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Book review: Our Hearts Are Restless: The art of spiritual memoir by Richard Lischer

by
20 October 2023

Spiritual memoirs have comforted this author, says Richard Lamey

THIS is an engaging and inspiring book by the writer, teacher, and Lutheran minister Richard Lischer. Partly through the lens of the pandemic, he reflects deeply on memoir and autobiography, and how that tradition of writing is a blessing to the Christian reader on their own journey. We can learn how to live well from other people’s lives. We can learn confidence in God from fellow pilgrims.

The book works well because of Lischer’s deep commitment to this style of writing, and it repays slow and careful reading because of its depth and wisdom. His introduction (“The Artistry of the Soul”) and epilogue are an excellent guide to memoir and worth reading on their own.

Lischer chooses 21 very different writers of spiritual memoir and places them alongside one another in a way that enriches our understanding. It is a book that makes you want to re-read old friends and, guided by Lischer, discover new ones.

Some of his 21 are well known — the Unknown Woman known as Julian of Norwich, Héloïse and Abelard, St Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis, and St Augustine of Hippo. Others are less well known, such as Agnes Beaumont, a friend of John Bunyan, and the contemporary authors Dennis Covington and Heidi Neumark. Refreshingly, 11 of the 21 are female.

Lischer presents the lives of these writers with honesty and warmth. Together, their reflections show how very different people in very different situations have recorded something of their identity, their journey, and their encounter with God. Through these connections, Lischer discovers fertile common ground, and calls us to reflect on our own lives, in turn.

He organises his book with a rough sense of theme, such as nomadic faith and pilgrimages. Perhaps the most memorable and moving section is “The Stripping of the Altars”, where he focuses on lives that have been reshaped by hardship and horror. Among them, he places Etty Hillesum and Dietrich Bonhoeffer side by side and finds great overlap in the way in which they, from different backgrounds and positions, find themselves being concentrated and focused, stripped back, almost purified, by their suffering under Nazism.

Part of the beauty of the book is the way in which Lischer guides us, in dialogue with these writers. He speaks tenderly of how they have helped, challenged, comforted, and unsettled him, as a minister and teacher, and as a bereaved father. (He wrote a memoir around the tragic death of his son.)

Our Hearts Are Restless is warmly recommended as an outstanding introduction and guide to spiritual memoir — how we might find something of God through deliberate attention to our lives and our world — and as a deep introduction to some of the finest writers of spiritual memoir, renowned and not.
 

The Revd Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, and Area Dean of Sonning, in the diocese of Oxford.

 

Our Hearts Are Restless: The art of spiritual memoir
Richard Lischer
OUP £26.99
(978-0-19-764904-6)
Church Times Bookshop £24.29

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