Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith by Nora Gallagher

The whole church is organized in a cycle of seasons, liturgies, holy days, and Gospel readings that may be connected to how life unfolds. We need to revisit our experience over and over again; each time, each visit, another layer is peeled away, another piece or aspect is revealed. Our cells carry memories that rise on anniversaries, demand another look. Holy Week is a distillation of this repetition. Each Good Friday, every year, we look again. The result is a reordering of experience.

I hate to do book reviews where all I do is quote from the book, but there were so many beautiful passages in this book. In Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher chronicles a year of her life lived in the church calendar. I have written many times about how attending a church that follows the calendar gives meaning and shape to my own faith, so of course this book is right up my alley. My mom gave it to me for my birthday, and I read it eagerly while we were on vacation. I managed to keep from reading passages out loud to Mike only because I noted the page numbers. Now I will read them out loud to you.

As she is thinking about the evil in the world, she wonders what use faith is at all:

And thus I doubt. Doubt is to me the handmaiden of faith, its cop, the one that keeps faith straight. To doubt is an indication of freedom and a guard against fanaticism. But it is also so easy to doubt, so easy to be cynical hat the job appears to be to enlarge the part that believes, but only to enlarge it by taking the path made painful by the doubt and with the integrity born of the doubt rather than the inflation born of sentiment, heightened emotion, or the sometimes false camaraderie of a faith community.

I have heard the idea that doubt is the handmaiden of faith before (perhaps someone was quoting this book, or perhaps she has borrowed it from somewhere else), but I love the idea that it enlarges faith because it challenges faith and makes it more sincere. I struggle quite a bit when I see sentimentality and emotionalism in faith, though I am sure I am sentimental and emotional in my own ways, too. But, like Gallagher, I believe that what we are striving for is something of a more genuine sort, something born not out of nice ideas and smiley faces but by facing challenges and suffering and choosing truth.

When speaking of her return to church, she talked about how, for a long time, she attended church without letting it actually invade her heart:

The trouble was, I didn’t believe that it was about anything real. I went to church as if it were a ballet. I went to the ballet on Sunday, felt many different kinds of feelings, couldn’t bring those feelings into line with my intellect or figure out how to integrate them into my own experience, and so gradually they faded as the week wore on. It didn’t connect. I suspect that many people who faithfully attend church remain in such a state and don’t know what to do about it (And those who watch us from the outside wonder, rightly, What’s the point of all this?) What I finally understood was that simply going to church doesn’t do it, but neither does not going to church.

I think almost all regular church attenders would say that they understand what she is saying here. I have treated church like a nice play, one that I attend and that I think about, but that loses its impact as time wears on. Part of her story is about actually engaging with the people around her, especially through a small Bible study and then through working in a soup kitchen at her church. I have learned a lot about community from the people around me, but I still struggle with knowing how to share what is important to me, which is why I appreciated that part of her story so much.

One imagines religion as making one “good,” and various ideal ways of behaving are often touted in pulpits. But the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith. And none of it works without the weight of experience, knowing something as an experience rather than as an event that passes over the skin. How this I experiences this event and folds it into flesh. How a soul, as Margaret Drabble said, weathers into identity.

Faith is not about belief in something irrational or about a blind connection to something unreal. It’s about a gathering, an accumulation of events and experiences of a different order. These experiences are gradually convincing enough, or you have paid them so much attention, they reach critical mass. The famous “leap” comes at the beginning, when there is not enough experience to justify the effort. Even then, something begins faith–a memory of a reality or of an experience that doesn’t quite fit with everything else, the longing a soul has to find its shape in the world.

I don’t think she’s saying here that experience is the most important thing, but that how we experience our faith is important, choosing to believe and to serve and to love and letting that shape our souls rather than following a list of rules.

If, instead of waiting for stones to be changed to bread, we share the food we have; if, rather than waiting for the fantasy job or lover, we take on the people and work of our lives; if, rather than waiting for rescue, we lay down our lives for our friends–then we depart the world of deadly illusion for a living reality in which “every day the real caress” as Anais Nin wrote “replaces the ghostly lover.”

As Nora Gallagher struggles with her brother’s cancer, prepares food for the needy, and experiences the grace of serving communion, she is learning to escape the world of deadly illusion. This was a good book for me to read in the summer, in Ordinary Time. I can choose to see this as a massive vacation, or I can see it as part of my real, regular life. I have come to believe that the time given us is anything but ordinary, but even in the most mundane of situations, we can remember that, as the back of the book jacket says, “The road to the sacred is paved with the ordinary.”

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