Monday, May 3, 2010

True Conversions No. 3: Darcey Steinke

Easter Everywhere: A Memoir
Darcey Steinke
Bloomsbury: New York, c. 2007
231 pp. $14.95 (paper)
ISBN: 1-59691-138-7

I once asked a friend of mine in Stockholm why so few Swedes ever bothered to go to church. His answer was both direct and revealing: “We don’t really need to; the influence of Lutheranism is so deep in our culture. In fact, we even have a saying: ‘Luther sitter på axeln,’ which means, “Luther is sitting on our shoulders.” It appears that author Darcey Steinke certainly started out in life with Luther propped up on her shoulders. But in the progress of her faith, as this intimate memoir reveals, she has made the clear decision to carve out her own spiritual space, Luther or no.

Steinke was born in upstate New York, into a clerical family¬-- a preacher’s kid. A Lutheran pastor’s preacher’s kid, in fact. Her earliest memories, she writes, “are of my father in cassock and white surplice preaching from the pulpit.” It’s clear that this and other early experiences have left a deep imprint on her faith journey. Her childhood and adolescence occur during the cultural revolution of the Sixties and early Seventies. Her parents’ spiritual progress during this same period reflects the disruptive influence of the times. Her father moves from the not so genteel poverty of pastor and parent, through a more secular calling as hospital chaplain slash social justice activist, to an ultimate return to church work three decades later-- as shepherd of a struggling inner-city congregation. The waning and waxing faith of her father coincides with the downward spiral of her mother’s ongoing clinical depression, as well as her growing estrangement from, and ultimate renunciation of any formal creed. In and through both of these broadly diverging poles, Steinke seeks to forge her own path.

When she was a child, her father spoke to her of a deity whose existence and presence in the world are both “infused” and infinite. She intuited that somehow God must be something like her dad, in a way: both loving and aloof. Her paternal grandfather, also a pastor, images a deity made of sterner stuff: stolid, humorless, even punitive. Her own search unfolds as a quest for a God who is more passionate, direct, and intimately involved people’s lives, an image that, understandably, she rejects. Later on, in adolescence, she finds her father’s faith struggles perplexing: “Outside of church I’d never seen him pray and he mostly read popular novels…. But his voice quivered as he blessed me (at confirmation), and I knew that his faith hadn’t gone completely, that he still clung to a particle of faith.”

Steinke’s own quest for belief continues through the struggles and growing pains of her teens and twenties: multiple family moves, a study term abroad and her first experience of love, relationship, breakup and heartache. A healing summer sojourn in South Carolina, accompanied by a peak into Penecostal exuberance. A subsequent move to New York, more studies, bouts of clubbing, druggy friends and acquaintances, an abortion, a frustrating relationship, the birth of her child. An emotionally excursive and itinerant life, to be sure, but one in which apparently aimless wandering metamorphoses into a dedicated search for spiritual succor. Lifestyle experimentation gives way to greater inner stability and a disciplined approach to prayer, spiritual reading and direction, friendships with fellow seekers, and the search for a stable worshipping community.

Through her persistent searching and longing, Steinke ultimately experiences something of an epiphany—a direct and intimate experience of the divine which is her own—neither inherited, borrowed, nor vicarious. She is at the University of Mississippi on a fellowship grant: “I paid the sitter and sat outside on my lawn chair. The sky was full of stars, like salt spilled on salt paper. I saw one fall, a quick arc of light disappearing over the horizon… I felt weirdly deracinated, but it was not a creepy feeling. My daughter and I were not, as I had so often feared, doomed characters in the opening sequence of a horror movie. I felt we were living in the eternal moment, residing inside infinity. I raised my hand up and held it before me as a sign.”

Back in New York, she endeavors to settle more firmly into her own life and literary career, She joins a church in her neighborhood—Grace Reformed—and is drawn to the passionate ‘presence’ of evangelical faith. She participates in a study group on Rick Warren’s A Purpose Driven Life. She connects with a spiritual director, an Anglican nun on Manhattan’s upper West Side. And, intermittently, she attends Catholic Mass.

By the books’s end, Steinke has reached her own, but still somewhat tentative conclusions about faith: “I am not able to break with Christianity, no matter how uncomfortable I am with many of its current manifestations. Biblical imagery and Christ’s message of forgiveness continue to haunt me, and I know my own redemption lies in Christian tenets, not in others’ religious beliefs.” She stakes her own ground within the tradition: “The idea of church still has a grip on my imagination, but I realize now that what I thought was held only inside those walls—grace and divinity—is actually located directly and authentically inside myself. Church is not a set of rules or a specific building,” she concludes,” but a way of life.”

There is an ambivalence here yet. Steinke is still not quite fully convinced, committed. She writes more about the Christian church, for example, and less about her direct experience of the Christ from whom the church (traditions, theology, people) has emerged. Still, even if Steinke is not completely at home spiritually (who is?), she is certainly in the neighborhood.

No comments: