In many ways, spirituality is something of a modern construct. More exactly, the word itself is only recently used to express, not an aspect of religious feeling, but an alternative to it. For many today, it is attractive to assert spirituality because it is not associated with controversies – or specific practices and duties – of religion. People seem to enjoy a luxury of expression; they can believe in what is beyond the world, and they can do so apart from any traditional boundaries of faith. That this approach to spirituality may be as valid as older models is best represented in the writings of Anne Lamott. I
n a sense, Lamott carefully sets out her own spirituality in a way comfortable to the modern, casual conception of it; she addresses the spiritual in everyday living, yet she does not insist on a base of shared belief. She is enormously popular because she supports as she creates, and reinforces the ideology that only an acknowledgment of forces beyond the human is necessary. At the same time, there are profoundly strong Christian elements to Lamott, and the extraordinary fact is that she brings these disparate approaches together, and in a way accessible to all. As may be seen in “Ashes,” a reflection from Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott reintroduces Christianity into the non-denominational spirituality many turn to today, and she does this through an honest examination of life as we live it.
No real examination of Lamott’s success as a writer in contemporary spirituality may be done without an appreciation of her essential skill as only a writer. As ministers and priests have long known, it is important to present viewpoints of any kind in a manner that appeals to the listeners. To that end, Lamott happens to be an engaging and highly readable author. She is both casual and exact, in that her easy-going style is presented in a polished way. She makes jokes and indulges in confidential asides, yet she also maintains the integrity of strong writing and narrative flow. This must be understood, as it goes significantly to Lamott’s impact regarding her chosen subjects. In simple terms, she offers spiritual concerns, not as an expert instructing others in ways to believe, but more as a “neighbor” sharing the confidences of her private feelings and practical issues.
The effectiveness of this warm, friendly approach is exemplified in “Ashes.” More to the point, in this episode Lamott reveals perfectly her unique talent in exploring the deepest issues of Christianity and spirituality through the lens of everyday experience. The entire episode is a recollection of a single day, centered on the author’s desire to explain the meaning of Ash Wednesday to her young son, Sam. This is presented with a good deal of humor, and a completely natural and ordinary attitude to which any mother may relate. Lamott actually begins, in fact, by solemnly noting why Ash Wednesday is a consecrated day, which offers her the opportunity to draw a “real life” contrast between the commencement of fasting and her own addiction to ice cream. This is followed by a summary of the disaster occurring later in her home, so the reader is drawn into a world wherein pragmatics compete with the most spiritual ambitions. Lamott then further relies on the rhythms of this unique approach, as she explains her day. She describes sitting her son down (with cocoa), to explain to him the day’s meaning. This actually serves to do the same for the reader, of course, and the indirect mode is handled with real elegance of expression. More exactly, rather than presenting the definition of meaning, Lamott offers it as a conundrum to the human spirit. We all carry on trusting in faith, even as death takes away those we love: “On such a stage, how can we cooperate with grace?” (Lamott 92). The reader understands that these are not precisely the words used to her son, but the message remains true to all concerned.
What follows is a striking example of how the author employs life to emphasize the spiritual, and in admirably skillful manner. Her son has listened, but he runs off to the TV, and the ensuing noise is too much for Lamott. She explodes, admitting to using profanity with her son, and drags him to his room. Not long after, a reconciliation takes place, and of a kind likely familiar to all mothers of young children. The true skill of the anecdote, however, lies in the “why” of Lamott’s outburst. The reader completely understands that it is not the loud TV that is enraging her, but the reality that her introduction of the serious subject is essentially disregarded by Sam. What this then points to is the author’s own frustration with the matters she herself was explaining to the boy. She has, in effect, opened up thinking to which she herself takes issue, or does not fully accept. At the same time, she knows it is crucial, so Sam’s casual attitude is outrageous because it echoes her own uncertainties. More exactly, as Lamott’s essential faith appears strong, it more reflects the speculation and doubt so many Christians feel, even as they embrace faith.
After this, the author engages in doubt generated by both this wonderment on her own part and her treatment of her son. These components are actually married, and work to wonderful effect in an individual exploration of spirituality. Feeling guilty after her son has gone to school, not fully satisfied in how they have reconciled, she notes that she is not even able to receive her own ashes of forgiveness from her church till that evening. Here, Lamott subtly introduces, and through a highly factual narrative, a critical element of spirituality: reflection as the obligation of the individual. Taking her son out of school in order to truly mend the fight is not very practical or desirable, so she faces a day of introspection. Once again, then, the author employs pragmatic affairs familiar to all to emphasize a spiritual reality. No matter what is concerning us, and no matter that something usually is, there is time to consider on the larger issues. Equally importantly, this must be done even when we are disinclined to do so.
The connection in the writing is adhered to beautifully. Lamott employs her own responses to her situation that morning to both describe further action and link the feelings and occurrences with the title subject:
“So I didn’t take him out of school. I went for several walks and I thought about ashes. I was sad that I am an awful person, that I am the world’s meanest mother. I got sadder. And I got to thinking about the ashes of the dead” (Lamott 94).
There are distinct memories then related that discuss both the sanctity of death and ashes, and the “messiness” of all of it. Distressed by her own actions that day, Lamott looks within and, like so many Christians, seeks the answers she saw as missing in her own talk with Sam earlier. She faces the reality usually too disturbing for mothers, in that Sam will, like all, one day be no more than ashes. The episode concludes with her son calling out to her from his sleep, and her reassurance to him that she is there. In other words, there are no answers because we already know them, and the best we can do is hold to faith and to those we love while we have the power to do so. What is remarkable about the episode, then, is a honesty not often encountered in modern treatments of spirituality. More importantly, and through nothing more than a clear progression of action and feeling, Lamott brings the basic tenets of Christianity firmly within modern spirituality as the supports they are. The reader feels that, if we choose to embrace even a vague spirituality, we are nonetheless tied to that form of spirituality so long in place, and wholly reliant on actual faith.
It would be less than accurate to describe Anne Lamott as a great writer, if only because she is insistent on being ordinary and earthbound. Her power emanates from the rooms she lives in and the people she knows and cares for, and great writers typically employ more expansive landscapes. Nonetheless, this ordinariness is her triumph. It allows her to connect with the reader through humor and shared experience, even as it reinforces the Christian understanding of human beings as inevitably weak and flawed creatures. It allows her, in fact, to create a scenario based on the traditions and meaning of Ash Wednesday in a supremely human and accessible way, and in a way that also emphasizes the Christian in the modern spiritual. We are real and living, we will all be the ashes we take on today in remembrance, and we must accept all of this because we know and trust in the spiritual – and Christian – forces governing all of it. In “Ashes,” Anne Lamott subtly reintroduces Christianity into the more generalized spirituality popular today, and by means of an honest examination of life as we live it.
Lamott, A. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Random House, 2000.