I was first drawn to spiritual memoir in my early 20s. The timing is no coincidence. I was trying to make sense of my Christian faith. Did I still believe? Would I ever stop doubting? What if my faith looked different from the way I was raised?
The authors of spiritual memoir offered understanding and solidarity. As I read through their ups and downs, I was able to make some sense of my own. Faith will never be black and white for me. There will never be easy answers and there will always be periods where doubt looms larger than belief and I'm OK with that. And in the moments I'm not OK with that, I thumb through the pages of my favorites and nod at their struggles and remember we're not alone in this.
These are the books that carry me.
A quick note: spiritual memoir can be a tricky category to contain. There's a growing rise in books about faith which contain aspects of the author's personal story but that isn't memoir to me.
Another note: While reading Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots a few weeks ago, I decided to read more spiritual memoirs concerning faiths other than Christianity. Feldman's extremely conservative Hasidic Jewish upbringing was fascinating, as was the way she wrestled with what she was taught and her decision to ultimately leave the community. Every faith has its share of doubt and resistance and I want to read more of those stories. If you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.
(Here are my favorite food memoirs.)
An Altar In The World: A Geography of Faith- Barbara Brown Taylor
I loved the way Barbara Brown Taylor ushers her readers along as she describes spiritual practices. Truly soul-stirring. It's hard to pick a favorite among BBT's works. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith and Learning to Walk in the Dark are not to be missed. All three have met me in mighty ways at precisely the time I needed them.
Any Day A Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family- Katherine Willis Pershey
I could barely put this one down. I found Katherine's account to be mesmerizing, authentic, and often poignant in ways I didn't expect. Even though there's a fair amount related to parenting, I didn't care. This isn't a mama memoir and yet it is. More than that, it's a tale of a marriage restored, as well as a glimpse into the life of a woman who happens to preach. I loved the connections she made.
The Book Of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith- Joanna Brooks
There were uncanny parallels between Brooks's Mormon upbringing and my own Evangelical childhood. I appreciated her honest and thoughtful portrayal of grappling with the religion she was raised in and the convictions she holds today.
In so many ways, I feel Evans' story is my story, from our shared childhood eczema to wrestling with faith. We came up with a few different conclusions but overall I appreciated her exploration and her honesty. Her blog has been a lifeline to me the past 6 years. While her last book Searching For Sunday was a breath of fresh air concerning the church, her first book was the one that helped me feel seen and understood.
(Originally titled Evolving in Monkey Town.)
Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer- Micha Boyett
Beautifully written, lovely, engaging, insightful. I guessed I'd love it because I've been looking forward to it for so long but I had no idea it would resonate so deeply with me. Found is not just about spirituality or motherhood or prayer. It is all these things but it is really one woman's journey of discovery. It is about how Micha grew to know God in a whole new way. Her openness and honesty about this process is a gift to us.
Girl Meets God- Lauren Winner
I read Girl Meets God a year or so after it came out. I don't remember much about it, other than a general sense of not liking it. With the exception of Mudhouse Sabbath, this seems to be my pattern with Winner's books. The first time: meh. The second time: blown away. I re-read Girl Meets God in 2012 and found it to be a beautifully written account of Winner's conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Great insights about faith from both perspectives.
Here If You Need Me- Kate Braestrup
A moving memoir filled with rich insights about grief and loss, faith and doubt, and how resilient we can be for ourselves and others when the occasion calls for it. Braestrup becomes a minister in the Unitarian church and I appreciated learning more about the UU's approach to faith. It's a slim volume but her stories about working with the Maine Game Warden Service, as well as the death of her husband, carry great weight and gave me much to ponder.
Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint- Nadia Bolz-Weber
I want Nadia Bolz-Weber to be my Patronus. Such a breath of fresh air! Once you've read this, listen to her episode on On Being With Krista Tippett. I've listened to it a few times and come away with new insights every time.
Surprised By Oxford- Carolyn Weber
Though our upbringings couldn't be more different, I found Weber to be a kindred spirit. There were the many literary references, for one. Her excellent questions of and about God and faith, for another. One need not divorce faith from intellect, a truth very evident in these pages. As Weber takes the reader through her first academic year at Oxford, I fell in love with her descriptions of the school and town. And then I fell in love with TDH (short for tall, dark, and handsome, of course) who was first her friend and then something more. Surprised by Oxford is a love story in many ways. Weber's words were poetry for my soul and I was quite sad to finish it.
Wisdom and grace permeate the pages of this beautifully written book. God went silent while Preston attended Baylor University and this loss ultimately taught Preston what it is to hear. This called to mind a dark night of the soul that happened in my early 20s, a season where I did not hear from God and had to grasp every bit of faith to believe He was still present in spite of His perceived absence. I wish I could have read this then.
Tables in the Wilderness serves as a guide through the unknown. Through Preston's story, we see ourselves. We remember our smallness and God's vast mystery. We remember what it is to be lost and then found. We remember what it is to be welcomed at the Table. (Full review here.)
Heads up: Out of the House of Bread came out last month and I cannot wait to dive in. I believe it was the book Preston was born to write.
Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion- Sara Miles
Miles writes about communion, faith, and poverty unlike anyone else. I experienced God time and again while reading it. Hers is an unconventional life and faith and we would do well to pay attention. Miles lives out her beliefs, she puts faith in action and in doing so, she changed the food pantry landscape in San Francisco.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith- Anne Lamott
Lamott's writing is not for the faint of heart. She is irreverent while being reverent. Her story of conversion does not fall into the nice cookie cutter shape of other conversion stories. Yet. She is dynamic and she is honest about her issues. This is a beautiful exploration of faith.
When We Were On Fire is stunningly crafted and full of grace. Our stories aren't exactly the same but my friend Addie and I both grew up in the evangelical subculture and we've both struggled to find our place in the church since then. You could take the same subculture and string together words that wound. Yet there are no bad guys here. This is real life and it's reflected throughout the memoir. It's gritty and sometimes the language is salty. By naming and honoring the dark parts, we let the light in. Addie's writing is nothing but authentic and perhaps that's why it resonated so strongly with me. Her words were a balm time and again. I don't just love this book, I adore it. I want its truths to settle down deep in me. I cannot wait to read her next memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, out this March.
What are your favorite spiritual memoirs?
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