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Lines written from the heart

17 May 2024

Madeleine Davies explores the craft of spiritual autobiography


James Baldwin poses in his house at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in March 1983

James Baldwin poses in his house at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, in March 1983

ON 3 JULY 1984, the American poet and novelist Reynolds Price was, in his account, transported from his bed in Durham, North Carolina, to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus — “the lean Jesus of Flemish paintings” — appeared to him. The two men entered the waters, where Jesus silently cupped handfuls of water and poured them over the scar on Price’s back, left by the removal of a ten-inch tumour. Price writes:

Then he spoke once — “Your sins are forgiven” and turned to shore again, done with me.

I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It’s not my sins I’m worried about. So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say “Am I also cured?”

He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words — “That too.” Then He climbed from the water, not looking around, really done with me.

I followed him out and then, with no palpable seam in the texture of time or place, I was home again in my wide bed.

More than 600 years earlier, a young woman in Norwich, England, also gravely ill, saw a vision of Jesus — bleeding this time — before being granted a series of revelations, or “shewings”. Her account of them was the first published book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. Price documented his experience in his memoir, A Whole New Life (Scribner, 1994).

Communicating a vision of Jesus is “a more daring risk in the twentieth century than in the fourteenth”, suggests Dr Richard Lischer, Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School, where he lived on the same road as Price. He has brought together their accounts, alongside 19 others, in Our Hearts Are Restless, a meditation on the art of spiritual memoir (OUP) (Books, 20 October 2023).

The aim was not, he explains, to produce a history of the genre, or even a collection of its “greatest hits”. He chose according to personal criteria, including the portrayal of God as a “living reality”.

BonhamsPainting known as Woman as the Magdalene writing at a table in an interior by an unknown artist from the Workshop of the Master of Female Half-Lengths, c.1530-40AS A genre, autobiography and memoir (Professor Lischer uses the two interchangeably) is a reliable presence in bestseller lists. The Duke of Sussex’s Spare sold more copies than any other book available on Amazon last year. While a celebrity author is a surer route to sales, the “life stories” shelf — whether virtual or on the high street — can also lay claim to occupying a democratic space. It is an easy tendency to mock, but the urge to tell one’s life story can be rewarded by large audiences for relative unknowns. The Language of Kindness (Chatto & Windus, 2018), based on Christie Watson’s diaries as a nurse, sold 100,000 copies within weeks of publication.

Spiritual memoirs (defined by Professor Lischer as lives “construed as if lived in the presence of God”) feature prominently in the history of the genre. Our Hearts Are Restless records that Justin Martyr described the four Gospels as the apostles’ “memoirs”, and identifies Perpetua’s account of the events preceding her death, alongside Felicitas, as the earliest Christian memoir.

Alongside St Augustine’s Confessions and Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, we could list The Book of Margery Kempe, said by some to be the earliest known autobiography written in English; John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners; and Tolstoy’s Confession. This is a sub-genre that has not remained a sub-culture: witness the frequency with which C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed is recommended to the bereaved.

For some of the authors in Professor Lischer’s selection, the intention is unmistakable, and the format is more recognisable. “I am going to entrust the story of my soul to you,” St Thérèse of Lisieux begins in The Story of a Soul. But Professor Lischer’s collection also includes the hundreds of poems and letters left behind by Emily Dickinson; the epistles exchanged between Peter Abelard and Héloïse of Paris; and The Narrative of the Persecution of Agnes Beaumont (“as written by herself”), penned as a defence against accusations of a sexual relationship with John Bunyan.

One of this motivations for writing Our Hearts was “to show that memoir has been a practice of the Church”, he tells me over Zoom from North Carolina. “If you go into any big commercial bookstore, there’s a wall of memoirs; so we tend to think this is new and about self-infatuation — it’s about people who want to vent, or get even, or settle a score, or simply come out with their feelings. . .

“But genuine memoir-writing is a form of intimacy in which, somehow, the reader and writer come together and have a little covenant. And that is a rarer experience.”

In his book, he describes how memoir “grew out of its linguistic and liturgical practice”, alongside confession, praise, and testimony. In a later chapter, he includes exorcism, describing James Baldwin as “the exorcist without peer”, conducting “exorcisms of the Christian Church and its hypocrisy and failures in matters of race”.

Suggesting that neither autobiography nor memoir records the “facts” as they really happened, he shares Elie Wiesel’s view that “you must be honest. You must be truthful.” It is “the most intimate of all the genres”, he tells me. “You’re saying: ‘I’m not making this up. What happened to me could, by the grace of God, happen to you, and all the mistakes I made I am going to tell you about, and you could make those mistakes, too, God help you, but first you have to close my book and open your own.’”

Reading his collection, he writes: “I interrogated their lives for the meaning of my own.”

WHILE not a greatest-hits collection, the author’s fondness for his chosen authors is evident. St Augustine is granted two chapters (“We cannot conceive of spiritual autobiography apart from his Confessions”). It was not until Thomas Merton, he argues, that someone else “traced the journey of faith with such exquisite beauty”. The “honesty, vividness, and occasional poetry” of Etty Hillesum’s writing is “unmatched among modern memoirs”, while Dorothy Day is the master of “humble self-appraisal”.

Such praise seems to arise from acute awareness of the difficulties of the genre. “Me on me” can prove to be, he notes, “a painful, dishonest, or embarrassing literary exercise”.

British LibraryThe Book of Margery Kempe

“There are also memoirs that are just a form of dumping on the reader your own emotions and anger or depression, or all the things that we all write about, and we all have, we all experience, without adequately shaping them to what might help the reader in one way or another,” he says. “This is what I meant by the difference between self-expression and intimacy. Intimacy is created by a writer who writes as if he or she is listening to the reader.”

When it comes to spiritual memoirs, conversion can be a “greedy theme”, he fears. “It subsumes every story beneath the tyranny of before and after.” Part of his aim in writing Our Hearts was to highlight that there are “other plots”, he says, “to show that there are many ways of telling about what has changed your life, or what has enriched your life, or what has given you hope when you were filled with despair”.

The American writer Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer’s life (Riverhead Books, 2008), shifts Christian memoir “from spiritual perfection to healing”, he writes. “If Thérèse of Lisieux is on the ascendant road to sainthood, Norris is treading the labyrinth with no victory in sight” (Features, 15 October 2021).


WE TALK about whether it is harder to write spiritual memoirs today, when there is no shared set of beliefs about whether God even exists. It is difficult, he says, to write about an experience of God which “doesn’t seem cheesy or cheap. The deus ex machina: ‘Oh, I saw God, and God told me this.’”

He is the author of a study of Martin Luther King, Jr (The Preacher King, OUP, 2020), and speaks admiringly of “the vision in the kitchen”, which King documented in Stride Toward Freedom. It took place late on the night of 27 January 1956, in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott, during which King was receiving death threats. After one such phone call, he recalled:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. . .

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.

“It’s paranormal by secular standards,” Professor Lischer observes. “But he didn’t say ‘I remembered some words from the Bible that encouraged me.’ He said: ‘I heard this.’”

In his chapter on Reynolds Price, he suggests: “The silliest question one can ask of a New Testament evangelist, a 14th-century mystic, or a contemporary memoirist is, did it really happen?

“About visions, let us agree that no one’s can be documented, only witnessed to. . . A great deal unfolds around it, but it cannot itself be unfolded, spelled out, or explained.”


SECULARISATION, bringing with it the fear of cynicism, even mockery, may seem to provide firm ground for the belief that describing such visions is riskier today than it was in medieval England. Yet, for some of the authors included in Our Hearts, there were other perils.

“God forbid that you should say or assume that I am a teacher,” Julian of Norwich writes. “I am a woman, ignorant, weak, and frail. . . Must I therefore believe that I must not tell you about the goodness of God?”

AlamyAnne Lamott during a book-signing, in Omaha, Nebraska, in September 2007

“She has what I would call a modesty topos because she has to: she’s not allowed to preach or teach,” says Dr Irina Dumitrescu, Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Bonn. “In a sense, she’s saying: ‘Look, if God chose me as his as his medium, who am I to say no, just because I’m a woman?’”

Kempe, too, was “skirting on the edge of heresy”, Professor Dumitrescu says. “The fact that she discusses the Bible is actually quite a dangerous thing for her to do.” Kempe’s insistence that others — including God — had asked her to write down her experiences served as protection. For women authors, it was “extremely important that they not be responsible for it”.

Alongside the threat of being branded heretical, there was, Professor Dumitrescu suggests, “a discomfort with women talking about themselves . . . with ordinary women talking about themselves. Margery is not a queen. She’s not an ascetic; she’s not even a nun. She’s some sort of middle-class woman who’s had 14 pregnancies and is married and has had a couple of failed businesses.

“There’s a discomfort with women suffering, and a discomfort with women’s authority. What’s interesting about her book is she has people in it reacting badly to her . . . and the voice that’s always saying ‘It’s OK’ is God’s.”

Kempe’s book is a personal favourite, Professor Dumitrescu says. “She’s trying for sainthood, and yet she’s willing to make herself look quite difficult — and unpleasant. There’s this amazing scene in the book where she complains about having to take care of her husband after he becomes senile, and it’s clear that she’s not interested in pretending that she’s fine with it. . .

“But then she says: ‘But then I considered that I had lusted so much after his body when we were younger, that it was appropriate that his body would become a punishment to me.’

“I find that amazing, because it’s a medieval story about a woman who lusts — and admits to it, who was ashamed of it, for whom it’s clearly bound up with the idea of sin, but who still mentions it. And it doesn’t have to be in the context of a confession: it’s just clear it’s part of who she is.”


THE battle with sin is a common theme in spiritual memoirs. St Augustine even wondered whether his greedy desire for his mother’s milk was wrong.

For some, such as Bunyan, an emphasis on sinfulness served to throw into relief the extent of God’s grace and mercy. Writing about one’s temptations and failures could serve a theological or pastoral purpose. Professor Dumitrescu includes in this category St Jerome, whose letter To Eustochium, offering advice on virginity, included vivid accounts of his own temptation (“My mind was burning with desire, and the fires of lust kept bubbling up before me when my flesh was as good as dead”). The letter also includes a vision in which God accuses him of being “follower of Cicero and not of Christ”, such was his preference for the Roman rhetorician over the “rude” style of scripture.

She mentions, too, the “holy harlots”: accounts of women who led sinful lives and who redirected their passion towards God.

“There’s always been this need for stories of a people who are recognisably human, and flawed, and to reinforce the idea that God is very much interested in them, too, not just in the superhuman, the saints who endure all of the tortures and never bat an eyelid,” she observes.

Anne Lamott, one of the most celebrated and successful of contemporary spiritual memoirists (Features, 15 August 2014), would certainly agree.

“I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I,” she writes in Bird by Bird (Canongate, 1994). “Preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency toward procrastination, self-delusion, darkness, jealousy, grovelling, greediness, addictiveness. They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.”


LAMOTT appears in Professor Lischer’s collection, in which he argues that her idea of the post-conversion life would have been “unimaginable” to some of his other authors, including Julian of Norwich. And yet both women share, in their writing, a desire to communicate God’s mercy.

iStockJohn Bunyan, in a Victorian engraving based on the 1684 portrait by Thomas Sadler

“Julian is living in a time of anxiety, like we are,” Professor Dumitrescu says. “And she writes a theology which is focused on love and comfort, God as Mother. . . I do think, for her, it’s not so much about her sainthood or personal reputation. I think she is trying to get her understanding of God across.”

Darton, Longman & Todd (DLT) published a popular series of small spiritual memoirs, starting with Julian of Norwich in the 1980s. Its editorial director, David Moloney, reports that a pastoral motivation remains pre-eminent among authors of spiritual memoirs today. Those on the publisher’s list “are generally books written to help people”, he reports, “to either help people learn about their own spiritual journey by reading somebody’s else’s experience, or a particular experience the author has had. Perhaps they have been bereaved, or they have had a particular experience of life or the Church that they want to write about that others can relate to. These are all books written with a purpose.”

While commercial considerations come into play — it’s easier to market an author with a pre-existing following — “there are spiritual memoirs that we publish just because we think they are really well written,” he says. “There is a particular gift . . . that ability to explain, describe, a spiritual experience, a spiritual path, moving from one point of being to another in a really relatable, coherent, clear way. . . It’s always really nice when you read a chapter or section of a chapter and think: ‘Oh, I get that.’”

Some of his recent favourite commissions include Heaven Come Down: The story of a transgender disciple by Chrissie Chevasutt (Books, 23 July 2021) and On Voice: Speech, song, silence, human and divine by Victoria Johnson (Features, 5 January).

In our discussion about the commissioning and editing of memoirs, he agrees that writing them comes at a cost. As Dorothy Day observed, “Writing a book is hard, because you are giving yourself away.”

While some authors may adopt Lamott’s dictum, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” or Nora Ephron’s “Everything is copy,” there is often a cost to be borne by others caught up in their story. The mother of Richard Rodriguez (Darling: A spiritual autobiography) pleaded with him to stop writing about his family.

While legal considerations take precedence (DLT would not publish anything that meant a strong possibility of being sued for libel), Mr Moloney says that the general approach is to “let the author say whatever they want to say”.

But he has also become increasingly aware of the need to support authors, as they weight up the potential consequences of putting their story in the public domain. Their attitude to promoting the book, once it has been published, can give some indication of whether regret or fear has arisen.

Nevertheless, “for most people, the process of writing a memoir is a therapeutic experience, and it ought to be,” he observes. “I think that’s a really, really good reason for writing a book. A lot of people write their autobiographies, send them to a publisher, and they never get published. But the experience of having written it has probably been very good and helpful for them.”


THIS was certainly true for Professor Lischer, whose own published memoirs include Stations of the Heart: Parting with a son (“My wife always says: ‘That was your therapy’”).

A Grief Observed was one of the first books that he and his wife read after the death of their son as a young adult. “The lack of artifice in his grief book broke through to me because, I suppose, we were already breached,” he writes. “It explained me to myself and, by depicting a believer’s anger and spiritual failure, granted some understanding to me of mine.”

Before academia, he served as a Lutheran pastor. I ask whether he’s an inveterate prescriber of memoirs in pastoral situations. He became “cautious” he says, after recommending a book to a young woman who was terminally ill. “I gave her a book that I thought would be helpful for her, and she told me just the opposite. . . Maybe that is the academic thought: that a book will always solve your problems.”

But there are some that he continues to press into hands — including, for the newly ordained, Breathing Space (Beacon Press, 2004), the Revd Heidi Neumark’s account of ministering in the South Bronx.

Twenty-two years ago, when he set out to write his first spiritual memoir, he had little acquaintance with the “massive tradition” of the genre, he says. “One simply starts writing out of the experiences that are available, often infatuated by the lure of one’s own life, without acknowledging a debt to those who have come before.”

Writing this new book, he was reminded by a friend to ask: “Whose story makes it possible to tell your story?”


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

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