A Reading Life (pt 9): Manuscript Melancholy

By Joe LaGuardia

By the time I graduated college and entered seminary, I burned out on biblical academia.  The start of the my three-year Masters of Divinity program was the next step towards ministry, but I was not interested in the work or for working in ministry in general.  Its not that I abandoned my call; I just needed a break.

When placement officers at seminary asked what church I wanted to serve, I declined.  Instead, I went to work for Chik-Fil-A for that first year.  When classes assigned books, I read them through for routine rather than for sport.  When a professor assigned an essay, I wrote blindly.  My heart was not in it, not entirely.

I enjoyed my seminary years, don’t get me wrong–its just that I hit a season of melancholy in which the religious studies exhausted me.  I felt that I lived in a bubble, and I couldn’t find my way out.

Over the summer, when my wife and I traveled back to Florida to visit family, I expressed these feelings to Kristina’s grandmother.  Her grandmother (whom we called Granny) was a Bible-believing Baptist prayer warrior whose love for the Lord was matched only by her love for the church.  She played piano for many years at the First Baptist Church of Tequesta, Florida, and served as volunteer secretary for many years more.  She was a Renaissance woman of sorts who read everything from church history and church architecture to theology and mysticism.

Granny was a mentor to Kristina and, later, to me, when it came to intercessory prayer–she was, unlike many Baptists I had met, “Spirit-filled,” meaning that she regularly attended charismatic services around town.  It made her special and her wisdom contagious.

When I told her of my malaise, she knew what I needed.  She took my hand and asked me to take her to the bookstore.  We went, and she dragged me over to the religion section.  I was not very pleased–the only religious books you find at those places are the pop culture books that focus more on self-help than biblical insight.

She scanned the shelves and found what she was looking for: Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart.  I was not familiar with Nouwen’s books aside from one on discipleship I read in college (Creative Teaching).  She handed me a copy and told me to read it.  She wasn’t recommending it, she was telling me to do it.  She purchased it and sent me on my way.

When I read The Way of the Heart, I found myself in a place that I hadn’t been before–Nouwen’s writings on the early church fathers and the importance of silence and solitude in the spiritual life, as well as his acute insights as to the role that suffering and servanthood plays in ministry, were among the most profound insights I had read.

Nouwen spoke of crises of faith as places of wilderness where we face our demons and rely fully on the Holy Spirit for survival.  He spoke of the Christian life as a series of conversions rather than one single conversion experience, allowing me to see that I was being converted (yet again) in the reading of this little, 70-some-odd page book.

I found a book that spoke directly to my soul: It did not provide cliché answers to hardship, and it informed readers that we must find Christ with unyielding faith–not with the head, but with the heart.  My prayer life caught fire.

From Nouwen: Jesus’ invitation to lay down my life for others has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard those words as an invitation to make my own struggles, my doubts, my hopes, my fears, my joys and my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”

After that book, I picked up The Gennessee Diary and Wounded Healer, both Nouwen classics.  I read both of those books three times each over the years, and I taught a small-group book study on The Way of the Heart twice in eight years while working at Trinity Baptist Church.  My copy was so worn down, I had to purchase a new one.

Granny’s investment in me — and her ability to give me the book I needed most — guided my ministry, brought me back to Christ, and re-aligned my heart.  It gave me purpose and clarity of calling, and focused my attention on the field in which I eventually gained a doctorate.  It gave birth to this blog nearly fifteen years ago!

Of all the books that have shaped my life, The Way of the Heart came the closest to the Bible in saving my life– Nouwen helped me meet Jesus in a new way and convicted me to commit my entire life to prayer and Spirit-filled living in all I do, just as Granny had lived.



A Grandmother’s Legacy

grannyBy Joe LaGuardia

My wife’s grandmother–Granny, as she was known–passed away last month after complications from hip surgery.  We went back to Georgia to mourn with the family and begin preparing her condo for sale.

We all had a job to do.  Some cleaned, others packed clothing.  My children went through her pictures and puzzles.

My wife and I had the long task of going through hundreds of books and prayer journals, all while making a “Goodwill” pile and “keep” pile.  We also had to thumb through every book because she commented one time that she stuffed money in her books.

After two days of going through her library, we didn’t find money, but we did find the DNA that made up her prayer life and legacy.

Granny was an avid reader and journal keeper.  She read and wrote about current events, sports and automobiles, aging and medicine, art, biblical studies, theology, and spirituality.  She wrote extensively in margins of her books, highlighted parts that she found compelling or interesting, and wrote questions–about her faith and theology–on little scraps of paper.  She put little bookmark tabs on pages that she found inspiring or transformative (or formative).

She also kept three-ring binders of hand-written prayer journals.  There were prayers for every occasion, but mostly intercessory prayers for her family–all of the grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren yet to be born.   We found one prayer for the baby that my wife held in her womb for nine months.  Granny didn’t know the name or the gender, but she knew that even that little life needed her prayers and intercessions.

When we looked through that library, it was as if we were looking through Granny’s soul.  I came across many books that I recognized, some that we both read together through the years as we both had a love of spiritual authors contemporary and ancient.  Books, like Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer, to those authored by desert mothers and fathers of the faith, the Celts, or local monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit who wrote on centering prayer and lectio divina and the like.

It reminded me of the lengthy conversations Granny and I used to have about theology.  One time, back in 2003, I was struggling with my walk with Jesus.  I was going through seminary and didn’t have the love for the Lord that I once did.  I faced bouts of depression at the time, and–knowing Granny’s spiritual gift of discernment–shared my struggles with her during a trip to Florida, where she lived at the time.

She told me about this Catholic priest and author that really made a profound impact on her: Henri Nouwen.  She was reading The Way of the Heart, and she thought it might help me with my spiritual malaise.  We took a trip to the bookstore and she graciously bought me a copy.

I read it–a small book, no more than 110 pages or so–about one man’s journey through the arid expanse of the soul, an exploration of the spiritual journey through wilderness and silence that led to sacred solitude and a life of prayer, meaning, and trust in the Lord.

The Way of the Heart changed my life; it inspired me a few years later to focus on spiritual formation for my doctoral dissertation in my work with caregivers.  I taught on that book at least three times in the church I had served for over a dozen years.  It changed other peoples’ lives too.

The books were one thing, Granny’s notes were another.  She had a habit of sticking Post-It notes in her books and journals with names of people from her family for whom she prayed.  That, and the pages of prayer journals she kept, mapped out a legacy that Granny built with conviction, purpose, and a sense of divine vocation.

She didn’t pray because it was expected of her; she prayed because that was her life’s calling.  If every day counted, to be lived out with utter abandon and sacrifice to the Lord, then every prayer counted as well.

My wife spent a few hours one day leafing through those old prayer journals.  In one, she noted that Granny wrote of her prayer life: “Who will pray for my family when I’m gone?”  It inspired tears in us, as well as a time of reflection of our own need to pray for our families.

The lesson Granny still teaches is important:  It is significant to leave behind the fingerprints of intercessory prayer for others to read.  It is a comfort to see that choppy, aged hand-written script in books left behind by a lady who sought the Lord in both scripture and the many books she considered sacred.  It is profoundly moving to know that even when we were too busy to see her often because we were getting on in our careers, having babies, and trying to pay bills, she had spent all those days rocking in that old glider in the corner of her bedroom, praying for us in her own silent way.

Its a legacy that inspires, that still draws us towards that longing to be with the Lord as intensely as she had known Him.  One that still begs the question: Who will pray now that Granny is gone, and how will God’s Word shape us to become the type of angels–the type of angel she became for us in her 85-year sojourn on this earth?

And if you do end up sticking a stash of cash in a book, make sure someone in your family knows the books to which you refer.  It will save your children and grandchildren a heap of time.

A book can save someone’s life

I admire the Gideons and their faith, for theirs is the belief that just by picking up a Bible and reading it a life can be saved. For many Christians, the Bible is a powerful source of inspiration. It is God’s Word.

For folks throughout Christian history, however, the Bible is not the only book that has the power to save. Many have discovered God’s presence in the pages of a well-worn monograph. Consider that some classics, such as “Streams in the Desert” and “My Utmost for His Highest,” have defied the test of time as inspirational literature throughout the world.

I had several such experience with books in my life, but one in particular that I reminisce about every winter.

Every year about this time, I get more melancholy than usual. It must be the cold or shorter days.  It might be all of the burdens that build up from the past year.

In one such winter–2004 to be precise– I faced more than melancholy. It was full-blown depression.

That particular year was a pivotal one for me. I graduated from a master’s program but couldn’t find full-time work. I took a graduate exam (twice) for a PhD, but utterly bombed the math section. I was at a crossroads, and I did not know the direction God wanted me to go in. I had my first child–a wonderful event for sure–but experienced paternal postpartum depression as a result (yes, there is such a thing).

There is nothing like depression: the feelings of meaningless and lostness, the random bouts of tears, and lack of appetite. I felt the absence of God for months. I spoke with several folks in my family and community, but it was hard to describe my illness.

One person with whom I spoke was my grandmother-in-law, Granny. Granny is an incredible person of faith. She is one of those prayer warriors who wear out chairs by the sheer number of hours she spends praying.

When I mentioned that I did not feel very close to God, she told me about an author–Henri Nouwen–of whom she became very fond. She purchased one of his books for me–“The Way of the Heart.”

The first time I read it, it seemed that God had dropped the book in my lap at the perfect time–His time.  Since then, I have read it so many times, it is now a beat-up, stained, bent, and stretched relic.

“The Way of the Heart” is about God’s way of conforming us into a more prayerful people.  God’s way is often through the wilderness of solitude–a metaphor for those vacuous, deserted places in our spiritual lives we often avoid.

In it, Nouwen highlights certain saints–the Desert Fathers and Mothers–who mastered prayer in a wilderness place of spiritual growth. For them, the wilderness “was a furnace of transformation” and was the “place of the great struggle and the great encounter.” Solitude stripped them of all comforts, and they were forced to look into their own hearts (struggle) and to rely solely on God for sustenance (encounter).

It was the wilderness that exposed the lingering darkness in their own lives, and forced them to surrender to the light of God’s grace-filled love.

In solitude, we come into contact with God’s silence–not a silence of absence but one of magnificent presence. It’s the type of relationship in which words become unnecessary.

Every time I read that book, I have to stop, reflect, and pray.  I connect with the text, and I am reminded that books hold a kind of power in which God’s Word, found in the unlikeliest places, can steer us into His wonderful, consoling presence.

Trinity Baptist Church and I wish you a Merry Christmas.  If you are experiencing grief this season, know that you are in our prayers.