One pilgrim's progress to faith in the modern age

Without a doubt, Anne Lamott's "Traveling Mercies" is a '90s autobiography, branded by self-absorption. Time is marked by the vicissitudes of the author's life, while famous people and events serve mainly as metaphors, noting the beat of the author's heart, quite apart from the rhythms of the world. Nevertheless, Lamott's relentless self-analysis yields an interesting portrait of today's seeker. Her journey is unique, of course, but her view of God typifies in some ways the age's growing interest in spirituality.

Lamott grew up in a family of studied nonbelievers. Secretly, however, she prayed. And her childhood friendships provided glimpses of other families' faith. From her Roman Catholic friend to Shelley's mother, a Christian Scientist whom the neighborhood kids adored, Lamott roams through her schoolgirl years collecting impressions of God.

Then during the sophomore year of a troubled, alcohol-drenched college career, Lamott learns, through Kierkegaard, of Abraham and Isaac - and of the lamb God provided atop Mt. Moriah to prevent Abraham's sacrifice of his son. Struck by Abraham's unflappable faith, Lamott herself "crossed over," consciously making "if not exactly a leap of faith, a lurch of faith."

Over the next decade, however, her newfound faith proves an insufficient staff upon which to lean. She loses her father to a long illness, goes through two married lovers, suffers from bulimia, and is almost never sober.

As Lamott describes it, "I was cracking up." Through it all, she still believes in God, but it is "a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon." Finally, near suicide, she contacts "the new guy at St. Stephens" and, through his tender personal ministry, begins the long road not only to recovery but to a more firmly rooted faith.

Ultimately, a predominantly black congregation provides Lamott lasting refuge. Captivated by the gospel music pouring from St. Andrew Presbyterian, Lamott slowly edges her way into the sanctuary for longer periods of time until finally she accepts the church's warm welcome.

Then one night, following an abortion, she feels a companioning presence. "I knew as sure as I knew my own name," she writes, "that it was Jesus." Eventually, she gives in to this presence, announcing, "All right. You can come in."

From this point on, the focus shifts from the discovery of faith to the struggle to live by one's faith. And it is a struggle. Lamott prays "beggy prayers" rather than certain affirmations of God's protecting presence and leaves pleas in what she fancies is God's in-box. Yet, in the course of her struggle, Lamott arrives at some pure truths. She learns, for example, that "we are not punished for the sin but by the sin" and that the need is always "to stop living in the problem and to move into the solution."

At the core of Lamott's faith, however, is a God of limited power. Never does she concede to Him the power to heal. Rather, He is her best helper. He prompts her to forgive, He enables her to empathize, He graces her with friends. In short, God helps her cope. He is a rock to cling to so that the crashing tides of life do not wash her away.

Like the piece of glass, "polished from the sea," that her son gives her on his eighth birthday, Lamott becomes someone she can accept, someone with whom she can live peaceably. Yet one senses that the change comes more through suffering than through grace, as though it were the crashing tides - more than God Himself - that shape one.

*Trudy Palmer taught African-American literature at Tufts University.

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