"If ministers told a deep truth in ONE sermon, that they have depression, too, or have thought about suicide, or used booze or food or workaholism to self-medicate and mood-alter, they would be astonished by the outpouring of gratitude from their congregants – the tears of joy and relief."
Writer, activist, mother and grandmother Anne Lamott has a reputation for public honesty. Now she is calling for a kind of openness in our churches that takes genuine courage. With 28 years' experience of recovering from alcoholism and depression, she speaks with an authority that comes from having lived to tell the tale of her own resurrection story. Her often darkly humorous accounts lay open her faith, relationships, and flaws with a rare humility. "I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish."
Her commitment to truth speaks to readers who have grown tired of platitudes and long for something that resonates with their own experience. Lamott's writing resists despair, but refuses to 'stick a bow on it'. In doing so, she holds brokenness in one hand and extends an invitation to hope with the other. Her two most recent books continue to explore these themes. Help Thanks Wow unpacks her approach to prayer, while the follow up, Stitches, engages with the challenge of living and coping with loss.
In her first book, Travelling Mercies (2000), she tells of her reluctant conversion to Christianity. Initially going to church for the comfort of the the music, she found herself being gently hounded into submission by God. Since then, her church community has become the centre of her life.
"I live for Sundays," she says. "It's like going to the spiritual gas station to fill up on fuel and clean the dirty windshield and mirrors. I usually show up nuts, self-obsessed, vaguely agitated, and I am at once reminded not of who I am, but Whose I am.
"Then everything falls into place, and I smile again at how crazy I (and most of us) are, but how at church, in fellowship, in the arms and eyes of Jesus [...] I remember the truth of my spiritual identity. I love to sing in a group – more than anything, and to do the holy dance of swaying, and clapping. Plus, they say that clapping in church scares away the devil."
While her church community forms a key aspect of her faith, a reflective and deeply personal practice is at the heart of her day-to-day expression. "I experience the presence of God every day. I made it my primary purpose to seek union with God, by serving Him in taking care of His or Her other children, and by practising prayer, meditation, silence, study of scripture and the great teachers.
"Today I feel God's love in my sleeping grandson, my grown son who is working in the living room on an amazing art project, the miracle that the three of us and our widowed dog Bodhi have come through the grief of losing our darling old dog Lily last week, who died in Sam's arm in the living room. Thank you, Jesus."
Lamott's writing is interwoven with a life-long commitment to recovery, drawing on the tradition of Twelve Steps. At the heart of this approach is a commitment to building friendships where honesty and openness create room for healing.
"My mind and spirit are slowly healing from all that crazy behaviour, let alone daily overdoses of anti-depressants," says Lamott. "What helps me most is the refusal to stay silent about the secret behaviour, the intense self-loathing, the raging narcissism.
"I have several sober women friends to whom I can tell anything, literally – and do. You know what they say? 'Me too.' Then we laugh and sometimes cry, TOGETHER. That has been the most healing thing in the world, along with the militant love of the Holy Spirit."
There's a simplicity to this approach that promotes an attitude of deep trust; if there are unfixable things in life, our best response is one of surrender. "God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change..." has become the foundational prayer of the Twelve Step movement.
"If I do the spiritual practices that all traditions encourage, constant prayer, meditation, radical forgiveness, confession, taking care of God's other children for God, then my life is so sweet and mostly makes sense. When I don't, and I run on my own self-will, I get agitated, self-righteous, victimized. They say that when all else fails, follow instructions...so I do."
The struggle of those living with acute depression came to the fore with the death of Robin Williams on August 11. Lamott's own reflections served as a clarion call to reach out to those who are struggling with the illness, with an accompanying challenge to those living with depression to 'be a Resurrection Story.'
The idea of being a "resurrection person" has been a core part of Lamott's life, and ministry. "All of my work in the last 28 years has been about becoming a resurrection story – slowly, painstakingly healing from the damages of childhood in a family where the parents didn't love each other; the damage this culture does to children who are different; how the love of God, through friends, slowly helps us be restored to the person we were born to be."
This theme of slow, yet hopeful, restoration is explored further in Stitches. And in considering the personal impact of suffering, the book has provoked others to share their experiences: "Thousands of people wrote to share their devastation, the great nearly unsurvivable losses they have had to come through – or are just now beginning to come through," she says. "How terribly isolated that makes you feel, and how that isolation tells you that it is hopeless. Stitches says that it is anything BUT hopeless. That in fact we are all in the same boat, and will always help each other through; and that there WILL be increase on the other side, if we just keep trusting God and goodness, no matter what things look like, and no matter how long things take. Amen!"
So what would it take to create faith communities that encourage the kind of honesty that can bring healing?
"It would heal both individuals and churches and administrators, if ministers would set the intention of healing themselves – (this would be quantum, and radiate to the congregation, and then to family members, communities, the world). This healing means to tell the truth of our dual citizenship – our being children of the Kingdom, and humans here on earth.
"If ministers told a deep truth in ONE sermon, that they have depression, too, or have thought about suicide, or used booze or food or workaholism to self-medicate and mood-alter, they would be astonished by the outpouring of gratitude from their congregants – the tears or joy and relief, that someone told the truth out loud, from that person to the greater community. The truth shall set us free! It is divine."
Stitches, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is out now.
Corin Pilling is part of All Saints Church Barnsbury. He is interested in the relationship between faith and wellbeing, and runs the Livability Happiness Course.