Monday, April 26, 2010

True Conversions No. 2: Sara Miles

Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion
Sara Miles
Ballantine Books: New York, c. 2007,
283 pp. US$24.99
ISBN: 978-0-345-48692-9

(As far as book reviews go, this one's a little late. Just after I finished rereading this conversion memoir by Sara Miles (published in 2007), I discovered that she has recently come out with a new title --Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead—published just this spring. So now what? Well, I’m gonna write about what I’ve read, then order the new title from Borders, and then write about that later on. Sound like a good plan?--ct)

Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, is a driving, passionately articulate narrative of a faith lived, loved and savored. If there’s such a thing as Episcopalian chutzpah, she’s got it. An experienced journalist and former war correspondent Miles is equally relentless and unsentimental in her spiritual quest. She forces one to realize from the get-go that there’s no such thing as a ‘conversion’: I came, I saw (the Light?), I conquered (or was conquered?), over and out. No. Miles makes it clear that life, all of life, moment to moment, day to day, is an ongoing process of converting. She appears to move in a Spirit-driven universe in which one is challenged constantly, consistently, and persistently to know, grow, and sometimes glow (wonderfully, even) amidst all the mayhem and messiness of life in order to understand and acknowledge Life and the Source of Life itself. There are bound to be collisions, but so what?

Miles doesn’t lean into conversion. She jumps heart-first right into the middle of things and then tries to figure out where to go from there. Apparently out of the blue and overnight, she moves from the stance a theologically uninterested bystander-- offspring of atheist parents (and, ironically, missionary grandparents)-- to that of a convicted believer. “One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six,” she writes in the opening paragraph of this breathless narrative, “I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine…. This was my first communion. It changed everything.”

The ‘everything’ that has changed for Miles, starting with this initial experience more than a decade ago, includes her understanding of herself, of the nature of church, the centrality of communion, and the transforming power of sacramental life. Her “converting” process is fed and fueled by one vital discovery after another: “ The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food—indeed the bread of life.” In light of this epiphany, she begins to see the ways in which she, as a self-professed ‘outsider’ finds her own place within the communal narrative of the Christian faith: “I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people.”

And feed them she does—with both zesto and pesto! Miles is fed by a profound and explicit experience of Eucharist, which in turn moves her into a direct and abiding experience of a particular church community—that of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Portero Hill neighborhood. Centered and centering at St. Gregory’s she is impelled to extend the Eucharistic experience and narrative literally—by dedicating herself to feeding others. With the help of a motley/godly crew of volunteers, she draws from years of restaurant experience to start a food pantry at St. Gregory’s, which over time morphs into a project involving a citywide network of distribution centers. The Pantry’s approach is a direct reflection of the congregation’s own inclusive promise: all are welcome, all will be fed, and all are invited to feed others. No questions asked.”

It is this openness of Communion and communion which, ironically, helps to ground Miles in Christian tradition. She constantly bristles at any sign of cant and hypocrisy in the church as institution, while just as constantly drinking deeply from the very depths of a living tradition that has somehow—miraculously-- survived, even thrived through centuries of alleged institutional fossilization. Welcome to the mystery.

The Christian faith of Miles is intense, kinetic. A kind of ‘in your face,’ but at the same time, ‘isn’t God great’ small ‘c’ catholicism. She has no patience for borders and boundaries she feels have been arbitrarily construed, constructed and defended through human selfishness, fear and pride. And her passion for ‘feeding’ the outsider of any and every description shines through it all. The Pantry is neither a service or a ministry as such; for Miles it is serving and ministering. Period.

With all this constant movement, one wonders: who, what, and where is its still and certain center/ Center? One has hints of this in Miles’ fidelity to the tradition of morning and evening prayer— a potent force in the Anglican/ Episcopal tradition and wonderfully expressed through the liturgical life at St. Gregory’s . But overall, Miles writes less about ‘being’a Christian than about ‘doing’ Christianity.

Like Mary Karr (see previous blog entry) and others, Miles’s converting is not always understood or appreciated by friends, family, and colleagues both beyond and within her faith community. Initially, at least, her decision is greeted by those on the ‘outside’ with skepticism, amusement, and indifference. Within the context of the church, she clearly struggles with the tension of another order—that of belonging to an institution which is all too often reactive rather than proactive in the proclamation and living out of Gospel values. Miles appears to understand that tension fully and is willing to engage it, wrestle with it. Rather than becoming frustrated and embittered, she continues to feed and be fed. And she challenges us as well: take this Bread (and live it)!