuse the situation, but without success. The conversation went something like this.
Me: “He was just trying to say…”
Me: “He was only making the point that…”
Me: “He simply wanted to suggest that…”
As you can imagine, we did not return to Friday evening services. But I had a strong affinity for Judaism long before I met Ruth and I have maintained that affinity in the decades after her untimely death.
It’s no surprise, then, that when I saw Judaism for the World reviewed it got my attention. Arthur Green is a rabbi and a trainer of rabbis. He has had a long career and Judaism for the World includes a variety of his writing over a period of years. He is a student of Gershom Scholem, and as such takes a mystical approach to his religion. He is conversant with Kabbalah and its primary written work, the Zohar, as well as the teachings of the Hasidic rebbes. He is also a scholar and well-versed in the Law.
Green takes seriously the history of the Jewish people having been slaves in Egypt and is therefore critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Green is highly ecumenical in his approach and respects the validity of other religions. He writes, “Religions acting together, in common quest for God—or the One, or Being, or the great Nothing—and fulfillment of the divine purpose in existence, can be a great force for good.”
One of the most interesting passages in the book is Green’s recounting of his own spiritual path. His mother died when he was eleven, and his father was an atheist. However, Green found a great deal of meaning in the small synagogue his maternal grandparents attended. His father sent him to Hebrew school to prepare for his bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah was not something the father wanted but agreed to it in order to make Grandmother happy. He told the young Green that he could drop out if he didn’t like it. Much to his father’s consternation Green loved Hebrew school and was delighted to receive his bar mitzvah. As a college graduate he nearly declined to be ordained as a rabbi, citing inconsistency and hypocrisy in the religion. Ultimately he realized he could do more good from the inside than from the outside. The rest is… Well, you’ll see what the rest is from the essays and speeches in this book.
Judaism for the World reinforced for me my understanding that part of me is quite Jewish.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Riverhead Books (March 2, 2021), 223 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $15.61
Reading an Anne Lamott book is like reading a book by an old friend. I have been reading her books for many years, and she was a regular guest on the late, lamented West Coast Live radio program in San Francisco.
She wrote this book before the change of administration in Washington, so perhaps there is a bit of a pall over it that wouldn’t have been there had she finished the book after January 20. Nonetheless, Lamott is not about negativity; she writes about hope and help.
If you’re familiar with Anne Lamott you know she is a recovering alcoholic, and she speaks honestly about addiction and recovery. She writes about how she has been helped, about she has helped others, and about how we can help each other. Lamott (who is less than a year younger than me) was married for the first time in 2019, and she worries her husband may discover that she’s not the person he thought he married. He seems to not be troubled by that.
Anne has a way of putting things in perspective, even when the world seems impossibly difficult:
The search for the holy grail has been called off. No grail to find, no code to break. All along, it turns out that there was only the imperfect love of a few trusted people and that in troubled times, like heat waves, epidemics, and blackouts, most people bring their best selves. No ultimate answers, only the blessings of friendship and service; silence and music, the beauty of the seasons and skies, creation, in art and life’s phases—birth, death, new life. Sigh.
Lamott tells us, “Maybe the poet was wrong when he said the center cannot hold. Maybe it can and does hold. Maybe the center paradoxically holds everything, like the gravity well in which our teeny galaxy is held.”
She writes, “Terrible losses befall those we love, and yet we are saved again and again by a cocoon of goodwill, evolution, and sweet milky tea. That is plenty of center for me.”
And for me too.
I am not a trinitarian kind of guy, as I have more than once noted here. My personal theology is much closer to rabbinic Judaism than it is to a Christian trinitarian perspective. Yet I am an Episcopalian, about as trinitarian a denomination as it’s possible to be.
Nonetheless I do sometimes like the idea of the Holy Spirit, depending on how it is portrayed. Some of the best, most interesting, and fun portrayals can be found in the Facebook page Unvirtuous Abbey. One of my favorites is this one. It reminds me that in those moments when God seems far away one only need wait a short while for the arrival of His (Her!) presence.
We preempt our regularly scheduled blog to bring you the royal wedding sermon by The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. It is well worth fourteen minutes of your time. You may want to have a Kleenex handy.
We lost Ann Fontaine last week.
Ann was a well-known figure to Episcopalians online. I knew her through her blog, through the Episcopal Café, and through Facebook.
I was aware that she had some lung issues, but somehow I had the impression that those issues were under control. However, Ann announced before Ash Wednesday that she was not going to observe Lent this year – she had enough to focus on with her own health. She, in effect, put herself into self-managed hospice care. Somewhere around Easter she called in the hospice professionals. Her daughter let us know last week that Ann died peacefully in her sleep.
We will miss her.
I loved reading her blog when she actively maintained it. She was a founder of the Episcopal Café and an active contributor until recently. I once wrote an article for the Café in which I described how, though an Episcopalian, I had a big problem with the Trinity and that my theology was much closer to that of rabbinic Judaism. She posted a comment on Facebook saying, “Someone doesn’t understand the Trinity.” That kind of irked me, but she was right. I still don’t understand the Trinity.
Ann was also a Facebook friend. She would occasionally click Like on one of my posts. I appreciated that. She loved baseball, as, of course, do I. She was a big-time Cubs fan. While still in the Bay Area I was a Giants fan, but after moving back to SoCal in 2015 I had no choice but to resurrect my loyalty to the team of my childhood, the Dodgers. There was some discussion a while back about bringing the designated hitter to the National League. Ann posted her outrage to Facebook. A FB friend replied that it wasn’t that big of a deal. And replied, “Yes it is!” I fully agreed with her.
We love you, Ann. We miss you. Rest in peace and rise in glory!
I’m not that old. At least I don’t feel that old. I have to admit that I become eligible for Medicare next year. But still. And if I want to feel young, all I have to do is to do is have lunch at the Bistro here at Four Seasons or go to Sunday service at Good Shepherd Episcopal.
Think back to the first major global event you remember. For me, it was the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
She went on to write: “Others may recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. … Still others will remember the events of September 11, skyscrapers folding in upon themselves and planes being transformed into missiles.”
I was working at the weekly newspaper Metro in San Jose when the publisher’s wife said, “The shuttle blew up.” When the Berlin Wall fell I was working at a small software company in Mountain View. On 9/11 I was snoozing on the commuter train, not learning what had happened until I arrived at Lawrence Station in Sunnyvale.
The earliest events I remember were decades earlier. I remember talk of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a podium and people discussing his statement, “We will bury you.” I remember the events surrounding the 1960 presidential election. I suppose the first specific even I remember was Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight in 1961. I was an avid follower of the space program then on.
But still, I don’t feel that old.