I have to confess that I've never known a person who was transformed by reading a book about someone else's transformation - or experiences of faith, grief, joy. . . whatever.
I'm not saying it doesn't happen. I'm just saying that it hasn't been my personal experience.
That may say something more about the circles in which I travel - or something about my own spirituality - than anything else.
Mind you, I'm a voracious reader - not unlike Ms. Conroy but she reads murder mystery novels like some people devour pop corn at a movie. I teasingly call it "bubble gum for the brain." She returns the compliment with an icy smile - which is well deserved, I should add.
I love stories and the stories of people's faith journeys are wonderful. Poet Muriel Rukeyser famously said, "The world is made up of stories, not atoms." I believe that to be true.
But, for me, stories written in books only go so far. They only affirm what has already happened. Provide insights. Allow people to go deeper. Travel further. Stories that are shared one-on-one or in small groups are the atoms that hold the world together.
In my almost 25 years of ordained ministry and all the years of incredible ministry "in the world" that prepared me for ordination, I must say that the most powerful, transformative religious experiences I've had with others have been in small, intimate conversations.
I rush to say that my soul was as transformed as those who were being transformed.
I'm remembering one moment with a graduate student when I was Chaplain at U Lowell. It was Palm Sunday. In my office. Only one student showed up. It was Spring Break, after all.
Together we read The Passion. In the middle of the reading, I looked up and he was weeping. When he regained his composure, all he could say was, "I never knew. I mean, I thought I knew. But reading this, now, with you . . . ."
There followed one of the most powerful two hour conversations about Jesus and the Incarnation and the Atonement and the Resurrection I've ever had. We talked. We shared our stories. We laughed. We cried. We laughed some more.
I'm sure our theology would make some people cringe. Never mind. Jesus was in the room. I know that. For a fact. And, he was smiling.
We still keep in touch, that young man and I. He and the handful of people with whom I've been privileged to share a similar experience of revelation and faith. Just got a Christmas Card in the mail from one of them today, which is probably why I'm writing this.
I've had this experience in a variety of ways with a handful of people over the past 25 years. That's not exactly a 'prize-winning' score card - I'm not going to win any awards for evangelism (good thing I'm not looking for one) - but I can tell you what each of their faces looked like "the hour they first believed".
That's a wee bit of an exaggeration, of course. My experience - and, it's only my experience - is that transformation is a gradual awakening. I know, I know. That sounds trite and cliche, but those are the words that come to me.
It's a process of transformation and formation and transformation and formation. It takes a lifetime of work.
Reading books like the works of CS Lewis can help, although most of his stuff pretty much leaves me cold. It's like Bonhoeffer. Good theology but his writing leaves me cold. I have to push through it in order to get to the good stuff. (I know, I know. He was German. And, he was in prison. I understand.)
For me, reading books like that happened much further down the road to my own or other's transformations.
For me, spiritual transformation came from the poetry of John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I think T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" affirmed my own faith experience in very powerful ways that allowed me to risk exploring the depths of my soul.
But, so did the writing of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty.
My spirituality has further deepened by reading the sermons of Barbara Brown Taylor or the writings of Annie Lamont, Barbara Crafton, Madeleine L'Engle, and Barbara Kingsolver - and so many fine modern writers - and authors and actors of screenplays and movies! - who call us to think and rethink great themes of sin and salvation, redemption and reconciliation, faith and hope.
Sometimes, my spirituality has deepened by the music of Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms, The Who and Sting, Pavarotti and Jesse Norman, Mahaila Jackson and Aretha Franklin. It has deepened from Eucharist liturgies well done and sermons from a place of such exquisite truth in the preacher that it broke my heart open.
Remind me sometime to tell you about my Clergy Leadership Project (the precursor to CREDO) group's "field trip" to BB King's place on Beal Street in Memphis and the fabulous Ms. Ruby Dee's rendition of "Knock on Wood" when people on the dance floor and in the club called out their petitions of prayer and thanksgiving. My colleagues there can testify that I was weeping so hard I could hardly breathe.
I remember one young man I baptized at age 9. We had met several times for conversations about what baptism meant. He couldn't get his head wrapped around it.
Then, one day, he came bursting into my office, "Rev. Elizabeth, Rev. Elizabeth - I think I got it. It's Pinocchio, right? It's when the Blue Fairy came and said, "Little puppet made of pine, awake, the gift of life is thine." THAT'S baptism, right? It just cuts away the strings"
"That's good," I said. "That's very good. After baptism, you'll walk more closely with Jesus and learn from him what it means to be a 'real boy'."
"That happens at Confirmation, right?"
"Well, that may be a little too soon," I said. "I think it happens after you understand what Pinocchio did to save his father. You may not be able to understand this right now, but I want you to remember this: It happens when love breaks your heart."
That was over 20 years ago. He's a physician now. He wrote to me a few years back, when he was a new intern, and said that he had just experienced his first "Code" and was successful in helping to save a life.
Two days later, the man died. It was a difficult case and he was deeply affected by it. He wrote, "I think I'm just now learning what it means to be 'real'. I've got much more to learn, but I think I'm getting it."
A friend gave me a picture of that moment between Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy which hangs on my office wall. That's the moment, up there, at the beginning of this post. I've also included a clip I found on YouTube from the movie (Is there anything you can't find on YouTube?). It's at the very end of this post.
I use the picture of Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy with children as well as adults as part of our conversation about baptism and a life in Christ. I've been meaning to order and read it, but I think Pope John wrote a book about Pinocchio and a life in Christ. If anyone has read that book, I'd appreciate hearing what you thought of it. I think I'm ready, now, to read it.
My young friend also called me once, when he was in med school, after watching the film "American Beauty". He was describing the scene where one of the characters is showing a video he shot of a plastic bag and some dry, dead leaves dancing in the wind. The character says,
"And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."My young friend said, "I think I'm still getting it, Rev'd Elizabeth."
"Me too," I said. "Me, too." And then I went right out to see the film. And, I discussed it with my Anam Cara as well as my small group of friends.
What would I advise for a ministry with seekers or with those who have suffered loss from death, addiction, unemployment, etc.?
Make yourself available. Tell your story. Help others find God, find Jesus, find the Holy Spirit in the common stuff of their own lives. Help others - and, yourself - to see the holy in the common.
You know. Like Jesus did.
Don't give out books until much, much later in the 'gradual awakening' that is sometimes part of the experience of spiritual transformation and conversion.
It's very inconvenient. Cumbersome. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Probably not very efficient. But, it has worked - still works - for me.
You'll notice, in this short clip from the Disney movie that the first thing the Blue Fairy does after she works her magic is to "anoint" Jiminy Cricket as Pinocchio's "conscience".
That makes perfect sense to me. Because, we can't make this spiritual journey into being "real" all by ourselves.
The Blue Fairy says, "Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday, you will be a real boy. You must learn to choose between right and wrong."
"Right and wrong?" asks Pinocchio? "But, how will I know?"
"Your conscience will tell you," she says.
And then she dubs Jiminy Cricket, who says that conscience is 'that still small voice inside', "Lord High Keeper of Right and Wrong, Counselor Against All Temptation and Guide Along the Straight and Narrow Places."
Reading books alone can't make you real. We all need a few Jiminy Crickets and Blue Fairies in our lives.
That may be the best Christmas present you give yourself this year - a few good people to accompany you, counsel you against temptation and guide you along the straight and narrow places.
Then, I think, the epiphanies of the great miracle that is the Incarnation will begin to be known in your life.
At least, that's how it's worked for me.