Ave Maria Press came up with a terrific logo for Leah Libresco‘s new book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Against a starswept blue background, there’s a diagram of an atom with circling molecules–and the molecules form the beads of a rosary. I love the science-fiction flavor of this image; and I love the way it captures one of the greatest strengths of Leah’s book, her ability to craft memorable and poetic analogies for the experience of learning to pray as a Catholic. Leah’s a friend, so I will not try to be objective, but I loved this book a lot more than I was expecting to, frankly, so let me tell you why. Here are some of the many great things about Arriving at Amen:
* It’s written by a n00b. I admit that when I heard Leah was writing a book “about her conversion” I was skeptical. Girl’s been Catholic for five minutes, maybe let the holy water dry off first?
But it’s Leah’s awareness of how new this all is to her which makes the book such a joy. She’s writing about the parts of Catholic prayer which are weirdest and hardest for her to understand. She’s totally up-front about how baffling she finds stuff like Mass and the Hail Mary, and how she sort of eased her way into them, not always with the most reverent attitude. It’s endearing, it’s exuberant, it has the curiosity and joy of “beginner’s mind,” and it helped me to see my own prayer life with new eyes. This process of making prayer feel new was helped along by
* those crazy analogies. Most of the Amazon reviews mention the analogies that stud almost every page. Some of them are beautiful, like the comparison of confession and kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing a cracked vessel so that the sealed cracks are filled with gold. I think my favorite was the sublimely weird comparison of receiving the Eucharist and being transformed into a mythical Chinese honey mummy. (No, really, it works!) The description of her college boyfriend seeking to model himself on his acquaintances’ best qualities was also really moving–hilarious in that strenuous undergraduate “I have a project! My project for this week is: SAINTHOOD. Who’s coming with?” way, but also poignant and inspiring.
* This is a psychologically astute book, largely because Leah’s pretty vulnerable in exposing her own distortions of thinking. We are very different people, but I still recognized some of my own bad mental habits exposed in her book: For example, she talks about imagining people she’s having problems with doing even worse things. There’s a kind of perverse satisfaction in reassuring oneself that yes, this person is awful, they’re just the sort of person who would do [thing they totally have not actually done, that you made up]! I read her description of that process and now I catch myself doing it, like, daily.
I was reminded of Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son: You may not be inhabited by every weird slithery psychological scuttler that he is, but you’re bound to recognize some of them; and you can learn from the conclusions he draws even in response to experiences you don’t share with him.
(I should maybe say that the introduction, which has some quite powerful psychological material about Leah’s early fascination with the merciless Inspector Javert, is a bit darker and less sparkling in tone than the rest of the book. Don’t let it put you off. As Leah herself has noted when she speaks about the book, her actual conversion story isn’t really the point here. I love the analogy she uses, that asking about her conversion story is like asking the Pevensie children, “No no, but tell us more about the wardrobe!” The land beyond the wardrobe is the thing Leah wants most to talk about, and the thing she describes best.)
This is a short and deeply enjoyable book. I’m trying to use some of Leah’s insights to shore up my ramshackle lectio divina. Arriving at Amen is like a great old F/SF used bookstore, one of those places with names like Moonstone Bookery or Barbarian Books. If you step inside you will find something weird, that you never knew you wanted.
This post is part of a Patheos Book Club discussion of Leah’s book!