In today’s world, spirituality is a more earthbound quality. More exactly, people today are not content to gain any sense of it once a week in church, or to see it as a lofty and beautiful thing only rarely accessible. In past ages, people trusted to the higher orders to “keep them in the fold” and connected to God, but systems and societies have changed. Trust in the great spiritual institutions is weak. The need to be connected remains, however, so people seek spirituality in their actual beings. Conflict usually follows because the demands of real life seems to clash with the pursuit of the highest states of feeling and being. The conflict exists, however, only because the process is backwards. The ordinary is not in the way of the spiritual; it is only another form of it, once we know what spirituality actually is, and and this is what Anne Lamott is all about. Her gift is to see and, quite literally, connect. It is also to share, and to share as nothing more than another “traveler” on the road we all take, and one having as much trouble with her bags as we all do. In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott explores how the spiritual is present in every ordinary moment of ordinary living.
Lamott’s Traveling Mercies is a series of essays or reflections, each standing alone but all linked by a common purpose. That purpose is to honestly comprehend her own essence of faith, and to present it in a way that may be felt by all. Lamott holds nothing back; there is no messy or dirty detail in her daily existence that does not have a place in the bigger picture, as she honestly presents her life in all its complicated turmoil. She also presents her family, and several essays are centered on her son, Sam. In “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” this mother perfectly honors everything involved in the title journey, including the boy’s resistance.
That resistance is no minor factor. It illustrates exactly Lamott’s skill, which is based on persistent truth. Even the title of the essay blatantly declares her determination to be honest; Sam, it is clear, must be “made” to go, as the more subtle meaning of a mother’s rights must resonate with mothers everywhere. Lamott seems to be saying: let others talk nicely about cooperating with a child; those of us in the real world know better. She also uses just enough humor, and humor of an earthy kind: “I make him because I can. I outweigh by nearly seventy-five pounds” (Lamott 100). Her honesty is also not restricted to the larger facts of the case. With Lamott, it may be said that “God is in the details.” Even as she plainly states that she forces Sam to go, she observes the reality that the boy usually has a good time while at church. What matters most, however, is that she gets him there. The reader then understands that Lamott is clearly guided by a sense of urgency here, just as it is trusted that this message will be revealed.
The form this message takes is just as grounded in the real world as her son’s kicking about having to go. Lamott gently eases her reader into the why of the experience, and she does this through no sudden declaration of achieving peace at church, and peace that she wants her son to know. She is, in fact, finding her answers as she goes along. It is not so much what she knows the church will provide, certainly not at first, but what is missing elsewhere:
“My relatives all live in the Bay Area and I adore them, but they are all as mentally ill and as skittishly self-obsessed as I am, which I certainly mean in the nicest possible way. Let’s just say that I do not leave family gatherings with the feeling that I have just received some kind of spiritual chemotherapy. But I do when I leave St. Andrew” (101).
This admission or realization allows Lamott to more deeply explore her reasons, even as the exploration involves hard times, her son’s dirty neck, and loving women at the church who used to perceive her as Sam’s driver when she would first bring her baby boy there.
More importantly, Lamott never asserts that there is a specific gift received from attending church. The “spiritual chemotherapy” joke is not only a joke, because it reveals how difficult it is to define the rewards of attending. She makes the effort, however, because coming near to the answer is just as important to her – and for Sam – as it is for the reader. She talks about the people and environment of this particular church, and she unashamedly admires its presence in the life of the community. The people there are the same people who bring food to the homeless and who write letters for causes. This acknowledgment in place, Lamott then proceeds to connect other facets of the experience, which results in connecting herself. On a practical level, and as she candidly describes, this church was a sanctuary for her as a young mother in need of help. She does not take this opportunity to tell a sad tale of her life, which is an interesting reluctance on the part of so honest a writer; all she says is that: “When I was at the end of my rope, the people of St. Andrew…helped me hold on” (100). The reader learns that money was a problem, and that the women of the church were glad to thrust upon Lamott what money they could spare, but that is all that is revealed. The question then become: why does Lamott hold back? Because she has said everything that needs to be said in this regard, and because every reader knows what it is to be in great need.
Exploring further, Lamott struggles a little to capture the essence of the experience that she insists on sharing with her son. The struggle, however, is not painful or long. In a very real sense, she is fine with being able to only near the truth because the truth nonetheless exists, and has meaning. That truth is also somewhat simple, even if its core is difficult to precisely relate. It is that those within the church have something Lamott feels to be immensely valuable. They are, in her wonderfully clear description, guided by a light apart from the ordinary light that most of us see. Importantly, the metaphor of the light is not used in a blatantly “spiritual way, but in a pragmatic one. No one at this church conveys to Lamott a sense of awe or reverence that fills her with spiritual ecstasy. What happens instead, and why Lamott goes, is that here there is direction, and direction toward that which we know in our innermost beings has the most meaning available to human beings. That this mother then “drags” her young son to church becomes a touching and real expression of the same guidance that Lamott herself gains. She never overtly expresses it, but the real message behind the essay is that she makes her son go to church because there is something too valuable there to miss.
It must be said that actual conversion is never emphasized in Lamott’s writing here, which goes to her accessible approach. As everything she recounts is grounded in the ordinary trials of living, she is unwilling to depart from that to exalt a spirituality beyond living. What she accomplishes, then, is an encouragement that is attractive to all, and which relies on this grounded quality. The basic and “homey” style pulls, in a sense, the light of spirituality down to street level. When she describes a woman praying, for example, the effect is powerful because Lamott’s entire focus is within what is observed: intensity of devotion and feeling witnessed, but also still deeply private; the evidence of faith as occurring in a little church with a congregation of mostly poor people; and, importantly, how the woman so engaged in the spiritual is dear to both herself and to Sam as a caring friend. Lamott writes of her: “She still brings us Baggies full of dimes even though I’m doing so much better now” (102), and this is the essence of Lamott. It is Baggies, dimes, and God. It is the extraordinary in the ordinary.
It is reasonable to assume that Anne Lamott’s impact would be greatly diminished, were her style not so accessible and warm. She has a consistently charming and light tough in her writing, one that never fails to interject the little annoyances and messes of life we all confront. It is by this plain avenue, however, that her spirituality is shared. She drags her little boy to church, but the dragging is a good thing because there is something better there to be known. That quality is known, moreover, through human hugs, tears, small gifts of money and effort, and other “minor” motions human beings make, because they are all the evidence and results of true spirituality. It is not in the heavens, but in ourselves when we seek it and share it. In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott makes a powerful case for how the spiritual is present in every ordinary moment of ordinary living.