Saturday, May 31, 2014


Frank Schaeffer's latest book, Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to Give Love, Create Beauty, and Find Peace, is a celebration of paradox. Through his masterful storytelling and insightful expository writing, Frank demonstrates how he has learned (and continues learning) to give love, create beauty, and find peace by embracing the paradoxical nature of reality.

I sense a far greater peace in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God than I do in Frank's earlier books: Crazy for God; Patience with God; and Sex, Mom, and God. This present book seems to be the culmination of the intriguing exploration that I sense going on in the earlier books.

To receive the full impact of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God, it is helpful to understand that Frank Schaeffer was not raised to embrace paradox. Frank was born into a Christian evangelical missionary family, where he was taught certainty about God and an either/or view of eternal salvation. Frank's earlier books describe his growing discomfort with this worldview and his movement toward a worldview where God is seen as mystery and salvation is seen as a process - a worldview that Frank now finds in the Greek Orthodox Church.

One important paradox described by Frank in Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is an amazing paradox at the heart of his own parents' faith. While expressing belief in the direct inspiration of all parts of the Bible, Frank's parents actually practiced a far more loving faith than some parts  of the Bible advocate. For example, Frank tells how his parents welcomed and loved gay and lesbian couples who came to their mission, despite the Bible's curse upon those who practice homosexuality. Frank says that "no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human." (The italics are Frank's.)

This paradoxical story about his parents is just one of many wonderful life stories with which Frank fills the pages of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. Many are stories of love: stories of the lifelong love of Frank's wife Genie, the forgiving love of Frank's daughter Jessica, the trusting love of Frank's grandchildren Lucy and Jack, the barbed love of Frank's film director friend "Sam," the creatively expressed love of the late artist Holly Meade, the sacrificial love of Mother Maria of Paris. There are stories, too, of sorrow: stories of a friend's sudden death, of a friend's struggle with Parkinson's disease, of a relative's diminished life due to a brain tumor, and most poignantly of Frank's deep regret for his own failures to love. And there are stories of awesome beauty: the breath-taking beauty of the stars, the austere beauty of mathematics, the glorious beauty of the Angel's aria in Handel's Le Resurrezione sung by lyric soprano Camilla Tilling, the life-like beauty of John Singer Sargent's painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the delicious beauty of a warm ripe tomato from Frank's home garden.

These and many more compelling stories provide the context for Frank's wonderfully clear exposition of what he believes (hopes) lies at the heart of the universe. Here is the nutshell version: "My hope is that a trillionth of a second before the Big Bang, the energy animating the mystery of matter being created out of nothing was love." I love this succinct sentence, and I love even more the beautiful way that Frank unwinds his reasoning, particularly in Chapters XXI, XXII, and XXVI.

So, what does Frank Schaeffer mean when he says that he is "an atheist who believes in God"? Here is Frank's explanation: "These days I hold two ideas about God simultaneously: he, she or it exists and he, she or it doesn't exist. I don't seesaw between these opposites; I embrace them." (The italics are Frank's.) What I myself understand after twice reading Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is that Frank recognizes that there is evidence for God's existence and evidence against God's existence - and that he chooses to place his hope (not his certainty) on the side of God's existence, recognizing that God may not exist while living as though God does.

A precious gift that I receive from Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God is a wonderful opening within myself to embrace BOTH/AND in more and more areas of my life. I can almost feel Frank putting his hands on my sometimes tense shoulders and saying, "Relax. It's not a question of right and wrong, of either/or. Let it be BOTH/AND."

Saturday, May 24, 2014


This will surprise some who know me, but I have spent much of the month of May praying the rosary! This is a result of my first visit to a meeting of the Children of Mary at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls school that I attended for fourteen years (Pre-K through 12th Grade). The Children of Mary is a group of women who meet regularly to deepen their spiritual life and to do various good works. Before this meeting on the first Saturday of May, we prayed the rosary, had Mass, crowned Mary, and sang the Marian songs I remember from my childhood. This gave me the incentive to spend the rest of the month of May praying a daily rosary. To my surprise, I am really enjoying it! I am certainly finding that the mysteries of the rosary have a far greater depth than I was able to realize as a child.

Seredipitously, it also happens that during this month, a classmate of mine at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Marie Louise Guste Nix, has had her fourth book of poems published - Being There: Reflections from the Scenes of the Mysteries of the Rosary! As soon as my copy of Being There arrived, I read it straight through and found myself deeply moved.

With Being There, Marie Louise has taken me into the thoughts and feelings of the people of the first century who actually lived through the events that we remember when praying the rosary today. To do this, Marie Louise draws upon her in-depth study of the Gospels, her deep prayer life including years of meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, and her skill and art as a poet. Marie Louise has been there time and again in spirit, in prayer, in meditation, and in imagination - and her poems take me there, too.

Here are some of the poems that I find especially moving.

  • "Simeon Remembers" - I feel Simeon's weariness of years as he faithfully performs the priestly ritual for child after child after child - each one loved and welcomed - until the day he holds the promised infant messiah in his arms.
  • "Rock of Grace" - I hear a cousin of Jesus voice his love and admiration for Jesus and his deep concern and worry as he hears Jesus proclaim himself to be the promised one of God, knowing the jealous reaction that this will provoke.
  • "Nightmare Impossible" - I enter into Jesus' very human pain as he carries his own cross - the physical pain of each excruciating step after step after step and the emotional pain of mourning for what seems the loss of his life's mission.
  • "Our Mother Is Taken to Heaven" - I listen as Mary's nurse describes her joy in caring for Mary in the last years of her life and of being there when Mary is assumed into heaven.
One of the things I appreciate most about Being There is the ability of Marie Louise to immerse me in Jesus' world. I experience Jesus as a member of a close-knit extended family, of a village where everyone knows each other, of a people united in their destiny as God's chosen and in their longing for the promised messiah.

I should mention that Marie Louise's poems are accompanied with beautiful artwork by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and other masters, and that Marie Louise also provides questions to aid one's own reflection on the mysteries of the rosary.

Already, Marie Louise's poems have beautifully influenced my own meditation on the mysteries of the rosary. I recommend Being There, not only to anyone who prays the rosary, but to anyone interested in a fresh perspective on the events of the Gospels. Eighteen of the twenty mysteries of the rosary are straight from the Gospels and/or the Acts of the Apostles, the two exceptions being the fourth and fifth glorious mysteries (the assumption of Mary into heaven and the crowning of Mary queen of heaven and earth).

Thank you, Marie Louise!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Review: THE BRAIDED PATH by Donna Glee Williams

My friend Donna Glee Williams has just had her first novel published - The Braided Path. I have eagerly read The Braided Path twice, and I find myself in awe of the world Donna Glee has created and of the skill with which she has created it. 

The Braided Path is what we might call a gentle fantasy. The story takes place in a world slightly different from ours but without such fantasy elements as magic, witches, wizards, talking animals, and other phenomena that supersede the laws of nature.

The Braided Path is set mostly in a Steep Land, where all the villages lie along one vertical path. One calls one's own village Home Village, and one refers to other villages by their position above or below one's own, such as Second Village Up or Fourth Village Down. Young people have two important tasks to accomplish in moving into adulthood: discovery of their limits (how far up and how far down the path they feel comfortable traveling) and discovery of their passion, which will become their life's work and their contribution to the community. For example, one may discover a passion for rope making, for dyeing, for sewing, for carpentry, for stone masonry, for baking, for midwifery, for healing, for far walking, for climbing, or for any of many other pursuits.

The novel centers on Cam (a young male) and Fox (a young female), who love each other. Both also love far walking, but Cam feels called to walk ever upward on the path and Fox to walk ever downward. The novel explores how following their calling to walk upward or to walk downward both separates and joins Cam and Fox. In fact, the novel explores the themes of separating and joining, of living from one's life passion, of choices, of work, of love and loyalty, of community and individuality, of limits and the stretching of limits, of rending and healing.

I have reviewed The Braided Path by Donna Glee Williams on Amazon. In the review, I bring out the special treasures I find in this extraordinary novel. My review appears below.

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As a friend of Donna Glee Williams, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of her first novel, The Braided Path. I was expecting to enjoy The Braided Path, but I was not prepared for the extraordinary power of the world that Williams has created and of the characters who live there. I have just finished reading the novel twice. My first reading left me both stimulated and satisfied, but I knew that The Braided Path was so rich that more treasures remained to be mined in a second reading. Let me share with you some of the joys that await in The Braided Path.

First is the sheer beauty of the novel’s setting—a beauty both physical and philosophical. Williams lives in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and spends much time outdoors. She deeply appreciates the flora, the fauna, and the elements of mountain life, and she has taken the time to learn something of their science and their lore. Williams’ keen observation, coupled with her experience of writing poetry, produces physical descriptions of her novel’s world that are soul-satisfyingly lovely.

The beauty of The Braided Path exists not only in its physical world but even more deeply in its philosophical world. The characters are living from a paradigm where both the community and the individual are highly valued. There is an understanding that the community flourishes when each individual finds his or her passion and offers the fruits of that passion to the community—whether the passion be for baking, for building, for weaving, for fishing, for far walking, for healing, or for any of a multitude of other pursuits. Individuals act for the good of the community, and the community honors the needs and desires of each individual. I stand in awe of the way this balance is maintained and sometimes righted as the events of the novel unfold. I am especially intrigued by the rightful place of anger in such a world.

Second is the perspective from which the story of The Braided Path is told. As events unfold, Williams allows us to experience these events through the eyes of one character and then another. We find ourselves seeing through the eyes of Cam Far Walker, then of Fox, then of Len Rope Maker, then of Lia Midwife, then of Nish Fisher, then of little Jade, and then even of Goose the cat. Williams does this so deftly and unobtrusively that it is sheer delight when the kaleidoscope turns just slightly and we find ourselves in the mind of another character for an instant. For me, this was a highly enjoyable aspect of reading The Braided Path.

Third is the wonderful idea Williams had of including the dreams of the characters. We get to know Cam, Fox, Len, Nish, and others, not only through their waking thoughts, words, and deeds—but also through their dreams. Because Williams makes us privy to these subconscious stirrings of the characters, I feel a special closeness to them, as though my encounter with the characters includes the soul level as well as the conscious level.

Fourth is the poetic detail given to descriptions of the crafts practiced in The Braided Path, particularly rope making. Generally speaking, I do not enjoy reading technical details in a novel. How surprised I was, then, to find myself intrigued with the information about plants, fiber, braiding, and tying. The information is just enough, and the materials and actions are so beautifully described that I was captivated.

Fifth, I enjoyed the touches of humor sparkling throughout the novel. The Braided Path is not a work of humor, but every once in a while a situation or a turn of phrase is so gently funny that I found myself laughing out loud. It is a joy to discover these humor gems throughout the novel.

I have not exhausted the treasures of The Braided Path, though length compels me to stop here. I highly recommend this novel! In fact, I have already started reading The Braided Path for the third time!