The strap line for this book is 'A story about the spiritual journey'. I must confess I was a little cynical about what a fictional book was going to teach me regarding my own spiritual walk and how it could inspire me, but someone whose opinion I trust had recommended the book so it went on my birthday list last year.
I finally got round to picking the book up just before Christmas. And I immediately found it riveting – and deeply thought provoking. The writing is well structured, weaving the stories of four women from extremely different backgrounds and life stories (and different ages) as they each travel to a retreat centre in Michigan, North America to undertake a 'spiritual formation journey'.
Hannah is a pastor who is suffering from burn out (but won't admit it), Meg a widow whose daughter has recently left home, Mara a woman who has gone from one unhappy relationship to another and is trapped in a difficult marriage and Charissa, a graduate student who is determined to always get things right.
I found early on that it wasn't a book I would be able to read quickly. So many little quotes from the different characters resonated with me that I found myself bookmarking those pages and going back to them, writing the quotes in my journal and then contemplating them further. Here's one that has stayed with me and continues to challenge me on a daily basis!:
"Dr. Allen told me to pay attention to the things that make me angry, defensive, and upset. That didn't make any sense at first. But I'm starting to understand that when something bugs me, it might be God's way of trying to get my attention."
There was also a lot about the way culture pushes us to 'achieve' constantly so if we aren't careful we get our identity from 'doing'. And Hannah, in particular, works through that fact that, like so many of us, she was wearing a mask, expending far too much energy trying to keep up the appearance that she felt she ought to. I am passionate about seeing people drop those masks so was thrilled to see that issue dealt with so well here too.
I loved the fact that the four women were wary of each other to begin with (as well as the retreat itself) and it wasn't until much later in the book that the other three began to understand and connect with Charissa. The snapshots into their thoughts and struggles both during the retreat sessions and in the weeks in between were so insightful.
Each time the four women go back to the retreat centre, the reader is provided with the details of the disciplines and exercises they work through in that session. This means you can take time out, if you wish, to work on those yourself – while that could interrupt the flow (and I was too keen to find out the next bit of the story, and how the characters coped with the exercises, that I skipped right on to the next part of the narration) it also provides an extra dimension that I can see could be really beneficial for those who stop and take the time to utilise them.
The author explains the story behind the book (and title) on a website dedicated to the book (www.sensibleshoesclub.com), and clarifies why the various different elements are in there. As she explains, she had started a women's spiritual formation group thinking they would study a book and learn disciplines. But she soon realised that God wanted them to trust Him and go on a journey of discovery that had no rules or agendas:
"I began to introduce spiritual disciplines to the group that had been life-giving to me: lectio divina, the prayer of examen, the labyrinth, journaling, spiritual direction, and contemplative prayer. We learned to sit with stillness and silence. Our time together became sacred space where we encountered the living God. The women grew to deeply trust one another, confessing their sins and heartaches so that they might receive God's healing love and power.
"In one of our first meetings together, one of the women in the group looked around the circle, commenting, 'Everybody here is wearing really cute, but sensible shoes!' The phrase stuck, and we began to refer to ourselves as the 'Sensible Shoes Club.' God was leading us through the unpredictable and often treacherous terrain of the inner life, and we needed sensible shoes for the journey. We also needed one another.
"As we walked together, we began to witness stunning and breathtakingly beautiful transformation. The Spirit was healing old wounds, opening blind eyes, and setting captives free. I sensed that God was inviting me to share the story of the group by creating characters who were also learning to walk closely with God. None of the characters represent actual people. But they do struggle and wrestle with universal issues: letting go of control, trusting God, people-pleasing, perfectionism, hiding behind roles and busyness, fear, regret, guilt, and shame. Though the details are different, their stories are our stories of healing and redemption."
I don't know if it was because this book was a great choice for me for where I am at in my life now, or whether it would cause the same sense of soul-searching in all its readers. Given the fact that it does tackle such universal issues I think it probably will. My advice: try it and see! :)
NB There is also a set of resources at the sensible shoes club website if you wish to create your own 'sacred space' and read the book with a group of others – it includes a 'companion' study guide and a blog.