Marie Anne Mayeski

Sister Marilyn Lacey’s account of her journey to and through the experience of working with refugees can be read, first of all, as an adventure story. It is her own adventure but also that of the many refugees she meets, told with a simple directness that engages the reader from the outset. Like all good adventure stories, it begins with action: an urgent call for volunteers, to which Sister Marilyn responds out of genuine helpfulness, to be sure, but also out of hunger for a little excitement to break up the dullness of an administrative work day. From that small action, which fell like a seed into a receptive heart, all the subsequent adventures flowed.

As luck, or Divine Providence, would have it, I finished This Flowing Toward Me and, almost immediately, began Three Cups of Tea, my book club’s ion for this month. I was immediately struck by the overall similarity of the two stories. In each, a decent, kind person, in the midst of an ordinary life (so, all right, Greg Mortenson was living a rather less conventional life than most of us), has an accidental adventure that radically changes the course of that life. The first adventure sets off a string of other adventures that engage each of the protagonists with the people in far-off lands. But Mortenson’s book documents the emergence and development of a proactive citizen of the world, working hard to affect the common good, the “ideal American” as many have described him. Lacey’s, on the other hand, tells the story of how she became not only a citizen of the world, but also a more intimate friend of God, discovered in the tense, painful experiences of the world’s conflicts.

Lacey’s narrative voice is engaging and personal but not intrusive. She reveals enough of herself to give her story its proper personal texture, but her tone is often ironic, and her style is understated. She has the wisdom to let the refugees’ stories speak for themselves and, indeed, 19 pages of her modest text are the narrative of Gabriel, a Sudanese refugee who dictated his own account to Lacey. When she does tell a very personal story, it is self-deprecatingly comic, or important for the wisdom she gleaned from the experience, and often both. I shall remember her chapter on spiders for a very long time. In it, she exposes her hatred of spiders, a hatred she freely admits is irrational and excessive, through a number of stories involving spiders of almost mythic proportions. The reader is with her all the way and quite ready to acquit her of any fault. Then she explains how her spider phobia has made her more understanding of other people’s fears, those that generate even more dangerous hatreds than hers for arachnids. Nonetheless, that is not her last thought. “Still, one thing is sure: When I get to heaven, if God has eight legs, I am in very big trouble.”

This observation leads to the heart of Lacey’s book. Her understanding of God has clearly been formed by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, whose narratives reveal that God is to be discovered in the concrete history of very particular lives. This is an incarnational sense of history and leads Lacey to enter her own life deeply, to reflect on its very particularity, confident that God will be present to her there. Although the interior journey raises painful questions about God and suffering, questions that lose none of their urgency from being both perennial and universal, she perseveres in her effort to understand. And she arrives at the Mystery that always confirms, always confounds.

Lacey does not attempt to domesticate the Mystery. Although she does not write about the inadequacy of language to capture the experience of God, that truth is revealed in her method of reflection, in the way she resorts to the poets and to the wisdom literature of all the known religious traditions. For her, no one poet’s metaphor, no single religious story, can capture how thoroughly and mysteriously God is other. Lacey will not be surprised to find something in God that is akin to those eight legs—troubled maybe, but not surprised. But it is not just the otherness of God that she struggles to capture, that she discovers in her own life. It is the mysterious divine dynamism, God always present in a divine flowing toward her that requires only that she attend, that she let herself be swept up in divine love. This becomes so central to her experience that it stands as the title of her book.

This is a slender volume, but I would suggest the reader not read it too quickly. Its 198 pages are divided into 12 chapters, an ideal structure for a programmatic, meditative reading. For the most part, each chapter has a narrative, often an interweaving of Lacey’s experiences with the scriptural story, and a thoughtful ion of the wisdom of others—poets, saints and seers. They are designed to stimulate thoughtful reflection on one’s own life—a process that requires time as well as prayerfulness. Lacey makes no condemnations; she utters no diatribes. Her few criticisms are directed at her own lack of understanding. But the thoughtful reader will find her conscience pricked even as she seeks to attend to the God present in her own life. As this book is all about transcendence and transformation, it makes good spiritual reading not only in the Easter season but any time.

 

Marie Anne Mayeski is a professor of historical theology at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, and author of Women at the Table (Liturgical Press).