And I don’t know if my soul is saved, sometimes I used curse words when I pray. ~Avett Brothers, “Me and God”
Mary Karr is a saint. She has been sent to save us from our sanctimonious selves.
Her memoir, Lit, is actually the third in a series about her life and deals directly with her alcoholism. Accordingly, she invokes comparisons to Anne Lamott, another gifted writer who has dealt with her inner demons. But Lamott has a gentle, self-deprecating touch that somehow makes her tragic stories of substance abuse palatable, or better yet, approachable: you want to give her a hug.
Karr, on the other hand, is so fierce there were times I had to turn away from her writing, like staring into the sun. Her prose is so searing that its images have been tattooed upon my memory. It’s not that her experience was epically tragic; for example, she did not kill a child in a drunk-driving accident. However, the honesty with which she lays out her struggle cannot help but ask her readers to do the same. Whether you’ve had a drink or not, Karr tells her story like dumping the trash can on your dining room table. It is shockingly effective at grabbing one’s attention.
I, however, am most interested in the redemptive aspects of Lit. With obscene language, Karr describes her eventual conversion to a life of faith. Her confession is raw and, as Augustine before her, her sense of self-failure eventually leads to her belief that she has been saved. Here is a sampling of her first prayers:
Higher power, I say snidely, where the fuck have you been?
I flop back on my knees. And help me. Help. Me. Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard.
Help me, blind power, get through…And keep me from feeling like such an asshole.
I want to be clear that her language, while shocking in the context of prayer, is not simply for effect. It is from desperation, like a fallen mountain climber clinging to the ledge. As Karr puts it, “If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling.” Rather, she experiences a “profound dislocation” by which her world, her values, her way of being are turned upside down. Ironically, Jesus identified such dislocation with a place: he called it the kingdom of God.
Recently, The Christian Century asked a variety of people, including famous pastors, to describe the Gospel in only seven words. In my opinion, Mary Karr offered the best phrase: we are the church of infinite chances. In her words from Lit, here is how we practice such a faith and become such a church of grace:
Yield up to what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet. It’s a cathedral. It’s an empty football stadium with all the lights on.