Novelist and columnist Anne Lamott is the author of seven books, including the highly acclaimed Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995) and Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993). A memoir of her son Sam’s first year of life, Operating Instructions traces Lamott’s struggles as she deals with single motherhood within the context of her Christian faith. In Traveling Mercies, Lamott tells the story of how she became a believer and offers moving reflections on how her faith helped her deal with aging, problems with self-esteem, coping with the deaths of loved ones, parenting, and recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Her witty, irreverent, and searingly honest account offers a compelling portrait of a modern seeker’s quest for a meaningful spirituality.
Lamott’s spiritual autobiography opens with a striking metaphor. She compares her progression from nonbeliever to born-again Christian with stepping from one lily pad in a pond to another: “Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.” The beginning of her quest was anything but promising. She came of age in the 1960’s in California when the hippie movement was just beginning to influence American culture. Her parents were liberal intellectuals whose lifestyle encouraged Lamott’s growing fondness for alcohol and drugs. They were also strident atheists who thought that religion was only for the stupid, ignorant, and “uncouth,” and they raised Lamott and her two brothers to believe in “books and music and nature.” Still Lamott secretly prayed—although she did not know to whom or why. Her spiritual longing, coupled with the damaging effects of the emotional fallout from her parents’ shaky marriage, caused her to feel like an outsider in her own home. She compares herself to a “ridiculous palm tree” that grew down the street from where she lived: “It did not belong, was not in relationship to anything else.”
Lamott’s lily-pad experience continues as “chosen mothers” unwittingly shape her nascent spirituality. An Italian Catholic woman and a Christian Scientist, both mothers of friends, treat her as an adopted daughter and provide glimpses of God as they share their religious traditions with her. In one of the most amusing scenes from the book, a group of Jewish girls welcome her as one of their own and conduct a mock Bat Mitzvah in her honor. Finally, a college philosophy professor introduces her to Søren Kierkegaard’s Frygt og Bæven (1843; Fear and Trembling, 1939), which proves to be a spiritual turning point for Lamott. After a class discussion of Kierkegaard’s retelling of the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, Lamott perceives God is real and, in “a lurch of faith,” she “crosses over” from doubt to belief.
Yet Lamott’s newfound faith is not strong enough to keep her life from spiraling out of control. Alcohol and drugs continue to dominate her. When an affair with a married man ends, she learns she is pregnant and has an abortion. Several nights after the procedure, she drowns her sadness in alcohol and suddenly becomes aware of a presence in the room with her. She knows that it is Jesus Christ, and the realization causes her to sober up quickly. She is appalled that she may be having an honest-to-God religious experience. The reality of the divine presence does not pale in succeeding days. She continually perceives God gently but relentlessly following her like a little cat demanding attention. Finally she can stand it no longer and sighs in surrender, “F— it: I quit. . . . All right. You can come in.”
Although some readers may be put off by Lamott’s frank and sometimes profane language, her directness is part of the book’s appeal. Her conversion is no less real because of the way she expresses herself. She feels her faith deeply and strives to live according to what she understands God’s will to be. She does not try to hide her faults and concedes that she is a “bad born-again Christian.” She also admits that she is sometimes embarrassed about openly confessing her faith. However, her innate honesty does not allow her to sidestep the issue, and she declares with characteristic wit:
I am a believer, a convert. I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car, although I first want to see if the application or stickum in any way interferes with my lease agreement.
Lamott’s conversion eventually aids her in conquering the destructive effects of alcohol, drugs, and bulimia, but it does not transform her into someone she is not. She remains a political and social liberal, as well as a feminist. She has discovered, however, that faith...