Saturday, December 31, 2011

Unbolting the Dark

"If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn." -- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 105)
I was happy to receive for Christmas (thanks, Mom!) a copy of Lynne Spellman's memoir Unbolting the Dark. Lynne was one of my first philosophy teachers, and some of my formative moments as a philosopher--and perhaps more simply as a person--occurred in her classes. It was interesting (if surprising in some ways) to learn that Lynne was, in some ways, just returning to philosophy with renewed interest, after a long period of disillusionment with academic philosophy, at the time that I was one of her students. It was also around this time that she was ordained as an Episcopal priest.

Unbolting the Dark is a relatively short book in which Lynne describes and reflects upon about a twenty year period of her life from her late thirties to her late fifties (when she was ordained), but which also reaches back into her childhood, as she sought to come to terms with the death of her mother (who died of breast cancer when Lynne was twelve), while also seeking to come to terms with her own yearning, as she would say, for God. It is, in that sense, the story of a mid-life crisis that took two decades to resolve (and which, among other things, sees her relationship with her husband Jim take many strange turns and endure, against their own expectations, many long separations). But it is also a story of spiritual journey, in which Lynne seeks to come to terms both with her own past and with the idea of God, a journey informed by the mystical tradition reaching back to Plato and neoplatonism (Lynne is a specialist in Ancient Greek philosophy) and strongly informed by contemporary contemplatives such as Thomas Merton. (I took Lynne's honors course on Merton at one of the darkest points in my own life, and in some sense, that class saved me from my own despair.)

I started with a quote from Merton both because of his influence on Lynne, and because his point about criticism touches on one of the smaller themes in her memoir, which was her nearly crippling fear of rejection. I am glad that fear did not prevent this book from seeing the light of day.

I can't "review" the book in any sort of objective way since I know Lynne, and so my interest in reading it will not be shared by those reading this post. But I think it would be a good book for anyone dealing with profound and sustained grief, and for those seeking an example of religious seriousness and searching at its best. Philosophical and theological reflection are interwoven with the narrative of Lynne's journey, and she offers many insights, but no "theory," as it were. She speaks instead, as Wittgenstein would say, for herself. It is in large part because of Lynne that I had to get over the temptation to reject religion as silly, because I know Lynne and do not think she is silly.

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