Books lay across the dining room table. A friend is downsizing. “Take as many as you want,” she says.
I quickly grab Elaine Pagels, Why Religion? A Personal Story and almost as quickly consume it.
Then, somewhere between 2004 and 2006, I read five books that made a huge impression. Three were academic and two were personal stories. My links below are interviews, reviews, or websites … more interesting than links to purchase books:
- Four Paths to Union by Mariamne Paulus (Diane Kennedy Pike)
- The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd
- Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels
- The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart by Cynthia Bourgeault
- Leaving Church: a memoir of faith by Barbara Brown Taylor
Reading the first one, I discovered that the paths I am most drawn to (Self-Mastery and Contemplation) are the least accepted and understood in the West. That explained so much about my feeling that I didn’t quite fit in.
Out of my reading of the next four emerged my greatest wisdom:
Getting to Know You
Of these five women, I knew nothing about Elaine Pagels’ personal story. I love to know as a person those whose work I admire. She did not disappoint.
I learned that she is much more than an preeminent religious historian. She is also a mystic. She pays attention to the still small voice of wisdom within her. And it speaks to her prolifically. Her numerous synchronistic experiences guide her through the rocky road of her life.
More than twenty-five years ago, when the death of our young child, followed soon after by the shocking death of my husband, shattered my life, I never imagined that I would ever write about what happened. Those losses left a crater that loomed as large as the Grand Canyon, which I could not enter, and in which I could see hardly anything, like a black hole in space. … Finally, though, I had to look into the darkness, since I could not continue to live fully while refusing to recall what happened, realizing that no one escapes terrible loss. ~from the Introduction to Why Religion
I was surprised at how much I related to her. While the source of my darkness is different that hers, we both mourn and know suffering. And we have both wrestled with our faith to explain our loss and grief.
‘Your faith surely must have sustained you.’ What does that mean—a set of beliefs? Whatever most people mean by faith was never more remote than during times of mourning, when professions of faith in God sounded only like unintelligible noise, heard from the bottom of the sea.Page 130
I felt gratified to find Pagels grappling with many of the same questions of faith as I. The depth and breadth of her exploration enriches my own.
I found the following quote validating:
What I love about sources like the Gospel of Thomas is that they open up far more than a single path. Instead of telling us what to believe, they engage both head and heart, challenging us to ‘love your brother as your own life,’ while deepening spiritual practice by discovering your own inner resources: ‘Knock upon yourself as on a door, and walk upon yourself as on a straight road. For if you walk on that road, you cannot get lost; and what you open for yourself will open.’Page 44
A Trustworthy Guide
If you are one who wants something more than the conventional responses to loss and grief provide … if traditional faith answers do not satisfy … if you are one who is willing to look into the darkness, I think Pagels and her journey of faith will serve as a trustworthy guide.
I highly recommend her very personal book.
If you are one who is curious about how early Christianity developed and how recent discoveries have broadened the scope, this book is a good beginning. And you will probably want to dig into some of Pagels’ earlier works as well.
In my experience, she won’t disappoint.